Chapter no 20

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

From the Wallfish airlock, Falconi led Kira into a tunnel that burrowed through the rocky asteroid that Malpert was built on and in. They’d floated halfway around the circumference of the station before Kira realized they weren’t going to enter the rotating hab-ring closer to the center.

“Akawe wants to meet on the Darmstadt,” said Falconi. “I figure they think it’s more secure. No monsters running around.”

Kira wondered if she should be worried. Then she shrugged off the concern. It didn’t matter. At least she wouldn’t be in zero-g on the Darmstadt.

Evidence of the fight with the newcomers was everywhere. The air smelled of smoke, the walls were scorched and pocked, and the people they passed had round, staring expressions, as if they were still in shock.

The tunnel passed through a large dome, half of which was closed off behind doors that said Ichen Manufacturing. In front of the doors, Kira saw what remained of one of the unidentified aliens. The creature had been torn and splattered by bullets, but she could still make out its basic shape. Unlike the others, this one had black shards across its back: bone or shell, it was hard to tell. Double-jointed legs—three of them if she was counting correctly. Long, carnivorous jaw. Was that a second jaw near the prominence of the chest?

Kira moved closer, wishing she had a chip-lab, a scalpel, and a couple of uninterrupted hours to study the specimen.

Falconi’s hand on her shoulder stopped her. “We don’t want to keep Akawe waiting. Bad idea.”

“Yeah…” Kira turned away from the corpse. All she wanted to do was her job, and the universe kept conspiring to prevent it. Fighting wasn’t her thing; she wanted to learn.

So then why had she stabbed the Numenist? Rat bastard though he was, the man hadn’t deserved a blade to the chest.…

A pair of Marines in heavy power armor was waiting for them outside the airlock to the Darmstadt. “No weapons allowed,” said the near Marine, holding up a hand.

Falconi grimaced but unbuckled his belt and handed it and his pistol to the Marine without protest.

The pressure door rolled open.

“Ensign Merrick will show you the way,” said the Marine.

Merrick—a thin, stressed-looking man with a smear of grease on his chin and a bloody bandage taped to his forehead—was waiting for them inside. “After me,” he said, leading them deeper into the UMC cruiser.

The layout of the Darmstadt was identical to that of the Extenuating Circumstances. It gave Kira uncomfortable flashbacks of running through corridors while listening to the sounds of alarms and gunfire.

Once they passed through the hub of the ship and transitioned to the rotating hab spokes, they were again able to walk normally, which Kira welcomed.

Ushering them into a small meeting room with a table in the middle, Merrick said, “Captain Akawe will be with you directly.” Then he left, closing the pressure door behind him.

Kira remained standing, as did Falconi. He seemed as conscious as she was that the UMC had them under surveillance.

They didn’t have to wait long before the door slammed open and four men filed in: two Marines (who remained standing by the entrance) and two officers.

The captain was easy to identify by the bars on his uniform. Of medium height, with dark skin and a five o’clock shadow, he had the over-stimmed look of someone who hadn’t gotten a proper sleep for several days. There was something about his face that struck Kira as being too symmetrical, too perfect, as if she were looking at a mannequin brought to life. It took her a moment to realize, the captain’s body was a construct.

The other officer looked to be the second-in-command. He was lean, with a heavy jaw and creases like scars along his hollow cheeks. His shortcut hair was receding, and his eyes glowed with the deep, predatory yellow of a tigermaul’s.

Kira had heard stories about soldiers who chose to have the gene-hack so they could see better during combat, but she’d never met anyone with the mod.

Akawe went around the table and sat at the single chair on that side. He motioned. “Sit.” His second-in-command remained standing by his side, back regulation-straight.

Kira and Falconi obeyed. The chairs were hard and uncomfortable, devoid of padding.

Akawe crossed his arms and eyed them with something akin to disgust. “Goddamn. What a sorry-looking pair you are. Wouldn’t you agree, First Officer Koyich?”

“Sir, yes I would, sir,” replied the yellow-eyed man.

The captain nodded. “Damn right. Let me be clear here, Mr. Falconi, and Ms. Whatever-your-name-is, I don’t have time to waste on you. There’s an honest-to-god alien invasion going on, I’ve got a damaged ship that needs attending to, and for some reason Command is chewing on my ass to get everyone from the Valkyrie shipped back to Vyyborg yesterday. They are pissed that you decided to change course and head for Malpert instead of Ruslan. If that weren’t enough, you kicked up a real hornets’ nest by boarding that Jelly ship. I don’t know what kind of bullshit you’re trying to pull, but you have exactly thirty seconds to convince me you have anything worth saying.”

