The smell was the first thing Kira noticed: the stench of unwashed bodies, urine, vomit, and moldy food. The ventilation fans were running at full speed—she could feel a faint breeze moving through the hold—but even that wasn’t enough to disperse the smell.
Next was the sound: a constant babble of conversation, loud and overwhelming. Children crying, men arguing, music playing; after so long in the silence of the Valkyrie, the noise was overwhelming.
The starboard hold was a large, curving space that, she assumed, mirrored the port hold, like half a donut nestled around the core of the Wallfish. Thick support ribs arced along the outer wall, and D-rings and other hard points studded the deck and ceiling. Numerous crates were bolted to the deck, and between and among them were the passengers.
Refugees was a more appropriate term, Kira decided. There were between two and three hundred people crammed in the hold. It was a motley collection—young and old, dressed in a bizarre assortment of outfits: everything from skinsuits to glittering gowns and light-bending evening suits. Spread across the decking were blankets and sleeping bags anchored with gecko pads and, in some cases, rope. Along with the bedding, clothing and scraps of trash littered the hold, although a few people had chosen to clean their areas—tiny fiefdoms of order amid the general chaos.
The place, she realized, must have turned to shambles when the ship cut its engines.
Some of the refugees glanced at her; the rest either ignored her or didn’t notice.
Stepping carefully, Kira made her way toward the back of the hold. Behind the nearest crate, she saw a half-dozen people strapped to the deck in sleeping bags. They appeared to be injured; several of the men had
scabbed-over burns on their hands, and they all wore bandages of varying sizes.
Past them, a couple with yellow Mohawks were trying to calm a pair of young girls who were shouting and running in circles, waving streamers of foil torn from ration packs.
There were other couples as well, most without children. An old man sat against the inner wall and strummed a small harp-like instrument, singing in a low voice to three glum-looking teenagers. Kira caught only a few lines, but she recognized them from an old spacer poem:
—to search and seek among the outer bounds,
And when we land upon a distant shore, To seek another yet farther still.—
Near the back of the hold, a group of seven people huddled around a small bronze device, listening intently to the voice that emanated from within: “—two, one, one, three, nine, five, four—” And so forth and so on, counting in a calm, even drone that neither hastened nor slackened. The group seemed transfixed by the voice; several of them stood with their eyes half-closed, swaying back and forth as if listening to music, while the others stared at the floor, oblivious to the rest of the world, or else looked at their companions with obvious emotion.
Kira had no idea what was so important about the numbers.
Close to the group of seven, she spotted a pair of robed Entropists—one man, one woman—sitting facing each other, eyes closed. Surprised, Kira paused, studying them.
It had been a long time since she’d seen an Entropist. For all their fame, there really weren’t that many of them. Maybe a few tens of thousands. No more. Rarer still was to see them traveling on a regular commercial ship. They must have lost their own vessel.
Kira still remembered when one of the Entropists had come to Weyland when she was a kid, bringing seed stock and gene banks and useful bits of equipment that made colonizing a planet easier. After the Entropist had finished his dealings with the adults, he had walked out into the main street of Highstone, and there in the fading dusk, he’d delighted her and the other
children with the sparkling shapes he somehow drew in the air with his bare hands—an impromptu fireworks display that remained one of Kira’s favorite memories.
It had almost been enough to make her believe in magic.
Secular though the Entropists were, a tinge of mysticism hung about them. Kira didn’t mind. She enjoyed having a sense of wonder in the universe, and the Entropists helped with that.
She watched the man and the woman for a moment more and then continued on her way. It was difficult to find a free spot with any privacy, but in the end Kira located a narrow wedge of space between a pair of crates. She laid out her blanket—sticking it to the deck with the gecko pads
—sat, and for a few minutes, did nothing but rest and gather her thoughts.
“So, another bedraggled stray Falconi scooped up.”
Across from her, Kira saw a short, curly-haired woman sitting with her back against a crate, knitting away at a long, striped scarf. The sight of the woman’s curls sparked a palpable sense of envy and loss.
“I suppose so,” Kira said. She didn’t much feel like talking.
The woman nodded. Next to her a piled blanket stirred, and a large, tawny cat with black-tipped ears lifted its head and eyed her with an indifferent expression. It yawned, showing impressively long teeth, and then snuggled down again.
Kira wondered what Mr. Fuzzypants thought of the intruder. “That’s a pretty cat.”
“He is, isn’t he?” “What’s his name?”
