Chapter no 19

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The attack was swift and vicious. The two malformed alien ships dove toward the Darmstadt and Malpert, each from a different vector. Bursts of smoke and chaff obscured the view, and then the UMC cruiser fired a trio of Casaba-Howitzers. They weren’t holding back.

With a violent juke, one of the aliens dodged the nuclear shaped charges.

It continued past, on a collision path for the station. “No!” Nielsen cried.

But the alien ship didn’t ram Malpert and explode. Rather it slowed and, with its remaining momentum, coasted into one of the station’s docking ports. The long, malignant-looking ship smashed its way past clamps and airlocks, wedging itself deep into the body of the station. The vessel was big: nearly twice the size of the Wallfish.

The other ship didn’t manage to avoid the Casaba-Howitzers, not entirely. One of the spears of ravening death singed the ship’s hull, and the vessel careened off deeper into the asteroid belt, streaming smoke from the wound burned through its flank.

A group of mining ships separated from the rest of the defenders and gave chase.

“Now’s our chance,” said Falconi. “Gregorovich, get us docked, now.” “Uh, what about that thing?” said Nielsen, pointing at the alien ship

protruding from the edge of the station.

“Not our worry,” said Falconi. The Wallfish had already cut its engines and was moving via thrusters toward the assigned airlock. “We can always blast off again if we have to, but we’ve got to fill our tanks back up.”

Nielsen nodded, her face tight with worry.

“Gregorovich, what’s happening on the station?” Kira asked.

“Chaos and pain,” the ship mind replied. In the holo, a series of windows appeared, showing feeds from within Malpert: dining halls, tunnels, open

concourses. Groups of men and women clad in skinsuits ran past the cameras, firing guns and blasters. Billows of chalk clogged the air, and in the pale shadows moved creatures the likes of which Kira had never imagined. Some stalked on all fours, as small and lean as whippets but with eyes as big as her fist. Others lurched forward on malformed limbs: arms and legs that looked broken and badly healed; tentacles that kinked and hung useless; rows of pseudopods that pulsed with sickening fleshiness. Regardless of their shape, the creatures had red, raw-looking skin that oozed lymph-like fluid, and patches of black, wire-thick hair dotted their scabrous hides.

The creatures carried no weapons, though more than a few had boney spikes and serrations along their forelimbs. They fought like beasts, jumping after the fleeing miners, bearing them down to the floor and tearing at their guts.

Without guns, the monsters were quickly cut down. But not before they killed several dozen people.

“What in God’s name?” said Vishal, his horrified tone matching Kira’s own feelings.

Across from her, Trig looked green.

“You’re the xenobiologist,” said Falconi. “What’s your professional opinion?”

Kira hesitated. “I … I don’t have a clue. They can’t be naturally evolved. Just, I mean, just look at them. I don’t even know if they could have built the ship they used.”

“So you’re saying someone else made those things?” said Nielsen.

Falconi raised an eyebrow. “The Jellies, maybe? Science experiment gone wrong?”

“But then why blame attacks on us?” said Vishal.

Kira shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Sorry. I haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going on.”

“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” said Falconi. “War.” He checked something on his overlays. “The captain of the Darmstadt wants to meet with you, Navárez, but it’s going to take them some time to dock. They’re still mopping up out there. In the meantime, let’s refuel, refit, and get the folks out of the cargo hold. They’re going to have to find another way to

Ruslan. And I’m going to start making calls, see if I can get my hands on some antimatter. Somehow.”

Kira went with Trig, Vishal, and Nielsen to help. It beat sitting around waiting. Her mind churned as they floated down the shaft in the center of the Wallfish. The vision she’d had from the Soft Blade about the staff … the being the xeno had thought of as the Highmost hadn’t looked like either a Jelly or one of the malformed newcomers. Did that mean they were dealing with three sentient species?

Hwa-jung joined them on the ladder on her way to engineering. When Nielsen asked about Sparrow, the machine boss just grunted and said, “She lives. She sleeps.”

At the starboard hold, a babble of shouted questions met them as Trig spun open the wheel-lock and opened the door. Nielsen held up her hands and waited until there was quiet.

She said: “We’ve docked at Malpert Station. There’s been a change of plans. The Wallfish won’t be able to take you to Ruslan after all.” As an angry roar began to build among the assembled refugees, she added: “Ninety percent of your ticket price will be refunded. Should be already, in fact. Check your messages.”

