Chapter no 16

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

With a start, Kira remembered to breathe. She inhaled twice, quickly, and tried to calm herself so she didn’t pass out. Almost there; just a few seconds more …

Her overlays flickered, and instead of the feed from outside, she saw a view of the airlock antechamber from a camera mounted above the entrance: Gregorovich letting her watch what was happening.

“Thanks,” she murmured. The ship mind didn’t reply.

Falconi, Hwa-jung, Nielsen, and Vishal were hunched behind the packing crates bolted to the deck. Sparrow and Trig stood in front of them in their power armor, facing the airlock, like a pair of hulking giants, arms raised, weapons aimed.

Through the windows of the inner and outer doors of the airlock, Kira saw the curved, iridescent surface of the Jelly ship. It appeared flawless. Impregnable.

*Repair bots deployed,* Hwa-jung announced in a preternaturally calm voice. She crossed herself.

Across the antechamber, Vishal bowed in what Kira suspected was the direction of Earth, and Nielsen touched something under her skinsuit. On the off chance it would do something, Kira offered up a quiet prayer to Thule.

*Well?* Falconi said. *Do we have to knock?*

As if in response, the dome rotated, an eyeball rolling in its socket to reveal … not an iris, but a circular tube, three meters long, that led straight through the sphere. At the other end was a second hide-like membrane.

It was fortunate, Kira thought, that Jelly microbes seemed to pose no risk of human infection. At least none that had been discovered. Still, she wished that she and the Wallfish crew could have observed proper

containment procedures. When it came to alien organisms, it was always better to err on the side of caution.

A soft pressure tube extended a few centimeters from the outside of the

Wallfish airlock and pressed in around the circumference of the tube.

*We have a positive seal,* Gregorovich announced.

As if in response, the inner membrane retracted. The angle of the camera didn’t give Kira a good view into the Jelly ship: she could see a slice of shadowy space lit by a dim blue glow that reminded her of the abyssal sea where the great and mighty Ctein had ruled.

*My God, it’s huge!* Vishal exclaimed, and she fought the urge to peek around the corner to see with her own eyes.

*Pop the airlock,* said Falconi.

The thud of locking lugs snapping back echoed down the corridor, and then both the inner and outer airlocks rolled open.

*Gregorovich,* said Falconi. *Hunters.* A pair of whirring, orb-shaped drones descended from the ceiling and darted into the alien ship, their unmistakable hum quickly fading to nothing.

*No movement showing from the outside,* Hwa-jung said. *All clear.*

Then Falconi said, *Okay. Hunters aren’t picking up anything either.

We’re a go.*

*Watch your six,* Sparrow barked, and heavy footsteps shook the deck as the two suits of power armor headed toward the airlock.

At that exact moment, Kira felt it: a nearscent of pain and fear intermingled in a toxic brew. “No! Wait!” she started to shout, but she was too slow.

*Contact!* Sparrow yelled.

She and Trig started shooting at something in the airlock: a barrage of gunfire and laser blasts. Even around the corner, Kira could feel the thump of the guns. The sounds were brutally intense: physical assaults in their own right.

A hemisphere of sparks formed in front of Sparrow and Trig as their lasers immolated incoming projectiles. Chalk and chaff exploded outward from their exos, the glittering clouds expanding outward in near-perfect spheres until they collided with the walls, the ceiling, and each other.

Then a spike of fire jumped from Falconi’s massive grenade launcher. An instant later, a harsh, blue-white flash illuminated the depths of the

airlock, and a dull boom rolled through the ship. The blast tore apart the cloud, allowing a clear view—between ragged strips of haze—in and around the airlock.

Something small and white whizzed out of the alien ship, moving faster than Kira could follow. Then the camera feed went dead, and a concussion slammed into her, knocking her head against the wall and making her teeth slam together hard enough to hurt. The pulse of over-pressurized air was so loud it went beyond hearing; she felt it in her bones and in her lungs, and as a painful spike in each ear.

With no urging on her part, the Soft Blade crawled across her face, covering her completely. Her vision flickered and then returned to normal.

Kira was shaking from adrenaline. Her hands and feet felt cold, and her heart was slamming against her ribs as if trying to escape. Despite that, she mustered her courage enough to poke her head around the corner. Even if it was a mistake, she had to know what was happening.

To her horror, she saw Falconi and the others drifting in the air, dead or stunned. Drops of blood wept from a cut in the shoulder of Nielsen’s skinsuit, and there was a piece of metal sticking out of Vishal’s thigh. Trig and Sparrow seemed to have fared better—she could see their heads turning in their helmets—but both their suits of power armor were locked up, inoperable.

