Chapter no 22

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira felt surprisingly well rested when she woke.

A thick layer of dust fell from her body as she sat up. She stretched and spat out the few grains that fell into her mouth. The dust tasted like slate.

She started to stand and realized she was sitting in a hole in the bedding. During the night, the Soft Blade had absorbed most of the blanket and mattress, as well as part of the composite frame beneath. Only a few centimeters of material still separated her from the reclamation equipment below.

Kira guessed the xeno must have needed to replenish itself after fighting the previous day. In fact, it felt thicker, as if it was adapting in response to the threats they’d faced. The fibers on her chest and forearms in particular seemed harder, more robust.

The responsiveness of the suit continued to impress her. “You know we’re at war, don’t you?” she murmured.

She turned on her console to find a message waiting for her:

Come see me once you’re up. – Sparrow

Kira made a face. She wasn’t looking forward to whatever Sparrow had planned for her. If it could help with the Soft Blade, then great, but Kira wasn’t convinced. Still, if she wanted to avoid antagonizing Falconi, then she had to play along, and she did need to figure out a better way to control the xeno.…

She closed Sparrow’s text and wrote to Gregorovich instead:

My bed and blankets need to be replaced. The suit ate through them last night. If it’s not too much trouble for a ship mind such as yourself, of course. – Kira

His reply was nearly instantaneous. Sometimes she envied the speed with which ship minds could think, but then she remembered how much she liked having a body.

Perhaps you should try feeding your ravenous leech something better than a smorgasbord of polycarbonates. It simply CAN’T be good for a growing parasite. – Gregorovich

Have any suggestions? – Kira

Why yes, yes I do. If your charming little symbiont insists upon chewing on my bones, I’d rather it be somewhere away from needed systems like oh, say, life support. In the machine room, we have raw stock for printing and repairs. Something in there should appeal to the palate of your alien overlord. Check with Hwa-jung; she can show you where it is. –Gregorovich

Kira raised her eyebrows. He was actually trying to be helpful, even if he couldn’t stop insulting her.

Why thank you. I’ll be sure to save you from immediate disintegration when my alien overlords take over the system. – Kira

Ahahaha. Truly, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard this century. You’re killing me here.… Why don’t you go cause some trouble, like a good monkey? That seems to be what you’re best at. – Gregorovich

She rolled her eyes and closed the window. Then—after dressing in her old jumpsuit and taking a moment to gather her thoughts—she activated the display camera and recorded a message for her family, much as she had on the Valkyrie. Only this time, Kira made no attempt to hide the truth. “We found an alien artifact on Adrasteia,” she said. “found it, actually.” She told them everything that had happened from then on, including the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances. Now that the existence of the Soft Blade was public knowledge, Kira saw no point in keeping the details from her family, no matter how the UMC or the League might have classified the information.

Following that, she recorded a similar message for Alan’s brother.

Her eyes were full of tears by the time she finished. She allowed them to flow freely, and then wiped her cheeks dry with the heels of her hands.

Accessing the Wallfish’s transmitter, she queued the two messages for delivery to 61 Cygni’s nearest FTL relay.

There was a good chance the League would intercept any signals from the Wallfish. There was an equally good chance that the Jellies were jamming her home system (as they had 61 Cygni) and that the message for her family wouldn’t get through. But she had to try. And Kira took some

comfort in knowing that a record of her words existed. As long as they remained preserved somewhere in the circuits and memory banks of the League’s computers, they might eventually reach their intended recipients.

Either way, she’d fulfilled her responsibility as best she could, and it was a weight off her mind.

She spent the next few minutes writing an account of the most recent dream from the Soft Blade. Then—resigned to what she felt sure was going to be an unpleasant experience with Sparrow—she hurried out of the cabin and headed toward the galley.

As she descended along the central ladder, Kira felt a sharp pain in her lower abdomen. She sucked in her breath, surprised, and stopped where she was.

That was odd.

She waited a little while but didn’t feel anything else. An upset stomach from the food the previous night or a small muscle strain, she guessed. Nothing to worry about.

She continued climbing.

At the galley, she set water to boil and then texted Vishal: <Does Sparrow prefer tea or coffee? – Kira> She figured she couldn’t go wrong by starting off with a peace offering.

The doctor answered just as the water boiled: <Coffee, and the blacker the better. – Vishal>

<Thanks. – Kira>

She made two cups: one chell, and one double-strength coffee. Then she carried the mugs to sickbay and knocked on the pressure door.

“Mind if I come in?”

“Door’s unlocked,” said Sparrow.

Kira pushed it open with her shoulder, careful not to spill the drinks.

Sparrow was sitting upright on the infirmary bed, perfectly manicured hands folded across her belly, a holo-display open in front of her. She didn’t look too bad, considering; her skin actually had some color, and her eyes were sharp and alert. Several layers of bandages wrapped her waist, and a small, square machine was clipped to the top of her pants.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said. “Is this a bad time?”

