Departure from Malpert Station was a quick and hurried affair. Kira had been on plenty of expeditions where the preparation took nearly as long as the trip itself. Not so in this case. The crew moved with purpose to ready the Wallfish for the journey to come, rushing through work that normally would have taken days. Captain Akawe had given orders that the Malpert port authority was to give them every possible help, and that sped things up also.
While loader bots filled the starboard hold with supplies and, outside, pipes funneled hydrogen into the Wallfish’s tanks, the crew swapped empty air canisters for full, removed waste, and replenished stores of water.
Kira helped as she could. Talk was limited on account of the work, but when the opportunity arose, she pulled Vishal aside, where the others couldn’t hear. “What happened with the Numenist?” she asked. “Is he okay?”
The doctor blinked, as if he’d forgotten. “The—Oh, you mean Bob.” “Bob?” Somehow Kira had trouble imagining calling the purple-haired
“Yes, yes,” said Vishal. He twirled a finger by his temple. “He was crazy as a spacebird, but other than that, he was fine. A few days’ rest and he’ll be as good as new. He did not seem to mind that you stabbed him.”
The doctor shook his head. “No. It was a point of some pride with him, even though he promised to—and I quote here, Ms. Navárez—‘knock off her knobblestone head,’ end quote. I believe he meant it too.”
“I suppose I’ll have to keep an eye out for him,” Kira said, trying to sound as if everything were alright. But it wasn’t. She could still feel the spines of the Soft Blade sliding into the Numenist’s knotted flesh. She had
done that. And this time, she couldn’t claim ignorance, as with her team on Adra.
Then they returned to readying the Wallfish for departure.
Soon afterward—so soon that it surprised Kira—Falconi was on the line to the UMC cruiser, saying, “We’re just waiting on you, Darmstadt. Over.”
After a moment, First Officer Koyich responded: “Roger that, Wallfish.
Alpha Team will be there shortly.”
“Alpha Team?” Kira asked as Falconi ended the call. They were in the cargo hold, overseeing the last delivery of foodstocks.
He grimaced. “Akawe insisted on having some of his men on board to keep an eye on things. Nothing I could do about it. We’ll have to be ready in case they cause trouble.”
Nielsen said, “If there’s a problem, I’m sure we’ll be able to deal with it.” She gave Kira a hard glance and then fixed her gaze straight ahead.
Kira hoped she hadn’t made an enemy of the first officer. Either way, there wasn’t anything she could do about it; the situation was what it was. At least Nielsen wasn’t being actively unpleasant toward her.
Alpha Squad arrived a few minutes later: four Marines in exos, towing boxes of equipment wrapped in webbing. Accompanying them were loader bots carrying cryo tubes and several long, plastic crates. The lead Marine jetted over to Falconi, saluted, and said, “Lieutenant Hawes, sir. Permission to come aboard.”
“Permission granted,” said Falconi. He pointed. “There’s room for you in the port hold. Feel free to move whatever you need.”
“Sir, yes sir.” Then Hawes motioned with one hand, and a loader bot moved to the front, pushing a pallet with a containment bottle suspended from shock-absorbing springs within a metal frame.
Kira resisted the urge to leave. None of the planet-based spaceports she knew of were allowed to sell antimatter. If the magnetic bottle failed, the resulting blast would not only destroy the port (while also setting off the antimatter contained in the other parked ships), but also take out any nearby settlement, town, city, etc. Hell, Earth didn’t even allow ships equipped with Markov Drives to land unless they off-loaded their antimatter onto one of several refueling stations in high orbit.
The presence of the containment bottle seemed to make Falconi nervous as well. “Down the hall to the ladder. My machine boss will meet you there,” he said to the bot. He gave it a wide berth as it floated past.
“One more thing, sir,” said Hawes. “Sanchez! Bring them up!”
From the back came a Marine leading the bots that carried the long, plastic crates. On the sides of the crates were printed or stenciled lines of red text: Cyrillic on top, English below.
The English said RSW7-Molotók and was followed by a logo of a star going nova and the name Lutsenko Defense IndustriesRM. And bracketing both the English and the Cyrillic were the black-and-yellow symbols for radiation.
“A gift from Captain Akawe,” said Hawes. “They’re local-made, so they aren’t UMC equipment, but they should do the trick in a pinch.”
Falconi nodded, serious. “Stash them over by the door. We’ll get them to the launch tubes later.”
In an undertone, Kira asked Nielsen, “Are those what I think they are?” The first officer nodded. “Casaba-Howitzers.”
Kira tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. The missiles would be packed full of fissionable material, and fission scared her nearly as much as antimatter. It was the dirty, nasty form of nuclear energy. Shut down a fusion reactor, and the only radioactive materials left were those that had been made radioactive by neutron bombardment. Shut down a fission reactor, and you had a deadly, possibly explosive pile of unstable elements with a half-life that meant they would stay hazardous for thousands of years.
