Chapter no 14

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Four blinking red dots arrowed across the system toward Malpert Station. A set of dotted lines—bright green—showed their calculated trajectory.

Tapping her overlays, Kira zoomed in on the station. It was a disorganized pile of sensors, domes, docking bays, and radiators built around a hollowed-out asteroid. Embedded within the rock (barely visible from the outside) was a rotating hab-ring where most of the station citizens lived.

Next to Malpert, some kilometers away, was a Hydrotek refueling platform.

Ships swarmed around the two structures. A different icon marked each ship: civilians in blue, military vessels in gold. Without closing her overlays, Kira said, “Can they stop the Jellies?”

On the other side of the translucent overlays, Falconi frowned. “Not sure. The Darmstadt is their only real firepower. The rest of the ships are just locals. PDF cutters and the like.”


“Planetary Defense Force.”

Sparrow clicked her tongue. “Yeah, but those Jelly ships are the small ones. Naru-class.”

To Kira, Trig said: “The Naru-class ships only carry three squids, two or three crawlers, and about the same number of snappers. ’Course, some of ’em have heavy crabs as well.”

“Sure they do,” said Sparrow with a humorless smirk.

Vishal chimed in: “And that before they start turning out reinforcements from their birthing pods.”

“Birthing pods?” Kira asked, feeling totally out of the loop.

Hwa-jung answered: “They have machines that let them grow new fighters.”

“I … I didn’t see anything about that in the news,” said Kira.

Falconi grunted. “The League has been keeping it under wraps to avoid scaring people, but we caught wind of it a few weeks ago.”

The concept of a birthing pod seemed dimly familiar to Kira, as a half-forgotten memory. If only she could get her hands on a Jelly computer! The things she could learn!

Sparrow said, “The Jellies must be pretty confident if they think they can take out Malpert and the Darmstadt with just those four ships.”

“Don’t count out the miners,” said Trig. “They’ve got plenty of weapons, and they won’t run. Swear to god they won’t.”

Kira gave him a questioning look, and the kid shrugged. “I grew up on Undset Station, over at Cygni B. I know ’em. Those space rats are tough as titanium.”

“Yeah, well,” said Sparrow, “they ain’t going to be fighting no half-starved jackers this time.”

Nielsen stirred. “Captain,” she said, “we still have time to change course.”

Kira cleared her overlays in order to better see Falconi’s face. He appeared distracted as he studied screens she couldn’t see. “Not sure it would make any difference,” he murmured. He tapped a button on the kitchen wall, and a holo of 61 Cygni appeared suspended in the air. He pointed at the red dots that marked the Jellies. “Even if we turn tail and run, there’s no way we can escape them.”

“No, but if we put some distance between us and them, they might decide the chase isn’t worth the effort,” said Nielsen. “It’s always worked before.”

Falconi made a face. “We’ve already burned through a good chunk of hydrogen. Getting to Ruslan now would be dicey. We’d have to coast at least half the distance. Would be sitting ducks the whole time.” He scratched his chin, eyes still fixed on the holo.

Sparrow said, “What are you thinking, Captain?

“We let the Wallfish live up to its name,” he said. He highlighted an asteroid some distance from Malpert Station. “Here. There’s an extraction outfit on this asteroid—asteroid TSX-Two-Two-One-Two. Says there’s a hab-dome, refueling tanks, the whole lot. We can cozy up to the asteroid and wait until the fighting is over. If the Jellies decide to come after us,

we’d have tunnels to hide in. As long as they don’t drop a nuke on us or something like that, we’d at least have a chance.”

On her overlays, Kira looked up the definition of wallfish. Apparently it was A regional term for “snail” in the country of Britain on Earth; presumably of Anglo-Saxon origin. She eyed Falconi, again thrown askance by his sense of humor. He’d named his ship the Snail?

The crew continued debating possibilities, while Kira sat and thought.

Then she went to Falconi and bent close to his ear. “Can I talk with you for a moment?”

He barely glanced at her. “What?” “Outside.” She motioned toward the door.

