When the lights brightened in the cargo hold, Kira found herself covered with a fine layer of dust everywhere but her face. Since she had eaten, she’d expected as much. Fortunately, her blanket covered most of the mess, and she managed to brush off the powder without Inarë or anyone else noticing.
She activated her overlays and checked on the activities of the Jelly ships. It was grim stuff. The two Jellies by Karelin were still harassing cargo haulers in the area, and there were unsubstantiated reports that the aliens had landed forces at the small settlement on that planet. Meanwhile, the Jellies in the asteroid belt had destroyed half a dozen ore processors before executing a high-speed flyby of Chelomey. They’d strafed the hab-ring, shooting out most of the station’s defenses, and then continued on toward another set of mining installations.
The damage to the station was ugly to look at but mostly superficial; structurally it still appeared sound. That was a relief. If the hab-ring broke up … Kira shuddered at the thought of thousands of people getting spaced, young and old alike. Few things were as horrible or terrifying. Even as she watched, three different transports departed Chelomey as part of an evacuation effort.
Kira shifted her attention to Cygni B and tapped on a header: one of the Jelly ships there had exploded during the night, leaving behind a bloom of debris and hard radiation.
A group of miners calling themselves The Screaming Clams were claiming responsibility. Apparently they had managed to maneuver a drone up against the Jelly ship and blast it open, breaching the ship’s internal containment.
The destruction of the alien ship was a small thing in the greater scheme of the war, but Kira found it heartening to see. The Jellies had their advantages, but dammit, humans weren’t pushovers.
Still, that didn’t change the fact that the whole system was under attack. Kira could hear people throughout the hold talking about the situation on Chelomey (a large number of the refugees seemed to have come from the station) as well as the destroyed Jelly ship.
Putting aside the news—and ignoring the ongoing chatter—Kira started to look for a place where Falconi could drop her off. Somewhere relatively close that wasn’t currently taking fire from the Jellies. There weren’t many options: a small hab-ring out past Tsiolkovsky’s orbit; a fuel plant stationed at Karelin’s L3 Lagrangian point; a research outpost on Grozny, the star’s fourth planet …
She quickly settled on Malpert Station, a small mining facility within the innermost asteroid belt. 61 Cygni possessed two such belts, and the Wallfish was currently between them. The station had several things to recommend it: the company had a rep posted there, and the UMC had several ships guarding the facilities, including a cruiser, the UMCS Darmstadt.
Kira thought she might be able to play the company off the UMC and convince one or both of them to get her onto a Jelly ship. Besides, it seemed that a UMC commander who was actively engaged in fighting the aliens might appreciate the value of what she had to offer more than an official stuck behind a desk back at Ruslan or Vyyborg Station.
Either way, it was her best bet.
Thoughts of the risk she was running gave her pause. What she was doing could backfire in all sorts of horrible ways. Then she squared her shoulders. Doesn’t matter. It would take a lot more than an attack of nerves to make her give up.
A flag appeared in the corner of her overlays, alerting her to a newly arrived message:
Why are you shedding dust, O Multifarious Meatbag? Your excrescence is clogging my filters. – Gregorovich
Kira allowed herself a grim smile. So she wouldn’t have been able to keep the Soft Blade a secret in any case. Subvocalizing her answer, she wrote:
Now, now. You can’t expect me to give up the answer that easily.
I need to speak with the captain as soon as possible. In private. It’s a matter of life and death. – Kira
A reply appeared a second later:
Your hubris intrigues me, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter. – Gregorovich
She frowned. Was that a yes or a no?
Kira didn’t have to wait long to find out. Not five minutes later, the short, blond-haired woman she’d seen in the other cargo hold appeared in the doorway. The woman was wearing an olive jacket with the sleeves cut off to reveal arms that rippled with the sort of muscle that only came from gene-hacking or many years of lifting weights and controlling your diet. Despite that, her face was sharp and dainty, feminine even. Slung over her shoulder was an ugly-looking slug thrower.
The woman put two fingers in her mouth and whistled. “Oi! Kaminski!
Get over here. Captain wants to see you.”
Kira got to her feet and, with everyone’s eyes on her, made her way to the doorway. The woman gave her a once-over and then jerked her chin toward the hallway outside. “You first, Kaminski.”
The moment the pressure door closed behind them, the woman said, “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Kira did just that as they climbed up the central shaft. With her contact lenses, the ship’s public overlays were now visible: colorful projections affixed to the doors and walls and lights and even sometimes points in the air itself. They transformed the Wallfish’s dingy interior into a gleaming, modernesque construction.
There were other options as well; she cycled through them, watching as the shaft flashed between a castle-like appearance; a wooded, Art Nouveau layout; alien vistas (some warm and inviting, some laden with storms and lit with occasional flashes of lightning); and even an abstract, fractal-derived nightmare that reminded her an uncomfortable amount of the Soft Blade.
She suspected the last one was Gregorovich’s favorite.
In the end, Kira settled on the initial overlay. It was the least confusing while also being upbeat and relatively cheery.
“You have a name?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s Shut-the-Hell-Up-and-Keep-Moving.”
When they arrived at the deck that held sickbay, the woman poked her in the back and said, “Here.”
Kira got off the ladder and pushed her way through the pressure door into the corridor beyond. She stopped, then, as she saw the overlay on the
wall, the same one Trig had told her to ignore the previous day.
The image covered a good two meters of paneling. In it, a battalion of jackrabbits garbed in power armor charged toward a similarly equipped force (also jackrabbits) upon a battle-ravaged field. Leading the near force was … the pig Runcible, now graced with a pair of boar tusks. And fronting the opposition was none other than the ship cat, Mr. Fuzzypants, wielding a flamethrower in each furry paw.
“What in Thule’s name is that?” said Kira.
The sharp-faced woman had the grace to look embarrassed. “We lost a bar bet with the crew of the Ichorous Sun.”