“He has many names,” said the woman, pulling more yarn free. “At the moment, he goes by Hlustandi, which means listener.”
“That’s … quite the name.”
The woman paused her knitting to unravel a snarl. “Indeed. Now tell me: how much are Captain Falconi and his merry band of rogues charging you for the privilege of transport?”
“They aren’t charging me anything,” said Kira, slightly confused.
“Is that so?” The woman raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you’re a member of the UMC. It wouldn’t do to try to extort a member of the armed forces. No, not at all.”
Kira looked around the hold at the other passengers. “Wait, you mean they’re charging people for rescuing them? That’s illegal!” And immoral too. Anyone stranded in space was entitled to rescue without having to pay beforehand. Restitution might be required later, depending on the situation, but not in the moment.
The woman shrugged. “Try telling that to Falconi. He’s charging thirty-four thousand bits per person for the trip to Ruslan.”
Kira opened her mouth, stopped, and closed it. Thirty-four thousand bits was twice the normal price for an interplanetary trip, and nearly as much as an interstellar ticket. She frowned as she realized that the crew of the Wallfish was essentially blackmailing the refugees: pay up or we’ll leave you floating in space.
“You don’t seem particularly upset by it,” she said.
The woman eyed Kira with a strangely amused look. “The path to our goal is rarely straight. It tends to turn and twist, which makes the journey far more enjoyable than it would otherwise be.”
“Really? Extortion is your idea of fun?”
“I’m not sure I’d go that far,” the woman said in a dry tone. Next to her, Hlustandi opened one eye to reveal a slitted pupil and then closed it again. The tip of his tail twitched. “However it beats sitting alone in a room counting pigeons.” She gave Kira a stern look. “To be clear, I own no pigeons.”
Kira couldn’t tell if the woman was joking or serious. In an attempt to change the subject, she said, “So how did you end up here?”
The woman tilted her head, the needles in her hands clacking at a furious rate. She didn’t seem to need to look at them; her fingers flicked and twisted the yarn with hypnotic regularity, never slowing, never faltering. “How did any of us get here? Hmm? And is it even that important? One could argue that all that really matters is that we learn to deal with where we are at any given moment, not where we were.”
“Not a very satisfying answer, I know. Suffice it to say, I came to Sixty-One Cygni to meet with an old friend when the ship I was on was attacked. It’s a common enough story. Also”—and she winked at Kira—“I like to be wherever interesting things are happening. It’s a terribly bad habit of mine.”
“Ah. What’s your name, by the way? You never told me.”
“And you never told me yours,” said the woman, peering over her nose at Kira.
“Uh … Ellen. Ellen Kaminski.”
“Very nice to meet you, Ellen Kaminski. Names are powerful things; you should be careful whom you share yours with. You never know when a person might turn your name against you. In any case, you may call me Inarë. Because Inarë is who I am.”
“But it’s not your name?” said Kira, half joking.
Inarë cocked her head. “Oh, you’re a clever one, aren’t you?” She looked down at the cat and murmured, “Why are the most interesting people always found hiding behind crates? Why?”
The cat flicked his ears but didn’t answer.
When it became clear Inarë was no longer interested in talking, Kira ripped open the meal pack and devoured the rather tasteless contents. With each bite, she felt more normal, more grounded.
Food finished, she took the container Vishal had given her and put in the contact lenses. Please don’t remove or disable them, she thought, trying to impress her intention on the Soft Blade. Please.
At first, Kira wasn’t sure if the xeno understood. But then a startup screen flickered to life before her eyes, and she released a sigh of relief.
Without her implants, the functionality of the contact lenses was limited, but it was enough for Kira to create a guest profile and log into the ship’s mainframe.
She pulled up a map of the binary system and checked on the locations of the Jellies. There were now ten alien ships in and around 61 Cygni. Two of the vessels had intercepted a cargo tug near Karelin—Cygni A’s second planet—and were currently grappling with it. Three more Jellies were accelerating toward the ore-processing facilities in the far asteroid belt (which would also place them within relatively close proximity of the Chelomey hab-ring), while a pair of the larger Jelly ships were busy chasing mining drones out by Cygni B, over eighty-six AU away.
The three newcomers had arrived at the far side of Cygni A (high above the orbital plane), at varying distances around the outer asteroid belt.
So far at least, none of the alien ships appeared to be an immediate threat to the Wallfish.
