In place of the Milky Way, a distorted reflection of the shuttle appeared—a dark, dim bulk lit solely by the faint glow from within the cockpit. Kira saw herself through the windshield: a smear of pale skin floating above the control panel, like a flayed and disembodied face.
She’d never observed a Markov Bubble in person; she’d always been in cryo when a jump took place. She waved her hand, and her misshapen doppelgänger moved in unison.
The perfection of the mirrored surface fascinated her. It was more than atomically smooth; it was Planck-level smooth. Nothing smoother could exist, as the bubble was made out of the warped surface of space itself. And on the other side of the bubble, on the other side of that infinitesimally thin membrane, was the strangeness of the superluminal universe, so close and yet so far away. That she would never see. No human ever could. But she knew it was there—a vast alternate realm, joined with familiar reality by only the forces of gravity and the fabric of spacetime itself.
“Through the looking glass,” Kira muttered. It was an old expression among spacers, one whose appropriateness she hadn’t really appreciated until then.
Unlike a normal area of spacetime, the bubble wasn’t completely impermeable. Some energy leakage occurred from inside to outside (the pressure differential was enormous). Not much, but some, and it was a good thing too, as it helped reduce the thermal buildup while in FTL. Without it, the Valkyrie, and ships in general, wouldn’t be able to stay in superluminal space for more than a few hours.
Kira remembered a description her fourth-year physics teacher had once used: “Going faster than light is like traveling in a straight line along a right
angle.” The phrase had stuck with her, and the more she’d learned of the math, the more she’d realized how accurate it was.
She continued to watch her reflection for several more minutes. Then, with a sigh, she darkened the windshield until it was opaque. “Ando: play the complete works of J. S. Bach on a loop, starting with the Brandenburg Concertos. Volume level three.”
As the opening chords sounded, soft and precise, Kira felt herself begin to relax. The structure of Bach had always appealed to her: the cold, clean mathematical beauty of one theme slotting into another, building, exploring, transforming. And when each piece resolved, the resolution was so immensely satisfying. No other composer gave her that feeling.
The music was the one luxury she was allowing herself. It wouldn’t produce much heat, and since she couldn’t read or play games on her implants, she needed something else to keep her from going crazy in the days to come. If she’d still had her concertina, she could have practiced on it, but since she didn’t …
In any case, the soothing nature of the Bach would work with the cabin’s low pressure to help her sleep, which was important. The more she could sleep, the faster the time would go by and the less food she would need.
She lifted her right arm and held it before her face. The suit was even darker than the surrounding darkness: a shadow within shadows, visible more as an absence than an actuality.
It should have a name. She’d been damn lucky to escape the Extenuating Circumstances. By all rights the grasper should have killed her. And if not, then the explosive decompression. The xeno had saved her life multiple times. Of course, without the xeno, she never would have been in danger in the first place.… Still, Kira felt a certain amount of gratitude toward it. Gratitude and confidence, for with it, she was safer than any Marine in their power armor.
After everything they’d gone through, the xeno deserved a name. But what? The organism was a bundle of contradictions; it was armor, but it was also a weapon. It could be hard, or it could be soft. It could flow like water, or it could be as rigid as a metal beam. It was a machine but also somehow alive.
There were too many variables to consider. No one word could encompass them all. Instead, Kira focused on the suit’s most obvious
quality: its appearance. The surface of the material had always reminded her of obsidian, although not quite as glassy.
“Obsidian,” she murmured. With her mind, she pressed the word toward the xeno’s presence, as if to make it understand. Obsidian.
The xeno responded.
A wave of disjointed images and sensations swept through her. At first she was confused—individually they seemed to mean nothing—but as the sequence repeated, and again, she began to see the relationships between the different fragments. Together they formed a language born not of words but associations. And she understood:
The xeno already had a name.
It was a complex name, composed of and embodied by a web of interrelated concepts that she realized would probably take her years to fully parse, if ever. However, as the concepts filtered through her mind, she couldn’t help but assign words to them. She was only human, after all; language was as much a part of her as consciousness itself. The words failed to capture the subtleties of the name—because she herself didn’t understand them—but they captured the broadest and most obvious aspects.
The Soft Blade.
A faint smile touched her lips. She liked it. “The Soft Blade.” She said it out loud, letting the words linger on her tongue. And from the xeno she felt a sense, if not of satisfaction, then of acceptance.
Knowing the organism had a name (and not one she had given it) changed Kira’s view of it. Instead of thinking of the xeno just as an interloper and a potentially deadly parasite, now she saw it more as a … companion.