“It … could have been worse,” said Kira. For a bar bet, they’d gotten off light.
The woman nodded. “If we had won, the captain was going to make them paint—Actually, you don’t want to know.”
Kira was inclined to agree.
A nudge from the barrel of the slug thrower was enough to start Kira down the corridor again. She wondered if she ought to have her hands above her head.
Their walk ended at another pressure door on the other side of the ship. The woman banged on the wheel in the center, and a moment later, Falconi’s voice sounded: “It’s unlocked.”
The wheel produced a satisfying clunk as she turned it.
The door swung open, and Kira was surprised to see they weren’t meeting in a control center, but rather a cabin. Falconi’s cabin, to be precise. The room was just large enough to walk a few steps without banging into the furniture. Bunk, sink, lockers, and walls were all as plain as could be, even with overlays. The only decoration sat on the built-in desk: a gnarled bonsai tree with silvery-grey leaves and a trunk twisted in the shape
of an S.
Despite herself, Kira was impressed. Bonsai were hard to keep alive on a ship, yet the tree seemed healthy and well cared for.
The captain was sitting at the desk, a half-dozen windows arrayed in his holo-display.
The top few buttons of his shirt were undone to reveal a wedge of tanned muscle, but it was his rolled-up sleeves and bare forearms that caught her
attention. The exposed skin was a twisted mass of mottled scar tissue. It looked like partially melted plastic, hard and shiny.
Kira’s first reaction was revulsion. Why? Burns, and scars in general, were easy to treat. Even if Falconi had been injured somewhere without medical facilities, why wouldn’t he have had the scars removed later? Why would he allow himself to be … deformed?
Lying on Falconi’s lap was Runcible. The pig’s eyes were half-closed, and his tail wiggled with satisfaction as the captain scratched behind his ears.
Nielsen stood next to the captain, arms crossed and an expression of impatience on her face.
“You wanted to see me?” Falconi said. He smirked, seeming to enjoy Kira’s discomfort.
She reassessed her initial impression of him. If he was willing to use his scars to put her off balance, then he was smarter, more dangerous than she had thought. And if the bonsai was anything to go by, more cultured too, even if he was an exploitive asshole.
“I need to speak with you in private,” she said.
Falconi gestured at Nielsen and the blond-haired woman. “Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of them.”
Irritated, Kira said, “This is serious … Captain. I wasn’t joking when I told Gregorovich it was a matter of life and death.”
The mocking smile never left Falconi’s lips but his eyes hardened into spikes of blue ice. “I believe you, Ms. Kaminski. However, if you think I’m going to meet with you all on my own, with no witnesses, you must think I was a born idiot. They stay. That’s final.”
Behind her, Kira heard the muscled woman readjust her grip on the slug thrower.
Kira pressed her lips together, trying to decide whether she could force the issue. There didn’t seem to be any way, so finally, she caved. “Fine,” she said. “Can you close the door at least?”
Falconi nodded. “I think we can manage that. Sparrow?”
The woman who had accompanied Kira pulled the pressure door shut, although she left it unlatched and unlocked—easy to open in an emergency.
“Well? What is it, then?” Falconi said.
Kira took a breath. “My name isn’t Kaminski. It’s Kira Navárez. And this isn’t a skinsuit. It’s an alien organism.”
Falconi burst out laughing so loudly that he disturbed Runcible; the pig snorted and looked up at his master with what seemed to be a worried expression.
“Riiight,” Falconi said. “Good one. That’s real funny, Ms.…” His smile vanished as he studied her face. “You’re serious.”
A click sounded next to her, and out of the corner of her eye, Kira saw Sparrow aiming the slug thrower at her head.
“Can you not do that,” said Kira, her voice tight. “Seriously, it’s a really bad idea.” Already she could feel the Soft Blade preparing itself for action across her body.
Falconi waved a hand, and Sparrow reluctantly lowered the gun. “Prove it.”
“Prove what?” said Kira, confused.
“Prove that it’s an alien artifact,” he said, pointing at her arm. Kira hesitated. “Just promise you won’t shoot, okay?”
“That depends,” Sparrow growled.
Then Kira coaxed the suit’s mask into sliding across her face. She did it slower than normal, to avoid frightening anyone, but even so, Falconi stiffened, and Nielsen half pulled her blaster out of its holster.
Runcible looked at Kira with large, wet eyes. His snout wiggled as he sniffed in her direction.
“Goddamn,” said Sparrow.
After a few seconds, when her point was made, Kira allowed the Soft Blade to relax, and the mask retreated, exposing her face again. The air in the cabin was cool against her newly exposed skin.
Falconi remained very still. Too still. Kira was worried; what if he decided to just space her and be done with it?
Then he said, “Explain. And you better make it good, Navárez.”
So Kira started talking. For the most part she told the truth, but instead of admitting it was the Soft Blade that had killed Alan and her other
teammates on Adra, she put the blame on the Jellies’ attack—partly to avoid frightening Falconi, and partly because she didn’t want to discuss her own role in the event.
When she finished, there was a long silence in the cabin.
Runcible grunted and wiggled, trying to get down. Falconi put the pig on the floor and pushed him toward the door. “Let him out. He needs to use the box.”
The pig trotted past Kira as Sparrow opened the door.
As Sparrow closed the door again, Falconi said, “Gregorovich?”
After a few seconds, the ship mind’s voice sounded from the ceiling: “Her story checks out. News reports mention one Kira Navárez as the senior xenobiologist on the Adrasteia survey mission. The same Navárez was listed on the crew manifest of the SLV Fidanza. Biometrics are a match to public records.”
Falconi tapped his fingers against his thigh. “You sure this xeno isn’t infectious?” The question was directed toward Kira.
She nodded. “If it were, the rest of my team would have ended up infected, and also the crew of the Extenuating Circumstances. The UMC worked me over real good, Captain. They didn’t find any risk of it spreading.” Another lie, but a necessary one.