Falconi hesitated, and then to Kira’s surprise, shoved himself out of his chair. “Be right back,” he said, and followed her out of the galley.

Kira turned on him. “You have to get me onto one of those Jelly ships.”

The look of incredulousness on the captain’s face was nearly worth everything she’d gone through. “Nope. Not going to happen,” he said, and started back in.

She caught his arm, stopping him. “Wait. Hear me out.”

“Get your hand off me before I remove it for you,” he said with an unfriendly expression.

Kira let go. “Look, I’m not asking you to charge in guns blazing. You said the UMC has a chance of fighting off the Jellies.” He nodded, reluctant. “If they disable one of the Jelly ships—if—you could get me on it.”

“You’re crazy,” Falconi said, still half in the doorway of the galley.

“I’m determined. There’s a difference. I told you; I need to get onto one of the Jellies’ ships. If I can, I might be able figure out why they’re attacking us, what they’re saying over their comms, all sorts of stuff. Just think of the possibilities.” She could still see reluctance on Falconi’s face, so she kept talking: “Look, you’ve been flying around the system right under the Jellies’ noses or whatever the hell they use to smell. That means you’re either stupid or you’re desperate, and you might be a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them.”

Falconi shifted. “What’s your point?”

“You need a payday. You need a big payday or else you wouldn’t be risking your ship or your crew like this. Am I wrong?”

A hint of unease flitted across his eyes. “Not entirely.”

She nodded. “Okay. So, how would you like to be the first person to get your hands on info from the Jellies? Do you know how much my company would pay for it? Enough to build your own hab-ring. That’s how much. There’s still tech on the Jellies’ ships that no one has been able to back-engineer. I could get specs on their artificial gravity. That would be worth a few bits.”

“Just a few,” he murmured.

“Hell, you have a couple of Entropists in the hold. Ask them to come along in exchange for a copy of any interesting discoveries. With them helping me”—she spread her hands—“who knows how much we could find? It’s not even just about the war; we could jump-start our tech level by a hundred years or more.”

Falconi faced her full on. His middle finger tapped the grip of his blaster in an irregular tempo. “I get it. But even if the UMC does disable a ship, that won’t mean all the Jellies on it will be killed.” He motioned downward. “I have everyone in the hold to think about. Lotta people could get hurt if we have fighting on the ship.”

Kira couldn’t help herself: “And how much were you thinking about their welfare when you started charging for rescue?”

For the first time, Falconi seemed offended. “Doesn’t mean I want to see them killed,” he said.

“What about the Wallfish? Does it have any weapons?”

“Enough to stop a rim runner or two, but this isn’t a warship. We can’t go up against one of the Jellies and hope to survive. They’d cut us to shreds.”

Kira stood back, put her hands on her hips. “So what are you going to do?”

Falconi studied her, and she saw the calculations going on behind his eyes. Then he said, “We’ll still head for that asteroid, because we might need it in the worst-case scenario. But if one of the Jellies’ ships gets disabled, and if it looks doable, we’ll board it.”

A sense of enormity filled Kira as she considered the possibility. “Okay then,” she said quietly.

Falconi chuckled and ran a hand through his bristle-like hair. “Shit. If we pull this off, the UMC is going to be so mad we got the jump on them, they

won’t know whether to give us a medal or throw us in the brig.”

And for the first time since she’d woken up on the Wallfish, Kira laughed as well.

The waiting was torturous.

Kira stayed in the galley with the crew, watching the progress of the Jellies. She quickly decided she would rather be shot at than sit around waiting to find out what might or might not happen. The uncertainty drove her to bite her nails, but the slightly metallic taste of the Soft Blade filled her mouth and her teeth bounced off the fibrous coating.

The last time it happened, she sat on her hands to stop herself. Which made her wonder; why hadn’t her nails grown in the past few months? The xeno hadn’t replaced them; she’d seen the nails on her left hand—pink and healthy as ever—when she’d caused the suit to retract. The only explanation she could think of was that the Soft Blade was maintaining the same nail length she had when it first emerged.