“It’s the only time we’ve got.”

Kira held out the mug with the two shots. “Vishal said you like coffee.”

Sparrow accepted the mug. “Mmm. I do. Although it makes me pee, and going to the bathroom is a pain in the ass right now. Literally.”

“Do you want chell instead? I have some.”

“No.” Sparrow inhaled the steam wafting from the coffee. “No, this is perfect. Thank you.”

Kira pulled over the doctor’s stool and sat. “How are you feeling?” “Good, considering.” Sparrow grimaced. “My side itches like crazy, and

the doc says there’s nothing he can do about it. Plus, I can’t digest food properly. He’s been feeding me through a drip.”

“Is he going to be able to patch you up before we leave?”

Sparrow took another sip. “Surgery is scheduled for tonight.” She looked at Kira. “Thanks for stopping that Jelly, by the way. I owe you.”

“You would have done the same,” said Kira.

The small, hard-faced woman smirked. “Suppose I would have. Might not have done any good without your xeno. You’re one scary mofo when you’re angry.”

The praise sat badly with Kira. “I just wish I could have gotten there faster.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Sparrow smiled more openly. “We gave those Jellies a hell of a surprise, eh?”

“Yeah … You heard about the nightmares?”

“Sure did.” Sparrow gestured at the display. “I was just reading the reports. Real shame what happened to Ruslan’s beanstalk. If only they’d had a proper defense network, they might have been able to save it.”

Kira blew on her chell. “You were in the UMC, weren’t you?”

“UMCM, technically. Fourteenth division, Europa Command. Seven years enlisted. Ooh-rah, baby.”

“That’s how you got MilCom access.”

“You know it. Used my lieutenant’s old login.” A feral smile crossed Sparrow’s lips. “He was a bastard anyway.” She cleared the display with an unnecessarily violent swipe. “They really should change those codes more often.”

“So now you work security. Is that it? You don’t just pick things up and put them down.”

“No, not really.” Sparrow scratched her side. “Most days it’s pretty boring. Eat, shit, sleep, repeat. Sometimes it’s more exciting. Knock a few heads together, cover Falconi’s back when he’s making deals, keep an eye on the cargo when we’re docked. That sort of thing. It’s a living. Beats sitting in a VR tank, waiting to get old.”

Kira could relate. She’d felt much the same when deciding to pursue xenobiology as a career.

“And every once in a while,” said Sparrow, bright fire kindling in her eyes, “you end up at the pointy end of the knife, like we did yesterday, and then you get to find out what you’re made of. Don’t you?”


Sparrow studied her, serious. “Speaking of knocking heads together, I saw the video of what you did to Bob.”

Another small, quick pain lanced her abdomen. Kira ignored it. “You knew him?”

“I met him. Vishal had him in here, pissing and moaning while he got stitched up.… So what went wrong in the hold?”

“Falconi must have told you.”

Sparrow shrugged. “Sure, but I’d rather hear it from you.”

The surface of Kira’s chell was dark and oily. On it, she could see her face in a warped reflection. “Short version? I got hurt. I wanted it to stop. I lashed out. Or rather the Soft Blade lashed out for me.… It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.”

“Were you angry? Did Bob’s idiot maneuver get under your skin?” “… Yeah. It did.”

“Uh-huh.” Sparrow caught her gaze by pointing at Kira’s face. “That nose of yours must have caused you all sorts of pain when it broke.”

She touched it, self-conscious. “Have you broken yours?” “Three times. Got it straightened out, though.”

Kira struggled to find the right words. “Look … Don’t take this the wrong way, Sparrow, but I really don’t see how you can help me with the xeno. I’m here because Falconi insisted, but—”

Sparrow cocked her head. “Do you know what the military does?” “I—”

“Let me tell you. The military accepts everyone who volunteers, assuming they meet the basic requirements. That means, at one end of the

spectrum, you get people who would just as soon cut your throat as shake your hand. And at the other end of the spectrum, you get people so timid they wouldn’t hurt a fly. And what the military does is teach both of them how and when to apply violence. That, and how to take orders.

“A trained Marine doesn’t go around stabbing guys just because they broke their nose. That would be a disproportionate use of force. You pull a stunt like that in the UMC, and you’ll be lucky to get court-martialed. And that’s if you don’t get yourself or your team killed. Losing your temper is a cop-out. A cheap cop-out. You don’t get to lose your temper. Not when lives are on the line. Violence is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. And its use should be as carefully calibrated as … as the cuts of a surgeon’s scalpel.”

Kira raised an eyebrow. “You sound more like a philosopher than a fighter.”

“What, you think all jarheads are stupid?” Sparrow chuckled before going serious again. “All good soldiers are philosophers, same as a priest or a professor. You have to be when you deal with matters of life and death.”