Kira hadn’t even known the ship had missile launchers. She ought to have asked Falconi exactly what sort of weapons were installed on the Wallfish before they’d gone after the Jelly ship.
The Marines filed past, the thrusters on their suits producing small jets of vapor. Trig, who was next to the captain, stared with big eyes, and Kira could tell he was bursting with questions for the men.
A few minutes later, the Entropists showed up, travel bags in hand. “Imagine seeing you here again,” said Falconi.
“Hey!” said Trig. “Welcome back!”
The Entropists caught hold of a grip on the wall and dipped their heads as best they could. “We are most honored to be here.” They looked at Kira,
their eyes bright sparks beneath the hoods of their robes. “This is an opportunity for knowledge that we could not possibly decline. None of our order could.”
“That’s all well and good,” said Nielsen. “Just stop talking double. It gives me a headache.”
The Entropists again inclined their heads, and then Trig led them off to the cabin where they would be staying.
“You have enough cryo tubes?” Kira asked. “We do now,” said Falconi.
After a flurry of final preparations, the door to the starboard hold was closed and Gregorovich announced in his usual, demented way: “This is your ship mind ssspeaking. Please make sssure all your belongings are sssafely stored in the overhead compartmentsss. Lash yourself to the massst, me hearties: decoupling commencing, RCS thrusting impending. We’re off to parts unknown to tweak the nose of fate.”
Kira headed to Control, slipped into one of the crash chairs, and strapped herself down. The rest of the crew was there, save Hwa-jung—who was still down in engineering—and Sparrow—who was recovering in sickbay. The Entropists were in their cabin, and Alpha Squad was in the port hold, still locked into their exos.
As the Wallfish’s RCS thrusters gently pushed them away from Malpert, keeping its tail end pointed away from the station to avoid frying the dock with residual radiation from the rocket’s nozzle, Kira sent a text to Falconi:
<How did you convince everyone to say yes to this? – Kira>
<It took some doing, but they know what’s at stake. Besides, we’re getting antimatter, pardons, a shot at finding alien tech no one else has seen before. We’d be dumb to turn this down. – Falconi>
<Nielsen didn’t seem too happy about it. – Kira>
<That’s just how she is. I’d be surprised if she were happy jetting off into the unknown. – Falconi>
<What about Gregorovich? – Kira> If he’d disagreed, Kira couldn’t see how Falconi would have been able to take the Wallfish anywhere.
The captain’s fingers started tapping the side of his leg. <He seems to believe it’ll be great fun. His words. – Falconi>
<Don’t take this the wrong way, but has Gregorovich ever gotten a psych evaluation? It’s mandatory for ship minds, isn’t it? – Kira>
Across the room, she saw Falconi make a subtle face. <Yup. Every six months(ish)—real time—once they’re installed in a new ship and then every year after that, assuming their results are stable.… We were up against a deadline when we rescued Gregorovich, so it took a while before we got into dock. He’d settled down by then, enough to pass the tests. – Falconi>
<He passed?! – Kira>
<With flying colors. And every one after that. – Falconi> He gave her a sideways glance. <I know what you’re thinking, but ship minds get graded differently than you or I. Their ’normal’ is broader than ours. – Falconi>
She chewed on that for a moment. <What about a psychiatrist? Has Gregorovich seen anyone to help him with what he went through, being stranded on that moon? – Kira>
A faint snort from Falconi. <Do you know how many psychiatrists are qualified to deal with ship minds? Not. Many. Most of them are in Sol, and most of them are ship minds themselves. YOU try analyzing a ship mind and see how far you get. They’ll pick you apart and put you back together without you even realizing. It’s like a three-year-old trying to play chess with a pseudo-intelligence. – Falconi>
<So you just do nothing? – Kira>
<I’ve offered to take Gregorovich in more than once, but he always refuses. – Falconi> A faint rise and fall of his shoulders. <The best therapy for him is being with other people and being treated like everyone else in the crew. He’s a lot better than he used to be. – Falconi>
That wasn’t as reassuring as the captain seemed to think it was. <And you’re okay with him running the ship for you? – Kira>
Another, sharper glance from Falconi. <*I* run the Wallfish, thank you very much. And yes, I’m very okay with Gregorovich. He’s gotten us out of more scrapes than I care to remember, and he’s an important and valued member of my crew. Any other questions, Navárez? – Falconi>
Kira decided it was better not to press her luck, so she gave a tiny shake of her head and switched to the view from the outside cameras.
When the Wallfish was a safe distance from Malpert, the thrust alert sounded, and then the main rocket fired. Kira swallowed and let her head fall back against the chair. They were on their way.
The Darmstadt followed some hours behind the Wallfish. Repairs and the need to take on a rather substantial amount of food for the crew had slowed its departure. Still, the cruiser would catch up with the Wallfish by the following morning.
It would take them a day and a half to reach the Markov Limit, and then … Kira shivered. And then they would go FTL and leave the League far behind. It was a daunting prospect. Work had often taken her to the very fringes of settled space, but she’d never ventured so far as this. Few people had. There was no good financial reason; only research expeditions and survey missions went out into the vast unknown.