If she concentrated, Kira could feel the same compulsion as she had during the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances—a summons drawing her toward each of the different alien ships. It was a weak sensation, though: faint as faded regret. Which told her that the Jellies were broadcasting but not receiving. Otherwise they would have known exactly where she (and the Soft Blade) were.
A small relief, that.
But it made her wonder. First the how. No one else in the system had noticed the signal. Which meant … it was either incredibly hard to detect or it was using some sort of unfamiliar technology.
That left the why. The Jellies had no reason to think she’d survived the destruction of the Extenuating Circumstances. So why were they still broadcasting the compulsion? Was it to find another xeno like the Soft Blade? Or were they really still looking for her?
Kira shivered. There was no knowing for sure. Not unless she was willing to ask the Jellies in person, and that was one experience she’d rather forego.
She felt a small amount of guilt at ignoring the compulsion, at ignoring the duty it represented. The guilt wasn’t her own but the Soft Blade’s, and it surprised her, given the xeno’s aversion to the graspers.
“What did they do to you?” she whispered. A shimmer passed over the surface of the xeno, a shimmer and nothing more.
Satisfied that she didn’t have to worry about being blown up by the Jellies in the next few hours, Kira left the map and started to search for news about Weyland. She had to know what was happening back home.
Unfortunately, Falconi was right: few details had reached 61 Cygni before the Jellies had started their FTL jamming. There were reports from about a month ago of skirmishes in the outer part of Weyland’s system, but after that, all she could find were rumors and speculation.
They’re tough, she thought, picturing her family. They were colonists, after all. If the Jellies had showed up on Weyland … she could just imagine her parents grabbing blasters and helping to fight them. But she hoped they wouldn’t. She hoped they would be smart and keep their heads down and live.
Her next thought was of the Fidanza and what remained of the survey team. Had they made it back?
System records showed that exactly twenty-six days after departing Sigma Draconis, the SLV Fidanza had arrived at 61 Cygni. No reported damage. The Fidanza docked at Vyyborg Station some days later, and then a week after that, departed for Sol. She searched for a passenger list, but nothing public came up. Hardly a surprise.
For a moment Kira was tempted to send a message to Marie-Élise and the others, on the off chance they were still in the system. But she resisted. As soon as she logged into her accounts, the League would know where she was. Maybe they weren’t looking, but she didn’t feel ready to take that chance. Besides, what could she say to her former teammates, aside from “sorry”? Sorry wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the pain and devastation she’d caused.
She shifted her attention back to the news, determined to gain a sense of the overall situation.
It wasn’t good.
What had begun as a series of small-scale skirmishes had quickly escalated into a full-scale invasion. The reports were few and far between, but enough information had reached 61 Cygni to get a sense of what was happening throughout human space: stations burning in orbit around Stewart’s World, ships gutted near the Markov Limit at Eidolon, alien forces landing on survey and mining outposts … the litany of events was too long to keep track of.
Kira’s heart sank. If it wasn’t a coincidence that the Jellies had showed up at Adra so soon after she found the xeno, then in a way … this was her doing. Just like with Alan. Just like with—She ground the heels of her hands against her temples and shook her head. Don’t think about it. Even if she’d played a role in first contact, blaming herself for the war wouldn’t help. That way lay madness.
She read on, scrolling through page after page until her eyes were blurry as she attempted to cram three months’ worth of information into her head.
To their credit, the League seemed to have reacted to the invasion with appropriate speed and discipline. What was the point of arguing among yourselves when the monsters in the dark were attacking? Reserves had
been mobilized, civilian ships had been commandeered, and on Earth and Venus, mandatory drafts had been enacted.
The cynic in Kira saw the measures as just another effort on the part of the League to expand their power. Never let a good emergency go to waste, and all that. The realist in her saw the necessity of what they were doing.
All the experts seemed to agree: the Jellies were at least a hundred years more technologically advanced than humans. Their Markov Drives let them jump in and out of FTL far closer to stars and planets than even the most cutting-edge UMC warships. Their power plants—separate from the fusion drives used for propulsion—generated the staggering amounts of energy needed for the Jellies’ inertial trickery via some as-yet-unidentified mechanism. And yet they didn’t use radiators to dissipate the heat. No one understood that.
When troops had boarded the first Jelly ship, they had discovered rooms and decks weighted with artificial gravity. And not the spin-an-object-in-a-large-circle kind, but honest-to-god, actual artificial gravity.
