Chapter no 18

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Falconi swore and gave Kira a flat glare. “Is this your doing?”

*Yes, what have you been up to, meatbag?* Gregorovich said.

Kira knew there was no hiding what had happened. She drew herself up, although she felt very small indeed. “There was a transmitter. I destroyed it.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed. “That—Why? And why would that tip off the Jellies?”

“That’s not what they call themselves.”

“Excuse me?” he said, sounding anything but polite. “There’s no exact equivalent, but it’s something like—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what the Jellies call themselves,” said Falconi. “You better start explaining why they’re coming after us, and fast too.”

So in as brief a manner as possible, Kira told him about the compulsion and how she had—inadvertently—responded to it.

When she finished, Falconi’s expression was so flat it scared her. She’d seen that look before on miners just before they decided to knife someone.

“Those spikes, now this—anything else you’re not telling us about the xeno, Navárez?” he said.

Kira shook her head. “Nothing important.”

He grunted. “Nothing important.” She flinched as he drew his pistol and pointed it at her. “By all rights I ought to leave you here with a live video feed broadcasting so the Jellies know where to find you.”

“… But you’re not going to?”

A long pause, and then the muzzle of the pistol lowered. He holstered the weapon. “No. If the Jellies want you that badly, then it ain’t a good idea to let them have you. Don’t think this means I want you on the Wallfish, Navárez.”

She nodded. “I understand.”

His gaze shifted, and she heard him say, “Trig, back to the Wallfish, now. Jorrus, Veera, if you want to get anything from the Jelly ship, you have five minutes, max, and then we’re blasting out of here.”

Then he turned and started to leave. “Come on.” As Kira followed, he said, “Did you learn anything useful?”

“Lots, I think,” she said.

“Anything that’ll help us stay alive?” “I don’t know. The Jellies are—” “Unless it’s urgent, save it.”

Kira swallowed what she was going to say and trailed behind Falconi as he hurried off the ship. Trig was waiting for them at the airlock.

“Keep watch until the Entropists are on board,” said Falconi. The kid saluted.

From the airlock, they went to Control. Nielsen was already there, studying the holo projected from the table in the middle. “How’s it look?” Falconi asked, strapping himself into his crash chair.

“Not good,” said Nielsen. She glanced at Kira with an unreadable expression and then pulled up a map of 61 Cygni. Seven dotted lines arced across the system, intersecting upon the Wallfish’s current location.

“Time to intercept?” Falconi asked.

“The nearest Jelly will be here in four hours.” She stared at him, grave. “They’re burning at maximum thrust.”

Falconi scrubbed his fingers through his hair. “Okay. Okay.… How fast can we get to Malpert Station?”

“Two and a half hours.” Nielsen hesitated. “There’s no way the ships there can fight off seven Jellies.”

“I know,” said Falconi, grim. “But it’s not like we have a lot of choice. If we’re lucky, they can keep the Jellies tied up long enough for us to jump out.”

“We don’t have the antimatter.”

Falconi bared his teeth. “We’ll get the antimatter.”

“Sir,” whispered Gregorovich, “the Darmstadt is hailing us. Most urgently, I might add.”

“Shit. Stall them until we’re back under thrust.” Falconi stabbed a button on the console next to him. “Hwa-jung, what’s the status of those repairs?”

The machine boss answered a moment later: “Nearly finished. I’m just pressure testing the new coolant line.”

“Hurry it up.”

“Sir.” She still seemed annoyed with the captain.

Falconi poked a finger toward Kira. “You. Spill it. What else did you find over there?”

Kira did her best to summarize. Afterward, Nielsen frowned and said, “So the Jellies think that they’re the ones being attacked?”

“Is there any chance you misunderstood?” asked Falconi. Kira shook her head. “It was pretty clear. That part, at least.”

“And this Staff of Blue,” said Nielsen. “We don’t know what it is?” “I think it’s an actual staff,” Kira explained.

“But what does it do?” said Falconi.

“Your guess is as good as mine. A control module of some kind?” “It could be ceremonial,” Nielsen pointed out.