The star they were heading to was an unassuming red dwarf that had only been detected within the past twenty-five years. Remote analysis indicated the presence of at least five planets in orbit, which aligned with what the Soft Blade had shown her, but no sign of technological activity had been picked up by the League’s telescopes.
Sixty light-years was a staggeringly enormous distance. It would put a significant strain on both the ships and the crews. The ships would have to pop in and out of FTL numerous times along the way to shed their excess heat, and while it was safe to stay in cryo for far longer than the three months it would take to reach the distant star, the experience would still take its toll on both mind and body.
The toll would be greatest for Kira. She wasn’t looking forward to enduring another bout of dreaming hibernation so soon after arriving from Sigma Draconis. Lengthwise, the duration would be similar, as the Valkyrie had been far slower than either the Wallfish or the Darmstadt. Kira just hoped she wouldn’t have to starve herself again in order to convince the Soft Blade to induce dormancy.
Thinking about what lay ahead wouldn’t make it easier, so she pushed it from her mind. “How is the UMC reacting to us leaving?” she asked, unclasping her harness.
“Not well,” said Falconi. “I don’t know what Akawe told them back at Vyyborg, but it can’t have made them happy, because they’re threatening us with all sorts of legal hellfire if we don’t turn around.”
Gregorovich chuckled, and his laugh echoed through the ship. “It’s most amusing, their impotent rage. They seem quite … panicked.”
“Can you blame them?” Nielsen said.
Falconi shook his head. “I’d hate to be the one who has to explain to Sol how and why they lost not only an entire cruiser but also Kira and the suit.”
Then Vishal said, “Captain, you should see what’s happening on local news.”
“What channel?” “RTC.”
Kira switched to her overlays and searched for the channel. It came right up, and in front of her, she saw footage of a ship interior recorded from someone’s implants. Screams sounded, and a man’s body flew past, collided with another, smaller person. It took Kira a second to realize she was looking at the inside of the Wallfish’s hold.
A knotted, writhing shape swung into view: a Jelly. The person recording focused on the alien just as it threw something off-screen. Another scream rent the air; that scream, Kira remembered.
Then she saw herself fly past, like a black spear from above, and grapple with the Jelly while a long, bladed spike sprang from her skin and impaled the thrashing alien.
The video froze, and in voice-over, a woman said, “Could this battlesuit be a product of the UMC’s advanced weapons programs? Possibly. Other passengers confirmed that the woman was rescued from a UMC shuttle a few days before. Which makes us wonder: What other technology is the League hiding from us? And then there’s this incident from earlier today. Once more, a warning to sensitive viewers: the following footage contains graphic material.”
The video resumed, and Kira again saw herself: this time attempting to subdue the purple-haired Numenist. He smashed his head back into her face, and then she stabbed him, not so differently from the Jelly.
From the outside, the sight was more frightening than Kira had realized. No wonder the refugees had looked at her the way they did; she would have also.
The reporter’s voice-over returned: “Was this a justifiable use of force or the reaction of a dangerous, out-of-control individual? You decide. Ellen
Kaminski was later seen being escorted to the UMCN cruiser the Darmstadt, and it seems unlikely she will ever face criminal charges. We attempted to interview the passengers who spoke with her. This was the result—”
The footage resumed, and Kira saw the Entropists being approached in a hallway somewhere on Malpert. “Excuse me. Wait. Excuse me,” said the off-screen reporter. “What can you tell us about Ellen Kaminski, the woman who killed the Jelly on the Wallfish?”
“We have nothing to say, Prisoner,” said Veera and Jorrus together. They ducked their heads, hiding behind the hoods of their robes.
Next Felix Hofer appeared, holding his niece’s hand. “The Jelly was going to shoot Nala here. She helped save her. She helped save all of us. As far as I’m concerned, Ellen Kaminski is a hero.”
Then the camera cut to the woman Inarë, standing on the space dock, knitting away with a smug look on her face. Her tassel-eared cat peeked around her nest of curly hair from where it lay across her shoulders.
“Who is she?” said Inarë, and smiled in the most unsettling way. “Why, she’s the fury of the stars. That’s who she is.” Then she laughed and turned away. “Goodbye now, little insect.”
The reporter’s voice-over returned as the image of Kira impaling the Jelly filled the display again. “The fury of the stars. Who is this mysterious Ellen Kaminski? Is she a new breed of supersoldier? And what of her battlesuit? Is it an experimental bioweapon? Unfortunately, we may never find out.” The view shifted to a close-up of Kira’s face, dark-eyed and threatening. “Whatever the truth, we know one thing well-certain, saya: the Jellies must fear her. And for that, if nothing else, this reporter is grateful. Fury of the Stars, Starfury—whoever she really is, it’s good to know she’s fighting on our side.… For RTC News, this is Shinar Abosé.”
“Goddammit,” said Kira, closing her overlays.
