Chapter no 15

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira stayed silent while Falconi explained the plan. The captain was the one who needed to convince the crew; they trusted him, not her.

“Sir,” said Sparrow, more serious than Kira had seen her before, “there may still be Jellies on that ship. There’s no way to be sure they’re all dead.” “I know,” said Falconi. “But there should only be a few of the big squid-

creatures on there. Right, Trig?”

The kid bobbed his head, and his Adam’s apple went up and down. “Right, Captain.”

Falconi nodded, satisfied. “Right. No way all of them have survived. No way, no how. Even if there are two of them still kicking, those are pretty good odds.”

Around them, the ship rumbled and weight returned as the Wallfish

resumed thrust.

“Gregorovich!” said Nielsen.

“My apologies,” the ship mind said, sounding as if he were on the verge of laughing. “It seems a fine adventure the captain has put us on, yes it does.”

Then Sparrow said, “Good odds can turn bad real fast when the shooting starts, and we have a whole lot of passengers to worry about.”

Falconi eyed her, his expression hard as iron. “You don’t have to tell me.

… Think you can handle it?”

After a moment’s consideration, Sparrow cracked a lopsided grin. “What the hell. But you’re going to owe me double hazard pay for this.”

“Deal,” Falconi said without hesitation. He looked at Nielsen. “You still disapprove.” It wasn’t a question.

The first officer leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “That ship is damaged. It could explode at any moment. Plus the possibility Jellies could be waiting to kill us. Why risk it?”

“Because,” Falconi said, “we do this—this one trip—and we can wipe out our debt. And we can get all the antimatter we need to get out of this damn system.”

Nielsen appeared oddly calm. “And?”

“And it’s a chance to do something about the war.”

After a moment Nielsen nodded. “Okay. But if we’re going to do this, we do it smart.”

“That’s my department,” Sparrow said, hopping to her feet. She pointed at Kira. “Will the Jellies recognize that thing on you if they see it?”

“Maybe.… Yeah, probably,” said Kira.

“Okay. So we gotta keep you out of sight until we’re sure the ship is clear. Noted. Trig, you’re with me.” And the short woman hurried out of the command center with the kid in tow. Hwa-jung followed a moment later, heading down to engineering to personally oversee the Wallfish’s systems while on approach.

“ETA?” Falconi asked.

“Sixteen minutes,” Gregorovich answered.

“Where are we going?” Kira asked as she jogged after Falconi, Nielsen, and Vishal.

“You’ll see,” said the captain.

Halfway around the curve of the ship, Nielsen stopped at a narrow door set in the wall. She entered a code on the access panel, and after a moment, the door popped open.

Inside was a cramped supply closet no more than a meter and a half across. A rack on the left-hand wall held an assortment of rifles and blasters (several of which Kira recognized from the Valkyrie) and other weapons. The right-hand wall was lined with charging plugs for the blasters’ supercapacitors, as well as belts, holsters, and boxes of ammo and magazines for the firearms. At the back of the closet was a stool and small bench overhung by a shelf piled high with tools for maintaining the weapons (all of which were held in place by a clear plastic lid). A flickering holo was mounted above the shelf; it showed a unicorn cat resting in the

arms of a bony, pink-haired man with the letters Bowie Lives printed in fancy script at the bottom.

The sight of the arsenal took Kira aback. “That’s an awful lot of guns.” Falconi grunted. “Better to have them when you need them. Like today.

Never know what you’ll run into in the outer reaches.”

“Rim runners,” said Nielsen, pulling down a short rifle with a mean-looking muzzle.

“Wireheads,” said Vishal, opening a container of bullets.

“Large toothy animals,” said Falconi, shoving a rifle into Kira’s arms.

She balked, remembering what she’d heard on the news. “Aren’t blasters more effective against the Jellies?”

Falconi fiddled with the display on the side of her gun. “Sure. They’re also more effective at punching holes in the hull. Don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get spaced. Outside the ship, we use blasters. Inside, we use firearms. Bullets still do a hell of a lot of damage, and there’s no chance of them getting through our Whipple shield.”

Kira reluctantly accepted his reasoning. Every spaceship had a Whipple shield built within the outer hull: staggered layers of differing material that served to break up incoming projectiles (natural or artificial). Micrometeoroids were a constant threat in space, and as a rule, bullets moved far slower and contained far less energy per gram.