Physicists weren’t surprised; they explained that any species that had figured out how to alter inertial resistance would, by definition, be capable of mimicking a naturally occurring gravitational field.
And while the aliens didn’t seem to possess any new types of weapons— they still used lasers and missiles and kinetic projectiles—the extreme maneuverability of their ships, combined with the accuracy and efficiency of their weapons, made them difficult to fend off.
In light of the Jellies’ technological superiority, the League had passed a law asking civilians everywhere to salvage and turn in any pieces of alien equipment they could. As the League spokesperson—a rather oily man with a fake smile and eyes that always seemed a touch too wide—said, “Every little bit is valuable. Every little bit could make the difference. Help us help you; the more information we have, the better we can fight these aliens and end this threat to the colonies and to the Homeworld.”
Kira hated that expression: Homeworld. Technically it was correct, but it just felt oppressive to her, as if they were all supposed to bow down and defer to those lucky enough to still live on Earth. It wasn’t her homeworld. Weyland was.
Despite the Jellies’ advantages, the war in space wasn’t entirely one-sided. Humans had won their share of victories, but as a whole, they were
few and hard-fought. On the ground, things weren’t much better. From the clips Kira saw, even troopers in power armor had trouble going one-on-one with the aliens.
Vishal had been right; the Jellies came in different flavors, not just the tentacled monstrosity she’d encountered on the Extenuating Circumstances. Some were large and hulking. Some were small and agile. Some were snakelike. Others reminded Kira more of insects. But no matter their shape, they could all function in a vacuum, and they were all fast, strong, and tough as hell.
As Kira studied the images, pressure built behind her eyes, until, with sudden sharpness—
—a shoal of graspers jetted toward her in the darkness of space. Hard-shelled and tentacled, armed and armored. Then a flash, and she was climbing a rocky scarp, firing blasters at dozens of scurrying creatures, many-legged and clawed.
Again in the ocean, deep below, where the Hdawari hunted. A trio of figures emerged from the shadowed murk. One thick and bulky and nearly invisible with the midnight hue of its armored skin. One sharp and spindly, a broken nest of legs and claws topped by a brazen crest, now pressed flat to better swim. And one long and supple, lined with limbs and trailing a whiplike tail that emitted a tingle of electricity. And though it could not be guessed from appearance alone, the three shared a commonality: they had all been first of their hatching. First and sole surviving …
Kira gasped and screwed her eyes shut. A pounding spike ran from her forehead to the back of her skull.
It took a minute for the pain to fade.
Was the Soft Blade making a conscious effort to communicate, or had the video just triggered fragments of old memories? She wasn’t sure, but she was grateful for the additional information, no matter how confusing.
“Maybe don’t give me a migraine next time, okay?” she said. If the xeno understood, she couldn’t tell.
Kira returned to the video.
She recognized several of the Jelly types from the Soft Blade’s memories, but most were new and unfamiliar. That puzzled her. How long had the xeno been stuck on Adrasteia? Surely it couldn’t have been long enough for new forms of Jellies to have evolved.…
She detoured to check some of her professional resources. One thing xenobiologists seemed to agree on: all the invading aliens shared the same base biochemical coding. Heavily varied at times, but still essentially the same. Which meant the different types of Jellies belonged to a single species.
“You have been busy,” she murmured. Was it gene-hacking or did the Jellies have a particularly malleable physiology? If the Soft Blade knew, it wasn’t telling.
Either way, it was a relief to know humanity wasn’t fighting more than one enemy.
There were plenty of other mysteries, though. The Jellies’ ships usually traveled in multiples of two, and no one had been able to determine why. They didn’t at Adra, Kira thought. Likewise—
… the Nest of Transference, round of shape, heavy of purpose …
Kira winced as another spike shot through her skull. So the xeno was trying to communicate. The Nest of Transference … Still not very informative, but at least she had a name now. She made a mental note to write down everything the Soft Blade had been showing her.
She just wished it didn’t have to be so damned cryptic.
No one had been able to identify a planet or system of origin for the aliens. Back-calculating the FTL trajectories of their ships had revealed that the Jellies were jumping in from every direction. That meant they were dropping back to normal space at different points and deliberately altering their course in order to hide their starting locations. In time, the light from their return to normal space would reach astronomers and they would be able to determine where the Jellies were coming from, but “in time” would be years and years, if not decades.
The Jellies couldn’t be traveling too far, though. Their ships were faster in FTL, that much was apparent, but not so ridiculously fast as to allow them to travel hundreds of light-years in a month or less. So why hadn’t signals from their civilization reached Sol or the colonies?