“Looks like we’re leaving at just the right time,” said Falconi. “Yeah.”
Across the room, Trig smirked and said, “Starfury. Ha! Can I call you that now, Ms. Navárez?”
“If you do, I’ll hit you.”
Nielsen tucked several loose strands of hair back into her ponytail. “This might not be the worst thing. The more people know about you, the more
difficult it will be for the League to hide you away and pretend the Soft Blade doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe,” said Kira, unconvinced. She didn’t have that much faith in the accountability of governments. If they wanted to disappear her, they would, regardless of public sentiment. Plus, she hated the exposure. It made acting with any sense of anonymity difficult to impossible.
With the Wallfish on course and under thrust, the crew dispersed throughout the ship as they continued to ready it for the trip to come. As Trig said, “It’s been ages since we went superluminal!” There were supplies to reorganize, systems to test and prep, loose objects to store (every pen and cup and blanket and other miscellaneous item the UMC had left out after searching the Wallfish had to be secured prior to the extended period of zero-g they were about to embark upon), and scores of tasks, small and large, that needed attending to.
The day was already getting late, but Falconi insisted they prep while they could. “Never know what might happen tomorrow. Could end up with another batch of hostiles breathing down our necks.”
His logic was difficult to argue with. At Hwa-jung’s request, Kira went to the cargo hold and helped her uncrate the repair bots they’d received from Malpert Station: replacements for the ones lost when they boarded the Jelly ship.
After a few minutes of silence, Hwa-jung glanced over at Kira and said, “Thank you, for killing that thing.”
“You mean the Jelly?” “Yes.”
“You’re welcome. I’m just glad I was able to help.”
Hwa-jung grunted. “If you hadn’t been there…” She shook her head, and Kira saw unaccustomed emotion on the woman’s face. “Someday, I buy you soju and beef as a thank-you, and we will get drunk together. You and me and little Sparrow.”
“I look forward to it.…” Then Kira said, “Are you okay with us going after the Staff of Blue?”
Hwa-jung never slowed as she removed a bot from its packaging. “We will be a long way from space dock if the Wallfish breaks. It is good the Darmstadt is with us, I think.”
“And the mission itself?”
“It needs doing. Aish. What else is there to say?”
As they were finishing with the last crate, a text popped up in Kira’s vision: <Come see me in the hydroponics bay when you can. – Falconi>
<Be there in five. – Kira>
She helped Hwa-jung dispose of the excess packaging, and then Kira made her excuses and hurried out of the cargo hold. Once in the main shaft, she said, “Gregorovich, where’s the hydro bay?”
“One deck up. End of the corridor, once left, once right, and there you shall be.”
The scent of flowers greeted Kira as she approached the hydroponics bay
—flowers and herbs and algae and all manner of green and growing things. The smells reminded Kira of the greenhouses on Weyland and of her father fussing over his Midnight Constellations. She felt a sudden longing to be outdoors, surrounded by living things, and not trapped in ships that stank of sweat and machine oil.
The aromas multiplied as the pressure door swung open and Kira walked into a bank of humid air. Aisles of hanging plants filled the room, along with dark, sloshing vats that contained the algae cultures. Above, nozzles misted the rows of greenery.
She stopped, struck by the sight. The bay was not unlike the one on Adrasteia, where she and Alan had spent so many hours, including that last, special night, when he had proposed.
Sadness wafted over her, as poignant as any scent.
Falconi stood near the back, bent over a worktable while he trimmed a plant with a drooping, wax-petaled flower—white and delicate—of a sort Kira was unfamiliar with. His sleeves were rolled up to expose his scars.
That Falconi had an interest in gardening wasn’t something Kira had expected. Belatedly she remembered the bonsai in his cabin.
“You wanted to see me?” she said.
Falconi clipped a leaf off the plant. Then another. Each time his shears closed with a decisive snip. All of the plants had to be reprocessed before entering FTL. They couldn’t survive unattended for such a long trip, and moreover, keeping them alive would produce too much waste heat. A few special ones might get put into cryo—she wasn’t sure what sort of equipment the Wallfish had—but those would be the only ones saved.
Falconi put down the shears and stood with both hands on the worktable. “When you stabbed the Numenist—”
“That’s right, Bob the Numenist.” Falconi didn’t smile, and neither did Kira. “When you stabbed him, was it you or the Soft Blade that did the stabbing?”
“Both, I think.”
He grunted. “Can’t decide if that makes it better or worse.”
Shame twisted Kira’s gut. “Look, it was an accident. It won’t happen again.”
He gave her a low, sideways look. “You sure about that?” “I—”
“Doesn’t matter. We can’t afford another accident like Bob. I’m not going to let more of my crew get injured, not by the Jellies and sure as hell not by that suit of yours. You hear me?” He fixed her with a stare.
“I hear you.”
He didn’t seem convinced. “Tomorrow, I want you to go see Sparrow. Talk with her. Do what she tells you. She has some ideas that might help you control the Soft Blade.”
