Kira waited a moment more before allowing the blade and spines to retract. The Jelly deflated like a balloon, ichor oozing from the countless wounds across its body.
The cloud of smoke was already dispersing, streaming into space. Kira kicked herself away from the Jelly, and the raging wind pushed the corpse into the breach. The alien lodged there on top of the loose wall panel, blocking most of the hole. The scream of wind lessened to a high whistle.
Kira turned to see the refugees staring at her with shock and fear. With some regret, she realized there was no hiding the Soft Blade now. The secret was out, for good or for ill.
Ignoring the refugees, she pulled herself over to where Trig, Falconi, and Hwa-jung were gathered around Sparrow’s limp form.
The machine boss had her forehead pressed against Sparrow’s faceplate, and she was speaking in a low tone, the words an indistinct murmur. Smoke drifted from the back of Sparrow’s armor, and an exposed wire was sparking. A ring of white medifoam had welled out around the strut that impaled her. The foam would have stopped the bleeding, but Kira wasn’t sure if that would be enough to save her.
“Doc, get down here. On the double!” said Falconi.
Kira swallowed, her mouth dry. “What can I do?” Up close, Hwa-jung’s murmurs were no more distinct than before. Globules of tears clung to the machine boss’s red-rimmed eyes, and her cheeks were pale, save for a bright, feverish spot on each side.
“Hold her feet,” said Falconi. “Keep her from moving.” He looked over at the refugees—who were starting to emerge from cover—and shouted, “Get out of here before we run out of air! Get into the other hold. Scram!”
They complied, giving a wide berth to not only Sparrow but Kira.
“Gregorovich, how long until air pressure drops below fifty percent?” Kira asked.
The ship mind answered with sharp efficiency, “At current rates, twelve minutes. If the Jelly is dislodged, no more than forty seconds.”
The sides of Sparrow’s boots were cool against her hands as Kira gripped them. For a moment she wondered how it was possible to feel that when even the cold of space hadn’t fazed her.
Then she realized her mind was wandering. Now that the fighting was over, the adrenaline was starting to drain out of her system. Another few minutes and she was going to crash.
Vishal came flying through the door to the cargo hold, carrying with him a satchel with a silver cross sewn on the front.
“Move,” he said as he collided with the crate next to Kira.
She obliged, and he rotated himself over Sparrow and stared through her faceplate, same as Hwa-jung. Then he pushed himself down to where the strut jutted out of her abdomen. The wrinkles on his face deepened.
“Can you—” Trig started to say. “Quiet,” Vishal snapped.
He studied the rod for another few seconds and then moved around to Sparrow’s back and examined the other end. “You,” he pointed at Trig, “cut here and here.” With his middle finger, he drew a line across the rod, a hand’s breadth above Sparrow’s stomach, and the same above her back. “Use a beam, not a pulse.”
Trig positioned himself next to Sparrow so the laser wouldn’t hit anyone else. Through his visor, Kira could see his face was coated with sweat and his eyes were glassy. He lifted one arm and aimed the emitter on his gauntlet at the rod. “Eyes and ears,” he said.
The strut flared white hot, and the composite tubing vaporized with a popping sound. An acrid, plastic smell filled the air.
The strut parted, and Falconi grabbed the loose section and gave it a gentle push toward the far end of the hold.
Then Trig repeated the operation on the other side of the strut. Hwa-jung snared that piece and threw it away with a vicious gesture; it bounced against a wall.
“Good,” said Vishal. “I locked her armor; she is safe to move. Just do not bang her into anything.”
“Sickbay?” Falconi asked. “Posthaste.”
“I’ll do it,” said Hwa-jung. Her voice was as hard and rough as broken stone. Without waiting for them to agree, she grabbed a handle on Sparrow’s armor and pulled the rigid shell of metal toward the open pressure door.
Trig and Vishal accompanied Hwa-jung as she guided Sparrow out of the hold. Falconi stayed behind, and Kira with him.
“Hurry up,” he shouted, gesturing at the remaining refugees.
They pulled themselves past in a confused bunch. Kira was relieved to see that the girl and man Sparrow had been attempting to protect were unharmed.