Kira perked up; that was the first she’d heard of a refund.

“It’s probably for the best,” Trig confided to her. “We weren’t really, uh, welcome on Ruslan. It would’ve been kinda dicey getting down to land.”

“That so? I’m surprised Falconi is giving out refunds. Doesn’t seem like him.”

The kid shrugged, and a sly little smile spread across his face. “Yeah, well, we kept enough to top up on hydrogen. Plus, I grabbed a few things while I was on the Jelly ship. Captain figures we can sell them to collectors for a whack-load of bits.”

Kira frowned, thinking of all the technology on the ship. “What exactly did you—” she started to ask, only to have a squeal of rotating metal joints cut her off.

The outer wall of the cargo hold hinged open to reveal a wide jetway that joined the hold to the Malpert spaceport. Loading bots sat waiting outside,

and a handful of customs officials stood anchored nearby, clipboards in hand.

The refugees started to gather up their supplies and head out of the Wallfish. It was a difficult task in zero-g, and Kira found herself chasing after sleeping bags and thermal blankets to keep them from flying out of the hold.

The refugees seemed wary of her, but they didn’t protest her presence. Mainly, Kira suspected, because they were more focused on getting out of the Wallfish. One man did come up to her, though—a lanky, redheaded man in rumpled formal wear—and she recognized him as the guy who had jumped after the girl during the fight with the Jelly.

“I didn’t get the opportunity earlier,” he said, “but I wanted to thank you for helping to save my niece. If not for you and Sparrow…” He shook his head.

Kira dipped her head, and she felt an unexpected film of tears in her eyes. “Just glad I could help.”

He hesitated. “If you don’t mind me asking, what are you?” “… A weapon, and let’s leave it at that.”

He held out his hand. “Whatever the case, thank you. If you’re ever on Ruslan, look us up. Hofer is the name. Felix Hofer.”

They shook, and an odd lump formed in Kira’s throat as she watched him return to his niece and leave.

Across the hold, angry voices rang out. She saw Jorrus and Veera surrounded by five of the Numenists—three men, two women—who were shoving them and shouting something about the Number Supreme.

“Hey, knock it off!” called Nielsen as she kicked herself in their direction.

Kira hurried toward the fight. Even as she did, one of the Numenists—a snub-nosed man with purple hair and a row of subdermal implants along his forearms—butted Jorrus in the face, smashing his mouth.

“Hold still,” said Kira, snarling. She flew into the group and grabbed the purple-haired man around the torso and pinned his arms against his sides as they tumbled into a wall. The Soft Blade gripped the wall at her command, stopping them.

“What’s going on?” Nielsen demanded, putting herself between the Numenists and Entropists.

Veera held up her hands in a placating matter. “Just a small—” “—theological dispute,” Jorrus finished. He spat a gob of blood onto the


“Well not here,” said Nielsen. “Keep it off the ship. All of you.”

The purple-haired man wrenched against Kira’s arms. “Ah feck off yah hatchet-faced bint. An you, let me go, yah walloping, misbegotten graceling.”

“Not until you promise to behave,” said Kira. She relished the feeling of strength the Soft Blade gave her; holding the man was easy with its help.

“Behave? Ah’ll show you behave!” The man’s head snapped backwards and slammed into her nose.

Blinding pain exploded in Kira’s face. An involuntary cry escaped her, and she felt the man squirming in his shirt, trying to tear free.

“Stp it!” she said as tears flooded her eyes and blood clogged her nose and throat.

The man swung his head back again. This time he caught her right on the chin. It hurt. A lot. Kira lost her grip, and the man twisted out of her arms.

She grabbed him again, and he took a swing at her, sending them tumbling.

“Thts engh!” she shouted, angry.

At the words, a spike shot from her chest and stabbed the man through the ribs. He stared at her with disbelief, and then he convulsed, and his eyes rolled back in his skull. Blots of red spread across his shirt.

Across the hold, the four other Numenists cried out.

Horror immediately replaced Kira’s anger. “No! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t—” With a slithery sensation, the spike retracted.

“Here!” said Vishal. He tossed her a line from by the wall. Kira caught it without thinking, and the doctor reeled her and the Numenist in. “Hold him still,” said Vishal. He ripped open the side of the man’s shirt and, with a small applicator, sprayed medifoam into the wound.