When she couldn’t bear sitting anymore, Kira made her excuses and went to Trig. “Do you have any spare clothes on the ship? Or a printer that could make me some?” She plucked at the jumpsuit. “After a couple of months in this thing, I could use a change.”

The kid blinked as he switched his focus from his overlays to her. “Sure,” he said. “We don’t have nothing fancy, but—”

“Plain and simple is fine.”

They left the galley, and he took her to a storage locker set within the inner ring of the corridor. As he rummaged inside, she said, “Seems like Nielsen and the captain bicker a lot. That normal for them?” If she was going to be stuck on the Wallfish for longer than planned, Kira wanted to get a better feel for the crew and for Falconi specifically. She was trusting a lot to him.

A small thud as Trig hit his head on a shelf. “Nah. The captain doesn’t like to be rushed; that’s all. Most times they get along fine.”

“Uh-huh.” The kid liked to talk. She just needed to provide the right encouragement. “So have you been with the Wallfish long?”

“’Bout five years, not counting cryo.”

That raised Kira’s eyebrows. The kid must have been really young when he joined the crew. “Yeah? Why did Falconi bring you on?”

“The captain needed someone to show him around Undset Station.

Afterward, I asked if I could go with the Wallfish.” “Station life wasn’t to your liking?”

“It sucked! We had pressure breaches, food shortages, power outages, you name it. Not. Nice.”

“And is Falconi a good captain? Do you like him?”

“He’s the best!” Trig pulled his head out of the locker, a pile of clothes in his hands, and looked at her with a somewhat hurt expression, as if he felt she were attacking him. “Couldn’t ask for a better captain. No, ma’am! It’s not his fault we got stranded here.” As soon as the words left the kid’s mouth, he seemed to realize he’d said too much, because he clamped his lips shut and held out the clothes for her.

“Oh?” Kira crossed her arms. “Whose fault is it, then?”

The kid shrugged, uncomfortable. “No one’s. It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter. We’ve got Jellies incoming, and my neck is on the line, same as yours. I’d like to know who I’m working with. The truth, Trig. Tell me the truth.”

The stern tone of her voice made the difference. The kid wilted before it and said, “It’s not … Look, Ms. Nielsen usually books our jobs. That’s why the captain hired her last year.”

“Real time?”

He nodded. “Minus cryo it’s been a lot less.”

“You like her as first officer?” The answer was obvious enough to Kira, but she was curious what he would say.

The kid shifted, color darkening his cheeks. “I mean, uh … She’s real sharp, and she doesn’t order me around like Hwa-jung. And she knows an awful lot about Sol. So, uh, yeah, I think she’s nice.…” His flush deepened. “Uh, not like that, but, uh, as a first officer and all. W-we’re lucky to have her on board.… You know, as crew, not, uh—”

Kira took mercy on him and said, “I get it. But Nielsen didn’t book this job, the one to Sixty-One Cygni, did she?”

Trig shook his head. “The skut-work we were doing—cargo, packet missions, that sort of thing—it wasn’t paying the bills. So the captain found

us this other job, but it went sour. It could have happened to anyone, though. Really.” He peered at her, earnest.

“I believe you,” Kira said. “Sorry things didn’t work out.” She knew enough to read between the lines: the job had been something dodgy. Nielsen had probably only been accepting legitimate commissions, which for an old, refit cargo ship like the Wallfish weren’t a whole lot.

Trig made a face. “Yeah, thanks. It sucks, but that’s what it is. Anyway, these alright for you?”

Kira decided it was best not to push any harder. She accepted the pile of clothes and flipped through them. Two shirts, a pair of pants, socks, and boots with gecko pads for use during zero-g maneuvers. “They’ll do just fine. Thanks.”

The kid left her then—heading back to the galley—and Kira continued to her cabin, thinking. So Falconi was willing to bend the law in order to keep his crew paid and his ship flying. Nothing new there. But she believed Trig when he said that Falconi was a good captain. The kid’s reaction had been too genuine to be faked.

A light was flashing on the desktop display when Kira entered. Another message. With a sense of trepidation, she pulled it up.