When the last refugees had left, she followed Falconi into the corridor outside. He closed and locked the pressure door behind them, isolating the damaged hold.
Kira allowed the mask to retract from her face, glad to be rid of it. Color diffused through her vision, returning a sense of reality to her surroundings. A hand on her wrist surprised her. Falconi held her, his gaze disconcertingly intense. “What the hell were those spikes back there? You
didn’t say anything about them before.”
Kira yanked her hand free. Now wasn’t the time to explain, not about the suit and certainly not about how her teammates had died. “I didn’t want to scare you,” she said.
His face darkened. “Anything else you didn’t—”
Just then, four refugees—all men—walked over, using the gecko pads on their boots. None of them looked happy. “Hey, Falconi,” said the leader. He was a tough, thickset man with a short circle beard. Kira vaguely remembered seeing him in the cargo hold before.
“What?” said Falconi, brusque.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but we didn’t agree to go chasing after Jellies. You’re already screwing us over with how much you’re charging us; now you’re dragging us into battle? And I don’t know what she’s got going on, but normal it’s not.” He pointed at Kira.
“Seriously, what’s wrong with you? There are women and children here. If you don’t get us to Ruslan—”
“You’ll do what?” Falconi said sharply. He eyed them, his hands still on the grip of his grenade launcher. The weapon was empty, but Kira didn’t feel the need to mention that. “Try to fly out of here with a pissed-off ship mind?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Gregorovich from above, and he tittered.
The man shrugged and cracked his knuckles. “Yeah, yeah. You know what, wiseguy? I’d rather take a chance with your crazy-ass ship mind than chance getting shish-kebabbed by the Jellies, like your crewmember did. And I’m not the only one that feels so.” He wagged a finger at Falconi and then he and the other men returned to the other cargo hold.
“Well that went well,” said Kira.
Falconi grunted, and she followed him as he hurried back to the center of the ship and kicked his way up the main shaft. He said, “Are there any other Jellies on their ship?”
“I don’t think so, but I’m pretty sure Trig and I found their birthing chamber.”
The captain snared the handhold next to the doorway to deck C, where the sickbay was. He paused and held up a finger. “Trig, you copy?… Navárez says you found birthing pods?… You got it. Burn them out. And fast, too, or we’re going to be in a shit-ton of trouble.”
“You’re sending him back out there?” Kira said as Falconi headed through the doorway and down the adjacent corridor.
The captain nodded. “Someone’s got to do it, and he’s the only one with functioning armor.”
The thought bothered Kira. The kid had a broken wrist; if he were attacked again …
Before she could voice her concern, they arrived at sickbay. Nielsen floated outside, an arm around Hwa-jung’s shoulders, comforting the machine boss.
“Any news?” Falconi asked.
Nielsen looked at him with a worried expression. “Vishal just kicked us out. He’s working on her now.”
“Will she live?”
Hwa-jung nodded. Her eyes were red from crying. “Yes. My little Sparrow will live.”
Some of the tension in Falconi’s posture eased. He ran a hand over his head, tousling his hair. “Damn foolish of her to jump out the way she did.”
“But brave,” said Nielsen firmly.
Falconi tipped his head. “Yes. Very brave.” Then to Hwa-jung: “The pressure breach in the hold needs fixing, and we’re out of repair bots.”
Hwa-jung nodded slowly. “I’ll fix it once Vishal is finished operating.” “That could take a while,” said Falconi. “Better to get started on it now.
We’ll let you know if there’s any news.”
“No,” said Hwa-jung in her deep rumble. “I want to be here when Sparrow wakes.”
Falconi’s jaw muscles bunched. “There’s a goddam hole in the side of the ship, Hwa-jung. It needs to get patched, now. I shouldn’t have to tell you.”
“I’m sure it can wait a few minutes,” said Nielsen in a placating tone. “Actually, it can’t,” said Falconi. “The Jelly ripped open a coolant line
when it cut its way in. We’re dead in the water until a replacement is hooked up. I also don’t want our passengers roaming around the other hold.”
Hwa-jung shook her head. “I won’t leave until Sparrow wakes.” “Gods above and—”
The machine boss continued as if he hadn’t spoken: “She will expect me to be here when she wakes. She’ll be upset if I’m not, so I will wait.”