Past them lay the airlock and—through it—the alien ship. She glimpsed a deep, dark chamber with strange machines looming in the background, and then a tentacled monstrosity moved into view, blocking the light.

The Jelly nearly filled the airlock. The creature appeared wounded; orange ichor oozed from a dozen or more gashes across its arms, and there was a crack in the carapace of its body.


Kira watched, frozen, as the Jelly crawled toward the Wallfish interior. If she fled, she’d only attract attention to herself. Her rifle was too small to have much chance of killing the Jelly, and the creature would surely shoot her in return if she opened fire.…

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry as dust.

A soft, dead-leaf shuffle sounded as the Jelly entered the antechamber. The sound caused Kira’s scalp to prickle with cold recognition; she

remembered it from times long past. Accompanying the sound was a shift in the nearscent from fear to anger, contempt, and impatience.

The Soft Blade’s natural instinct was to respond to the scent—Kira could feel the urge—but she resisted with all her strength.

None of the crew had started moving again, and now the Jelly was maneuvering among their floating bodies.

Kira thought of the children in the cargo hold, and her resolve stiffened. This was her fault; boarding the Jelly ship had been her idea. She couldn’t allow the alien to reach the hold. And she couldn’t stand by and watch while it killed Falconi and the rest of the crew. Even if it meant her own life, she had to do something.

Her deliberations took only an instant. Then she fixed the overlay targeting reticule on the Jelly and raised her gun with intent to fire.

The motion caught the Jelly’s attention. A cloud of white smoke erupted around it, and there was a swirl of tentacles and a spray of ichor as the creature spun around. Kira fired blindly into the center of the smoke, but if the bullets hit, she couldn’t see.

A tentacle lashed out and wrapped around the ankle of Trig’s power armor.

“No!” Kira shouted, but it was too late. The Jelly swarmed back into its ship, dragging Trig behind it, using him as a shield.

The curls of smoke dispersed into the antechamber vents.

“Gregoro—” Kira started to say, but the ship mind was already talking:

“It’s going to take me a few minutes to get Sparrow’s armor back online. Don’t have any more hunters, and point-defense lasers took out all the repair bots.”

The rest of the crew still drifted limp and helpless. There was no assistance to be had from them, and the refugees in the hold were too far away, too unprepared.

Kira’s mind raced as she considered options. Every second that passed, Trig’s chances of survival dropped.

In a soft voice, so soft it seemed out of place, Gregorovich said, “Please.”

And Kira knew what she had to do. It wasn’t about her anymore, and somehow that made it easier, despite the fear clogging her veins. But she needed more firepower. Her rifle wasn’t going to be very effective against the Jelly.

She willed the Soft Blade to unstick from the wall, kicked herself over to Falconi’s grenade launcher—Francesca—and hooked her arm through the sling.

The counter on the top of the launcher showed five shots remaining in the drum magazine.

It would have to do.

Gripping the gun tighter than was necessary, Kira turned to face the airlock. White streams of air escaped through a cluster of hairline cracks along the inside of the lock, but the hull didn’t seem to be in immediate danger of failing.

Before she could lose her nerve, Kira braced herself against a crate and jumped.

As she hurtled through the short tube, toward the alien ship, Kira scrutinized the rim of the Jelly airlock, ready to shoot at the slightest hint of movement.

Thule. What the hell was she doing? She was a xenobiologist. Not a soldier. Not a gene-hacked, muscle-bound killing machine like the UMC turned out.

And yet there she was.

For a moment Kira thought of her family, and anger hardened her determination. She couldn’t let the Jellies kill her. And she couldn’t let them hurt Trig.… She felt a similar anger from the Soft Blade: old hurts piled onto new offenses.

The dim blue light of the alien ship enveloped her as she exited the airlock.

Something large slammed into her from behind and sent her tumbling into a curved wall. Shit! Fear made a quick return as pain exploded along her left side.

Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a mass of knotting tentacles, and then the Jelly was upon her, smothering her with its banded arms, as hard and strong as woven cables. Nearscent clogged her nostrils, suffocating in its strength.

One of the slithering arms wrapped itself around Kira’s neck and yanked. The motion was so violent, it should have killed her. It should have torn her head right off her body. But the Soft Blade went rigid, and the strange recesses and odd angles of the room blurred around her as she twisted


Kira’s stomach lurched, and she vomited into the suit’s flexible mask. The vomit had nowhere to go. It filled her mouth—hot, bitter, burning—

and then poured back down her throat. She gagged and out of sheer, misplaced instinct, tried to take a breath and inhaled what felt like a liter of searing liquid.