As for why the Jellies were attacking … The obvious answer was conquest, but no one knew for sure, and for one simple reason: to date, every attempt to decipher the Jellies’ language had failed. Their language, according to the best evidence, was scent-based and so utterly different
from any human tongue that even the smartest minds weren’t sure how to begin translating it.
Kira stopped reading, feeling as if she’d been struck. Under the jumpsuit, the Soft Blade stiffened. On the Extenuating Circumstances, she’d understood what the Jelly had said as clearly as any English-speaking human. And she could have replied in kind if she’d so wanted. Of that Kira had no doubt.
A chill spread through her limbs, and she shivered, feeling as if she were encased in ice. Did that mean she was the only person who could communicate with the Jellies?
It seemed so.
She stared blankly at her overlays, thinking. If she helped the League talk with the Jellies, would it change anything? She had to believe that her discovery of the Soft Blade was at least part of the reason for the invasion. It only made sense. Maybe the Jellies were attacking as revenge for what they believed to be the destruction of the Soft Blade. Revealing herself to them could be the first step toward peace. Or not.
It was impossible to know without more information. Information that she had no way of obtaining at the moment.
But what Kira did know was that if she turned herself over to the League, she’d spend her days locked in small, windowless rooms, being endlessly examined while—if she was lucky—sometimes providing translation services. And if she went to the Lapsang Corp. instead … the outcome would be much the same, and the war would continue to rage on.
Kira let out a stifled cry. She felt trapped in a crossroads, threatened at every turn. If there were an easy solution to the situation, she wasn’t seeing it. The future had become a black void, unforeseen and unforeseeable.
She minimized the overlays, pulled the blanket closer around herself, and sat chewing on the inside of her cheek while she thought.
“Dammit,” she muttered. What am I going to do?
Amid all the questions and uncertainties and events of galactic importance—amid a sea of choices, any one of which could have catastrophic consequences, and not just for her—a single truth stood out. Her family was in danger. Even though she’d left Weyland, even though it had been years since she’d been back, they still mattered to her. And her to
them. She had to help. And if doing so would allow her to help others also, then so much the better.
But how? Weyland was over forty days away at standard FTL speeds. An awful lot could happen in that time. And besides, Kira didn’t want her family anywhere near the xeno—she worried about accidentally hurting them—and if the Jellies figured out where she was … she might as well paint a giant target on herself and everyone around her.
She ground her knuckles into the deck, frustrated. The only realistic way she could think to protect her family from a distance would be to help end the war. Which brought her back to the same damn question: How?
In an agony of indecision, Kira pushed off the blanket and stood, unable to bear sitting any longer.
Her head humming with a distraction of thoughts, Kira wandered along the back wall of the cargo hold, trying to burn off the excess energy.
On a sudden impulse, she turned and headed toward where the Entropists sat kneeling, not far from the knot of people listening to the litany of numbers. The two Entropists were of indeterminate age, and their skin was laced with silver wires about the temples and hairline. They both wore the customary gradient robes with a stylized logo of a rising phoenix blazoned on the middle of the back as well as along the cuffs and hemlines.
She’d always admired the Entropists. They were famous for their scientific research, both applied and theoretical, and they had adherents working at the highest levels in nearly every field. In fact, it had become a running joke that if you wanted to make a big breakthrough, the first step was to join the Entropists. Their tech was consistently five to ten years ahead of everyone else’s. Their Markov Drives were the fastest in existence, and it was rumored they possessed other, far more exotic advancements, although Kira didn’t put much stock in the really outlandish claims. The Entropists attracted plenty of humanity’s top minds—even a few ship minds, she’d heard—but they weren’t the only smart, dedicated people trying to understand the secrets of the universe.
For all that, there was something to the rumors.
Many Entropists engaged in fairly radical gene-hacking. At least that was the theory, based off their often wildly divergent appearance. And it was common knowledge that their clothes were packed full of miniaturized tech, some of which bordered on the miraculous.
If anyone could help her better understand the Soft Blade and the Jellies (at least when it came to technology), it would be the Entropists. Plus—and this was important from Kira’s point of view—the Entropists were a stateless organization. They didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of any one government. They had research labs in the League, property among the freeholdings, and their headquarters was somewhere out around Shin-Zar. If the Entropists figured out that the Soft Blade was alien tech, they weren’t likely to report her to the UMC, just pepper her with an endless series of questions.