Falconi planted his boots flat on the deck, anchoring them so he stood upright, swaying in the zero-g. “I’m giving you a direct order, Song. As your captain. You understand that, don’t you?” Hwa-jung stared at him, her face immobile. “I’m ordering you to go down to the cargo hold and fix that shi-bal breach.”
“Yes, sir. As soon as—”
Falconi scowled. “As soon as? As soon as what?!” Hwa-jung blinked. “As soon as—”
“No, you head down there right now and you get this ship running again. Right now, or you can consider yourself relieved, and I’ll put Trig in charge of engineering.”
Hwa-jung clenched her hands, and for a moment Kira thought she would strike Falconi. Then the machine boss broke; Kira saw it in her eyes and the slump of her shoulders. A dark scowl on her face, Hwa-jung pushed herself down the corridor. She paused at the end and, without looking back, said, “If anything happens to Sparrow while I’m gone, you’ll have to answer to me, Captain.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Falconi said in a tight voice. Then Hwa-jung vanished around the corner, and he relaxed slightly.
“Captain…” said Nielsen.
He sighed. “I’ll sort it out with her later. She’s not thinking clearly.” “Can you blame her?”
“I suppose not.”
Kira said, “How long have they been together?”
“Long time,” said Falconi. Then he and Nielsen began to discuss the state of the ship, trying to figure out which systems were compromised, how long they could keep the refugees in the other hold, and more.
Kira listened, feeling increasingly impatient. The thought of Trig alone on the alien ship continued to bother her, and she was eager to start digging answers out of the Jellies’ computers before anything happened to disable them.
“Listen,” she said, interrupting. “I’m going to go check on Trig, see if he needs help. Then I’m going to try and find out what I can.”
Falconi gave her a critical look. “Sure you’re up for it? You look a little off.”
“… Alright. Let me know once the ship is clear. I’ll send over the Entropists. That is, if they’re interested in examining the Jellies’ tech.”
Kira made her way to deck D and then flew along the curve of the outer hull until she arrived at the airlock that joined them with the alien vessel.
Again she had the Soft Blade cover her face, and then with a twinge of apprehension, she dove back through the short, white tube of the Jellies’ airlock into the murky shadows beyond.
The aching pull was as strong as ever, but Kira ignored it for the time being.
When she arrived at the chamber with the birthing pods, she found Trig going around to each cloudy pod and incinerating it with a flamethrower mounted on his forearm. As he played the jet of fire across one of the larger pods, something thrashed within: an unsettling collection of arms, legs, claws, and tentacles.
“All good?” Kira asked as the kid finished.
He gave her two thumbs up. *I still have another dozen or so to go. The captain sent me here just in time; at least two of the pods were about to hatch.*
“Charming,” Kira said. “I’m going to go poke around. If you need any help, just let me know.”
As she left the chamber, Kira put a call through to Falconi: “You can send the Entropists over. Ship should be safe now.”
Kira took her time exploring. Her impatience was stronger than ever, but there was no telling what dangers the Jelly ship held, and she was in no hurry to fall into a trap. She kept close to the walls and, wherever possible, made sure to have a clear line to the exit.
The siren-call seemed to be coming from the front of the ship, so Kira headed in that direction, passing through circuitous corridors and half-lit rooms that, more often as not, were half-full of water. Now that she wasn’t in immediate fear of her life, Kira noticed patches of nearscent at certain points within the ships.
One said: [[Forward]]
Another said: [[Co-form Restriction Sfar]] Yet another said: [[Aspect of the Void]]
And more besides. There was writing also: branching lines that repeated the message of the nearscent. That she could read the lines gave Kira hope: the Jellies were still using a written language the Soft Blade recognized.
At last she arrived at the very front of the ship: a hemispherical room wedded to the prow of the vessel. For the most part it was empty, save for a twisting, branching structure that dominated the center of the room. The material was red (the only red she’d seen on the ship) and textured with tiny
pits. Overall, it reminded her of nothing so much as coral. The structure aroused her professional interest, and she detoured to examine it.