Kira shifted her weight, uncomfortable. “I’m not arguing, but Sparrow isn’t a scientist. She—”
“I don’t think you need a scientist,” said Falconi. His brow knotted. “I think you need discipline and structure. I think you need training. You fucked up with the Numenist, and you fucked up on the Jelly ship. If you can’t keep that thing of yours on a leash, you need to stay in your quarters from now on, for the sake of everyone.”
He wasn’t wrong, but his tone rankled her. “How much training do you think I can do? We’re leaving Cygni day after tomorrow.”
“And you’re not going into cryo,” Falconi retorted. “Yes, but—”
His glare intensified. “Do what you can. Go see Sparrow. Sort your shit out. This isn’t a debate.”
The back of Kira’s neck prickled, and she squared her shoulders. “Are you making that an order?”
“Since you asked, yes.” “Is that all?”
Falconi turned back to the workbench. “That’s all. Get out of here.” Kira got.
After that, Kira didn’t feel much like interacting with the rest of the crew. Not for work and not for dinner.
She retreated to her cabin. With the lights dimmed and her overlays turned off, the room appeared particularly bare, cramped, and shabby. She sat on the bed and stared at the battered walls and found nothing in their appearance to like.
Kira wanted to be angry. She was angry, but she couldn’t bring herself to blame Falconi. In his place, she would have done the same. Even so, she remained unconvinced that Sparrow could be of any help.
She covered her face with her hands. Part of her wanted to believe that she wasn’t responsible for answering the compulsion on the Jelly ship or for stabbing Bob the Numenist—that somehow the suit had twisted her mind, acted of its own volition, either out of ignorance or a desire to seed its own destructive mischief.
But she knew better. No one had forced her to do either thing. In both cases, she’d wanted to. Blaming her actions on the Soft Blade was only an excuse—an easy out from the harsh reality.
She took a shivering breath.
Not everything had gone wrong, of course. Learning about the Staff of Blue was an unalloyed good, and Kira hoped with every fiber of her being that she hadn’t misunderstood and that finding it would lead to a favorable outcome. Even so, the thought did nothing to reduce the guilt that gnawed at her.
Kira couldn’t bring herself to rest, tired though she was. Her mind was too active, too wired. Instead, she activated her cabin’s console and checked
the news on Weyland (it was exactly as Akawe had said) and then started to read everything she could find about the nightmares. It wasn’t much. They were so recently arrived both in 61 Cygni and elsewhere, no one had been able to do a proper analysis of them. At least not at the time of the broadcasts that had reached Cygni.
She’d been sitting there for perhaps half an hour when a message from Gregorovich appeared in the corner of her vision:
The crew is gathering in the mess hall, if you wish to partake, O Spiky Meatbag. – Gregorovich
Kira closed the message and kept reading.
Not fifteen minutes later, a loud pounding on the door jolted her. From outside came Nielsen’s voice. “Kira? I know you’re there. Come join us. You need to eat.”
Kira’s mouth was so dry, it took her three tries before she was able to muster enough moisture to answer: “No thanks. I’m fine.”
“Nonsense. Open up.” “… No.”
Metal clanked and screeched as the wheel outside the pressure door turned, and then the door itself swung open. Kira sat back and crossed her arms, somewhat offended. Out of habit, she’d thrown the privacy lock. No one should have been able to barge in on her, even though she knew half the crew probably could override the lock.
Nielsen entered and looked down at her with an exasperated expression.
Defensive, Kira forced herself to meet the woman’s gaze.
“Let’s go,” said Nielsen. “The food’s warm. It’s just microwaved rations, but you’ll feel better with something in you.”
“It’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
Nielsen studied her for a moment and then closed the door to the cabin and—to Kira’s surprise—sat on the other end of the bed. “No, it’s not okay. How long are you going to stay in here?”
Kira shrugged. The surface of the Soft Blade prickled. “I’m tired, that’s all. Just don’t want to see anyone.”
“Why? What are you afraid of?”
For a moment Kira wasn’t going to answer. Then, defiant, she said, “Myself. Alright? Happy now?”
Nielsen seemed unimpressed. “So you screwed up. Everyone screws up.
What matters is how you deal with it. Hiding isn’t the answer. It never is.” “Yeah, but…” Kira had difficulty finding the words.
“I don’t know if I can control the Soft Blade!” Kira blurted out. There. She’d said it. “If I get angry again or excited or … I don’t know what might happen and…” She trailed off, miserable.
Nielsen snorted. “Bullshit. I don’t believe you.” Shocked, Kira failed to find a response before the first officer said, “You’re perfectly capable of eating dinner with us and not killing anyone. I know, I know, alien parasite and all that.” She gazed at Kira from under her brow. “You lost control because Bob the Numenist broke your nose. That’s enough to piss off anyone. No, you shouldn’t have stabbed him. And maybe you shouldn’t have responded to the signal on the Jelly ship. But you did, it’s done, and that’s the end of it. You know what to watch out for now, and you won’t let it happen again. You’re just scared to face everyone. That’s what you’re afraid of.”