“Also,” said Vishal, “lasers bounce, and we have our passengers to think of. If even a small part of the energy from a laser deflects into person’s eye

—” He shook his head. “Very bad, Ms. Kira. Very bad.”

Falconi straightened. “That, and bullets don’t get fuzzed out by countermeasures. It’s always a trade-off.” He tapped Kira’s rifle. “I linked this to your overlays. Everyone on the Wallfish is marked as friendly, so you don’t need to worry about shooting us.” He flashed her a grin. “Not that you should need to do any shooting. This is just a precaution.”

Kira nodded, nervous. She could feel the Soft Blade molding itself to the grip of the gun, and a terrible sense of familiarity came over her.

A targeting reticule popped up in the center of her vision, red and round, and she experimented with it by focusing on different objects within the armory.

Nielsen handed her a pair of extra magazines. Kira stuffed them into the side pocket of her pants.

“Do you know how to reload?” Nielsen asked.

Kira nodded. She had gone shooting with her father on Weyland more than once. “Think so.”

“Show me.”

So Kira removed and replaced the magazine several times. “You’ve got it,” Nielsen said, appearing satisfied.

“Here we go,” said Falconi, unshelving the largest gun of them all. Kira wasn’t even sure what it was: not a blaster, that much was for sure, but the barrel was nearly as wide as her fist. Far too large for a rifle.

“What the hell is that?” she said.

Falconi burst out with an evil laugh. “It’s a grenade launcher. What else? Bought her at a militia surplus sale a few years ago. Her name is Francesca.”

“You named your gun,” said Kira.

“Of course. It’s common courtesy if you’re going to be trusting your life to something. Ships get names. Swords used to get names. Now guns get names.” Falconi laughed again, and Kira wondered if Gregorovich was really the only crazy one on the ship.

“So blasters are too dangerous, but a grenade launcher isn’t?” she said.

Falconi gave her a wink. “Not if you know what you’re doing.” He patted the drum magazine. “These babies are concussive grenades. No shrapnel. They’ll blow you to pieces, but only if they go off right next to you.”

A voice sounded over the intercom: Hwa-jung. “Captain, do you read?” “Yeah. Go ahead, over.”

“I have an idea for how to distract any Jellies. If we send out the repair drones and use them to—”

“Do it,” he said. “Are you sure? If—”

“Yes. Just do it; I trust you.” “Roger that, Captain.”

The line clicked off. Then Falconi clapped Vishal on the shoulder. “Got everything you need, Doc?”

Vishal nodded. “I swore to do no harm, but these aliens lack all sense of mercy. Sometimes the best way to avoid harm is minimizing it. If that means shooting a Jelly, then so be it.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Falconi, and led the way back into the corridor. “What am I going to be doing?” Kira asked as she followed him down

the ladder in the central shaft.

“You’re going to stay out of sight until it’s safe,” Falconi called back at her. “Besides, this isn’t really your area of expertise.”

Kira wasn’t about to disagree. “But it’s yours?”

“We’ve had our share of scrapes.” Falconi jumped off the ladder at D-deck, the lowest deck above the cargo holds. “You go ahead and—”

“Sir,” said Gregorovich. “The Darmstadt is hailing us. They want to know, I quote, ‘What in bloody hell are you doing chasing that Jelly ship?’ End quote. They seem quite irritated.

“Dammit,” said Falconi. “Okay, stall for a minute.” He pointed at Kira. “Go get those two Entropists. If we’re going to use them, we might not have a lot of time.” He didn’t wait for an answer but hurried off with Nielsen and Vishal in tow.

Kira slid down the rest of the ladder and jogged through the corridor to the starboard hold. She spun the wheel, pulled open the door, and was surprised to find the Entropists waiting for her on the other side.

They bowed, and Veera said, “The ship mind, Gregorovich—” “—told us to meet you,” said Jorrus.

“Good. Follow me,” said Kira.

Just as they arrived at D-deck, the zero-g alert sounded. The three of them grabbed handholds just in time to keep themselves from floating away.

The Wallfish turned end for end, pressing them against the outer wall, and then thrust resumed and Gregorovich said, “Contact in eight minutes.”

Kira could feel the alien vessel drawing closer, the swift reduction in distance multiplying the force of the compulsion it was broadcasting. The summons was a dull throb at the back of her head, a constant tug on her internal compass that, while easy to ignore, refused to abate.