When she tried to touch one of the branches, an invisible force repelled her hand. She frowned. Naturally occurring gravity fields were attractive (or at least gave the appearance of such). But this … The Jellies had to be using their inertial tech to increase the flow and density of spacetime around the branches to create an area of positive pressure. That would mean their artificial gravity was a push not a pull. As in, it would push her against the floor. Still, she could be wrong. That sort of thing was way outside her area of expertise.
The Entropists have to see this.
Strong as the field was, by anchoring herself against the floor with the Soft Blade, she was able to push her hand through it. The coral-like structure (growth? sculpture?) was chill to the touch, and slick from condensed moisture. Despite the pits in the material, it was smooth. When she tapped it, a sharp, brittle tink sounded.
It sure felt like calcium carbonate, but Kira wasn’t sure of anything when it came to the Jellies.
Leaving the structure, she followed the tug of obscure sorrow to a section of wall covered with glassy panes and dotted with starry lights. She stood before it, and the ache within her was so strong, it caused her eyes to water.
A double blink, and then she studied the panes, searching for a hint of where to begin. She touched the glass—afraid of what might happen if she activated machines or programs without intending to—but there was no response. She wished the xeno would tell her how to work the console. Maybe it couldn’t.
She ran her hand across the glass, again with no results. Then, for the first time, she tried to consciously produce nearscent. The Soft Blade responded with gratifying ease:
[[Kira here: Open … Activate … Access … Computer…]]
She tried all the normal words and phrases she would use with her overlays, but the glass remained dark. Kira began to wonder if she was even in front of a computer. Maybe the panels were just decorative elements. But that didn’t seem right; the transmitter for the summons was obviously near. There ought to be controls of some sort nearby.
She considered going back to the birthing chamber and cutting off a tentacle from the corpse of the dead Jelly. Maybe DNA or a tentacle-print was needed to access the computer.
She put off the thought as an option of last resort. Finally, she tried saying:
[[Kira here: Two-form … Manyform … Idealis…]]
A kaleidoscope of colors blossomed across the panels: a dazzling display of icons, indicators, images, and writing. At the same time, puffs of nearscent wafted past, pungent in their intensity.
Her nose itched, and a sharp pain formed behind her right temple. Words jumped out at her—some written, some scented—words freighted with meaning and memories not her own.
[[… the Sundering…]]
The spike of pain intensified, blinding her—
Battles and bloodshed against the spread of stars. Planets won and lost, ships burned, bodies broken. And everywhere, graspers killing graspers.
She fought for the flesh, and she was not the only one. There had been six others set in the ancient reliquary, placed there to wait in readiness for the expected summons. Like her, they joined with the grasping flesh, and like her, the flesh drove them to violence.
Some fights she and her siblings were allied. Some fights, they found themselves pitted one against the other. And that too was a perversion of the pattern. Never had it been intended, not in all the fractures they served.
The conflict had roused a Seeker from its crystalline cocoon. It looked upon the torment of the war and moved to eradicate all such wrongness, as was its wont. And the Sundering had consumed flesh old and new.
Of the six, three were slain in battle, while one more fell into the heart of a neutron star, one went mad and killed itself, and one was lost in the bright realm of superluminal space. The Seeker too had perished; its abilities in the end no match for the swarms of flesh.
Only she, of all her siblings, remained. Only she still carried the shape of the pattern within the fibers of her being.…
Kira let out a low cry and hunched over, her mind spinning. A war. There had been a terrible war, and the Soft Blade had fought in it along with others of its kind.
Blinking away the tears, she forced her gaze back to the panel. More words sprang out at her:
[[… now the Arms…]] She cried out again.
Ctein. The great and mighty Ctein. It basked in the wash of heat from the nearby vent in the ocean floor, and its tendrils and feelers (too numerous to count) waved in gentle accord.
[[Ctein here: Speak your news.]]
Her flesh answered: [[Nmarhl here: The spinward shoal has been destroyed by the indulgence of the Tfeir.]]
Upon its mounded rock the terrible Ctein pulsed with bands of color, luminous in the purple depths of the Plaintive Verge. It smote the rock with a thrashing arm, and from the prominence rose a billow of blackened mud flecked through with pieces of chitin, broken and decaying.