Kira remembered what her then research boss, Zubarev, had told her during their time on Serris: “If you ever get in a chin-wag with an Entropist, you’re best served not talking about the heat death of the universe, yah hear me? You’ll never get free after that. They’ll chew your ear off for half a day or more, so yah know. Just warning you, Navárez.”
With that in mind, Kira stopped in front of the man and woman. “Excuse me,” she said. She felt as if she were seven again, when she’d been introduced to the Entropist who had visited Weyland. He’d seemed so imposing at that age: a huge tower of flesh and fabric peering down at her.
The man and woman stirred and turned their faces toward her. “Yes, Prisoner? How may we help you?” said the man.
That was the one thing she didn’t like about the Entropists: their insistence on calling everyone prisoner. The universe wasn’t ideal, but it was hardly a prison. After all, you had to exist somewhere; it might as well be here.
“May I speak with you?” she said.
“Of course. Please, sit,” said the man. He and the woman shifted to make room for her. Their movements were perfectly coordinated, as if they were two parts of the same body. It took her a moment to realize: they were a hive. A very small hive, but a hive nevertheless. It had been a while since she’d dealt with one.
“This is Questant Veera,” said the man and gestured at his partner.
“And this is Questant Jorrus,” said Veera, mirroring his gesture. “What is it you wish to ask us, Prisoner?”
Kira listened to the measured count of numbers while she thought. The ship mind, Gregorovich, might be listening, so she had to avoid saying anything that might contradict the story she’d provided in sickbay earlier.
“My name is Kaminski,” she said. “I was on the shuttle the Wallfish
Veera nodded. “We assumed—” “—as much,” Jorrus finished.
Kira smoothed the front of her jumpsuit while she chose her words. “I’ve been out of touch for the past three months, so I’m trying to catch up on current events. How much do you know about bioengineering?”
Jorrus said, “We know more than some—” “—and less than others,” said Veera.
They were, she knew, being characteristically modest. “Seeing all the different types of Jellies got me thinking; would it be possible to make an organic skinsuit? Or a set of organic power armor?”
The Entropists frowned. It was eerie seeing the same expression perfectly synchronized on two different faces. “You seem to already have experience with unusual skinsuits, Prisoner,” said Jorrus. He and his partner gestured toward the Soft Blade.
“This?” Kira shrugged, as if the suit was of no importance. “It’s a piece of custom work a friend of mine did. Looks cooler than it is.”
The Entropists accepted her explanation without argument. Veera said, “To answer your question, then, Prisoner, it would be possible, but it would be…”
“Impractical,” supplied Jorrus.
“Flesh is not as strong as metal and/or composites,” said Veera. “Even if one were to rely on a combination of diamond and carbon nanotubes, such a thing would not provide the same protection as a normal set of armor.”
“Powering it would be difficult as well,” said Jorrus. “Organic processes cannot provide enough energy within the requisite timeframes. Supercapacitors, batteries, mini-reactors, and other sources of energy are needed.”
“Even if energy wasn’t a consideration,” said Veera, “integration between the user and the suit would be problematic.”
“But implants already use organic circuits,” said Kira.
Jorrus shook his head. “That is not what I mean. If the suit were organic, if it were living, there would always be a risk of cross-contamination.”
Veera said, “Cells from the suit might take root in the user’s body and grow where they shouldn’t. It would be worse than any natural form of cancer.”
“And likewise,” said Jorrus, “cells from the user might end up disrupting the function of the suit. In order to avoid that outcome, and to avoid the user’s immune system attacking the suit wherever the integration points were placed—”
“—the suit would need to be engineered from the DNA of the user. That would limit each suit to just one user. Another impracticality.”
Kira said, “So then the Jellies—”
“Are not using bio-suits as we understand them,” Veera replied. “Not unless their science is far more advanced than it seems.”
“I see,” said Kira. “And you don’t know anything about the Jellies’ language, aside from what’s already published?”
Veera answered: “Unfortunately—”
“—not,” said Jorrus. “Our apologies; much remains a mystery about the aliens.”
Kira frowned. Again the drone of numbers filled her ears, loud and distracting. She made a face. “What are they doing? Do you know?”
Jorrus snorted. “Annoying the rest of us, that’s what. We—”
“—asked them to turn down the volume, but this is as soft as they will make it. If they don’t prove to be—”
“—cooperative in the future, we may have to speak with them more sternly.”