Jorrus said, “Prisoner Kaminski—” “Navárez. My name is Kira Navárez.”

The Entropists exchanged a look. Veera said, “We are most confused, Prisoner Navárez, as is—”

“—everyone in the hold. What is—”

“—our course, and why have you summoned us?”

“Listen,” said Kira, and she gave them a brief summary of the situation. It felt as if she were telling everyone about the Soft Blade now. The Entropists’ eyes widened in simultaneous astonishment as they listened, but they didn’t interrupt. She finished by saying, “Are you willing to help?”

“We would be honored,” said Jorrus. “The pursuit of knowledge—” “—is a most worthy endeavor.”

“Uh-huh,” said Kira. Then, just for the hell of it, she sent them the results of Vishal’s exam. “Here, look at these while you wait. Once we’re sure the Jelly ship is safe, we’ll call for you.”

Veera said, “If it is a question of conflict—” “—we would—”

But Kira was already moving, and she didn’t hear the rest. She ran back through the dingy hallways until she found the crew gathered in front of the port airlock.

Dominating the center of the antechamber were Trig and Sparrow, like a pair of battered metal pillars, each over two meters high. Power armor. Military grade, so far as Kira could tell. Civilian shells didn’t usually have missile packs mounted on the shoulders.… Where had the crew gotten that sort of hardware? Hwa-jung moved between the two, adjusting the fit of their armor and issuing a steady stream of advice to Trig:

“—and don’t get excited and move too fast. There isn’t room. You’ll just hurt yourself. Let the computer do most of the work. It will make it easy for you.”

The kid nodded. His face was pasty and beaded with sweat.

The sight of Trig bothered Kira. Was Falconi really going to put him front and center, where he might get hurt? Sparrow she could understand, but Trig …

Nielsen, Falconi, and Vishal were busy bolting a line of packing crates to the deck, just behind Trig and Sparrow. The crates were large enough to hide behind: cover for combat.

All the crew not in exos—Hwa-jung included—had donned skinsuits.

The machine boss went to Sparrow and tugged on her thruster pack hard enough to shift the smaller woman’s armor, moving several hundred kilos of mass with casual effort. “Hold still,” Hwa-jung growled, tugging again.

“Hold still, yourself,” muttered Sparrow, fighting to keep her balance.

Hwa-jung slapped Sparrow’s shoulder guard with the flat of her hand. “Aish! Punk. Be more respectful of your elder! Do you want to lose power in the middle of a fight? Really.”

Sparrow smiled down at the machine boss; she seemed to appreciate the fussing.

“Hey,” said Kira, startling them. She pointed at Trig. “What’s he doing in that thing? He’s just a teenager.”

“Not for long! I’ll be twenty year after next,” said Trig, his voice muffled as he pulled on his helmet.

Falconi turned to face her. His skinsuit was matte black (the visor was up), and in his arms he cradled Francesca. “Trig knows how to run an exo better than any of us. And he’s sure as hell safer in that armor than out of it.”

“Fine, but—”

The captain frowned. “We’ve got work to do, Navárez.”

“What about the UMC? Are they going to be a problem? What’d you tell them?”

“I told them we’re going after salvage. They’re not happy, but there’s nothing illegal about it. Now scram. We’ll call you when it’s safe.”

As she started to leave, Hwa-jung tromped over and handed her a pair of earbuds. “So we can stay in touch with you,” the machine boss said, and tapped the side of her temple.

Grateful, Kira left, but she only went so far as the first turn in the corridor. There, she sat, put in the earbuds, and pulled up her overlays.

“Gregorovich,” she said, “can I see the feed from outside?”

A moment later, a window popped up in her vision, and she saw an image of the alien ship just astern. The long, narrow gash along one side had exposed a cross-section of several decks: dark, half-lit rooms filled with indistinct shapes. Even as she tried to make sense of them, puffs of vapor appeared around the waist of the spherical vessel, and it turned so the damage was no longer visible.