“No. The Jellies seem convinced it would let them win the war.” Then Kira had to explain again how she had inadvertently responded to the compulsion. So far she’d avoided thinking about it too much, but as she recounted the events to Nielsen, Kira felt a deep sense of shame and remorse. Even though she couldn’t have known how the Soft Blade was going to respond, it was still her fault. “I fucked up,” she finished by saying.

Nielsen eyed her with no great sympathy. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Navárez, but I want you off this ship.”

“That’s the plan,” said Falconi. “We hand her over to the UMC, let them deal with this.” He looked at Kira with slightly more empathy. “Maybe they can stick you in a packet ship, get you out of the system before the Jellies can grab you.”

She nodded, miserable. It was as good a plan as any. Shit. Going after the Jelly ship might have been worth it for the information she’d uncovered, but it looked as if she and the crew of the Wallfish were going to pay for the attempt.

She thought again of the ruddy star set amid its companions, and she wondered: Could she locate it on a map of the Milky Way?

Spurred by a sudden determination, Kira strapped herself into one of the crash chairs and—on her overlays—brought up the largest, most detailed

model of the galaxy that she could find.

The comms snapped on, and Hwa-jung said, “All done.”

Falconi leaned in toward the holo-display. “Trig, get those Entropists back on the Wallfish.

Not a minute later, the kid’s voice sounded: “All green, Captain.”

“Seal her up. We’re blasting out of here.” Then Falconi called down to the sickbay. “Doc, we gotta scram. Is it safe for Sparrow if we resume thrust?”

When Vishal answered, he sounded tense: “It’s safe, Captain, but nothing above one g, please.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Gregorovich, take it away.” “Roger that, O my Captain. Currently taking it away.

There was a series of jolts as the Wallfish disengaged from the alien ship and maneuvered with RCS thrusters to a safe distance. “All that antimatter,” said Falconi, watching a live feed of the undocking. “Pity no one’s figured out how to extract it from their ships.”

“I’d rather not get blown up experimenting,” Nielsen said dryly. “Indeed.”

Then the deck of the Wallfish vibrated as the ship’s rocket sprang to life, and once more a welcome sense of weight returned as the acceleration pressed them into their seats.

In her overlays, a panoply of stars shone before Kira’s unblinking eyes.

In the background, Kira heard Falconi arguing with someone over the radio. She didn’t listen, lost as she was in her examination of the map. Starting from an overhead view of the galaxy, she zoomed in on the area containing Sol and then slowly started to work her way counter-spinward (as the Jellies had mentioned). At first, it seemed like a hopeless task, but twice among the array of stars Kira felt a sense of familiarity from the Soft Blade, and it gave her hope.

She paused her study of the constellations when Vishal appeared framed in the doorway of the control room. He looked drained, and his face was still red from washing.

“Well?” Falconi said.

The doctor sighed and dropped into one of the chairs. “I’ve done all I can. The pole shredded half her organs. Her liver will heal, but her spleen, kidneys, and parts of her intestines, those need to be replaced. It will take a day or two for new parts to print. Sparrow is sleeping now, recovering. Hwa-jung is with her.”

“Would it be better to put Sparrow in cryo?” Nielsen asked.

Vishal hesitated. “Her body is weak. Better for her to regain her strength.”

“What if we don’t have a choice?” Falconi asked.

The doctor spread his hands, fingers splayed. “It could be done, but it would not be my first choice.”

Falconi returned to arguing over the comms (something about the Jelly ship, civilian permissions, and docking at Malpert Station), and Kira again concentrated on her overlays.

She could tell she was getting close. As she flew among the simulated stars, spinning and rotating and searching for shapes she recognized, she kept feeling tantalizing snatches of recognition. They drew her coreward, where the stars were packed closer together.…

“Dammit,” said Falconi and banged his fist against the console. “They’re refusing to let us dock at Malpert.”

Distracted, Kira looked over at him. “Why?”

A humorless smile passed across his face. “Why do you think? Because we’ve got every Jelly in the system hot on our tail. Not sure what Malpert expects us to do, though. We don’t have anywhere else to go.”