“Yes,” said Kira, “but who are they?”
“They are Numenists,” Veera and Jorrus said together. “Numenists?”
“It is a religious order that started on Mars during the early decades of settlement. They worship numbers.”
The Entropists nodded, a quick, mirrored jerk of their heads. “Numbers.” “Why?”
Veera smiled. “Why worship anything? Because they believe it contains deep truths about life, the universe, and everything. More specifically—”
Jorrus smiled. “—they believe in counting. They believe that if they count long enough, they can count every whole number and, perhaps, at the very end of time itself, speak the ultimate number itself.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s an item of faith. The man you hear speaking is the Arch Arithmetist, also known as the Pontifex Digitalis, which is—”
“—shockingly bad Latin. The Foxglove Pope as—” “—many call him. He—”
“—along with assistants from the College of Enumerators—they’re fond of their titles—recites each new number, without break or interruption.” Veera pointed with one crooked finger toward the Numenists. “They consider listening to the enumeration an—”
“—important part of their religious practice. Plus—plus!—”
“—they believe some numbers are more significant than others. Ones that contain certain sequences of digits, primes, and so forth.”
Kira frowned. “That seems pretty strange.”
Veera shrugged. “Maybe. But it gives them comfort, which is more than can be said about most things.”
Then Jorrus leaned toward Kira. “Do you know how they define god?” Kira shook her head.
“As the greater part of two equal halves.” The Entropists rocked back on their heels, chuckling. “Isn’t that delightful?”
“But … That doesn’t make any sense.”
Veera and Jorrus shrugged. “Faith often doesn’t. Now—” “—were there any other questions we might help you with?”
Kira laughed ruefully. “Not unless you happen to know the meaning of life.” The moment the words left her mouth, Kira knew they were a mistake, that the Entropists would take her seriously.
And they did. Jorrus said, “The meaning of life—”
“—differs from person to person,” said Veera. “For us it is simple. It is the pursuit of understanding, that we—”
“—may find a way to contravene the heat death of the universe. For you
“—we cannot say.”
“I was afraid of that,” Kira said. Then, because she couldn’t help herself: “You take as fact a lot of things others would dispute. The heat death of the universe, for example.”
Together they spoke: “If we are wrong, we are wrong, but our quest is a worthy one. Even if our belief is misplaced—”
“—our success would benefit all,” said Jorrus.
Kira inclined her head. “Fair enough. I didn’t mean to offend.” Mollified, the two tugged on the cuffs of their robes. Jorrus said,
“Perhaps we can help you, Prisoner. Meaning comes from purpose—” “—and purpose comes in many forms.” Veera steepled her fingers.
Surprisingly, Jorrus did not. She said, “Have you ever considered the fact that everything we are originates from the remnants of stars that once exploded?”
Jorrus said, “Vita ex pulvis.”
“We are made from the dust of dead stars.”
“I’m aware of the fact,” said Kira. “It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t see the relevance.”
Jorrus said, “The relevance—”
“—is in the logical extension of that idea.” Veera paused for a moment. “We are aware. We are conscious. And we are made from the same stuff as the heavens.”
“Don’t you see, Prisoner?” said Jorrus. “We are the mind of the universe itself. We and the Jellies and all self-aware beings. We are the universe watching itself, watching and learning.”
“And someday,” said Veera, “we, and by extension the universe, will learn to expand beyond this realm and save ourselves from otherwise inevitable extinction.”
Kira said, “By escaping the heat death of this space.”
Jorrus nodded. “Even so. But the point is not that. The point is that this act of observation and learning is a process we all share—”
“—whether or not we realize it. As such, it gives purpose to everything we do, no matter—”
“—how insignificant it may seem, and from that purpose, meaning. For the universe itself, given consciousness through your own mind—”
“—is aware of your every hurt and care.” Veera smiled. “Take comfort, then, that whatever you choose in life has importance beyond yourself.
Importance, even, on a cosmic scale.”
“That seems a little self-aggrandizing,” Kira said. “Perhaps,” Jorrus replied. “But—”
“—it may also be true,” said Veera.
Kira looked down at her hands. Her problems hadn’t changed, but somehow they felt more manageable now. The idea that she was part of the universe’s consciousness was comforting, albeit in a rather abstract way. No matter what she did moving forward—and no matter what happened to her, even if that meant getting stuck in UMC quarantine again—she would still be part of a cause far larger than herself. And that was a truth no one could ever take from her.