He frowned. “Still…”
“This is my area of expertise,” said Kira. “Trust me, I know the risks better than most people.”
“Alright, Navárez, let’s say that’s true. Let’s say all of this is true. You found alien ruins and you found this organism. Then a few weeks later the Jellies show up and start shooting. Have I got that right?”
An uncomfortable pause followed. “Yes,” Kira said.
Falconi tilted his head back, gaze unsettlingly intense. “Seems like you might have more to do with this war than you’re letting on.”
His words struck uncomfortably close to Kira’s own fears. Damn. She wished he weren’t so smart. “I don’t know about that. All I know is what I’ve told you.”
“Uh-huh. And why are you telling us?” Falconi leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What exactly do you want?”
Kira licked her lips. This was the most delicate part. “I want you to divert the Wallfish and drop me off at Malpert Station.”
This time, Falconi didn’t laugh. He exchanged glances with Nielsen and then said, “Every single person in the hold is paying us to take them to Ruslan. Why in three hells would we change course now?”
Kira bit back a comment about his use of the word paying. Now wasn’t the time to be antagonistic. Choosing her words carefully, she said, “Because, I can understand the Jellies’ language.”
Nielsen’s eyebrows rose. “You can what?”
Then Kira told them about her experience with the Jelly on the Extenuating Circumstances. She skipped the dreams and memories from the Soft Blade; no point in making them think she was crazy.
“So why not go to Ruslan?” asked Sparrow, her voice harsh.
“I need to get onto one of the Jelly ships,” said Kira, “and my best chance of doing that is out here. If I go to Ruslan, the League is just going to stick me in a box again.”
Falconi scratched his chin. “That still doesn’t explain why we should change course. Sure, if what you’re saying is true, this is important, alright. But seven days isn’t going to make much of a difference in who wins the war.”
“It could,” said Kira, but she saw he wasn’t convinced. She changed tack: “Look, the Lapsang Corporation has a rep on Malpert. If you can get me to him, I guarantee the company will pay a significant fee for your assistance.”
“Really?” Falconi’s eyebrows rose. “How significant?”
“For privileged access to a unique piece of alien tech? Enough to buy all the antimatter you need.”
“Is that so?” “Yes. It is.”
Nielsen uncrossed her arms and in a low tone said, “Malpert isn’t that far away. A few days, and we could still take everyone to Ruslan.”
Falconi grunted. “And what am I supposed to say when the UMC brass on Vyyborg start jumping on my ass for changing course? They were pretty damn eager to get their hands on everyone from the Valkyrie.” He spoke with a brash flatness, as if daring Kira to challenge him over the admission that the ship’s transmitter worked.
She eyed him. “Tell them something broke on the ship and you need assistance. I’m sure they’d believe you. You’re so good at coming up with
Sparrow snorted, and a faint smile touched the corners of Falconi’s mouth. “Okay, Navárez. It’s a deal, on one condition.”
“What?” Kira said, wary.
“You have to let Vishal give you a proper examination.” Falconi’s expression grew flat, deadly. “I’m not having this xeno of yours on my ship unless the doc gives it the all-clear. You good with that?”
“I’m good,” said Kira. She didn’t have much choice, in any case.
The captain nodded. “Alright then. You just better not be bullshitting about that fee, Navárez.”
From Falconi’s cabin, Sparrow escorted Kira directly to sickbay. Vishal was waiting for them, dressed in full hazard gear.
“That really necessary, Doc?” Sparrow asked. “We shall see,” said Vishal.
Kira could tell that the doctor was angry; through the visor of his helmet, his expression was pinched and tight.
Without being asked, she hopped onto the exam table. Feeling a need to smooth the waters, she said, “Sorry for breaking containment, but I didn’t think there was any risk of the xeno spreading.”
Vishal busied himself gathering the tools of his trade, starting with an old and clunky chip-lab that had been stored under the sink. “You can’t know that for sure. You are supposed to be a xenobiologist, Ms. Yes? You should have had the sense to follow proper protocol.”
His rebuke stung. Yes, but … He wasn’t wrong, but at the same time, she hadn’t had much of a choice, now had she? Kira kept the thought to herself; she wasn’t there to start an argument.
She bounced her heels against the drawers built into the base of the exam table while she waited. Sparrow remained lounging in the doorway, watching.
“What exactly is it you do on the ship?” Kira asked her.
Sparrow’s expression stayed flat, emotionless. “I pick up heavy things and put them down.” She lifted her left arm and tensed her biceps and triceps, showing off the muscles.
“I see that.”
Then Vishal began by asking Kira a long series of questions. She answered to the best of her ability. In that, she didn’t hold back. Science was sacred, and she knew the doctor was just trying to do his job.
At Vishal’s request, Kira showed him how she could harden the surface of the Soft Blade in patterns of her choosing.
Then the doctor tapped the control screen of the medibot mounted overhead. As the machine moved toward her, the mechanical arm unfolding like metal origami, Kira flashed back to her cell on the Extenuating Circumstances and the S-PACs built into the walls, and she flinched without meaning to.
“Hold still,” snapped Vishal.
Kira looked down and concentrated on her breathing. The last thing she needed was for the Soft Blade to react to an imagined threat and tear apart the medibot. Captain Falconi most definitely wouldn’t be pleased with that.
For the next two hours, Vishal tested her in many of the ways that Carr had, and perhaps a few more. He seemed very creative. While the medibot hovered about her, poking and prodding and running every diagnostic in its extensive programming, Vishal carried out his own investigation, peering into her ears, eyes, and nose; taking swabs and scrapings for his chip-lab; and generally making Kira uncomfortable.
He kept his helmet on the whole time, visor closed and locked.
They spoke little; Vishal gave her orders, and Kira complied with a minimum of fuss. She just wanted the ordeal to be over.