It was a profound shift. And not one she had intended or anticipated. Though as she belatedly realized, names changed—and defined—all things, including relationships. The situation reminded her of naming a pet; once you did, that was that, you had to keep the animal, whether you’d planned to or not.
The Soft Blade …
“And just what were you made for?” she asked, but no answer was forthcoming.
Whatever the case, Kira knew one thing: whoever had selected the name
—whether it was the xeno’s creators or the xeno itself—they possessed a
sense of elegance and poetry, and they appreciated the contradiction inherent in the concepts she’d summarized as the Soft Blade.
It was a strange universe. The more she learned, the stranger it seemed, and she doubted she would ever find the answers to all her questions.
The Soft Blade. She closed her eyes, feeling oddly comforted. With the faint strains of Bach playing in the background, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep, knowing that—at least for the time being—she was safe.
The sky was a field of diamonds, and her body had limbs and senses unknown to her. She glided through the quiet dusk, and she was not alone; others moved with her. Others she knew. Others she cared for.
They arrived at a black gate, and her companions stopped, and she mourned, for they would not meet again. Alone she continued through the gate, and through it came to a secret place.
She made her motions, and the lights of old shone down upon her in both blessing and promise. Then flesh parted from flesh, and she went to her cradle and folded in on herself, there to wait with ready anticipation.
But the expected summons never came. One by one the lights flickered and faded, leaving the ancient reliquary cold, dark, and dead. Dust gathered. Stone shifted. And overhead, the patterns of stars slowly changed, assuming unfamiliar shapes.
A fracture then …
Falling. Softly falling within the blue-black reaches of the swelling sea. Past lamp and sway, through wafts of heat and chill, softly fell and softly swam. And from the folds of swirling darkness emerged a massive form, there upon the Plaintive Verge: a mound of pitted rock, and rooted atop that rock … rooted atop that rock …
Kira woke, confused.
It was still dark, and for a moment, she knew neither where she was nor how she had gotten there, only that she was falling from a terrible height—
She yelped and flailed, and her elbow hit the control panel next to the pilot’s seat. The impact jolted her back to full awareness, and she realized she was still on the Valkyrie and that the Bach was still playing.
“Ando,” she whispered. “How long was I asleep?” In the dark, it was impossible to tell the time.
“Fourteen hours and eleven minutes.”
The strange dream still lingered in her mind, eerie and bittersweet. Why did the xeno keep sending her visions? What was it trying to tell her? Dreams or memories—sometimes the difference between the two seemed so small as to be nonexistent.
… then flesh parted from flesh. Another question occurred to her. Would separating from the xeno kill her? That seemed like one possible interpretation of what the suit had shown her. The thought left a sour taste in her mouth. Surely there had to be a way to rid herself of the creature.
Kira wondered how much the Soft Blade really understood of what had been happening since she found it.
Did it realize it had killed her friends? Alan?
She thought back to the first set of images the xeno had forced upon her: the dying sun with the ruined planets and the belt of debris. Was that where the parasite came from? But something had gone wrong: a cataclysm of some sort. That much made sense, but beyond that, things grew indistinct. The xeno had been joined with a grasper, but whether the graspers had made the xeno (or the Great Beacon) wasn’t clear.
She shivered. So much had happened in the galaxy that humans were unaware of. Disasters. Battles. Far-flung civilizations. It was daunting to consider.
A tickle formed in her nose, and she sneezed hard enough to bang her chin against her chest. She sneezed again, and in the dim, red light of the cabin, she saw curls of grey dust drifting away from her, toward the shuttle vents.
Cautious, she touched her sternum. A thin layer of powder covered her, same as when she’d woken on the Extenuating Circumstances during the grasper attack. She felt underneath herself; no depression had formed. The xeno hadn’t dissolved any part of the chair.
Kira frowned. On the Extenuating Circumstances, the xeno must have absorbed the decking because it needed part or all of what it contained.
Metals, plastics, trace elements, something. Which meant it had—in a sense
—been hungry. But now? No depression, but still the dust. Why?
Ah. That was it. She’d eaten. The dust appeared each time she or the xeno ate. Which meant, the creature was … excreting?
If so, the unpleasant conclusion was that the parasite had assumed control over her digestive functions and was processing and recycling her waste, disposing of whatever elements it didn’t need. The dust was the alien equivalent of DERPs, the polymer-coated refuse pellets that skinsuits formed out of a user’s feces.
Kira made a face. She might be wrong—she hoped she was—but she didn’t think so.