[[Ctein here: TRAITORS! HERETICS! BLASPHEMERS!]]
Kira winced and looked at the deck by her feet while she regained a sense of place and being. Her head was throbbing enough to make her want to take a pill.
As she reviewed the memory, she felt a sense of … not affection but perhaps regard for Nmarhl from the Soft Blade. The xeno didn’t seem to hate that particular Jelly the way it did the others. Odd.
She took a fortifying breath and again braved the panel.
[[… Whirlpool…]] An impression of hunger and danger and distortion intertwined—
[[… farscent, lowsound…]] FTL communications—
[[… forms…]] Jellies, in all their different shapes—
[[… Wranaui…]] At the word, Kira stopped, feeling as if she’d crashed into a wall. Recognition emanated from the Soft Blade, and with a slight sense of shock, Kira realized that Wranaui was the name the Jellies used for themselves. She couldn’t tell if it was a racial or species term or just a cultural designation, but from the Soft Blade at least, there was no doubt whatsoever: this was what the Jellies called themselves.
[[Kira here: Wranaui.]] She explored the feel of the smell. There was no exact vocal equivalent; nearscent was the only way to properly say the name.
With trepidation, she resumed studying the displays. To her relief, the flashes of memories grew shorter and more infrequent, although they never entirely stopped. It was a mixed blessing; the intrusive visions kept her from focusing, but they also contained valuable information.
The Jellies’ language seemed relatively unchanged since the last time the Soft Blade had encountered it, but the terms Kira encountered were context dependent, and context was something she so often lacked. It was like trying to understand technical jargon in a field she wasn’t familiar with, only a thousand times worse.
The effort exacerbated her headache.
She tried to be methodical. She tried to keep track of every action she took and every piece of information the computer threw at her, but it was too much. Far, far too much. At least her overlays were keeping an audiovisual record. Maybe she could make more sense of what she was seeing once she was back in her cabin.
Unfortunately, she had no way to copy the nearscent for later study. Again Kira wished she had implants, ones capable of full-spectrum sensory recordings.
But she didn’t, and there was no changing it.
Kira frowned. She had hoped it would be easier to find useful information on the Jellies’ computer. After all, it wasn’t hard for her to understand the aliens when they spoke. Or at least that was the impression the Soft Blade gave her.
In the end, she resorted to pushing random icons on the panels, hoping that she wouldn’t accidently vent the air or fire a missile or somehow trigger a self-destruct. That would be a bad way to go.
“Come on, you piece of shit,” she muttered, and hit the paneling with the heel of her hand.
Alas, percussive maintenance didn’t help.
She was just grateful there was no sign of pseudo-intelligences or other forms of digital assistants guarding the computer system, and no indication that the Jellies had anything similar to human ship minds.
What Kira really wanted to find was the Jelly equivalent of a wiki or an encyclopedia. It seemed obvious that an advanced species like theirs ought to carry a repository of scientific and cultural knowledge in their computer
banks, but—as she was painfully aware—few things were obvious when it came to an alien species.
When button-pushing failed to yield helpful results, she forced herself to stop and reevaluate. Surely there was something else she could try.… Nearscent had worked before; perhaps it would work again.
She mentally cleared her voice and then said: [[Kira here: Open … open … shell records.]] Shell felt like the correct word for ship, so that was what she used.
She tried twice more with different wording. On her third try, a new window opened in the display, and she caught a whiff of welcome.
Kira’s grin widened as she started to read. Just as she’d hoped: message logs. Not a wiki, but equally as valuable in their own way.
Most of the entries didn’t make sense to her, but some things started to become clear. First was that the Jellies had a highly stratified, hierarchical society, with one’s rank determined by all sorts of complicated factors, including which Arm you belonged to and which form you had. The specifics escaped Kira, but the Arms seemed to be some sort of political or military organizations. Or at least, that was what she assumed.
Many times in the messages she saw the phrase two-form. At first she thought it was a term for the Soft Blade. But as she read, it became clear that couldn’t possibly be the meaning.