At one point, her stomach rumbled, and she realized she still hadn’t eaten breakfast. Vishal noticed and, without hesitation, provided her with a ration bar from a nearby cupboard. He watched with sharp-eyed interest while she chewed and swallowed.
“Fascinating,” he muttered, holding the chip-lab to her mouth and staring at the readings.
He continued to talk to himself from then on, cryptic utterances such as: “… three percent diffusion” and “Can’t be. That would—” and “The ATP? Doesn’t make any…” None of which helped Kira’s understanding.
Finally, he said, “Ms. Navárez, a blood test is still necessary, yes? But the only place I can draw from is—”
“My face.” She nodded. “I know. Go ahead and do what you have to.”
He hesitated. “There is no good place to draw blood from head or face, and many nerves that can be injured. You showed how the suit can move at your command—”
“But you know it can move. So I ask: Can you move it to expose part of your skin elsewhere? Perhaps here?” And he tapped the inside of her elbow.
The idea caught Kira by surprise. She hadn’t even thought to try. “I … don’t know,” she said, honest. “Maybe.”
In the doorway, Sparrow unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it in her mouth. “Well, give it a shot, Navárez.” And she blew a large, pink bubble until it exploded with a sharp pop.
“Give me a minute,” said Kira.
The doctor sat back on his stool, waiting.
Kira concentrated on the inside of her elbow—concentrated as hard as she ever had—and with her mind, pushed.
The surface of the suit shimmered in response. Kira bore down harder, and the shimmer became a ripple as the fibers of her second skin melted one into another to form a glassy black surface.
And yet the Soft Blade remained fixed to her arm, shifting and flowing with liquid brilliance. But when she touched the softened area, her fingers sank through the surface, and skin contacted skin with unexpected intimacy. Kira’s breath caught. Her heart was pounding from strain and excitement. The mental effort was too great to sustain for long, and the instant her attention wavered, the suit hardened and returned to its normal,
Frustrated and yet encouraged, Kira tried again, driving her mind against the Soft Blade again and again.
“Come on, damn you,” she muttered.
The suit seemed confused by her intentions. It churned against her arm, agitated by her assault. Kira pushed even harder. The churning increased, and then a cold tingle spread across the inside of her elbow. Centimeter by centimeter, the Soft Blade retreated to the sides of the joint, exposing pale skin to the chill of the air.
“Quick,” said Kira from between clenched teeth.
Vishal scooted forward and pressed his hypo against Kira’s elbow. She felt a slight pinch, and then he withdrew. “Done,” he said.
Still fighting with all her might to keep the Soft Blade pulled back, Kira touched her fingers to her arm, to bare skin. She savored the feeling; a simple pleasure that had seemed forever lost. The sensation was no different than touching the suit, but it meant so much more. Without the layer of separating fibers, she felt far more herself.
Then the effort proved too much and the Soft Blade rebounded and again covered the inside of her elbow.
“Hot damn,” said Sparrow.
Kira let out her breath, feeling as if she’d run a flight of stairs. Her whole body tingled with an electric thrill. If she practiced, maybe, just maybe it would be possible to free her whole body of the xeno. The thought gave her the first real sense of hope she’d had since waking up in quarantine on the Extenuating Circumstances.
Her eyes filmed over with tears, and she blinked, not wanting Sparrow or the doctor to see.
With the blood he’d collected, Vishal ran still more tests, muttering to himself the whole while. Kira zoned out while listening to his fragmented comments. There was a spot on the opposing wall—a spot shaped like star anise or maybe a dead spider that had been squashed beneath a flat-bottomed glass—and she stared at it, her mind empty.
With a start, Kira realized that Vishal had fallen silent and that he’d been silent for some time. “What?” she said.
The doctor looked at her as if he’d forgotten she was there. “I do not know what to make of your xeno.” He made a slight back-and-forth wobble of his head. “It’s like nothing I’ve studied before.”
He pushed his stool back from the table. “I would need several months before I could answer that. The organism has…” He hesitated. “It is interacting with your body in ways I don’t understand. It shouldn’t be possible!”
“Because it does not use DNA or RNA, yes? Neither do the Jellies, for that matter, but—”
“Can you tell if they’re related?”
Vishal waved his hands with frustration. “No, no. If the organism is artificial, as it most assuredly is, then its makers could have built it using whatever arrangement of molecules they wanted, yes? They weren’t limited to their own biology. But that’s not what’s important. Without DNA or RNA, how does your suit know how to interact with your cells? Our chemistry is totally different!”
“I’ve wondered that myself.” “Yes, and—”
A short beep emanated from the main sickbay console, and then a tinny version of Falconi’s voice came over the speakers: “Hey, Doc, what’s the verdict? You’ve been awfully quiet down there.”
Vishal grimaced. Then he unlocked the seal around his neck and pulled off his helmet. “I can tell you Ms. Navárez doesn’t have measles, mumps, or rubella. She has healthy blood sugar levels, and although her implants are non-functional, whoever oversaw their installation did a good job of it. Gums look fine. Ears aren’t blocked. What do you expect me to say?”
“Is she contagious?”
“She isn’t. I am not so sure about the suit. It sheds dust”—at that Sparrow appeared alarmed—“but the dust seems completely inert. Who can tell, though? I don’t have the tools I need. If only I was back at my old lab.
…” Vishal shook his head. “Did you ask Gregorovich?”
The doctor rolled his eyes. “Yes, our blessed ship mind deigned to look at the data. He wasn’t much help, unless you count quoting Tyrollius back at me.”
“Everything with the suit—”
An excited squeal interrupted the captain as Runcible trotted into the sickbay. The little brown pig came over to Kira and sniffed her foot, then hurried back to Sparrow and wound between her legs.
The woman reached down to give Runcible a scratch behind the ears.
The pig lifted its snout and almost seemed to be smiling.
Falconi resumed talking: “Everything with the suit match up with what she said?”