That raised the question of how the suit, how an alien device, could understand her biology well enough to mesh with it. Interfacing with a nervous system was one thing. Interfacing with digestion and other basic biological processes was several orders of magnitude more difficult.
Certain elements formed the building blocks of most life in the galaxy, but even so, every alien biome had evolved its own language of acids, proteins, and other chemicals. The suit shouldn’t be able to bond with her. That it could indicated the xeno’s makers/originators had a much higher level of tech than she’d initially thought, and if they were the graspers.…
Of course, it was also possible the suit was just mindlessly carrying out its imperatives, and that it was going to end up poisoning and possibly killing her through some hideous mismatch of chemistry.
Nothing she could do about it either way.
Kira still didn’t feel hungry, not yet. And she didn’t have to relieve herself. So she closed her eyes again and allowed her mind to wander back through the dream, picking out details that seemed important, searching for any hints that might help answer her questions.
“Ando, start audio recording,” she said. “Recording.”
Speaking slowly, carefully, Kira made a full record of the dream, trying to include every piece of information.
The cradle … The Plaintive Verge … The memories resounded in her like the tone of a far-off gong. But Kira felt the Soft Blade still had more to share with her—that there was a point it was trying to make, a point that
had yet to become clear. Maybe if she fell asleep again, it would send her another vision.…
After that, time grew indistinct. It seemed to move both faster and slower. Faster because great swathes of it passed without Kira noticing while she was asleep or in the hazy twilight between slumber and wakefulness. Slower because the hours she was awake were all the same. She listened to the endless cycle of Bach, she contemplated the data she’d gathered on Adra—trying to determine if or how it related to the xeno—and she dwelled in the happier recesses of her memories. And nothing changed, nothing but her breathing and the flow of blood in her veins and the dulled movement of her mind.
She ate little, and the less she ate, the less she felt like doing. A vast calmness settled over her, and her body felt increasingly distant and insubstantial, as if it were a holo projection. The few times she left the pilot’s seat, she found she had neither the will nor the energy to exert herself.
Her stretches of wakefulness grew shorter and shorter, until she spent most of her time drifting in and out of awareness, never quite sure if she had slept or not. Sometimes she received snatches of images from the Soft Blade—impressionistic bursts of color and sound—but the xeno didn’t share with her another memory like the one of the Plaintive Verge.
Once, Kira noticed that the hum of the Markov Drive had ceased. She lifted her head out of the thermal blankets wrapped around her and saw a smattering of stars outside the cockpit windows, and she realized that the shuttle had dropped out of FTL in order to cool down.
When she looked again, some time later, the stars had vanished.
If the shuttle returned to normal space at any other time, she missed it. As little as she ate, the store of ration packs still continued to dwindle.
The dust the suit expelled gathered in a soft bed around her body—molding to her form and cupping it like dense foam—or else drifted away from her in delicate threads toward the intake vents along the ceiling.
And then one day, there were no more ration packs.
She stared at the empty drawer, barely able to process the sight. Then she returned to the pilot’s seat and strapped herself down and took a long, slow breath, the air cold in her throat and lungs. She didn’t know how many days she’d been in the shuttle, and she didn’t know how many days were left. Ando could have told her, but she didn’t want to know.
Either she was going to make it or she wasn’t. Numbers wouldn’t change that. Besides, she was afraid she would lose the strength to continue if he told her. The only way out was through; worrying about the duration of the trip would just make the journey more miserable.
Now came the hard part: no more food. For a moment, she thought of the cryo tubes at the back of the shuttle—and of Orso’s offer—but as before, her mind rebelled against the idea. She would rather starve than resort to eating another person. Maybe her stance would change as she wasted away, but Kira felt certain it wouldn’t.
From a bottle she’d stashed by her head, she took a pill of melatonin, chewed it up, and swallowed. Sleep, more than ever, was her friend. As long as she could sleep, she wouldn’t need to eat. She just hoped she would wake up again.…
Then her mind grew increasingly fuzzy, and she fell into oblivion.
Hunger came, as she knew it would, sharp and grinding, like a clawed monster tearing at her gut. The pain rose and fell, as regular as the tide, and each tide was higher than the last. Her mouth watered, and she bit her lip, thoughts of food tormenting her.
She had expected as much, and she was prepared for worse. Instead, the hunger stopped.
It stopped and it didn’t return. Her body grew cold, and she felt hollowed out, as if her navel were wedded to her spine.
Thule, she thought, offering up one last prayer to the god of spacers.
And then she slept and woke no more, and she dreamed slow dreams of strange planets with strange skies and of spiral fractals that flowered in forgotten spaces.
And all was silent, and all was dark.