“You’re wrong. You don’t understand wh—”
“I understand plenty. You messed up, and it’s hard to go out and look them in the eye. So what? The worst thing you can do is hide here and act like nothing happened. If you want to earn their trust back, come out, take your licks, and I guarantee they’ll respect you for it. Even Falconi. Everyone screws up, Kira.”
“Not like this,” Kira mumbled. “How many people have you stabbed?”
Nielsen’s expression grew tart. So did her voice: “You think you’re so special?”
“I don’t see anyone else infected with an alien parasite.”
A loud bang as Nielsen slapped the wall. Kira jumped, startled. “See, you’re fine,” said Nielsen. “You didn’t stab me. Imagine that. Everyone screws up, Kira. Everyone has their own shit they deal with. If you weren’t stuck so far up your own ass, you’d see. Those scars on Falconi’s arms? They’re not a reward for avoiding mistakes, I can tell you that.”
“I…” Kira trailed off, ashamed.
Nielsen leveled a finger at her. “Trig hasn’t had it easy either. Nor Vishal nor Sparrow nor Hwa-jung. And Gregorovich is just chock-full of wise life decisions.” Her mocking tone left no doubt about the actual truth.
“Everyone messes up. How you deal with it is what determines who you are.”
“What about you?”
“Me? We’re not here to talk about me. Pull yourself together, Kira.
You’re better than this.” Nielsen stood. “Wait.… Why do you care?”
For the first time, Nielsen’s expression softened, just slightly. “Because that’s what we do. We fall down, and then we help each other back up again.” The door creaked as she opened it. “Are you coming? The food is still warm.”
“Yeah. I’m coming.” And though it wasn’t easy, Kira got to her feet.
It was well past midnight, but everyone was in the galley except for Sparrow and the Marines. Despite Kira’s fears, no one made her feel unwelcome, although she couldn’t help feeling that everyone was judging her … and that she was lacking. Still, the crew didn’t say anything unpleasant, and the only time the subject of the Numenist came up was when Trig made a sideways reference to him, which Kira, taking Nielsen’s advice from before, acknowledged in a straightforward manner.
There was some kindness as well. Hwa-jung brought her a cup of tea, and Vishal said, “You come see me tomorrow, yes? I will fix your nose for you.”
Falconi snorted. He had barely looked at her. “It’s going to hurt like hell if anesthetic doesn’t work on you.”
“That’s alright,” said Kira. It wasn’t, but pride and a sense of responsibility wouldn’t let her admit otherwise.
Everyone seemed exhausted, and for the most part, the galley was silent, each person lost in their own thoughts, eyes focused on overlays.
Kira had just started eating when the Entropists surprised her by sitting in front of her. They leaned in over the top of the table, eager eyes in eager faces: twins with different bodies.
“Yes?” she said.
Veera said, “Prisoner Navárez, we have discovered—”
“—the most exciting thing. As we were making our way across Malpert Station, we—”
“—came across the remains of one of the nightmares and—” “—we succeeded in taking a tissue sample.”
Kira perked up. “Oh?”
The Entropists gripped the edge of the table together. Their fingernails whitened with the pressure. “We have spent all this time—”
“—studying the sample. What it shows—” “Yes?” she said.
“—what it shows,” Jorrus continued, “is that the nightmares—” “—don’t share the same genomic makeup as either—”
“—the Soft Blade or the Jellies.”
The Entropists sat back, smiling with evident delight at their discovery. Kira put down her fork. “Are you telling me there are no similarities?” Veera bobbed her head. “Similarities, yes, but—”
“—only similarities born of basic chemical necessity. Otherwise, the entities are entirely unalike.”
That confirmed Kira’s initial, instinctual reaction, but still, she wondered. “One of the nightmares had tentacles. I saw it. What about that?”
The Entropists nodded together, as if pleased. “Yes. In form familiar, but in substance, foreign. You may have also seen—”
“—arms and legs and eyes and fur and other—”
“—growths reminiscent of Earth-based life. But the nightmare we examined contained—”
“—no closeness to Terran DNA.”
Kira stared at the pile of soggy rations on her plate as she thought. “What are they, then?”
A paired shrug from the Entropists. “Unknown,” said Jorrus. “Their underlying biological structure appears—”
“—unformed, incomplete, contradictory—” “—malignant.”
“Huh.… Can I see your results?” “Of course, Prisoner.”
She looked back up at them. “Have you shared this with the Darmstadt
“We just sent over our files.”
“Good.” Akawe should know the sorts of creatures they were dealing with.
The Entropists returned to their own table, and Kira slowly continued eating as she scoured the documents they’d sent her. It amazed her the amount of data they’d been able to gather without a proper lab. The tech built into their robes was seriously impressive.