I am the spark in the center of the void. I am the widdershin scream that cleaves the night. I am your eschatological nightmare. I am the one and the word and the fullness of the light.

Would you like to play a game? Y/N – Gregorovich

As a rule, ship minds tended to be eccentric, and the larger they were, the more eccentricities they displayed. Gregorovich was on the outer tail of that bell curve, though. She couldn’t tell if it was just his personality or if his behavior was the result of too much isolation.

Surely Falconi isn’t crazy enough to fly around with an unstable ship mind.… Right?

Either way, best to play it safe:

No. – Kira

An instant later, a reply popped up:



– Gregorovich

Trying to ignore a sense of foreboding, Kira stowed her jumpsuit, washed her new clothes in the tiny sink, and hung them to dry along the top of her bunk.

She checked on the position of the four Jellies—still no change in their trajectory—and then spent the next hour practicing with the Soft Blade, retracting it from different parts of her body and trying to improve her control.

At last, exhausted, she slid under the blankets, turned off the lights, and did her best not to think about what morning would bring.

Drifts of silt sifted through the purple depths of the Plaintive Verge, soft as snow, silent as death. Nearscent of unease suffused the icy water, and the unease became her own. Before her loomed the crusted rock that sat proud among the Abyssal Conclave. And upon that rock squatted a massive bulk with heaving limbs and a thousand lidless eyes that glared with dire intent. As the veils of silt descended, so too a name descended through her mind, a whisper weighted with fear, fraught with hate … Ctein. The great and mighty Ctein. The huge and ancient Ctein.

And the flesh she was joined with—she that was the Shoal Leader Nmarhl—yearned to turn and flee, to hide from the wrath of Ctein. But it was too late for that. Far, far too late.…



The gradual brightening of the cabin’s lights woke Kira as ship-dawn arrived. She rubbed the crust from her eyes and then lay staring at the ceiling.

Ctein. Why did the name inspire such a sense of fear? The fear wasn’t coming from her either, but the Soft Blade.… No, that wasn’t right. It came from the one the Soft Blade had been bonded with in its memory.

The xeno was trying to warn her, but of what? Everything it had shown her had happened long ago, before the Soft Blade had been laid to rest on Adrasteia.

Maybe, she thought, the xeno was just anxious. Or maybe it was trying to help her understand how dangerous the Jellies were. Not something she really needed help with.

“It would be a lot easier if you could talk,” she murmured, tracing a finger across the fibers on her sternum. It was clear the xeno understood something of what was happening around it—but it was equally clear there were gaps in its comprehension.

She opened a file and recorded a detailed account of the dream. Whatever the Soft Blade was trying to tell her, Kira knew it would be a mistake to discount the xeno’s concern. If indeed concern it was. It was hard to be sure of anything when it came to the suit.

She rolled out of bed and sneezed as a thin cloud of dust flew up around her. Waving her hand to clear the air, she went to the desk and opened a live map of the system.

The four Jellies were only hours away from Malpert Station. The Darmstadt and the other spaceships had positioned themselves in a defensive formation several hours’ burn away from the station, where they would have room to fight and maneuver.

Malpert had a mass driver it used to fling loads of metal, rock, and ice deeper into the system, but it was a huge, cumbersome thing not meant for tracking small, mobile targets like ships. Nevertheless, whoever was in command of the station was currently turning it as fast as its thrusters would allow, in an attempt to bring the mass driver to bear on the Jellies.

Kira freshened up, donned her new clothes (now dry), and hurried to the galley. It was empty, save for Mr. Fuzzypants, who was sitting on the counter, licking the sink faucet.

“Hey!” said Kira. “Shoo!”

The cat flattened its ears and gave her an angry, unappreciative stare before hopping down and trotting past along the wall.

Kira held out a hand in an attempt at friendship. The cat responded with raised hackles and bared claws.

“Fine, you little bastard,” Kira muttered.

While she ate, she watched the advance of the Jellies on her overlays. It was a useless exercise, but she couldn’t help herself. It was the most interesting show airing right now.