It was with a sense of revelation that she realized two-form had to be the Jellies’ term for humans. She spent some time puzzling over that. Do they mean men and women? Or something else? Interestingly enough, the Soft Blade didn’t seem to recognize the term. But then, why would it? Humans were newcomers to the galactic stage.
With that crucial piece of information, the messages began to make more sense, and Kira read with increasing avidness of ship movements, battle reports, and tactical assessments of 61 Cygni and other systems in the League. There were numerous mentions of travel times, and from the Soft Blade, Kira was able to glean a sense of the distances involved. The nearest Jelly base (system, planet, or station, she wasn’t sure) was several hundred light-years away. Which led her to wonder why no hint of the aliens had shown up in the League’s telescopes. The Jellies’ civilization had to be far
older than two or three hundred years, and the light from their worlds had long since reached human-settled space.
She kept reading, trying to pick out confluences of meaning—trying to see the larger patterns.
Perversely, the more she understood of the aliens’ writing, the more confused she became. There were no references to the events at Adrasteia or to the Soft Blade, but there were references to attacks she’d never heard of: attacks not of Jellies on humans but of humans on Jellies. She also found lines that seemed to indicate the aliens believed that humans were the ones who had started the war by destroying … the Tower of Yrrith, and by tower she understood them to mean a space station.
At first Kira had difficulty believing that the Jellies—the Wranaui— thought they were the victims. A dozen different scenarios flashed through her mind. Maybe a deep-space cruiser like the Extenuating Circumstances had stumbled across the Jellies and, for whatever reason, initiated hostilities.
Kira shook her head. The summons was a maddening distraction, like a fly that wouldn’t stop buzzing about her head.
What she was reading didn’t make sense. The Jellies seemed convinced they were fighting for their very survival, as if they believed the two-forms posed an extinction-level threat.
As she continued to dig through the archive of messages, Kira began to notice repeated mentions of a … search the Wranaui were carrying out. They were looking for an object. A device of immense importance. Not the Soft Blade—that much she felt confident of, as they made no mention of Idealis—but whatever the object was, the Jellies thought it would allow them to not only defeat the League and win the war, but conquer the whole galaxy.
The back of Kira’s neck prickled with fear as she read. What could be so powerful? An unknown form of weapon? Xenos even more advanced than the Soft Blade?
So far, the Jellies didn’t know where the object was. That much was clear. The aliens appeared to believe it lay somewhere among a cluster of stars counter-spinward (by which Kira took them to mean against the galactic rotation).
One line in particular struck her: [[—when the Vanished made the Idealis.]] She went over it several times to make sure she understood. So the Soft Blade was a constructed thing. Were the Jellies saying that some other species had made it? Or were the Vanished also Jellies?
Then she chanced upon the name of the object: the Staff of Blue.
For a moment, the sounds of the ship ceased and all Kira heard was the pounding of her pulse. She knew that name. Unbidden, a spasm roiled the Soft Blade, and with it a wave of information. Understanding. Remembrance:
She saw a star—the same reddish star she had beheld once before. Then her view rushed outward, and the star appeared set among its nearest neighbors, but the constellations were strange to her, and she felt no sense for how they fit within the shape of the heavens.
A disjunction, and she saw the Staff of Blue, the fearsome Staff of Blue. It swung, and flesh and fibers tore themselves apart.
It swung, and ranks of machines crumpled beneath the blow.
It swung, and a sheaf of shining towers tumbled to the cratered ground. It swung, and spaceships blossomed as fiery flowers.
Another place … another time … a chamber tall and stark, with windows that looked upon a brownish planet wreathed with clouds. Beyond it hung the ruddy star, huge in its nearness. By the largest window, dark against the swirling shine, she saw the Highmost standing. Gaunt of limb, strong of will, the first among the first. The Highmost crossed one set of arms, the other held the Staff of Blue. And she mourned for what now was lost.
Kira returned to reality with a start. “Shit.” She felt light-headed, overwhelmed. Certainty gripped her that she had just seen one of the Vanished in the form of the Highmost. And it had definitely not been one of the Jellies.
Which meant?… She was having difficulty focusing, and the throbbing ache of the summons didn’t help.