Kira panicked then: blind, unreasoning panic. She thrashed and flailed and tore at the mask. In her frenzy, she only dimly noticed the fibers of the suit parting beneath her clawing.

Cold air struck her face, and she finally was able to spew the vomit from her mouth. She coughed with painful force while her stomach clenched in pulsing waves.

The air smelled of brine and bile, and if the Soft Blade hadn’t still covered her nose, Kira thought she might have passed out from the alien atmosphere.

She tried to regain control of herself, but her body refused to cooperate. Coughing bent her double, and all Kira saw was the mottled orange flesh wrapped around her and suckers the size of dinner plates.

The rubbery limb began to tighten. It was as thick as her legs and far stronger. She hardened the suit in defense (or perhaps it hardened itself), but regardless, she could feel the pressure building as the Jelly tried to crush her.

[[Cfar here: Die, two-form! Die.]]

Kira couldn’t stop coughing, and every time she exhaled, the tentacle tightened further, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. She twisted in a frantic attempt to free herself but to no avail. A terrible conviction filled her then. She was going to die. She knew it. The Jelly was going to kill her

and take the Soft Blade back to its own kind, and that would be the end of her. The realization was terrifying.

Crimson sparks filled her vision, and Kira felt herself teetering on the edge of unconsciousness. In her mind, she pleaded with the Soft Blade, hoping it could do something, anything to help. Come on! But her thoughts seemed to have no effect, and all the while, the sense of strain increased, rising until Kira felt her bones would snap and the alien would reduce her to a bloody pulp.

She groaned as the tentacle squeezed the last bit of air from her lungs. The fireworks in her eyes faded, and with them, any sense of urgency or desperation. Warmth suffused her, comforting warmth, and the things she’d been concerned with no longer seemed important. What had she been so worried about after all?

She floated before a fractal design, blue and dark and etched into the surface of a standing stone. The design was complicated beyond her ability to comprehend, and it shifted as she watched, the edges of the shapes shimmering as they changed, growing and evolving according to the precepts of some unknown logic. Her sight was more than human; she could see lines of force radiating from the infinitely long border—flashes of electromagnetic energy that betrayed vast discharges of energy.

And Kira knew this was the pattern the Soft Blade served. Served or was. And Kira realized there was a question inherent in the design, a choice related to the very nature of the xeno. Would she follow the pattern? Or would she ignore the design and carve new lines—lines of her own—into the guiding scheme?

To answer required information she didn’t have. It was a test she hadn’t studied for, and she didn’t understand the parameters of the inquiry.

But as she gazed upon the shifting shape, Kira remembered her pain and her anger and her fear. They burst forth, hers and the Soft Blade’s combined. Whatever the pattern meant, she was certain of the wrongness of the graspers and of her desire to live and of her need to rescue Trig.

To that end, Kira was willing to fight, and she was willing to kill and destroy in order to stop the graspers.

Then her vision sharpened and telescoped, and she felt as if she were falling into the fractal. It expanded before her in endless layers of detail, flowering into an entire universe of theme and variation.…

Pain roused Kira. Shocking, searing pain. The pressure around her torso vanished, and she filled her lungs with a desperate gasp before loosing a scream.

Her vision cleared, and she saw the tentacle still encircling her. Only now a belt of thorns—black and shiny and tangled in a familiar fractal shape—extended from her torso, piercing the twitching limb. She could feel the thorns, same as her arms or legs, new additions but familiar. And surrounding them a heated press of flesh and bone and spurting fluids. For a moment the memory of the suit impaling Alan and the others intruded, and Kira shuddered.

Without thinking, she shouted and chopped at the tentacle with her arm. As she did, she felt the suit reshape itself, and her arm sliced through the Jelly’s translucent flesh as if it were hardly there.

A spray of orange liquid splattered her. It smelled bitter and metallic.

Disgusted, Kira shook her head, trying to shake off the blobs of ichor.

Severing the tentacle freed her from the alien. The Jelly twitched in its death throes as it drifted toward the far side of the room, leaving its amputated limb behind. The tentacle twisted and coiled in the air like a headless snake. A core of bone showed in the center of the stump.

Unbidden, the thorns retracted into the Soft Blade.

Kira shivered. So the xeno had finally decided to fight alongside her. Good. Maybe she had a chance after all. At least there was no one around she had to worry about stabbing by accident. Not at the moment.