Through her earbuds, Kira heard Nielsen say, *Captain, the Jellies are firing their thrusters.*

A moment, and then Falconi said, *Automatic spin-stabilization? Repair systems kicking in?*

Hwa-jung answered: *Unknown.*

*Thermal scan. Any living creatures show up?*

*Indeterminate,* said Gregorovich. On Kira’s overlay, the view of the Jelly ship swapped to an impressionistic blotch of infrared. *Too many heat signatures to identify.*

Falconi swore. *Okay. We play this real safe, then. Trig, you follow Sparrow’s lead. Like Hwa-jung said, let the computer do the hard work. Wait for the repair drones to give the all-clear before you move into a room.*


*We’ll be right behind you, so don’t worry.*

As the gleaming mass of the Jelly ship swelled in size on her overlays, the ache of the summons acting upon the Soft Blade increased in direct proportion. Kira rubbed her sternum with the heel of her hand; it almost felt like she had heartburn—an uncomfortable pressure that made it difficult for her to stay still. But it wasn’t a discomfort she could dispel with a burp or a pill or a drink of water. Deep in the recesses of her mind, she could feel a certainty from the xeno that the only cure would be for the two of them to present themselves before the source of the summons, as duty demanded.

Kira shivered, a surge of nervous energy coursing through her. Not knowing what was going to happen was terrifying. She felt weird—sick almost, as if something horrible was about to take place. Something irrevocable.

The suit reacted to her distress; Kira could feel it contracting around her, thickening and hardening with practiced efficiency. It was ready. Of that she was sure. She remembered her dreams of battle; the Soft Blade had faced mortal danger many, many times over the course of the eons, but while it had always endured, she wasn’t so sure about those it had been joined with.

All the Jellies would have to do would be shoot her in the head, and suit or not, the shock of the impact would kill her. No amount of tissue restructuring on the part of the Soft Blade would save her. And that would be that. No reloading from a checkpoint or save file. Nope. One life, one attempt to get things right, and perma-death if she failed. Of course, the same was true for everyone else. No one got to run the level beforehand, as it were.

And yet, even though she was in danger because of the Soft Blade, Kira found herself perversely grateful for its presence. Without the xeno, she’d

be all the more vulnerable, a shell-less turtle waving its legs in the air, exposed before its enemies.

She clutched her rifle tighter.

Outside, the wheeling stars vanished behind the huge white hull of the Jelly ship, which gleamed and shone like the shell of an abalone.

Kira struggled to suppress another pulse of fear. Beneath her clothes, the Soft Blade spiked out in response, small, razor-tipped studs roiling across her coated flesh. She hadn’t realized just how big the ship was. But it only held three of the tentacled aliens. Only three, and most or all of them should be dead. Should …

With the ship so close, the compulsion was stronger than ever; she found herself leaning forward, pressing against the wall of the corridor as if to crawl through it.

She forced herself to relax. No. She wasn’t about to give in to the desire. That was the dumbest thing she could do. No matter how tempting it was, she had to keep the compulsion from controlling her actions. And it was tempting, dreadfully so. If she just obeyed as was expected and answered the summons, the ache would vanish, and from ancient memories, she knew the reward of satisfaction that would follow.…

Again Kira struggled to ignore the intrusive sensation. The Soft Blade might feel the imperative to obey, but she didn’t. Her instinct for self-preservation was too strong to just do whatever some alien signal was telling her to.

Or so she wanted to believe.

While she fought her inner fight, the Wallfish cut its engines. Kira flailed for a moment, and then the Soft Blade adhered to the floor and wall wherever she touched, anchoring her in place much as it had done with the radiators of the Extenuating Circumstances after she’d been blown into space.

The Wallfish maneuvered with RCS thrusters around the swollen bulk of the Jelly ship until it arrived at a three-meter-wide dome that projected from the hull. Kira recognized it from videos as the airlock used by the aliens.

*Everyone ready!* Falconi barked, and from around the corner, she heard the bolts of weapons being racked and the hum of capacitors charging. *Visors down.*

Then, for a seemingly endless moment, nothing happened, and all Kira felt was tension and anticipation and the rising hammer of her pulse.

On the cameras, the dome began to move closer. When the Wallfish was only a few meters away, a thick, hide-like membrane retracted from the dome, exposing the polished, mother-of-pearl-esque surface underneath.

*Looks like they’re expecting us,* said Sparrow. *Great.*

*At least we won’t have to cut our way in,* said Nielsen.

Hwa-jung grunted. *Maybe. Maybe not. It could be automated.*

*Focus!* said Falconi.

Gregorovich said, *Contact in three … two … one.*

The deck lurched as the Wallfish and the alien ship touched. Silence followed then, shocking in its completeness.

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