“I can understand the Jellies’ language,” said Kira.

Akawe blinked, twice, and then said, “Somehow I doubt that. Twenty-five seconds and counting.”

She lifted her chin. “My name is Kira Navárez, and I was the lead xenobiologist on the team sent to survey the planet Adrasteia at Sigma Draconis. Four months ago, we discovered an alien artifact on Adrasteia, which led to the destruction of the UMCS Extenuating Circumstances.

Akawe and Koyich exchanged glances. Then the captain uncrossed his arms and leaned forward. He templed his fingers under his chin. “Okay, Ms. Navárez, you now have my undivided attention. Enlighten me.”

“I need to show you something first.” She raised a hand, held it palm up. “You have to promise not to overreact.”

Akawe snorted. “I seriously doubt there is anything—”

He stopped as a cluster of spikes emerged from her hand. Behind her, Kira heard the Marines lift their weapons, and she knew they were aiming at her head.

“It’s safe,” she said, straining to hold the spikes in place. “Mostly.” She relaxed and allowed her palm to smooth over.

Then she started to tell her story.

Kira lied.

Not about everything, but—as with the crew of the Wallfish—she lied about how her friends and teammates had died on Adra, blamed it on the Jellies. It was stupid of her; if Akawe thawed out Orso or his companions and debriefed them, her lies would become obvious. But Kira couldn’t help herself. Admitting her role in the deaths, especially Alan’s, was more than she could bear to face at the moment. If nothing else, she feared it would confirm Falconi’s worst impression of her.

Aside from that, she told the truth as best she understood it, up to and including her discovery regarding the Staff of Blue. She also gave them Vishal’s test results, all of the recordings she’d made with her contacts while on the Jelly ship, and her transcriptions of the xeno’s memories.

When she finished, there was a long, long silence, and she could see the eyes of both Akawe and Koyich darting back and forth as they messaged each other.

“What do you have to say about all this, Falconi?” asked Akawe.

Falconi made a wry expression. “Everything she told you about her time on the Wallfish checks out. I’d just add that Kira saved the lives of two of my crew today, for whatever that’s worth. You can check our records if you want.” He didn’t mention anything about her stabbing the Numenist, and for that, Kira was grateful.

“Oh we will,” said Akawe. “You can bet your ass.” His eyes blanked. “One minute.”

There was another uncomfortable pause, and then the UMC captain shook his head. “Command back at Vyyborg confirms your identity, as well as the discovery of a xenoform artifact on Adrasteia, but the details are

classified need-to-know only.” He eyed Kira. “Just to confirm, you can’t tell us anything about these nightmares that just showed up?”

She shook her head. “No. But as I said, I’m pretty sure the Jellies didn’t make the suit. Some other group or species was responsible.”

“The nightmares?”

“I don’t know, but … if I had to guess, I’d say no.”

“Uh-huh. Okay, Navárez, this is way above my pay grade. It looks like the Jellies and the nightmares are busy killing each other off. Once the shooting dies down, we’ll get you over to Vyyborg and let Command figure out what to do with you.”

The captain started to stand, and Kira said, “Wait. You can’t.” Akawe raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“If you send me to Vyyborg, it’s just going to be a waste of time. We have to find the Staff of Blue. The Jellies seem convinced that it’ll win the war for them. I believe it too. If they get the staff, that’s it. We’re dead. All of us.”

“Even if that’s true, what do you expect me to do about it?” asked Akawe. He crossed his arms.

“Go after the staff,” said Kira. “Get it before the Jellies.” “What?” said Falconi, looking just as startled as the UMC guys.

She kept talking. “I told you; I have a good idea of where the staff is. The Jellies don’t. I’m sure they’re already searching for it, but if we start now, we might be able to beat them to it.”

Akawe pinched the bridge of his nose, as if he had a headache. “Ma’am … I don’t know how you think the military works, but—”

“Look, do you think there’s any chance the UMC and League won’t want to go after the staff?”

“That depends on what Fleet Intelligence makes of your claims.”