She scanned her surroundings.

The chamber had no identifiable up or down, same as the aliens themselves. What light there was emanated in an even field from the forward half of the space. Clumps of mysterious machines, black and glossy, protruded from the curving walls, and two-thirds of the way around the dusky expanse—half-lost in the gloom—was a large, barnacle-like shell that Kira assumed was an interior door of some kind.

At the sight of the room, Kira felt an overpowering sense of déjà vu. Her vision swam, and the walls of another, similar ship appeared ghost-like

before her. For a moment, it felt as if she were in two different places, in two different ages—

She shook her head, and the image disappeared. “Stop it!” she growled at the Soft Blade. She couldn’t afford distractions like that.

If not for the dire nature of the situation, Kira would have loved to examine the chamber in exhaustive detail. It was a xenobiologist’s dream: an actual alien ship filled with living aliens, macro and micro. A single square inch of the space would be enough to make an entire career. More than that, Kira just wanted to know. She always had.

But now wasn’t the time.

There was no sign of Trig in the room. That meant one or more Jelly was still alive.

Kira spotted Falconi’s grenade launcher floating by the wall some distance away. She pulled herself toward it, palms sticking to the inside of the hull.

She’d killed an alien! Her. Kira Navárez. The fact disturbed and astonished her as much as it gave her a certain grim satisfaction.

“Gregorovich,” she said. “Any idea where they took—”

The ship mind was already talking: *Keep going forward. I can’t give you an exact fix, but you’re heading in the right direction.*

“Roger that,” said Kira as she snared the launcher.

*Jorrus and Veera are helping me with Sparrow. I’m jamming all outgoing frequencies, so the Jellies might not be able to signal if they recognize you. They can still use a laser for line-of-sight comms, though. Be careful.*

While he spoke, Kira willed the suit to propel her toward the barnacle-like shell. As in vacuum, the Soft Blade was able to provide her with a modest amount of thrust—more than enough to traverse the distance within a few seconds.

The compulsion was headache-strong now, insistent and insidious. She scowled and tried to concentrate past the throbbing.

The shell parted in three wedge-shaped segments that retracted into the bulkhead to reveal a long, circular shaft. More of the doors dotted the shaft at irregular intervals, and at the far end, there twinkled a panel of lights: a computer console perhaps, or maybe just a piece of art. Who could tell?

Kira kept the grenade launcher at the ready as she maneuvered into the shaft. Trig could be in any of the rooms; she’d have to search them all. There were engines at the back of the ship, but Kira didn’t have a clue as to where anything else might be. Did the Jellies have a centralized command station? She couldn’t remember mention of one in the news reports.…

A flicker of motion appeared along the near wall. She twisted just in time to see a crab-like alien slip out of a parted door.

The Jelly fired a cluster of laser beams at her. They curved harmlessly around her torso. The laser blasts were too fast for normal human vision to detect. But with the mask over her face, the pulses were visible as nanosecond flashes: incandescent lines that blinked in and out of existence.

Without thinking, Kira fired the grenade launcher. Or rather, the Soft Blade fired it for her; she wasn’t even conscious of pulling the trigger, and then the buttstock kicked her shoulder and sent her spinning backwards.

The damn thing was big enough to be artillery.


The grenade detonated with a pulse of light so bright, Kira’s vision dimmed almost to black. She felt the force of the explosion in her organs: her liver hurt, and her kidneys too, and all through her body, tendons and ligaments and muscles that Kira had previously been unaware of made themselves known with a chorus of sharp complaints.

She scrabbled to grab something, anything, within reach. By sheer chance, she brushed against a ridge along the wall, and the xeno adhered to the smooth, stonelike surface, stopping her tumble. She gulped for air and hung there while she regained her bearings, pulse racing with frantic speed. Across from her floated the pulped and shredded remains of the Jelly. Orange mist coated the passageway.

What had the creature been trying to do? Sneak up on her? A sinking sensation wholly unrelated to weightlessness formed in Kira’s stomach as she thought of an explanation. The crab had been sent to slow her— knowing it would fail—while the rest of the Jellies prepared a nasty surprise for her somewhere else.

She swallowed hard, the sour taste of vomit still strong in her mouth. The best thing she could do was keep searching, hope the aliens weren’t able to predict her every move.

A glance at the grenade launcher. Four shots left. She’d have to make them count.