Vishal spread his hands. “As far as I can tell. Half the time I don’t know if I’m looking at an organic cell, a nanomachine, or some sort of weird hybrid. The molecular structure of the suit seems to change by the second.”
“Well, are we going to start frothing at the mouth and keel over? Or is it going to kill us in our sleep? That’s what I want to know.”
Kira shifted uncomfortably, thinking of Alan.
“It seems … unlikely, at the moment,” said Vishal. “There is nothing in these tests to indicate the xeno is an immediate threat. However, I must warn you, there is no way of being sure with the equipment I have.”
“Understood,” said Falconi. “Right. Well, I guess we’ll risk it then. I’ve got confidence in you, Doc. Navárez, you there?”
“We’ll be changing course to Malpert Station directly. ETA is just under forty-two hours.”
“Understood. And thank you.”
He grunted. “Not doing it for you, Navárez.… Sparrow, I know you’re listening. Take our guest to the spare cabin on C-deck. She can stay there for the duration. Best to keep her away from the rest of the passengers.”
Sparrow straightened off the doorframe. “Yessir.”
“Oh, and Navárez? You’re welcome to join us in the galley if you want.
Dinner is at nineteen hundred sharp.” Then the line went dead.
Sparrow popped another bubble of gum. “Okay, ground-pounder, let’s go.”
Kira didn’t obey at first. She looked at Vishal and said, “Can you forward your results to me, so I can look at them myself?”
He bobbed his head. “Yes, of course.” “Thanks. And thanks for being so thorough.”
Vishal seemed surprised by her response. Then he bowed slightly and laughed, a quick, melodic sound. “When the risk is dying from an alien infestation, how could I not be thorough?”
“That’s an excellent point.”
Then Kira followed Sparrow back out into the corridor. “You have anything in the hold you need to get?” the shorter woman asked.
Kira shook her head. “I’m good.”
Together, they proceeded down to the next level of the ship. As they walked, the thrust alert sounded, and the deck seemed to tilt and twist underneath them as the Wallfish reoriented along its new vector.
“Galley is through there,” said Sparrow, gesturing at a marked door. “Feel free to help yourself if you get hungry. Just don’t. Touch. The. Damn. Chocolate.”
“That’s been a problem?”
The woman snorted. “Trig keeps eating it and claiming he didn’t realize the rest of us wanted some.… Here, this is you.” She stopped in front of another door.
Kira nodded and ducked inside. Behind her, Sparrow stayed in place, watching, until the door swung shut.
Feeling more like a prisoner than a passenger, Kira surveyed her surroundings. The cabin was half the size of Falconi’s. Bunk and storage locker on one side, sink and mirror, toilet, and desk with a computer display on the other. The walls were brown, like the corridors, and there were just two lights, one on each side: white patches caged with metal bars.
The handle on the locker stuck when she tried it. She leaned on it, and the door popped open. A thin blue blanket lay folded inside. Nothing else.
Kira started to remove her jumpsuit and then hesitated. What if Falconi had the cabin under surveillance? After a moment’s thought, she decided she didn’t give a damn. Eighty-eight days and eleven light-years was far too long to have worn the same piece of clothing.
Feeling something close to relief, Kira unseamed the jumpsuit, pulled her arms free, and stepped out of it. A trickle of dust fell from the cuffed legs.
She draped the suit over the back of the chair and went to the sink, intending to take a sponge bath. The sight in the mirror stopped her.
Even on the Valkyrie, Kira had never been able to see herself properly, only partial glimpses, dark and ghostlike on the glassy surfaces of the displays. She hadn’t really cared; she just had to look down to get a good idea of what the Soft Blade had done to her.
But now, seeing herself reflected nearly in whole, it struck her just how much the alien organism had changed and … infested her, occupying what no one else had any right to occupy, not even a child, if ever she had a child. Her face and body were thinner than she remembered, too thin—a consequence of so many weeks spent at half rations—but that itself didn’t bother her.
All she could look at was the suit. The shiny, black, fibrous suit that clung to her like a layer of shrink-wrapped polymer. It looked as if her skin and fascia had been stripped away to expose a gruesome anatomy chart of muscles.
Kira ran a hand over the strange shape of her bare scalp. Her breath caught and a tight knot formed in her gut. She felt as if she were going to be sick. She stared, and she hated what she saw, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away. The surface of the Soft Blade grew rough as it echoed her emotions.
Who could find her attractive now … the way Alan had? Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
She felt ugly. Disfigured.
And there was no one to comfort her.
Kira took a shuddering breath, reining in her emotions. She’d grieved and would continue to grieve, but there was no changing the past, and dissolving into a sobbing mess wasn’t going to do her any good.
All was not lost. There was a way forward now: a hope, if however slight.
Forcing her gaze away from the mirror, she used the cloth by the sink to wash herself and then retreated to the bed and crawled under the blanket. There, in the filtered gloom, she again worked on forcing the Soft Blade to retreat from a patch of skin (this time the fingers of her left hand).
Compared with before, it felt as if the Soft Blade better understood what she was trying to accomplish. The effort required was more manageable, and there were moments when the sense of struggle vanished and she and xeno were working in harmony. Those moments encouraged her, and Kira pushed even harder as a result.
The Soft Blade retreated from her nails with a sticky, peeling sound. It halted at the first joint of each finger, and try as she might, Kira couldn’t coax it past.
Three more times Kira willed the suit to expose her fingers, and three more times it responded to her satisfaction. With each success, she felt the
neural links between her and the suit deepening, becoming increasingly efficient.
She tried elsewhere on her body, and there too the Soft Blade obeyed her commands, though some areas were more challenging than others. To free herself entirely of the xeno would require more strength than she could muster, but Kira wasn’t disappointed. She was still learning to communicate with the xeno, and the fact that freedom might just be possible—if even only as a distant prospect—kindled such a sense of lightness within her, she grinned with an idiot’s delight into the blanket.