Kira struggled to contain her frustration. “They can’t afford to ignore the possibility that I’m right, and you know it. And that’s the thing: if an expedition is going to go after the staff—” She took a breath. “—then I have to go with it. They’ll need me there, on the ground, to translate. No one else can do it.… Shipping me off to Vyyborg is a waste of time, Captain. Waiting for Intelligence to vet everything I’ve said is a waste of time, and they can’t. We need to go, and we need to go now.”

Akawe stared at her for a good half minute. Then he shook his head and sucked his bottom lip against his teeth. “Goddammit, Navárez.”

“Now you know what I’ve been dealing with,” Falconi said.

Akawe pointed a finger at him, as if about to chew him out. Then he seemed to reconsider and folded the finger into his fist. “You may be right, Navárez, but I still have to run this up the chain of command. It’s not the sort of decision I can make on my own.”

Exasperated, Kira let out a sound. “Don’t you see, that’s—”

Akawe pushed back his chair, got to his feet. “I’m not going to sit here arguing with you, ma’am. We have to wait to hear what Command says, and that’s the end of it.”

“Fine,” said Kira. She leaned forward. “But you tell them—you tell your superiors—that if they keep me here in Sixty-One Cygni, the whole system is going to be overrun. The Jellies know where I am now. You saw how they reacted when that signal went out. The only way to stop them from getting this”—she tapped her forearm—“is for me to leave the system. And if the UMC sends me to Sol, that’ll be another two weeks down the drain, and it’ll just lead a lot more Jellies to Earth.”

There. She’d said the magic word: Earth. The semi-mythical Homeworld that everyone in the UMC had sworn to protect. It had the desired effect. Both Akawe and Koyich appeared troubled.

“I’ll tell them, Navárez,” said the captain, “but don’t get your hopes up.” Then he gestured at the Marines. “Get her out of here. Put her in a spare cabin and make sure she doesn’t leave.”

“Sir, yessir!”

As the Marines flanked her, Kira looked at Falconi, feeling helpless. He seemed angry, frustrated by the shape of things, but she could see he wasn’t going to argue with Akawe. “Sorry it worked out like this,” he said.

Kira shrugged as she got to her feet. “Yeah, me too. Thanks for everything. Give Trig my goodbyes, okay?”

“Will do.”

Then the Marines escorted her out of the meeting room, leaving Falconi sitting alone, facing Akawe and his tiger-eyed first officer.

Kira seethed as the Marines escorted her through the cruiser’s interior. They deposited her in a cabin smaller than the one on the Wallfish, and when they left, the door locked behind them.

“Gaaah!” Kira shouted. She paced the length of the room—two and a half steps in each direction—and then dropped onto the bunk and buried her head in her arms.

This was exactly what she hadn’t wanted to happen.

She checked her overlays. Still working, but she was locked out of the Darmstadt’s network, making it impossible to see what was going on in the rest of the system or to message any of the Wallfish crew.

All she could do was wait, so wait she did. It wasn’t easy.

She went over the conversation with Akawe six different ways, trying to figure out what else she could have said to convince him. Nothing came to mind.

Then, in the stillness and quiet of the room, the full weight of the day’s events began to settle upon her. Morning felt like it had been a week ago, so much had happened since. The Jellies, the compulsion and her response to it, Sparrow … How was the Numenist she’d stabbed? For a moment, she lingered on the thought, then bright flashes of sensations from the fights on the Jelly ship struck her, and Kira shivered, though she wasn’t cold.

She continued to shiver, the tremors locking her muscles into banded cords. The Soft Blade roiled in response, but there was nothing it could do to help, and she could feel its confusion.

Teeth chattering, Kira crawled onto the bunk and wrapped the blanket around herself. She’d always done well in emergencies. It took a lot to rattle her, but the violence had been a lot and then some. She could still feel the vomit stuck in her throat, clogging her airway. Thule! I nearly died.

But she hadn’t, and there was some comfort in the fact.

Not long after, a scared-looking crewmate delivered a tray of food. Kira pulled herself out of bed long enough to fetch the tray, and then she sat with the pillow behind her and ate, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. With each bite, she felt more normal, and when she finished, the cabin no longer seemed quite so grey or dismal.

She wasn’t about to give up.