She pushed herself back around to look at the barnacle door where the Jelly had emerged. The wedges of broken shell hung loose. Past them was a globular room half-full of greenish water. Ribbons of what resembled algae floated within the tranquil reservoir, and tiny insect-like creatures skated upon the bowed surface, tracing lines and rings. The word sfennic rose unbidden within her mind, along with a sense of crunchy, quick upon the skin.… At the bottom of the pool was a pod or workstation of some sort.

The water ought to have been drifting around in blobs, free to wander the interior of the room so long as the ship was in free fall. Instead, it clung to one half of the room, as still and steady as any planet-bound pool.

Kira recognized the effect of the Jellies’ artificial gravity. It seemed to be a localized field, as she didn’t feel anything at the entrance to the room.

The artificial gravity didn’t interest her much. What she really wanted to study were the sfennic and the algae-like growths. Even a few cells would be enough to run a full genomic analysis.

But she had to keep moving.

Fast as she dared, she cleared the next several rooms. None of them held Trig, and none had any recognizable function. Maybe this one was a bathroom. Maybe that one was a shrine. Maybe something else entirely. The Soft Blade wasn’t telling, and without its help, any explanation seemed likely. That was the problem when dealing with alien cultures (human or otherwise), the lack of context.

One thing Kira knew for certain: the Jellies had changed the layout of their ships since the Soft Blade had been on them. The arrangement of rooms felt wholly unfamiliar.

She saw plenty of evidence of battle damage: holes from shrapnel, laser burns, melted composites—evidence of the ship’s clash with the UMC at Malpert Station. The light flickered, and warping, whale-song alarms sounded elsewhere in the ship. The scents of … warning, danger, and fear stained the air.

At the end of the shaft, the passageway forked. Kira’s gut told her to go left, so left she went, driven onward by desperation. Where is he? She was starting to worry it was already too late to save the kid.

She passed through three more of the ubiquitous shell doors, and then a fourth one opened to another spherical chamber.

The room felt enormous—the walls barely curved as they extended out from her—but it was hard to be sure of the true size of the space. A thick bank of smoke clogged the air, dimming the usual blue illumination to the point that it was difficult to see much past the ends of her arms.

Fear crept up Kira’s side. The room was the perfect place for an ambush. She needed to see. If only … She concentrated upon her need, concentrated with all her might, and she felt a tickle atop her eyeballs. Her vision twisted, like a sheet being wrung dry, and then it snapped flat and the haze seemed to retreat (though the far end of the room remained obscured)

as everything went monochrome.

The chamber must have been over thirty meters across, if not more. Unlike the other rooms, it had structures throughout: branches of pale scaffolding pocked with a bone-like matrix. A black walkway lined the inner circumference of the back half of the space. Mounted to the walls on either side of the walkway were rows upon rows of what appeared to be … pods. Huge and solid, they hummed with electrical power, and bright rings of magnetic force chained them to hidden circuits.

Dread mingled with curiosity as Kira looked at the nearest one.

The front of the pod was made of a translucent material, milky and pale, like the skin of an egg. Through it, she saw an indistinct shape, hazy, convoluted, and difficult to resolve into anything recognizable.

The object shifted, unmistakably alive.

Kira gasped and jerked back, raising the grenade launcher. The thing inside the pod was a Jelly, its tentacles wrapped around itself and bobbing softly in a viscous liquid.

She nearly shot the creature; only the fact that it didn’t react to her sudden movement—and her desire to avoid unwanted attention—stopped her. Were they birthing chambers? Cryo tubes? Sleeping containers? Some sort of crèche? She glanced around the room. Her lips moved under the mask as she counted: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven … Forty-nine in total. Fourteen of the pods were smaller than the rest, but even so, forty-nine more Jellies, if all the pods were full. More than enough to overwhelm her and everyone on the Wallfish.


She’d worry about the pods later.

Kira braced herself against the rim of the portal and then kicked off toward one of the spars of scaffolding. As she flew toward it, a silvery rod shot out of the haze deeper in the chamber.

She jerked up her arm and knocked it aside. The xeno hardened around her forearm enough to keep her wrist from breaking.

Her motion and the impact sent her spinning away. She tried to grab the spar, and for a moment her fingers swung through empty air—

She ought to have missed. She ought to have kept spinning. But instead, Kira reached and the Soft Blade reached with her, extruding tendrils in a natural extension of her fingers until they looped around the spar and brought her to a teeth-clattering stop.