The Staff of Blue was terrifying. If the Jellies got their tentacles on it … Kira shuddered at the thought. And not just her; the Soft Blade also. Humanity had to find the staff first. Had to.
Worried that she’d missed something, she returned to the message logs and started to go over them again.
The pressure in her skull pulsed, and shimmering halos appeared around the lights in the control room. Kira’s eyes watered. She blinked, but the halos didn’t go away.
“Enough,” she muttered. If anything, the summons grew stronger, drumming in her head with an inexorable beat, pounding, pulling, probing
—drawing her toward the panel, an ancient duty yet unfulfilled …
She forced her attention back to the display. Surely there was a way to— Another pulse of pain made her gasp.
Fear and frustration spilled over to anger, and she shouted, “Stop it!”
The Soft Blade rippled, and she felt it respond to the summons, answering it with an echo of her angry denial, an inaudible, invisible echo of radiated energy that raced outward, spreading, spreading … spreading across the system.
In that instant, Kira knew she’d made a terrible mistake. She lunged forward and plunged her fist through the glassy pane, willing the xeno to break, crush, and shatter in a desperate attempt to destroy the transmitter before it could pick up and rebroadcast her response.
The suit flowed down her arm and over her fingers. It spread across the wall like a web of tree roots, probing and seeking, burrowing ever deeper. The displays flickered, and those close to her hand guttered and went out, leaving a halo of darkness around her palm.
Kira felt the tendrils close around the source of the summons. She braced her feet against the wall, yanked on her arm, and tore the transmitter out of the center of the displays. What came free was a cylinder of purple crystal embedded with a dense honeycomb of silver veins that wavered as if distorted with heat ripples.
She squeezed the cylinder with the tendrils of the suit, squeezed with all her might, and the hunk of engineered crystal split and shattered. Stalks of silver sprouted between the tendrils as the xeno squished the metal like hot wax. And the compulsion diminished from an urgent necessity to a distant inclination.
Before she could recover, a scent intruded, a scent so strong, it was like a voice screaming in her ear:
[[Qwar here: Defiler! Blasphemer! Corrupter!]]
And Kira knew she was no longer alone. One of the Jellies was behind her, close enough she could feel an eddy of disturbed air tickle the back of
She stiffened. Her feet were still stuck to the wall. She couldn’t spin around fast enough—
She flinched and half turned, half crouched while stabbing outward with the Soft Blade.
Behind her, an alien flopped in the air. It was brown and shiny and had a segmented body the size of man’s torso. A cluster of yellow-rimmed eyes surmounted its flat, neckless head. Pincers and feelers dangled from what could have been its chitinous mouth, and two rows of double-joined legs (each the size and length of her forearms) kicked and thrashed along its armored abdomen. From its lobster-tail rear trailed a pair of antenna-like appendages at least a meter long.
Orange ichor leaked from the base of the creature’s head.
A pair of holes appeared in the alien’s plated side. Gore and viscera sprayed the floor. The alien kicked once more as it spun away and then was still.
At the far end of the room, Falconi lowered his pistol, a thread of smoke drifting from the barrel. “What in seven hells are you doing?”
Kira straightened from her crouch and retracted the spikes that projected from every square centimeter of her skin. Her heart was racing so hard, it took a few seconds before she was able to convince her vocal cords to work.
“Yeah.” Falconi holstered his pistol. “It was about to take a chunk out of your neck.”
“Buy me a drink sometime and we’ll call it even.” He floated over and examined the oozing corpse. “What do you think it is? Their version of a dog?”
“No,” she said. “It was intelligent.”
He eyed her. “And you know that how?”
“It was saying things.”
“Charming.” He gestured at her gore-covered arm. “Again: What the hell? You haven’t been answering your comms.”
Kira looked at the hole she’d torn in the wall. Fear spiked her pulse. Had she (or rather, the Soft Blade) really responded to the summons? The enormity of the situation filled her with rising dread.
Before she could answer the captain, a beep sounded in her ear, and Gregorovich said: *Calamity, O my delightful infestations.* And he laughed with more than a hint of madness. *Every Jelly ship in the system has set themselves upon an intercept course with the Wallfish. Might I suggest unchecked terror and an expedited retreat?*