If the UMC wouldn’t listen to her, maybe the highest-ranked League official in the system would. (She wasn’t sure who that would be: the governor of Ruslan?) The UMC still answered to the civilian government, after all. There was also the company rep stationed on Malpert. He could arrange legal representation for her, which would help give her some leverage. As a last resort, she could always reach out to the Entropists for help.…

Kira reached into her pocket and pulled out the token Jorrus had given her. She tilted the faceted disk, admiring how light reflected off the fractal embedded in the center.

No, she wasn’t about to give up.

She put away the token, opened a document in her overlays, and started to draft a memo outlining everything she’d learned about the Soft Blade, the Jellies, and the Staff of Blue. Someone in authority had to understand the importance of her discoveries and realize they were worth taking a chance on.

She’d only written a page and a half when a sharp rap sounded against the door. “Come in,” she said, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and sitting upright.

The door opened, and Captain Akawe entered. He was holding a cup of what smelled like coffee, and there was a stern look on his perfectly sculpted face.

Behind him, an orderly and a pair of Marines remained stationed just outside the cabin.

“Seems today is a day for nasty surprises,” said the captain. He seated himself opposite her, on the cabin’s sole chair.

“What now?” Kira asked, overtaken by sudden dread.

Akawe placed the cup on the shelf next to him. “All the Jellies in the system are dead.”

“That’s … good?”

“It’s fan-fucking-tastic,” he said. “And it means their FTL jamming is also gone.”

Understanding dawned on Kira. Maybe she could finally get a message through to her family! “You picked up news from the rest of the League.” It wasn’t a question.

He nodded. “Sure did. And it’s not exactly cheery.” He plucked a shiny blue coin from his breast pocket, studied it a moment, and then pocketed it again. “The nightmares didn’t just hit Sixty-One Cygni. They’ve been attacking all of settled space. The Premier has officially designated both them and the Jellies Hostis Humani Generis. Enemies of all humans. That means shoot on sight, no questions asked.”

“When did the nightmares first appear?”

“Not sure. We haven’t heard yet from the colonies on the other side of the League, so can’t say what’s happening out there. The earliest reports we have are from a week ago. Here, look.”

Akawe tapped a panel on the wall, and a display sprang to life.

A series of clips played: a pair of the nightmare ships crashing into a manufacturing facility in orbit around one of the moons of Saturn. A civilian transport exploding as a long, reddish missile slammed into it. Ground footage from somewhere on Mars: nightmares swarming through the cramped corridors of a hab-dome while Marines blasted at them from behind barriers. A view out one of the floating cities of Venus as fragments of destroyed ships rained down through the layers of cream-colored clouds

—a burning fusillade that slammed into another of the broad, disk-shaped platforms a few kilometers away, destroying it. On Earth: a huge glowing crater amid a great sprawl of buildings somewhere along a snowy coastline.

Kira sucked in her breath at that. Earth! She had no great love for the place, but it was still shocking to see it attacked.

“It’s not just the nightmares either,” said Akawe. He tapped the panel again.

Now the clips showed Jellies. Some fighting the nightmares. Others fighting the UMC or civilians. The recordings were from throughout the League. Sol. Stewart’s World. Eidolon. Kira even saw a snippet of images from what she thought might have been Shin-Zar.

To her dismay, one of the clips appeared to have been recorded in orbit around Latham, the gas giant farthest out from Weyland: a short video of two Jelly ships strafing a hydrogen processing station low in the atmosphere.

Kira wasn’t surprised; the war was everywhere else, why not there? She just hoped the fighting hadn’t reached Weyland’s surface.

At last, Akawe stopped the parade of horrors.

Kira tightened in on herself. She felt raw and hurt, vulnerable. Everything in those videos was, in a way, her fault. “Do you know what’s happening at Weyland?”

He shook his head. “Just what you saw, plus a few reports of possible Jelly forces on one of the moons in the system. Unconfirmed.”

Not the reassurance Kira was looking for. She resolved to look up the specifics once she got access to the net again. “How bad is it overall?” she asked, her voice low.

“Bad,” said Akawe. “We’re losing. They won’t break us tomorrow. And they won’t break us the day after. But at this rate, it’s inevitable. We’re bleeding ships and troops faster than we can replace them. And there’s no real protection against the sort of suicide runs the nightmares seem fond of.” Again the glowing crater appeared on the screen. “That’s not even the worst of it.”

Kira braced herself. “Oh?”