Behind her, Kira saw a clawed something leap from spar to spar as it pursued her. In the shadows, the creature looked dark, almost black. Spikes and claws and odd little limbs protruded from it at unexpected angles. A Jelly of a sort she hadn’t seen before. The creature’s size was difficult to gauge, but it was bigger than her. In one of its claws, it carried another of the silvery rods: a meter long and mirror bright.

She fired Francesca at the alien, but it was moving too fast for her to hit, even with the suit’s help. The grenade exploded against the opposite side of the chamber, destroying one of the pods and providing a lightning-flash of illumination.

By it, Kira glimpsed two things: near the back of the room, a bulky, human-shaped figure tethered among the spars. Trig. And also the alien’s claw lashing out as it sent the second rod hurtling toward her.

She couldn’t dodge in time. The rod struck her in the ribs, and although the Soft Blade did its best to protect her, the impact still left her dazed and gasping in pain. Half her side went numb, and she lost her grip on the grenade launcher. It spun away.

Trig! Somehow she had to get to the kid.

The alien snapped its claws and sprang toward her. The creature wasn’t like the other Jellies; it didn’t have tentacles, and she saw what seemed to be a cluster of eyes and other sensory organs along one side of its rubbery, soft-skinned body: a rudimentary face that gave her a definite sense of which end was the front and which end the back.

Desperate, Kira tried to attack with the Soft Blade. Strike! Slash! Tear!

She wished the xeno would do all those things.

It did. But not as she expected.

Clusters of spikes erupted from her body and jabbed in random directions, wild and undisciplined. Each was like a punch to her body, pushing her in the opposite direction of the deadly shards. She tried to direct them with her mind, and while she could feel the xeno respond to her commands, the response was badly coordinated—a blind beast flailing in pursuit of its prey, overreacting to ill-mated stimuli.

The reaction was instantaneous. The clawed alien twisted in midair, throwing off its trajectory so it just missed being impaled. At the same time, a spurt of nearscent tainted the air with shock, fear, and something Kira felt was akin to reverence.

[[Kveti here: The Idealis! The Manyform lives! Stop it!]]

Kira retracted the spikes and was about to jump after the grenade launcher when a soft, slithery shape crawled around the spar she was clinging to: a tentacle, thick and probing. She slashed at it, but she was too slow. The trunk-like slab of muscle slapped her and sent her flying head over heels until her back slammed into another piece of scaffolding.

Even through the suit, the impact hurt. Despite the pain, she concentrated on holding her position, and the Soft Blade clung to the spar for her and stopped her from spiraling away.

The clawed monstrosity clung to a forked shaft some distance away, beyond the reach of the blade. There, it raised its bony arms and shook them at her, snapping its claws like a crazed castanet dancer.

Past it, she saw the owner of the tentacle—another of the squid-like Jellies—emerge from behind the spar she’d been knocked off of. The squid’s tentacles pulsed with luminous bands, startlingly bright in the gloom. In one tentacle, the alien held … not a laser. A long, flat-barreled weapon of some kind. A portable railgun?

Ten, twelve meters away, Kira spotted the grenade launcher. She jumped for it.

There was a bang like two boards clapping together, and a bolt of pain punched through her ribs.

Her heart faltered, and for a moment her vision went black.

Panicked, Kira lashed out with the Soft Blade, stabbing in every direction. But it didn’t help, and another bolt of pain struck her right leg. She felt herself start to spin.

Her vision cleared as she collided with the grenade launcher. She grabbed it, and as she did, she saw the clawed, crab-like alien jumping toward her.

Her suit continued to send forth spikes, but the alien evaded them with ease. The arms on its segmented body unfolded, reaching toward her head with jagged spurs, sharp and sawlike. Electricity sparked between the tips of them, bright as a welding arc.

In a detached, almost analytical manner, Kira realized the alien was trying to decapitate her, so as to break her bond with the Soft Blade.

She raised the rifle, but too slow. Far, far too slow.

Just before the creature collided with her, a jet of ablated flesh erupted from the alien’s side. Across the room, Trig’s power armor lowered its arm. Then the alien crashed into Kira’s face. Its legs wrapped around her skull, and everything went black as its soft belly covered her face. Pain bloomed in her left forearm as a crushing weight seemed to pinch it from either side. The pain was so intense, she saw it as much as she felt it—saw

it as a flood of lurid yellow light radiating from her arm.

Kira screamed into her mask and punched the alien with her other arm, punched and punched and punched. Muscle gave beneath her fist, and bones or something like bones cracked.

The pain seemed to last an eternity.

As suddenly as it had started, the pressure on her arm vanished, and the clawed alien went limp.