The Wallfish was closing in on the asteroid Falconi had named before: TSX-2212. Via the feed from the ship’s nose, the rock appeared as a bright, pinhead speck directly in their path.

Kira looked up as Vishal entered the galley. He greeted her and then went to make himself a cup of tea.

“Are you watching?” he asked. “Yes.”

Mug in hand, he headed back toward the door. “Come with, if you want, Ms. Navárez. We’re monitoring events in Control.”

Kira followed him to the central shaft, up a level, and then into a small, shielded room. Falconi and the rest of the crew stood or sat around a table-sized holo-display. Banks of electronics covered the walls, and bolted at various stations were a half-dozen battered crash chairs. The room was stuffy and stank of sweat and cold coffee.

Falconi glanced at her as she and Vishal entered. “Anything new?” Kira asked.

Sparrow popped the gum she was chewing. “Lotta chatter on MilCom. Looks like the UMC is coordinating with the civvies around Malpert to set up a bunch of nasty surprises for the Jellies.” She nodded toward Trig. “You were right. Should make for a hell of a show.”

The back of Kira’s neck prickled. “Wait, you’ve got access to the UMC’s channels?”

Sparrow’s expression grew closed off, and she glanced at Falconi. A tense silence filled the space. Then, in an easy manner, the captain said, “You know how it is, Navárez. Ships talk, word gets around. There aren’t many secrets in space.”

“… Sure.” Kira didn’t believe him, but she wasn’t going to press the point. It did make her wonder just how shady some of Falconi’s past dealings had been. Also whether Sparrow had been in the military. It would make sense.…

Nielsen said, “The Jellies are nearly within firing range. It won’t be long before the shooting starts.”

“When do we reach the asteroid?” Kira asked.

Gregorovich was the one to answer: “ETA fourteen minutes.”

So Kira took one of the empty crash chairs and waited along with the crew.

In the holo, the four red dots separated and arced around Malpert Station in a classic flanking maneuver. Then white lines began to flicker between the aliens and the defending vessels. Falconi brought up the live feed from

the Wallfish’s telescopes, and white flowers of chaff and chalk bloomed in the darkness around the unlovely chunk of rock that was Malpert Station.

Sparrow made an approving noise. “Good coverage.”

Flashes of absorbed lasers illuminated the insides of the clouds, and barrages of missiles launched from both the Darmstadt and the other, smaller UMC ships. The Jellies replied in kind. Small sparks winked in and out of existence as point-defense lasers crippled the missiles.

Then the Malpert mass driver fired, slinging a slug of refined iron toward one of the Jelly ships. The slug missed and disappeared into the depths of space on a long orbit around the star. The projectile was moving so fast, the only way any of them could see it was as an icon in the holo-display.

More chaff and chalk clogged the area surrounding the station. Some of it came from the base itself. The rest from the ships swirling about.

“Whoa!” Falconi said as a white-hot needle erupted from a patch of seemingly empty space, snapped across almost nine thousand klicks, and lanced one of the spherical Jelly ships through the middle, like a blowtorch through styrofoam.

The damaged ship spun out of control, wobbling like a top, and then exploded in a blinding blast.

“Oh fuck yeah!” Sparrow shouted.

The live feed darkened for a moment to accommodate the surge in light. “What the hell was that?” Kira asked. A twinge at the back of her skull

made her wince … ships burning in space, motes glittering in the blackness, the dead uncounted …

Falconi glanced at the ceiling. “Gregorovich, pull in our radiators. Don’t want them getting shredded.”

“Captain,” said the ship mind, “the odds of a wayward particle disrupting our most necessary thermoregulation at this range is—”

“Just yank them. Not going to risk it.” “… Yessir. Currently yanking them.”

Another white-hot needle shot across the screen, but it only managed to singe a Jelly, which corkscrewed away far faster than seemed possible.

To Kira, Hwa-jung said, “Those are Casaba-Howitzers.”

“That … means nothing to me,” said Kira, not wanting to spare the time to look up a definition.