Akawe leaned forward, a strange, hard gleam in his eyes. “Our sister vessel, the Surfeit of Gravitas, blew up the last of the nightmares in this system exactly twenty-five minutes ago. Just before the nightmares got blasted to kingdom come, do you know what those pestilent, dick-skinned aliens did?”


“Well I’ll tell you. They sent out a broadcast. And not just any broadcast.” An evil, humorless smile split his face. “Let me play it for you.” Across the speakers came a hiss of static, and then a voice sounded—a horrible, crackling voice full of sickness and madness—and with a shock, Kira realized it was speaking in English: “… die. You will all die! Flesh for the maw!” And the voice began to laugh before the recording abruptly


“Captain,” Kira said, choosing her words with care, “does the League have some sort of bioengineering program they haven’t told us about?”

Akawe grunted. “Dozens of them. But nothing that could have created creatures like that. You should know; you’re a biologist yourself.”

“At this point,” said Kira, “I’m not sure what I know anymore. Okay, so these … nightmares can use our language. Maybe that’s why the Jellies think we’re responsible for this war. Either way, these things must have been watching us, studying us.”

“Must have, and that makes me real uncomfortable.”

Kira eyed him for a moment, evaluating. “You didn’t come here just to tell me the news, now did you, Captain?”

“No.” Akawe smoothed a wrinkle from his slacks. “What did Command say?”

He looked down at his hands. “Command … Command is headed up by a woman named Shar Dabo. Rear Admiral Shar Dabo. She’s in charge of Ruslan operations. Good officer, but we don’t always see eye to eye.… I had a talk with her, a long talk, and…”

“And?” Kira said, trying to be patient.

Akawe noticed. His lips twitched, and he continued more briskly, “The admiral agreed with the seriousness of the situation, which is why she forwarded all your intel to Sol in order to get guidance from Earth Central.” “Earth Central!” Kira hissed and threw up her hands. “That’s going to

take, what—”

“About nine days to get a response,” said Akawe. “Assuming the stiffs back home turn out a reply without delay, which would be a miracle. An actual, honest-to-god miracle.” A frown puckered his brow. “It won’t do any good, even if they’re expeditious. Jellies have been jumping into this system every few days for the past month. As soon as the next batch shows up, they’ll jam us again, fuck up our comms from here to Alpha Centauri. Which means we’ll have to wait for a packet ship to get here from Sol before we receive our orders. And that’ll take at least eighteen, nineteen days.”

He leaned back and picked up his cup. “Until then, Admiral Dabo wants me to bring you, your suit, and those frozen Marines from the Extenuating Circumstances back to Vyyborg.”

Kira eyed him, trying to make sense of his motives. “And you don’t agree with her orders?”

He took a sip of coffee. “Let’s just say Admiral Dabo and I are experiencing a difference of opinions right now.”

“You’re thinking about going after the staff, aren’t you?”

Akawe pointed at the crater still glowing in the holo. “You see that? I have friends and family back at Sol. A lot of us do.” He wrapped both hands around his cup. “Humanity can’t win a war on two fronts, Navárez. Our backs are against the wall, and there’s a gun aimed at our heads. At this

point, even bad choices are starting to look pretty good. If you’re right about the Staff of Blue, it could mean we actually have a chance.”

She didn’t bother hiding her exasperation. “That’s what I was saying.” “Yes, but your say-so isn’t good enough,” said Akawe. He took another

sip, and she waited, sensing that he needed to talk things out for himself. “If we go, we’d be disobeying orders or, at the very least, ignoring them. Leaving the field of battle is still grounds for capital punishment, if you weren’t aware. Cowardice before the enemy, and all that. Even if that weren’t the case, you’re talking about a deep-space mission that would last a minimum of six months, round-trip.”

“I know what it would—”

“Six. Months,” Akawe repeated. “And who knows what would happen while we were gone.” He shook his head slightly. “The Darmstadt took a beating today, Navárez. We’re in no shape to go jetting off into the ass-end of the Milky Way. And we’re just one ship. What if we get there and there’s a whole Jelly fleet waiting for us? Boom. We’d lose what might be our only advantage: you. Hell, we don’t even know for sure if you can understand the Jellies’ language. That suit of yours could be messing with your brain.”

He swirled the coffee in his cup. “You have to understand the situation, Navárez. There’s a lot at stake. For me, for my crew, for the League.… Even if I’d known you since the first day of boot, there’s no way I can go jetting off to who knows where just on the strength of your word.”