Shaking, Kira shoved the corpse away. In the shadowy light, the creature looked like a dead spider.

Her forearm hung from the elbow at an unnatural angle, half-severed by a jagged gash that passed through both the suit and the muscles below. But even as she looked, black threads wove back and forth across the wound, and she felt the Soft Blade beginning to draw the gash closed and repair her arm.

While she’d been occupied, the other Jelly had jetted back to Trig and wrapped itself around his armor. A tentacle pulled on each arm and leg,

twisting and straining as the creature struggled to tear the exoskeleton (and Trig himself) into pieces.

Another few seconds, and Kira felt sure it would.

There was a spar close to the Jelly. She aimed the grenade launcher at it, said a quick prayer to Thule for the kid’s safety, and fired.


The shockwave tore off three of the Jelly’s tentacles, smashed open its carapace, and sprayed ichor in a sickly fountain. The severed tentacles flew away, twisting and flopping.

Trig was knocked away as well. For a moment he didn’t move, and then his power armor jerked and reoriented itself, tiny attitude jets firing along its legs and arms.

Kira pushed herself toward the kid, hardly able to believe that he was still alive—that either of them had survived. Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him.… She pleaded with the Soft Blade in her mind, hoping it would listen.

As she drew near, Trig’s visor faded clear to reveal his face. The kid was pale and sweating, and the bluish light made him appear ghastly ill.

He stared at her, his pupils rimmed by white. “What the hell?!”

Kira looked down to see spikes still protruding from the Soft Blade. “I’ll explain later,” she said. “You okay?”

Trig nodded, shaking sweat off his nose. “Yeah. I had to reboot the exo. Took me this long to get it powered back up.… My, uh, wrist might be broken, but I can still—”

Falconi’s voice broke in: *Navárez, you read? Over.* In the background, Kira heard shouts and the pop! pop! pop! of gunfire.

“I’m here. Over,” she said.

*Did you find Trig? Where are—*

“He’s here. He’s fine.”

At the same time, Trig said, “I’m fine, Captain.”

*Then get your ass down to the starboard hold. There’s another Jelly here. Cut its way through the hull. We’ve got it pinned down, but we can’t get a good angle—*

Kira and Trig were already moving.

“Grab hold,” shouted Trig. Kira hooked an arm through a handle at the top of his exo, the kid fired his thrusters, and the two of them flew toward the door where they’d entered.

This time the shell didn’t open, and they nearly crashed into it before Trig was able to stop. He raised an arm and fired a laser into the surrounding wall. With three quick cuts, he parted whatever control mechanisms the door had, and the wedges of the shell separated and hung loose, pale fluid oozing from the seals around their base.

Kira shuddered as they flew through the opening and the tip of a wedge scraped across her back.

Outside the room, the compulsion was insistent and seductive, impossible to ignore. It drew Kira toward a curved section of the near bulkhead—toward and past. Were she to pursue the signal, Kira knew with certainty she would find its source, and perhaps then she might have respite and some answers to the nature and origin of the Soft Blade.…

“Thanks for coming after me,” Trig said. “Thought I was a goner.” She grunted. “Just go faster.”

None of the other doors would part to let them through. It took Trig only a few seconds to slice them open, but every delay worsened Kira’s sense of dread and urgency.

Past the panel with the blinking lights they flew. Down the circular shaft and over the room with the algae-laden water and the tiny insects with their feathery crests. And then toward the ship’s airlock chamber, where the corpse of the first Jelly floated, leaking ichor and other fluids.

Kira separated from Trig as they reached the airlock. “Don’t shoot!” the kid shouted. “It’s us.”

The warning was a good idea. Vishal, Nielsen, and the Entropists were waiting for them in the Wallfish antechamber, weapons trained on the open airlock. The doctor had a bandage wrapped around his leg, where the shrapnel had struck him.

Relief swept across Nielsen’s face as they flew into view. “Hurry,” she said, moving out of the way.

Kira followed Trig to the center of the ship, and then aft toward the lowest level and the cargo holds. The sounds of lasers and gunfire echoed as

they neared, and also the screams of terrified passengers.

At the starboard hold, they paused behind the pressure door—cautious— and then peeked around the frame.

All the refugees huddled at one end of the hold, gathered behind crates and using them as cover, meager though it was. At the opposite end of the hold lurked the tentacled Jelly; it was pressed flat behind a crate of its own. A ragged hole, half a meter across, marred the hull next to it. The wind screaming through the opening had pulled a loose wall panel against the breach, blocking part of it. A small bit of good fortune. Through the narrowed opening, the dark of space showed.