“Bomb-pumped shaped charges,” said the machine boss. “Only in this case—”

“—the bomb is a nuke!” said Trig. He seemed overly excited by the fact. Kira’s eyebrows climbed. “Shit. I didn’t even know that was a thing.” “Oh yeah,” said Sparrow. “We’ve had Casaba-Howitzers for ages. Don’t

use them much, for obvious reasons, but they’re fuck-simple to build, and the plasma moves at a good chunk of light speed. Makes it nearly impossible for anyone to dodge at close ranges, even those squirrely bastards.”

In the display, more explosions flared: human ships this time, the smaller support vessels around Malpert bursting like popcorn as the Jellies hit them with lasers and missiles.

“Dammit,” said Falconi.

Another Casaba-Howitzer darkened the display, taking out a second Jelly. Even as the crew of the Wallfish cheered, one of the two remaining Jellies blasted straight toward the Darmstadt while the other opened fire on the refueling platform next to Malpert Station.

The platform erupted in an enormous fireball of burning hydrogen.

Then the mass driver fired again: jets of plasma shooting out from vents along the acceleration tube. The slug missed the Jelly by the destroyed platform—the aliens weren’t stupid or careless enough to fly across the line of the muzzle—but the slug hit something else Kira hadn’t noticed: a satellite floating close to Malpert.

The satellite vanished in a blast of light, vaporized by the force of the impact. The spray of superheated materials shotgunned the nearby Jelly, peppering the ship with what amounted to thousands of micrometeoroids.

“Shi-bal,” Hwa-jung breathed.

Falconi shook his head. “Whoever pulled off that shot deserves a raise.”

The damaged Jelly jetted away from Malpert at speed, and then the ship’s engine sputtered and went dead, and the vessel started to spin as it drifted away, powerless. A large gash marred one side of the hull. From it spewed gas and crystalizing water.

Kira watched the ship with fierce interest. That one, she thought. As long as it didn’t explode, maybe they could board it. She offered quick thanks to Thule and glanced at Falconi.

He noticed, but he didn’t react, and Kira wondered what sort of thoughts were turning over behind his hard blue eyes.

The Wallfish swung into position behind the asteroid TSX-2212 and cut its thrust as the Darmstadt and the sole remaining Jelly continued to duel. The few remaining support vessels hurried to assist the UMC cruiser, but they were no match for the alien ship and only served as brief distractions.

“They’re going to overheat soon,” said Sparrow, pointing at the Darmstadt, which—like the Wallfish—had retracted its radiators. Even as she spoke, a plume of unburnt propellant sprayed from valves around the waist of the cruiser. “See,” she said. “They’re venting hydrogen so they can keep the lasers firing.”

The end, when it came, was fast. One of the smaller ships—a manned mining rig, Kira thought—did a burn straight toward the remaining Jelly in an attempt to ram it.

The rig didn’t get anywhere near the Jelly, of course. The aliens blasted it to bits before it got close. Those bits continued on their previous trajectory, though, and they forced the Jelly out of its protective cloud of chaff in order to avoid being hit.

The Darmstadt started to accelerate even before the Jelly did, executing an emergency burn out of its own envelope of defensive measures. It broke free just as the Jellies emerged into the clear and promptly nailed the alien ship with a center-mass shot from its main laser cannon.

A jet of ablated material ejected from the side of the gleaming Jelly ship, and then the vessel vanished in a fireball of annihilating antimatter.

Kira released her death grip on the crash chair’s arms. “So that’s it,” said Falconi.

Vishal made a motion in the air. “God be praised.”

“Only leaves nine more Jellies,” said Sparrow, gesturing at the rest of the system. “Hopefully they won’t come looking to settle the score.”

“If they do, we should be gone by then,” said Nielsen. “Gregorovich, lay in a course for Malpert Station.”

Kira looked at the captain again, and this time, he nodded. “Belay that,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “Gregorovich, put us on an intercept for that damaged Jelly. All possible speed.”

“Captain!” said Nielsen.

Falconi looked round at the stunned crew. “On your toes, people. Let’s go salvage an alien spaceship.”

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