Kira crossed her arms. “So then why are you here?”

“I need proof, Navárez, and it needs to be something more than just your word.”

“I don’t know how to give you that. I already told you everything I know.… Do you have any computers salvaged from a Jelly ship? I might be able to—”

Akawe was shaking his head. “No, we don’t. Besides, we’d still have no way to confirm what you’re saying.”

She rolled her eyes. “What the hell do you want then? If you don’t trust me—”

“I don’t.”

“If you don’t trust me, what’s the point of this conversation?”

Akawe drew a hand across his chin while he studied her. “Your implants were burned out, is that right?”


“Pity. A wire scan could resolve this right quick.”

Anger burbled up within her. “Well, sorry to disappoint.”

He didn’t seem put off. “Let me ask you this: When you extend different parts of the xeno, can you feel the extensions? Like when you ripped the transmitter out of the wall, all those little tendrils, could you feel them?”

The question was so off-topic, it took Kira a second to answer. “Yes.

They feel just like my fingers or toes.”

“Uh-huh. Okay.” Akawe surprised her then by unbuttoning the cuff of his right sleeve and rolling back the fabric. “Seems I might have a solution to our standoff, Ms. Navárez. It’s worth a shot, in any case.” He dug his fingernails into the underside of his bared wrist, and Kira winced as the skin peeled up in a rectangular shape. Even though she knew Akawe’s body was artificial, it looked so realistic, the sight of the skin lifting was still disconcerting on a visceral level.

Wires and circuits and pieces of bare metal were visible within Akawe’s arm.

As he fished out a line from inside his own forearm, the captain said, “This is a direct neural uplink, same as we use in implants, which means it’s analog, not digital. If the xeno can interface with your nervous system, then it ought to be able to do the same with me.”

Kira took a moment to think the idea through. It seemed unlikely, but— she had to concede—theoretically possible. “You realize how dangerous this could be?”

Akawe held out the end of the line toward her. It looked like fiber optic, even though she knew it wasn’t. “My construct has a bunch of built-in safeguards. They’ll protect me if there’s a surge in electricity or—”

“They won’t protect you if the xeno decides to crawl into your brain.”

Akawe pushed the line toward her, his expression serious. “I’d rather die right now, trying to stop the Jellies and the nightmares, than sit around doing nothing. If there’s even a chance this could work…”

She took a deep breath. “Alright. If something happens to you, though


“You won’t be held accountable. Don’t worry. Just try to make this work.” A glint of humor appeared in his eyes. “Trust me, I don’t want to die, Ms. Navárez, but this is a risk I’m willing to take.”

She reached out and closed her hand around the end of the neural link. It was warm and smooth against her palm. Shutting her eyes, Kira pushed the skin of the suit toward the end of the lead, urging it to join, to meld, to become.

The fibers on her palm stirred, and then … and then a faint shock ran up her arm. “Did you feel that?” she asked.

Akawe shook his head.

Kira frowned as she concentrated on her memories from the Jelly ship, trying to push them through her arm, toward Akawe. Show him, she thought, insistent. Tell him.… Please. She did her best to convey a sense of urgency to the Soft Blade, to make it understand why this was so important.

“Anything?” she said, her voice tight with strain. “Nothing.”

Kira gritted her teeth, put aside any concern for the captain’s safety, and imagined her mind pouring through her arm and into Akawe’s, like an unstoppable torrent of water. She exerted every gram of mental energy she had, and just when she reached her limit and was about to give up—just then, a wire seemed to snap in her head, and she felt another space, another presence touching herself.

It was not so different from joining the direct feed of two sets of implants, only more chaotic.

Akawe stiffened, and his mouth fell open. “Oh,” he said.

Again, Kira impressed her desire on the Soft Blade. Show him. She reviewed her memories of the ship, including as much detail as she could, and when she finished, the captain said, “Again. Slower.”

As Kira did, sudden bursts of images interrupted her thoughts: A set of stars. The Highmost standing dark against the swirling shine. A pair of crossed arms. The Staff of Blue, the fearsome Staff of Blue.…

“Enough,” Akawe gasped.

Kira relaxed her grip on the neural link, and the connection between them vanished.

The captain sagged backwards against the wall. The lines on his face made him appear almost normal. He fed the data cord back into his forearm and sealed the access panel.

“Well?” said Kira.