Ridding herself of the Soft Blade wouldn’t solve all her problems (the UMC and the League would still want her for observation, and without the suit she’d be completely at their mercy), but it would solve the biggest one and clear the way for her to someday—somehow!—have a normal life again.
Once more she willed the Soft Blade to retract. Holding it in place was like trying to hold two magnets face-to-face with the same polarity. At one point, a noise on the other side of the room caught her attention, and a thin spike stabbed out from her hand, pierced the blanket, and struck the desk (she could feel it, same as an extended finger).
“Shit,” Kira muttered. Had anyone seen that? With a struggle, she convinced the Soft Blade to reabsorb the spike. She looked out at the desk; the spike had left a long scratch on the top.
When she could no longer maintain her concentration, Kira abandoned her experiments and went to the desk. She pulled up the built-in display, linked it to her overlays, and scanned the files Vishal had messaged her.
It was her first time getting to see actual test results from the xeno. And they were fascinating.
The material of the suit consisted of three basic components. One, nanoassemblers, which were responsible for shaping and reshaping both the xeno and surrounding material, though where the assemblers drew their power wasn’t obvious. Two, dendriform filaments that extended throughout every part of the suit and which displayed consistent patterns of activity that seemed to indicate the organism was acting as a massively interconnected processor (whether or not it was alive in the traditional sense was hard to determine, but it certainly wasn’t dead). And three, an enormously complex
polymeric molecule, copies of which Vishal had found attached to nearly every assembler, as well as the dendriform substrate.
Like so many things regarding the xeno, the purpose of the molecule was a mystery. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with the repair or construction of the suit. The length of the molecule meant it contained an enormous amount of potential information—at least two orders of magnitude more than base-human DNA—but as yet, there was no way to determine what use, if any, the information was supposed to have.
There was a chance, Kira thought, that the only real function of the xeno was to protect and pass on the molecule. Not that that told her very much. From a biological point of view, the same was true with humans and DNA, and humans were capable of far more than just propagation.
Kira went over the results four times before she was satisfied she’d committed them to memory. Vishal was right: to learn more about the xeno would require better equipment.
Maybe the Entropists could help.… She filed away the thought for future consideration. Malpert would be the place to approach the Entropists about examining the xeno, if indeed she decided to.
Then Kira returned to the news and started to dig into the research concerning the Jellies’ biology, eager to bring herself up to date with the current literature. It, too, was fascinating stuff: all sorts of things could be inferred from the aliens’ genome. They were omnivores, for one, and large chunks of their DNA-equivalent seemed to have been custom-coded (natural processes never produced such clean sequences).
Nothing in the Jellies’ biology resembled what Vishal had found in the xeno. Nothing seemed to indicate a shared biological heritage. That in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Kira knew of more than a few human-made artificial organisms (mostly single-celled creations) that contained no obvious chemical link to Earth-derived life. So it didn’t mean anything … but it was suggestive.
Kira read until early afternoon, and then she broke for a quick visit to the galley, where she made herself some chell and grabbed a meal pack from a cupboard. She didn’t feel comfortable eating any of the fresh food in the ship’s cooler; that stuff was rare and expensive in space. It would be bad manners to chow it down without permission, even if the sight of an orange had started her mouth watering.
Upon her return to the cabin, she found a message waiting for her:
The spaces around your answers invite inspection, meatbag. What things did you leave unsaid? I wonder, yes I do. Tell me this at least, ere you deprive us of your shedding presence: What are you really, O Infested One? – Gregorovich
Kira pursed her lips. She didn’t want to answer. Trying to win a battle of wits with a ship mind was a fool’s game, but pissing him off would be far more stupid.
I’m alone and afraid. What are you? – Kira
It was a calculated risk. If she allowed herself to appear more vulnerable to him—and Gregorovich was most definitely a him—then maybe she could distract him. It was worth a shot.
To her surprise, the ship mind didn’t answer.
She continued to read. Not long afterward, the Wallfish went zero-g and then performed a skew-flip before starting to decelerate toward Malpert Station. As always, the weightlessness left Kira with the taste of bile in her mouth and a renewed sense of appreciation for gravity, simulated or otherwise.
When it was nearly 1900, she closed down her overlays, pulled on her jumpsuit, and decided to risk venturing out to face the crew at dinner.
What was the worst that could happen?
The hum of conversation in the galley stopped the moment Kira entered. She paused in the doorway while the crew looked at her and she at them.
The captain was sitting at the near table with one leg pulled up against his chest and his arm resting on his knee while he spooned food into his mouth. Across from him was Nielsen, stiff and straight-backed as always.
At the far table sat the doctor and one of the largest women Kira had ever seen. She wasn’t fat, just wide and thick, with bones and joints nearly a third bigger than those of most men. Each of her fingers was the equivalent of two of Kira’s, and her face was flat and round, with enormous cheekbones.
Kira recognized the face as the one she’d seen upon waking in the shuttle, and she instantly identified the woman as a former denizen of Shin-
Zar. She could hardly be mistaken for anything else.
It was unusual to see a Zarian in the League. Theirs was the one colony that insisted on staying independent (at no small cost in ships and lives). During her time with the company, Kira had only worked with a few people from Shin-Zar—all men—at different postings. To a person they’d been tough, reliable, and as expected, strong as hell. They’d also been able to drink a staggering amount, far more than their size would seem to indicate. That had been one of the first lessons Kira had learned working on mining rigs: don’t try to drink a Zarian under the table. It was a fast way to end up in sickbay with alcohol poisoning.
On an intellectual level, Kira understood why the colonists had gene-hacked themselves—they wouldn’t have survived in Shin-Zar’s high-g environment otherwise—but she’d never really gotten used to how different they looked. It hadn’t bothered Shyrene, her roommate during corporate training. She’d kept a picture of a pop star from Shin-Zar projected on the wall of their apartment.