She wet her lips. “Tell the UMC we picked up vital information on the Jelly ship. That’s why the others are after us. Tell them … the information is a matter of interstellar security and the very existence of the League is at stake. If that doesn’t get us onto Malpert, you could always mention my name, but if you don’t have to, I’d prefer—”

Falconi grunted. “Yeah. Okay.” He tabbed open a line and said, “Get me the liaison officer on the Darmstadt. Yes, I know he’s busy. It’s urgent.”

Kira knew that the UMC was going to find out about her and the Soft Blade one way or another. But she saw no point in broadcasting the truth across the system, not if it could be avoided. Besides, the instant the UMC and the League learned she was still alive, her options were going to narrow to a limited few, if that.

Unsettled, she returned her attention to the map and tried to ignore what was happening. It was out of her control, in any case.… There! A certain pattern of stars struck her. She stopped, and a bell-like tone seemed to echo in her head: confirmation from the Soft Blade. And Kira knew she had found what she was looking for: seven stars in the shape of a crown, and near the center, the old, red spark that marked the location of the Staff of Blue. Or, at least, where the Soft Blade believed it to be.

Kira stared, at first disbelieving and then with a sense of growing confidence. Whether or not the xeno’s information was up to date, the location of the system was more than they’d had before, and for once, it put her—and humanity as a whole—a step ahead.

Excited, she began to announce her discovery. A loud beep interrupted her, and dozens of red dots appeared scattered through the holo of the system projected in the center of the room.

“More Jellies,” said Nielsen, a fatalistic note in her voice.

“Goddammit. I don’t believe it,” said Falconi. For the first time, he seemed at a loss for what to do.

Kira opened her mouth and then closed it.

Even as they slipped into normal space, the red dots began to move, burning in all different directions.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t believe it,” said Gregorovich. He sounded oddly puzzled.

“What do you mean?” Falconi leaned forward, the usual razor-edge returning to his gaze.

The ship mind was slow to respond: “This latest batch of uninvited guests is behaving contrary to expectations. They are … calculating … calculating.… They aren’t just flying toward us, they’re also flying toward the other Jellies.”

“Reinforcements?” Nielsen asked.

“Uncertain,” Gregorovich replied. “Their engine signatures don’t match the ships we’ve seen from the Jellies so far.”

“I know there are different factions among the Jellies,” Kira offered.

“Perhaps,” said Gregorovich. Then: “Oh my.… Well, then. Isn’t that interesting?”

The main holo switched to show a view from elsewhere in the system: a live feed of three ships converging on one.

“What are we looking at?” Falconi asked.

“A transmission from Chelomey Station,” said Gregorovich. A green outline appeared around one of the ships. “This is a Jelly.” Red outlined the three other ships. “These are some of our newcomers. And this”—a set of numbers appeared next to each ship—“is their acceleration and relative velocity.”

“Thule!” Falconi exclaimed.

“That should not be possible,” said Vishal. “Indeed,” said Gregorovich.

The newcomers were accelerating faster than any Jelly ship on record. Sixty g’s. A hundred g’s. More. Even through the display, their engines were painful to look at—bright torches powerful enough to spot from light-years away.

The three ships had jumped in close to the Jelly they were pursuing. As they converged, the Jelly released clouds of chalk and chaff, and the computer marked otherwise invisible laser bursts with lines of red. The intruders fired back, and missiles streaked between the combatants.

“Well that answers one question,” said Nielsen.

Then one of the three newcomers shot ahead of its companions and, with hardly any warning, rammed the Jelly ship.

Both vessels vanished in an atomic flash.

“Whoa!” said Trig. He walked in from the corridor and sat next to Nielsen. He’d changed out of his power armor, back into his normal, ill-fitting jumpsuit. A foam cast encased his left wrist.

“Gregorovich,” said Falconi, “can you get us a close-up of one of those ships?”

“A moment, please,” said the ship mind. For a few seconds, a piece of mindless, waiting-room music played through the Wallfish’s speakers. Then the holo changed: a blurred still of one of the new ships. The vessel was dark, almost black, and shot through with veins of bloody orange. The hull was asymmetric, with odd bulges and angles and scabrous protuberances. It

looked more like a tumor than a spaceship, as if it had been grown rather than built.