She paused when the four Marines showed up in their drab olive greens. Even out of power armor, the men were imposing. Their bodies bulged and rippled with unnatural levels of lean muscle; living anatomy charts that screamed of strength, power, and speed—their physiques the result of a whole suite of genetic tweaks the military employed in their frontline troops. Even though none of them looked like they had grown up in high-g, like Hwa-jung, Kira had no doubt they were just as strong, if not more so. They reminded her of pictures she’d seen of animals with myostatin deficiencies. Hawes, Sanchez … she didn’t know the names of the other two.
The Marines didn’t stay to eat, just heated water for tea or coffee, grabbed a few snacks, and left. “Won’t be getting in your way, Captain,” said Hawes on the way out.
Falconi gave them a casual salute.
The technical details of the nightmares’ biology were deep and varied, and Kira found herself lost in the more obscure points. Everything the Entropists had said was true, but they had barely begun to capture the sheer weirdness of the nightmares. By comparison, the Jellies, with all their genetic manipulation, were positively straightforward. But the nightmares … Kira had never seen anything resembling them. She kept stumbling across snatches of chemical sequences that seemed familiar, but only seemed. The cellular structure of the nightmares wasn’t even stable, and as for how that was possible, she hadn’t the slightest idea.
Her plate had long been empty, and she was still reading when a glass thumped down next to her plate, causing her to jump.
Falconi stood next to her, holding a bouquet of glasses in one hand and several bottles of red wine in the other. Without asking, he filled her glass halfway. “Here.”
Then he walked around, handing out glasses to the crew and Entropists, and filling them.
Finished, he lifted his own glass. “Kira. Things didn’t work out how any of us expected, but if it weren’t for you, there’s a good chance we’d all be dead. Yeah, it’s been a rough day. Yeah, you ticked off every Jelly from here to kingdom come. And yeah, we’re racing off to god knows where because of you.” He paused, his gaze steady. “But we’re alive. Trig is alive. Sparrow is alive. And we have you to thank for that. So this toast is for you, Kira.”
At first no one else joined in. Then Nielsen reached out and lifted her own glass. “Hear, hear,” she said, and the others echoed her.
An unexpected film of tears blurred Kira’s vision. She raised her wine and mumbled thanks. For the first time, she didn’t feel quite so horribly out of place on the Wallfish.
“And in the future, let’s not do any of this again,” said Falconi, sitting down.
A few chuckles followed.
Kira eyed her drink. Half a glass. Not too much. She downed it in a single motion and then sat back, curious what would happen.
Across the mess hall, Falconi gave her a wary look.
A minute passed. Five minutes. Ten. And still Kira felt nothing. She made a face, disgusted. After the abstinence of the past few months, she ought to have gotten at least a slight buzz.
But no. The Soft Blade was suppressing the effects of the alcohol. Even if she’d wanted to get drunk, she couldn’t.
It shouldn’t have, but the realization angered Kira. “Damn you,” she muttered. No one—not even the Soft Blade—ought to be able to dictate what she could do with her body. If she wanted to get a tattoo or become fat or have a kid or do anything else, then she damn well ought to have that freedom. Without the opportunity, she was nothing more than a slave.
Her anger made her want to march over, grab a wine bottle, and drink the whole thing in a single go. Just to force the issue. Just to prove that she could.
But she didn’t. After what had happened that day, it terrified her to think of what the Soft Blade might do if she were drunk. And then too, she didn’t want to get hammered. Not really.
So she didn’t ask for more wine, content to hold and wait and not to tempt misfortune. And Kira noticed that although Falconi poured out a
second round for everyone else, he didn’t offer one to her. He understood, and she was grateful, if still a little resentful. Dangerous or not, she wanted the choice.
“Anyone want the rest?” Falconi asked, holding up the last bottle. It was still about a quarter full.
Hwa-jung took it from him. “Me. I will. I have extra enzymes.” The crew chuckled, and Kira felt relieved that she no longer had to think about the wine.
She turned the stem of the glass between her fingers, and a faint smile crept onto her face. With it she felt a sense of lightness. Nielsen had been right; it was good she’d come out to face the crew. Hiding hadn’t been the answer.
It was a lesson she needed to remember.
A green light was glowing at the desk console when Kira finally arrived back at her cabin, late that night. She stubbed her toe on the corner of the bed as she walked to the desk. “Ow,” she muttered, more out of reflex than any actual pain.
As expected, the message was from Gregorovich:
I know what you can do, but still I know not what you are. Again, I ask and asking wonder: what are you, O Multifarious Meatbag? – Gregorovich
She blinked and then typed her response.
I am what I am. – Kira
His reply was nearly instantaneous:
Bah. How pedestrian. How boring. – Gregorovich Tough. Sometimes we don’t get what we want. – Kira
Heave and bluster, boil and froth; you can’t conceal the void within your words. If knowledge were yours, then confidence too. But ’tisn’t, so isn’t. Cracked the pedestal, and perilous the statue that stands above. – Gregorovich
Blank verse? Seriously? Is that the best you can do? – Kira
A long pause followed, and for the first time, she felt as if she’d one-upped him. Then:
Amusements are hard to find when one finds oneself bounded in a nutshell. – Gregorovich
And yet, you might rightly be counted as a king of infinite space. – Kira
Were it not that I have bad dreams. – Gregorovich Were it not for the bad dreams. – Kira
… – Gregorovich
She tapped a fingernail against the console.