Like most Zarians, the woman in the Wallfish galley was of Asian descent. Korean no doubt, as Koreans made up the majority of immigrants to Shin-Zar (that much Kira remembered from her class on the history of the seven colonies). She wore a rumpled jumpsuit, patched on the knees and elbows and stained with grease along the arms. The shape of her face made her age impossible for Kira to guess; she might have been in her early twenties or she might have been almost forty.
Trig was sitting on the edge of the kitchen counter, chewing on another of his seemingly endless supply of ration bars. And ladling out meatballs from a pot on the stove was Sparrow, still in the same outfit as before. The cat, Mr. Fuzzypants, rubbed against her ankles, meowing piteously.
A delicious, savory smell suffused the air.
“Well, you going to come in or not?” Falconi asked. His words broke the spell, and motion and conversation resumed.
Kira wondered if the rest of the crew knew about the Soft Blade. Her question was answered as she made her way to the back and Trig said, “So that skinsuit was actually made by aliens?”
Kira hesitated and then nodded, aware of the eyes focused on her. “Yeah.”
The kid’s face brightened. “Cool! Can I touch it?”
“Trig,” said Nielsen in a warning tone. “That’s enough of that.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the kid, and a bright red spot appeared on each of his cheeks. He gave Nielsen a shy, sideways glance and then stuffed the last of his ration bar into the side of his mouth and hopped down from the counter. “You lied to me, Ms. Navárez. You said your friend made the suit.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Kira, feeling awkward. Trig shrugged. “’S okay. I get it.”
Sparrow moved away from the stove. “All yours,” she said to Kira.
As Kira went to get a bowl and spoon, the cat hissed at her and ran to hide under one of the tables. Falconi pointed with his middle finger. “Seems he’s taken a real disliking to you.”
Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious. Scooping meatballs into her bowl, Kira said, “What did the UMC say when you told them we were changing course?”
Falconi shrugged. “Well, they weren’t happy about it, I can tell you that.”
“Neither are our passengers,” said Nielsen, more to him than to Kira. “I just spent half an hour getting yelled at by everyone in the hold. The mood down there is pretty ugly.” The look she gave Kira suggested she blamed her for the trouble.
It wasn’t an unwarranted reaction, in Kira’s opinion.
Falconi picked at his teeth with a nail. “Noted. Gregorovich, make sure you keep a closer eye on them from now on.”
“Yesssssir,” the ship mind answered, his voice unnervingly sibilant.
Kira took her bowl and sat on the nearest free chair, facing the Zarian. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name before,” Kira said.
The Zarian regarded her with a flat expression and then blinked once. “Were you the one who patched the holes at the back of the shuttle?” Her voice was calm and vast.
“I did my best.”
The woman grunted and looked back at her food.
Okay then, Kira thought. So the crew weren’t going to welcome her with open arms. That was fine. She’d been the outsider on most of her postings. Why would it be any different now? She just had to put up with them until Malpert Station. After that, she’d never have to deal with the Wallfish crew again.
Then Trig said, “Hwa is the best machine boss this side of Sol.” At least the kid seemed friendly.
The Zarian frowned. “Hwa-jung,” she said firmly. “My name is not
“Aww. You know I can’t pronounce it right.” “Try.”
The machine boss shook her head. Before she could speak again, Sparrow came over and dropped into Hwa-jung’s lap. She leaned back against the larger woman, and Hwa-jung wrapped an arm around her waist in a possessive manner.
Kira raised an eyebrow. “So you pick up heavy things and put them down, huh?” At the other table, she thought she heard a suppressed snort from Falconi.
Sparrow matched her expression, cocking one perfectly manicured eyebrow. “So your hearing works. Good for you.” And she craned her neck to give Hwa-jung a peck on the cheek. The machine boss made a sound, as if annoyed, but Kira saw her lips curve in a small smile.
Kira took the opportunity to start eating. The meatballs were warm and rich, with just the right mixture of thyme, rosemary, salt, and a few other things she couldn’t identify. Were those tomatoes fresh? She closed her eyes, luxuriating in the taste. It had been so long since she’d had anything but dehydrated, pre-packaged food.
“Mmm,” she said. “Who made this?”
Vishal lifted his head. “You like it that much?” She opened her eyes and nodded.
For a moment, the doctor seemed conflicted, and then a modest smile split his face. “I’m glad. Today was my day to cook.”
Kira smiled back and took another bite. It was the first time she’d felt like smiling since … before.
With a clatter of plates and silverware, Trig switched tables and sat next to her. “Captain said you found the xeno in some ruins on Adrasteia. Alien ruins!”
She swallowed the mouthful of food she was working on. “That’s right.”
Trig nearly bounced on the bench. “What was it like? Do you have any recordings?”
Kira shook her head. “They were on the Valkyrie. But I can tell you.” “Yes, please!”
Then Kira described how she had found the cradle of the Soft Blade and what it had been like inside. The kid wasn’t the only one listening; she could see the rest of the crew watching as she talked, even those who had heard the story earlier. She tried not to let it make her self-conscious.
When she finished, the kid said, “Wow. The Jellies built stuff really close to us, even way back when, huh?”
Kira hesitated. “Well, maybe.”
Sparrow lifted her head off Hwa-jung’s chest. “Why maybe?”
“Because … the xeno doesn’t seem to like the Jellies very much.” Kira traced a finger across the back of her left hand as she struggled to put dreams into words. “I’m not sure why exactly, but I don’t think the Jellies treated it very well. Also, none of the readings Vishal took of the xeno match what’s published about the Jellies’ biology.”
Vishal put down the cup he’d been about to drink from. “Ms. Navárez is right. I also checked, and nothing else like this is known. At least not according to our current files.”
Nielsen said, “Do you think your suit was made by the same species or civilization that made the Great Beacon?”
“Maybe,” said Kira.
A clink as Falconi tapped his fork against his plate. He shook his head. “That’s a lot of maybes.”