“That was certainly something.” Akawe pulled down his sleeve, buttoned the cuff. Then he picked up his cup and took a long drink. He made a face. “Goddamn. I love my coffee, Navárez. But it’s never tasted right since I got stuck in this construct.”

“Is that so.”

“Indeed it is. Losing your body isn’t like getting a paper cut, no sir. It happened to me, oh, fourteen years ago now. Back during a nasty little skirmish with the Ponder Union at the Ceres shipyards. You know why they call it the Ponder Union?”

“No,” said Kira, struggling to suppress her impatience. Had the Soft Blade knocked something loose inside his brain?

Akawe smiled. “Because they sit around all day not working. Pondering the inner workings of bureaucracy and how best to twist it to their advantage. Things got pretty heated between the union and the shipyard during contract negotiations, so my unit was sent in to settle things down. Soothe the savage beast. Oil on troubled waters. Peacekeeping mission, my ass. We ended up facing off with a crowd of protesters. I knew they meant trouble, but they were civilians, you see? If we’d been in a combat zone, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Post overwatch, deploy drones, secure the perimeter, force the crowd to disperse. The whole nine yards. But I didn’t because I was trying to avoid escalating the situation. There were kids there, for crying out loud.”

Akawe peered at her over the rim of his cup. “The crowd got all riled up, and then they hit us with a microwave that fried our drones. The bastards had been planning on ambushing us the whole time. We started taking fire from our flanks…” He shook his head. “I went down in the first volley. Four Marines ended up dead. Twenty-three civilians, and a whole lot more injured. I knew the protesters were up to no good. If I’d just acted—if I hadn’t waited—I could have saved a whole lot of lives. And I’d still be able to taste a mug of good old joe the way it’s supposed to be.”

Kira smoothed the wrinkles in the blanket by her knee. “You’re going after the staff,” she said, flat. The thought was daunting.

Akawe tossed back the rest of the coffee in a single gulp. “Wrong.” “What? But I thought—”

“You’ve misunderstood, Navárez. We’re going.” And Akawe gave her a disconcerting grin. “This may be the worst decision I’ve ever made, but I’ll

be damned if I’m going to sit around and let a bunch of aliens wipe us out. One last thing, Navárez, are you ab-so-lute-ly sure there’s nothing else we should know? Any tiny bit of relevant information that might have slipped to the back of your brain? My crew is going to be risking their lives on this. Hell, we might be risking a whole lot more than just our lives.”

“I can’t think of anything,” Kira said. “But … I do have a suggestion.” “Why does that make me nervous?” said Akawe.

“You should take the Wallfish with you.”

The captain fumbled and nearly dropped his cup. “Did you just seriously suggest bringing a civilian ship and crew—a group of rim runners—on a military mission to some ancient alien installation? Is that what I heard, Navárez?”

She nodded. “Yeah. You can’t leave Sixty-One Cygni undefended, so the Surfeit of Gravitas has to stay, and none of the mining ships here on Malpert are set up for a long-haul mission. Besides, I don’t know their crews and I wouldn’t trust them.”

“And you trust Falconi and his people?”

“In a fight? Yes. With my life. As you said, you might need backup when we get to where the staff is. The Wallfish isn’t a cruiser, but it can still fight.”

Akawe snorted. “It’s a piece of dogshit; that’s what it is. It wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in a shooting contest with a Jelly.”

“Maybe, but there’s one other point you haven’t thought of.” “Oh really? Do share.”

Kira leaned forward. “Cryo doesn’t work on me anymore. So you have to ask yourself: How comfortable will you be with me—with this xeno— wandering around your state-of-the-art UMC ship for months on end while you’re frozen stiff?” Akawe didn’t answer, but she could see the wary look in his eyes. Then she added: “Don’t think you can just lock me up for the duration, either. I had enough of that already.” She grabbed the edge of the bunk and willed the Soft Blade to tighten around the frame until it crushed the composite.

Akawe stared at her for an uncomfortable length. Then he shook his head. “Even if I were inclined to agree with you, there’s no way an old cargo tub like the Wallfish could keep pace with the Darmstadt.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Why don’t you check?”

The captain snorted again, but she saw his gaze shift as he focused on his overlays, and his throat moved as he subvocalized orders. His eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. “It seems your friends”—he put particular emphasis on the word—“are full of surprises.”