“Will he—” Kira started to ask.

“He’ll live,” said Vishal, hands still working. “But I have to get him to sickbay.”

“Trig, help the doctor,” said Nielsen, drifting over. “Yes, ma’am.”

“As for you,” said Nielsen, pointing at the rest of the Numenists, “get out of here before I throw you out.” They started to protest, and she stopped them with a glare. “We’ll let you know when you can have your friend back. Now scram.”

Trig took the man’s feet and Vishal his head. Then they carried him off, just as Hwa-jung had carried Sparrow.

Kira hung by the wall, dazed. The rest of the refugees were staring at her with fear and outright hostility, but she didn’t care. In her head, the unconscious Numenist was Alan, bleeding out in her arms while the air escaped screaming through holes torn in the walls.…

She’d lost control. Just for an instant, but she might have killed a man, same as she’d killed her teammates. This time she couldn’t put the blame on the Soft Blade; she’d wanted to hurt the Numenist, to hurt him until he stopped hurting her. The Soft Blade had only been responding to that urge.

“Are you alright?” Nielsen asked.

It took Kira a moment to respond. “Yeah.” “You need to get that looked at.”

Kira touched her face and winced. The pain was receding, but she could feel her nose was humped and crooked. She tried to push it back into place, but the Soft Blade had already healed it too much to move. Apparently close enough was good enough where the xeno was concerned.

“Dammit,” she murmured, feeling defeated. The nose would have to be rebroken before it could be straightened.

“Why don’t you wait here for now,” said Nielsen. “It’s better that way, don’t you think?”

Kira nodded numbly and watched the other woman drift off to supervise the disembarking process.

The Entropists came over then, and Veera said, “Our apologies for causing—”

“—such a disturbance, Prisoner. The fault is ours for telling the Numenists—”

“—that there are greater infinities than the set of real numbers. For some reason, that offends their concept—”

“—of the Number Supreme.”

Kira waved her hand. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

The Entropists bobbed their heads as one. “It seems—” said Jorrus. “—that we must part ways,” said Veera. “Therefore, we wished to thank

you for sharing the information about your suit with us, and—” “—for giving us the opportunity to explore the Jelly ship—”

“—and we wish to give you this,” said Jorrus. He handed her a small, gem-like token. It was a disk of what looked like sapphire with a fractal pattern embedded within.

The sight of the fractal gave Kira a shiver of familiarity. The pattern wasn’t the one from her dreams, but it was similar. “What is it?”

Veera spread her hands in a gesture of benediction. “Safe passage to the Motherhouse of our order, the Nova Energium, in orbit around Shin-Zar. We know—”

“—you feel compelled to assist the League, and we would not dissuade you. But—”

“—should you wish otherwise—”

“—our order will guarantee you sanctuary. The Nova Energium—” “—is the most advanced research laboratory in settled space. Not even

the finest labs on Earth are as well equipped … or as well defended. If anyone can rid you of this organism—”

“—it is the minds at the Nova Energium.”

Sanctuary. The word resonated with Kira. Touched, she pocketed the token and said, “Thank you. I may not be able to accept your offer, but it means a lot to me.”

Veera and Jorrus slipped their hands into the opposing sleeves of their robes and clasped their forearms across their chests. “May your path always lead to knowledge, Prisoner.”

“Knowledge to freedom.”

Then the Entropists departed, and Kira was again alone. She didn’t have long with her thoughts before the woman, Inarë, and the cat with the unpronounceable name stopped next to her. The woman was carrying a large floral-patterned carpet bag. She had no other luggage. The cat was perched on her shoulders, every strand of its hair standing on end in the zero-g.

The woman chuckled. “You seem to be having an interesting time of it,

Ellen Kaminski.

“That’s not my name,” said Kira, in no mood to talk. “Of course it isn’t.”

“Did you want something?”

“Why yes,” said the woman. “Yes I do. I wanted to tell you this: eat the path, or the path will eat you. To paraphrase an old quote.”

“Which means?”

For once Inarë appeared serious. “We all saw what you can do. It seems you have a larger part to play than most in this dismal scheme of ours.”

“What of it?”

The woman cocked her head, and in her eyes Kira saw unexpected depth, as if she’d arrived at the crest of a hill to discover a yawning chasm beyond. “Only this, and this alone: circumstances press hard upon us. Soon all that will be left to you, or to any of us, is bare necessity. Before that happens, you must decide.”