Falconi, Sparrow, and Hwa-jung were spread out across the middle of the hold, clinging to the support ribs and taking occasional shots at the Jelly. The refugees, Kira realized, couldn’t leave without being shot by the Jelly. And the Jelly couldn’t move without being shot by Falconi and his


Even with the door to the hold open, they only had a few minutes before the air ran out. No longer. Already she could feel the thinness of it, and there was a dangerous chill to the wind.

“Stay here,” Kira said to Trig. Before he could respond, she took a breath and, despite her fear, jumped toward Falconi.

She heard a half-dozen bzzts as the Jelly fired a laser. The alien couldn’t have missed, but she only felt one of the hits: a white-hot needle that stabbed deep into her shoulder. She barely had time to gasp before the pain began to subside.

A burst of gunfire erupted as Falconi and Sparrow attempted to give her cover.

As Kira landed next to Falconi, he grabbed her arm to keep her from drifting away. “Shit!” he growled. “The hell were you thinking?”

“Helping. Here.” And she shoved the grenade launcher toward him.

The captain’s face lit up. He snatched the weapon from her and, without a moment’s hesitation, swung it over the rib and fired at the Jelly.

BOOM! A white flash obscured the crate hiding the Jelly. Metal fragments splattered the surrounding walls, and smoke billowed outward.

Several of the refugees screamed.

Sparrow twisted back toward Falconi. “Watch it! Not so close to the civvies!”

Kira gestured at the crate. It hardly appeared dented. “What’s that thing made of? Titanium?”

“Pressure container,” said Falconi. “Biocontainment. Damn thing is built to survive reentry.”

Sparrow and Hwa-jung let off a burst of shots toward the Jelly. Kira stayed where she was. What else could she do? The Jelly was at least fifteen meters away. Too far for—

A fresh set of screams sounded from among the refugees. Kira looked back to see a tiny body squirming in the air, a child no more than six or seven years old. The girl had somehow lost her handhold and floated away from the deck.

A man scrambled free of the mass of refugees and threw himself after the child. “Stay down!” Falconi shouted, but too late. The man caught the girl, and the impact sent them into an uncontrolled tumble down the middle of the hold.

Surprise made Kira slow to react. Sparrow beat her to it; the armored woman abandoned the rib she was behind and flew at full thruster speed toward the two refugees.

Falconi cursed and lunged in a failed attempt to stop Sparrow from leaving cover.

A fan of inky smoke sprayed around the Jelly, hiding it. With her enhanced vision, Kira could still see a tangled outline of the Jelly’s tentacles as it crawled toward a service ladder attached to the wall.

She fired into the smoke, as did Hwa-jung.

The Jelly flinched even as it wrapped a tentacle around one of the ladder’s side struts and, seemingly without effort, tore it free.

Fast as a striking snake, it threw the strut at Sparrow.

The jagged piece of metal struck Sparrow in the abdomen, between two segments of her power armor. Half of the strut emerged from her back.

Hwa-jung screamed, a horrible, high-pitched sound that seemed impossible coming from someone her size.

A rush of blinding anger washed away Kira’s fear. Swinging herself around the edge of the rib, she launched herself after the Jelly.

Behind her, Falconi shouted something.

As she hurtled toward the Jelly, the alien spread its tentacles, as if to welcome her into its embrace. From it emanated nearscent of contempt, and for the first time, she responded in kind:

[[Kira here: Die, grasper!]]

An instant of astonishment that the Soft Blade let her not only comprehend but communicate in the alien language. Then she did what seemed only right: she stabbed with her arm, and she stabbed with her heart and her mind, and she channeled all of her fear, pain, and anger into the act. In that moment, Kira felt something break in her mind, like a glass rod snapping in two, followed by fractures and fragments fitting into place throughout her consciousness—puzzle pieces sliding into their appointed

slots, and accompanying the joining, a sense of profound completeness.

To her astonished relief, the xeno fused solid around her fingers and a thin, flat blade shot from her hand and pierced the alien’s carapace. The creature thrashed from side to side, its tentacles knotting and squirming in a helpless frenzy.

Then, of their own accord, a pincushion of black spines sprouted from the end of the blade and impaled every part of the Jelly.

Her momentum carried the alien back against the far wall. There they stuck, the nanoneedles from the suit pinning the Jelly to the hull.

The alien shuddered and ceased thrashing, although the tentacles continued to turn and twist in a lazy rhythm, pennants rippling in the breeze. And the nearscent of death filled the hold.

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