“Can the Wallfish keep up?”

He inclined his head. “Close enough. I suppose smugglers have the incentive to move fast.”

Kira resisted the urge to defend the Wallfish crew. “See? Not all surprises today are bad.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” “Also—”

“Also? What more can there be?”

“There were two Entropists traveling on the Wallfish. Jorrus and Veera.”

Akawe’s perfectly shaped eyebrows rose. “Entropists, eh? That’s quite a passenger list.”

“You might want to bring them along as well. If we’re going to be looking at alien tech, their expertise would be useful. I can translate, but I’m no physicist or engineer.”

He grunted. “I’ll take it under consideration.” “So is that a yes for the Wallfish?”

The captain drained the last of his coffee and stood. “Depends. It’s not as easy as you make it out to be. I’ll let you know once I decide.”

Then he left, and the smell of coffee lingering in the air was the only evidence of his visit.

Kira let out her breath. They were actually going to go after the Staff of Blue, and she was going to see the system the Soft Blade had shown her! It hardly seemed real.

She wondered what the name of the old, red star was. It must have one.

Unable to bear sitting any longer, she hopped up and started to pace the small space of the cabin. Would Falconi agree to accompany the Darmstadt if Akawe asked? She wasn’t sure, but she hoped so. Kira wanted the Wallfish to go with them for all the reasons she’d given Akawe, but also for her own selfish reasons. After her experience on the Extenuating

Circumstances, she didn’t want to end up trapped on a UMC ship for months at a time, subject to constant surveillance by their doctors and their machines.

Although she wouldn’t be as vulnerable as before. She touched the fibers along her forearm, tracing them. Now that she could control the Soft Blade

—some of the time, at least—she could hold her own against a trooper in power armor if need be. And with the xeno, she could easily escape a quarantine room like the one on the Extenuating Circumstances.… The knowledge kept her from feeling helpless.

An hour passed. Kira heard thuds and booms resonating through the cruiser’s hull. Repairs, she guessed, or supplies being loaded. But it was hard to be sure.

Then an incoming call popped up on her overlays. She accepted it and found herself looking at a video of Akawe backed by several consoles. The man looked annoyed.

“Navárez: I had a friendly-like chat with Captain Falconi about your proposition. He’s proving to be a real sumbitch when it comes to setting terms. We’ve promised him all the antimatter his ship can carry and pardons for the whole crew, but he’s refusing to say yes or no until he talks with you. You willing to have a word with him?”

Kira nodded. “Patch him through.”

Akawe’s face vanished—although Kira was sure he was still monitoring the line—and was replaced by Falconi’s. As always, his eyes were two bright chips of ice. “Kira,” he said.

“Falconi. What’s with the pardons?”

A hint of discomfort appeared in his expression. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Captain Akawe said you want to talk?”

“Yeah. This crazy-ass idea of yours … are you sure, Kira? Are you really, really sure?”

His question was so similar to Akawe’s earlier, Kira nearly laughed. “As sure as I can be.”

Falconi tilted his head to one side. “Sure enough to risk your life on it?

My life? Trig’s? How about Runcible’s?”

At that Kira did crack a smile, if only a tiny one. “I can’t make you any promises, Falconi—”

“I’m not asking for any.”

“—but yeah, I think this is as important as it gets.”

He studied her for a moment and then jerked his chin in a sharp nod. “Okay. That’s what I needed to know.”

The line went dead, and Kira closed her overlays.

Maybe ten minutes later, someone knocked on her door and a woman’s voice sounded: “Ma’am? I’m here to escort you to the Wallfish.

Kira was surprised by the strength of her relief. Her gamble had paid off.

She opened the door to see a short, startled woman: a junior officer of some kind, who said, “Right this way, ma’am.”

Kira followed her back out of the Darmstadt and onto the space dock. As they left the cruiser, the two Marines in power armor stationed by the entrance joined them, following at a discreet distance. Although, as Kira reflected, it was hard for power armor to be anything close to discreet.

Familiarity washed over Kira as they neared the Wallfish. The cargo hold door was still open, and loader bots were streaming in and out, depositing crates of food and other supplies throughout the hold.

Trig was there, as were Nielsen and Falconi. The captain lowered the clipboard he was holding and gave her a look. “Welcome back, Navárez. Guess we’re going on a jaunt because of you.”

“Guess so,” she said.

You'll Also Like