Kira had never seen anything like it, and neither, she thought, had the Soft Blade. The unbalanced shape gave her an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach; she had difficulty imagining a reason for constructing such a twisted, lopsided machine. It certainly wasn’t the handiwork of the Jellies; most everything they built was smooth and white and seemed to be radially symmetrical.

“Look,” said Falconi, and he switched the holo back to a view of the system. All across 61 Cygni, the red dots were streaking toward Jellies and humans alike. The Jellies were already altering their courses to face the incoming threats, which meant—for the time being—the Wallfish had some breathing room.

“Captain, what’s going on?” said Trig.

“I don’t know,” said Falconi. “All the passengers back in their hold?” The kid nodded.

“Those ships aren’t the Jellies’,” said Kira. “They’re not.”

“Do the Jellies think they’re ours?” said Nielsen. “Is that why they think we’ve been attacking them?”

Vishal said, “I don’t see how.”

“Neither do I,” said Falconi, “but seems there’s a whole lot we don’t understand right now.” He tapped his fingers against his leg, then glanced at Kira. “What I want to know is whether they jumped in because of that signal you sent.”

“They would’ve had to been waiting just outside Sixty-One Cygni,” said Nielsen. “That seems … unlikely.”

Kira was inclined to agree. But it seemed even more unlikely that the newcomers would have arrived at that exact moment through sheer chance. As with the Jellies showing up at Adra, space was too big for that sort of coincidence.

The thought made her skin itch. Something was wrong here, and she didn’t know what. She opened a message window on her overlays and sent the captain a text: <I think I know where the Staff of Blue might be. – Kira> His eyes widened slightly, but otherwise, he didn’t react. <Where? –


<About sixty light-years from here. I really do need to talk with someone in charge at Malpert. – Kira>

<I’m working on it. They’re still trying to make up their minds. –Falconi>

For a minute everyone was silent, watching the display. Falconi stirred in his seat and said, “We have permission to dock at Malpert. Kira, they know we have intel, but I didn’t tell them who you are or about your, ah, suit. No reason to put all your cards on the table at once.”

She smiled slightly. “Thanks.… It has a name, you know.” “What does?”

“The suit.” They all looked at her. “I don’t understand all of it, but what I do understand means the Soft Blade.”

“That is so cool,” said Trig.

Falconi scratched his chin. “It fits, I’ll give it that. You’ve got a strange life, Navárez.”

“Don’t I know it,” she muttered to herself.

Another alert sounded then, and in mournful tones, Gregorovich said, “Incoming.”

Two of the newly arrived ships were burning straight for Malpert Station. ETA, a few minutes sooner than the Wallfish.

“Of course,” said Falconi.

For the next two hours, Kira sat with the crew, watching as the strange, twisted ships spread through the system, seeding chaos wherever they went. They attacked humans and Jellies indiscriminately, and they displayed suicidal disregard for their own safety.

Four of the newcomers swept through the antimatter farm situated close to the sun. The ships raced past the ranks of winged satellites, blasting them with lasers and missiles so that each exploded in a flash of annihilating antimatter. Several of the satellites had point-defense turrets, and they managed to score hits on two of the attackers. The damaged ships promptly rammed the turrets, destroying themselves in the process.

“Maybe they’re drones,” said Nielsen.

“Maybe,” said Gregorovich, “but unlikely. When cracked, they vent atmosphere. There must be living creatures swaddled within.”

“It’s another species of aliens!” said Trig. “Has to be!” He nearly bounced in his seat.

Kira couldn’t share his enthusiasm. Nothing about the newcomers felt right to her. Just the sight of their ships left her feeling off-balance. That the Soft Blade seemed to have no knowledge of them only compounded her discomfort. It surprised her how much she’d come to rely on the xeno’s expertise.

“At least they’re not as tough as the Jellies,” said Falconi. It was true; the newcomers’ ships didn’t seem as well-armored, although that was offset by their speed and recklessness.

The two tumorous ships continued to bore through space toward Malpert Station. As they and the Wallfish neared, the Darmstadt and a half-dozen smaller vessels again took up defensive positions around the station. The UMC cruiser was still trailing silvery coolant from radiators that had been damaged while fighting the Jellies earlier, but damaged or not, the cruiser was the station’s only real hope.

When the Wallfish was five minutes away, the shooting started.

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