Kira made a noncommittal sound.
Then Trig said, “Hey, Doc, so how’d you manage to miss that she’s covered in an alien skinsuit, huh?”
“Yeah, Doc,” said Sparrow, twisting around to look at Vishal. “Awfully shortsighted of you. Not sure if I should trust you with an exam now.”
Even with the darkness of his skin, Kira could see Vishal flush. “There was no evidence of alien infestation. Even a blood test would not have—”
Trig interrupted: “Maybe some of the flatheads in the hold are actually Jellies in disguise. You’d never know, would you?”
The doctor pressed his lips together, but he didn’t lash out. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed on his food and said, “Indeed, Trig. What might I have been missing?”
“Yeah, there could—”
“We know you did your best, Doc,” said Falconi in a firm tone. “No need to feel bad about it. No one would have caught this thing.” Next to him, Kira noticed Nielsen give Vishal a sympathetic glance.
Feeling a bit sorry for the doctor, Kira took the initiative. “So you enjoy cooking?” She held up a spoon with a meatball on it.
After a moment, Vishal nodded, met her gaze. “Yes, yes, very much. But my food is not as good as my mother’s or my sisters’. They put my poor efforts to shame.”
“How many sisters do you have?” she asked, thinking of Isthah. He held up fingers. “Three sisters, Ms. Navárez, all older.”
After that, an unnatural silence settled over the galley. None of the crew seemed to want to talk while she was there; even Trig kept quiet, although Kira felt sure he was buzzing with a thousand more questions.
It surprised her, then, when Nielsen said, “I hear you come from Weyland, Ms. Navárez.” Her tone was more formal than that of the rest of the crew; Kira didn’t recognize her accent.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Do you have family there?”
“Some, although it’s been a while since I visited.” Kira decided to take a chance and ask a question of her own: “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Nielsen wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “Here and there.” “She’s from Venus!” Trig blurted out, eyes shining. “One of the biggest
Nielsen pressed her lips together in a flat line. “Yes, thank you, Trig.”
The kid seemed to realize he’d screwed up. His face dropped, and he fixed his gaze on his bowl. “I mean,” he muttered, “… I don’t really know or anything, so…”
Kira studied the first officer. Venus was nearly as rich as Earth. Not too many folks from there went wandering around outside Sol, and certainly not in a dinky rust bucket like the Wallfish. “Are the cities as impressive as they appear in vids?”
For a moment Nielsen looked as if she wouldn’t answer. Then, in a clipped tone, she said, “You get used to it.… But yes.”
Kira had always wanted to visit the floating cities. Just another life goal the Soft Blade had put out of reach. If only—
An excited squeal distracted her as Runcible trotted into the galley. The pig ran straight to Falconi and leaned against the side of his leg.
Nielsen made an exasperated sound. “Who left the latch on his cage loose again?”
“That would be me, boss lady,” said Sparrow, raising her hand.
“He just wants to be with us. Don’t you now?” said Falconi, and he scratched the pig behind the ears. The pig lifted his snout, eyes half-closed in an expression of bliss.
“What he wants is our food,” said Nielsen. “Captain, it really isn’t appropriate to have him here. A pig doesn’t belong in the galley.”
“Not unless it’s as bacon,” said Hwa-jung.
“There’ll be no talking of bacon around Runcible,” said Falconi. “He’s part of the crew, same as Mr. Fuzzypants, and they get the same rights as any of you. That includes access to the galley. Is that clear?”
Hwa-jung said, “Clear, Captain.”
“It’s still not hygienic,” said Nielsen. “What if he goes to the bathroom again?”
“He’s a well-trained pig now. He would never embarrass himself like before. Would you, Runcible?” The pig snorted happily.
“If you say so, Captain. It still feels wrong. What if we’re eating ham or pork—” Falconi gave her a look, and she raised her hands. “Just saying, Captain. Seems a bit like, like…”
“Cannibalism,” said Trig. “Yes, thank you. Cannibalism.”
The kid seemed pleased Nielsen agreed with him. A slight flush crept up his neck, and he stared at his plate while fighting back a grin. Kira hid a smile of her own.
Falconi took a bit of food off his plate and gave it to the pig, who gratefully snapped it up. “Last I checked, we have no, ah, porcine products on the ship, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a moot point.”
“Moot point.” Nielsen shook her head. “I give up. Arguing with you is like arguing with a wall.”
“A very handsome wall.”
As the two of them continued to bicker, Kira looked over at Vishal and said, “What’s with the pig? Is it new?”
The doctor shook his head. “We’ve had him on board six months, not counting cryo. The captain picked him up on Eidolon. They’ve been arguing about him ever since.”
“But why a pig?”
“You would have to ask the captain that yourself, Ms. We have no more an idea than you. It’s a mystery of the universe.”
The rest of the meal passed in an awkward semblance of normalcy. They didn’t say anything more serious than “Pass the salt.” or “Where’s the trash?” or “Get Runcible his dish.” Terse, utilitarian exchanges that served only to make Kira aware of how out of place she was.
Normally dinner was when she would pull out her concertina and play a few rounds to break the ice. Buy some drinks, smack down the clumsy attempts to hit on her—unless she was in a mood. The usual, before Alan. But here it didn’t matter; she’d be off the Wallfish by the end of next day, and then she wouldn’t have to worry about Falconi and the rest of his ragtag crew.
Kira had just emptied her bowl and was taking it back to the sink when a short, loud beep sounded. It froze them in place, and everyone’s eyes grew hazy as they focused on their overlays.
Kira glanced at her own but saw no alerts. “What is it?” she asked, noting the sudden tension in Falconi’s posture.
Sparrow was the one who answered: “Jellies. Four more of them, heading for Malpert Station.”
“ETA?” Kira asked, dreading the answer.
Falconi’s eyes cleared as he looked at her. “Noon tomorrow.”