Kira frowned, almost angry. “And what exactly am I supposed to decide?”

Inarë smiled and shocked Kira by patting her on the cheek. “Who you want to be, of course. Isn’t that what all of our decisions come down to? Now I really must be off. People to annoy, places to escape. Choose well, Traveler. Think long. Think fast. Eat the path.”

Then the woman pushed herself away from the wall and floated out of the cargo hold into the Malpert spaceport. On her back, the large, maned cat continued to stare at Kira, and it uttered a mournful yowl.

Eat the path. The phrase wouldn’t leave Kira’s mind. She kept turning it over, gnawing on it as she tried to understand.

Across the hold, Hwa-jung shepherded a pair of loader bots that were pushing and pulling the four cryo pods from the Valkyrie. Through the frost-encrusted windows, Kira glimpsed Orso’s face, blue and deathly pale.

At least she hadn’t needed to eat him to survive. He and the other three were going to be in for a hell of a shock once the UMC thawed them out and told them what had been happening while they slept.…

“You’re a walking disaster, Navárez,” said Falconi, coming up. “That’s what you are.”

She shrugged. “Guess so.”

“Here.” He dug a handkerchief out of a pocket, spit on it, and without waiting for permission, started to wipe her face. Kira flinched. “Hold still. You’ve got blood everywhere.”

She tried not to move, feeling like a kid with a dirty face.

“There,” said Falconi, stepping back. “Better. That nose needs fixing, though. You want me to do it? I’ve had some experience with broken noses.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll ask a doctor,” she said. “The Soft Blade already healed me, so…”

Falconi winced. “Gotcha. Okay.”

Outside the ship, a series of exclamations went up from the refugees arrayed before the duty officers, and Kira saw people pointing at displays along the spaceport walls. “Now what?” she said. How much more bad news could there be?

“Let’s see,” said Falconi.

Kira brought up her overlays and checked the local news. The malignant newcomers were continuing their rampage across the system. They’d already destroyed most of the Jellies—and been destroyed in turn themselves—but the biggest headlines concerned Ruslan. Six of the newcomers had blasted past Vyyborg Station and the rest of the planet’s defenses and landed in the capital city of Mirnsk.

All but one.

That one ship had aimed itself at Ruslan’s space elevator, the Petrovich Express. Despite the planet’s orbital batteries. Despite the UMC battleship, the Surfeit of Gravitas, stationed around Vyyborg. Despite the numerous lasers and missile batteries mounted around the crown and base of the mega-structure. And despite the best design-work of countless engineers and physicists … despite all of those things, the alien ship had succeeded in ramming and severing the ribbon-shaped cable of the space elevator, three-quarters of the way to the asteroid that served as a counterweight.

As Kira watched, the upper part of the elevator (counterweight included) hurtled away from Ruslan at greater than escape velocity while the lower

section began to curve toward the planet, like a giant whip wrapping around a ball.

“Thule,” Kira murmured. The higher parts of the cable would either break off or burn up in the atmosphere. Farther down, though, close to the ground, the collapse would be devastating. It would obliterate most of the spaceport around its anchor point, as well as a long swath of land stretching off to the east. In absolute terms, the collapse wouldn’t cause that much damage, but for people close to the base, it would be an apocalyptic event. Imagining how terrified (and helpless) they had to be made her feel sick.

Several small, spark-like flares appeared along the length of cable still attached to Ruslan.

“What are those?” she asked.

“Transport pods, I bet,” said Falconi. “Most of them should be able to land safely.”

Kira shivered. Riding the beanstalk had been one of the more memorable experiences she’d had with Alan during their brief shore leave prior to the launch of the Adra survey mission. The view from high on the cable had been incredible. They’d been able to see all the way to the Numinous Flange, far to the north.… “Glad I’m not there,” she said.

“Amen to that.” Then Falconi gestured toward the spaceport. “Captain Akawe—the captain of the Darmstadt—is ready to see us.”


Falconi gave her a clipped nod. “The liaison officer said they have some questions for me. Probably about our little excursion to the Jelly ship.”

“Ah.” It comforted Kira to know she wouldn’t be facing the UMC by herself. Even if Falconi wasn’t a friend, she knew she could count on him to watch her back, and she figured saving Trig and Sparrow ought to have earned her some goodwill. “Alright, let’s go.”

“After you.”

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