It’s not easy, is it? – Kira
Why should it be? Nature has no regard for those who squirm and crawl within its tainted depths. The storm that batters, batters all. None are spared. Not you, not I, not the stars in the sky. We bind our cloaks and bend our heads and focus on our lives. But the storm, it never breaks, never fades. – Gregorovich
Cheery. Thinking about it doesn’t really help, does it? The best we can do is, as you said, bend our heads and focus on our lives. – Kira
So don’t think. Be a sleeper devoid of dreams. – Gregorovich Maybe I will. – Kira
That doesn’t change the fact, the question yet remains: What are you, O Queen of Tentacles? – Gregorovich
Call me that again and I’ll find a way to put hot sauce in your nutrient bath. – Kira
An empty promise from an empty voice. The fearful mind cannot accept its limits. It shrieks and flees before admitting ignorance, unable to face the threat to its identity. – Gregorovich
You don’t know what you’re talking about. – Kira
Deny, deny, deny. It matters not. The truth of what you are will out, regardless. When it does, the choice is yours: believe or don’t believe. I care not which. I, for one, shall be prepared, whatever the answer may be. Until that time, I’ll spend my hours in watching you, watching most intently, O Formless One. – Gregorovich
Watch all you like. You won’t find what you’re looking for. – Kira
She closed the display with a flick of her finger. To her relief, the green light stayed dull and dead. The ship mind’s banter had left her unsettled. Still, she was glad she’d held her ground. Despite his assertions, Gregorovich was wrong. She knew who she was. She just didn’t know what the damn suit was. Not really.
Enough. She’d had enough.
She removed the Entropists’ gemlike token from her pocket and slipped it into the desk drawer. It would be safer there than if she carried it around everywhere. Then, with a grateful sigh, she peeled off her torn clothes. A quick scrub with a wet towel, and she fell into the bunk and wrapped herself in a blanket.
For a time, Kira couldn’t stop her mind from cycling. Images of the Jellies and the dead nightmare kept intruding, and at times Kira imagined she could smell the acrid scent Falconi’s grenades produced when they exploded. Again and again she felt the Soft Blade sliding into the flesh of the Jelly, and then that became confused with her memory of stabbing the Numenist and of Alan dead in her arms.… So many mistakes. So very many mistakes.
It was a struggle, but in the end, she managed to fall asleep. And despite what she’d said to Gregorovich, Kira dreamed, and while she dreamed, there came to her another vision:
In the golden light of summer’s eve, the sounds of shrieking filled the hungry forest. She sat upon a prominence, watching the play of life among the purple trees while awaiting the expected return of her companions.
Below, a centipede-like creature scurried forth from the gloom-shrouded underbrush and darted into a burrow beneath a clump of roots. Chasing it
was a long-armed, snake-necked, sloth-bodied predator with a head like a toothed worm and legs that jointed backward. The hunter snapped at the burrow, but too slow to catch its prey.
Frustrated, the snake-necked sloth sat on its haunches and tore with hooked and knobbled fingers at the earthen hole, hissing from its slitted mouth.
It dug and dug, growing more agitated the whole while. The roots were hard, the ground rocky, and little progress was made. Then the hunter reached into the burrow with one long finger, attempting to scoop out the centipede.
A screech rang forth as the snake-necked sloth yanked back its hand.
Blackish blood dripped from finger’s end.
The creature howled, though not with pain but with anger. It thrashed its head and trampled across the underbrush, crushing fronds and flowers and fruiting bodies. Again it howled, and then it grabbed the nearest trunk and shook it with such force, the tree swayed.
A crack echoed among the sweltering forest, and a cluster of spiked seed pods fell from the canopy and struck the sloth on the head and shoulders. It yelped and collapsed into the dirt, where it lay twitching and kicking while foam formed at the corners of its gaping maw.
In time, the kicking stopped.
Later still, the centipede-like creature ventured forth from its burrow, slow and timid. It climbed onto the slack neck of the sloth and sat there, feelers twitching. Then it bent and began to eat the soft meat of the throat.
Another of the now familiar disjunctions. She was crouched next to a tidal pool, shadowed from the heat of the harsh sun by a spur of volcanic rock. In the pool floated a translucent orb no bigger than her thumb.
The orb was not alive. But it was not dead. It was a thing in between. A potential unrealized.
She watched with hope, waiting for the moment of transformation, when potential might become actuality.
There. A soft movement of light from within, and the orb pulsed as if taking its first tentative breath. Happiness and wonder replaced hope at the gift of first life. What had been done would change all the fractures to
follow, first here and then—given time and fortune—in the great whirl of stars beyond.
And she saw it was good.