“Thank you,” she said, heartfelt.
The Entropists dipped their heads and touched the tips of their fingers to their foreheads. “You are most welcome, Prisoner. May your path always lead to knowledge.”
“Knowledge to freedom,” she said, completing the refrain. Their definition of freedom differed from hers, but she could appreciate the sentiment.
Then Kira returned to her spot among the crates, called up her overlays, and dove back into the news with a renewed sense of resolve.
Ship-night arrived, and the lights in the hold dimmed to a faint red glow. Kira found it difficult to sleep; her mind was restless, and her body too after so long spent on the Valkyrie. Plus, welcome as it was, it was still strange to have a sense of weight again. Her cheek and hip hurt where they pressed against the deck.
She thought of Tschetter, and then everyone from the survey team. Hopefully the UMC had thawed out the survivors. It wasn’t good to spend too long in cryo; basic biological processes like digestion and hormone production started to go awry after a certain point. And Jenan always had been prone to cryo sickness.…
In the end, Kira did sleep, but her mind was troubled, and her dreams were more vivid than normal. She saw herself at home, as a child—old memories that she hadn’t recalled in years but that seemed fresh and
current, as if time were looping in on itself. She was chasing her sister, Isthah, through the rows of plants in the west greenhouse. Isthah shrieked and waved her hands as she ran, her brown ponytail bouncing against the back of her neck.… Their father cooking arrosito ahumado, the dish his family had brought from San Amaro when they emigrated from Earth and the whole reason there was a firepit in the backyard. Ashes for the sugar, sugar for the rice. Her favorite food because it held a flavor of the past.… Then her mind shifted to things more recent, to Adra and Alan, and her worries over the Jellies. A mélange of overlapping memories:
Alan was saying, “Can you get a scan of it? Maybe pick up a few samples?”
Then Neghar: *You’re gonna give up Yugo’s cinnamon rolls for THAT?* And Kira answered, as she had: “Sorry, you know how it is.” … you
know how it is …
In HQ, after waking from cryo. Alan had his arms around her. “It’s my fault. I should never have asked you to check out those rocks. I’m so sorry, babe.”
“No, don’t apologize,” she said. “Someone had to do it.”
And somewhere Todash and the Boys were howling and screaming, “And there’s nothing at the door. Hey, there’s nothing at the door. Babe, what’s that knocking at the door?”
Kira woke in a cold sweat, heart hammering. It was still night, and the hundreds of sleeping people filled the cargo hold with the white noise of their breathing.
She let out a long breath of her own.
Someone had to do it. She shivered and ran a hand over her head. The smoothness of it still surprised her.
“Someone,” she whispered. She closed her eyes, overcome by a sudden sense of Alan’s closeness. For a moment, it felt as if she could smell him.… Kira knew what he would do. What he would want her to do. She sniffed and wiped away tears. Curiosity had driven both of them to the stars, but in the process of satisfying their curiosity, they’d had to assume a certain responsibility. More so for her than him—xenobiology was a riskier profession than geology—but regardless, the fact remained: for those who ventured into the unknown, there was a duty to protect those left behind,
those who lived their lives in familiar bounds.
A line from the Entropists echoed in her mind: Meaning comes from purpose.… And Kira knew then what her purpose was. It was to use her understanding of the Jellies’ language to broker peace between their species. Or, failing that, to help the League win the war.
But on her own terms. If she went to Ruslan, the League would just throw her back into quarantine, and that wouldn’t do anyone good (least of all herself). No, she needed to be out in the field, not stuck in a lab getting scrutinized like a microbe on a petri dish. She needed to be where she could interact with the Jellies’ computers and extract what data she could. Better still would be to speak with a Jelly, but Kira doubted that would be possible in any safe way. At least, not yet. If she could get her hands on a transmitter in one of their ships, that might change.
She’d decided. In the morning, she would talk with Falconi about diverting to a port closer than Ruslan. Somewhere that might have salvaged Jelly tech she could examine or where—if circumstances played out in her favor—she might be able to hitch a ride to a disabled Jelly ship. Falconi would take some convincing, but Kira felt hopeful she could persuade him. No reasonable person could ignore the importance of what she had to say, and while hard-edged, Falconi seemed reasonable enough.
She closed her eyes, feeling a new sense of determination. Even if it was a mistake, she was going to do her damnedest to stop the Jellies.
Maybe then she could save her family and atone for her sins on Adra.