“Did you see any action when you were in the service?”

“Oh yeah.” She eyed Kira. “You think the galaxy is a peaceful place, and it is, for the most part. Ignoring the Jellies, your odds of getting hurt or killed in a violent encounter are lower now than at any other time in history. And yet more people are actually fighting—fighting and dying—than ever before. You know why?”

“Because there are more people alive now,” said Kira.

“Bingo. The percentages have gotten lower, but the overall numbers keep going up.” Sparrow shrugged. “So yeah. We saw a lot of action.”

Kira took her first sip of chell. It was rich and warm, with a spicy aftertaste like cinnamon. Her belly was hurting again, and she rubbed it without thinking. “Alright. But I still don’t see how you can help me control the suit.”

“I probably can’t. But I might be able to help you control yourself, and that’s the next best thing.”

“We don’t have a lot of time.”

Sparrow thumped herself on the chest. “don’t. But you’re going to have a whole hell of a lot of time while the rest of us are stuck in cryo.”

“And I’m going to spend most of it sleeping.”

“Most, not all.” Sparrow flashed a quick grin. “That gives you a real opportunity, Navárez. You can practice. You can better yourself. And ain’t that what we all want? To be the best we can be?”

Kira gave her a skeptical look. “That sounds like a recruitment slogan.” “Yeah well, maybe it is,” said Sparrow. “So sue me.” She gingerly

swung her legs over the edge of the exam table and slid down to the floor. “You need help?”

Sparrow shook her head and, with a wince, straightened her posture. “I can manage. Thanks.” She picked up a crutch next to the bed. “So have I recruited you or not?”

“I don’t think I have much of a choice, but—” “Sure you do.”

“But yes, I’m willing to give it a shot.”

“Outstanding,” said Sparrow. “That’s what I wanted to hear!” And she swung forward on her crutch and headed out of sickbay. “This way!”

Kira shook her head, put down her cup, and followed.

At the central shaft, Sparrow slid an arm through the center of the crutch and started to climb down the ladder, careful in her movements. She grimaced with obvious discomfort. “Thank god for painkillers,” she said.

Down the shaft they went, to the bottom deck. There, Sparrow led Kira into the port cargo hold.

Kira hadn’t seen much of it before. It mirrored the layout of the starboard hold, the main difference being the racks of supplies and equipment bolted to the floor. The four Marines had taken over a section between the aisles. There, they’d set up their suits of power armor, as well as their cryo tubes, sleeping bags, and various hard-cases of weapons and Thule knew what else.

At the moment, Hawes was doing pull-ups on a bar placed between two of the racks while the other three Marines were practicing throws and disarms on a patch of clear deck. They paused and straightened up when they noticed Kira and Sparrow.

“Yo, yo,” said one of the men. He had thick, dark eyebrows and lines of blue script in some language Kira didn’t recognize tattooed up and down the muscles of his bare arms. The tattoos shifted as he moved, like long waves on water. He pointed at Sparrow. “You were the one what got perforated by the Jelly, yeah?”

“That’s right, Marine.”

Then he pointed at Kira. “And you were the one what perforated the Jelly right quick, yeah?”

Kira dipped her head. “Yeah.”

For a moment she wasn’t sure how the man was going to react. Then he broke into a big smile. His teeth glittered with implanted nanowires. “Well done. Most excellent!” He gave them both a big thumbs-up.

One of the other Marines approached them. He was shorter, with huge shoulders and hands nearly as big as Hwa-jung’s. Looking at Kira, he said, “That means you’re the reason we’re off on this crazy-ass trip.”

She lifted her chin. “Afraid so.”

“Hey, not complaining. If it gets us the jump on the Jellies, I’m all for it. You convinced old man Akawe, so you’re good by me.” He held out one of his paw-like hands. “Corporal Nishu.”

Kira shook. His grip felt like it could crush rocks. “Kira Navárez.”

The corporal jerked his chin toward the tattooed Marine. “This ugly lug is Private Tatupoa. That one over there is Sanchez”—he pointed at a thin-faced Marine with mournful eyes—“and of course you met the lieutenant.”

“Yes I did.” Kira shook with Tatupoa and Sanchez, and said, “Pleased to meet you. Glad you’re on board.” She wasn’t sure if she was, but it was the right thing to say.

Sanchez said, “Any idea what to expect when we arrive at this system, ma’am?”

“The Staff of Blue, I hope,” said Kira. “Sorry I can’t tell you any more.

That’s all I know myself.”

Then Hawes came over. “Alright, that’s enough, everyone. Let the ladies be. I’m sure they’re busy.”

Nishu and Tatupoa gave them salutes and went back to grappling while Sanchez watched from the side.

Sparrow started past, and then she paused and looked at Tatupoa. “You’re doing it wrong, by the way,” she said.

The man blinked. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“When you tried to throw him.” She indicated the corporal. “I think we know what we’re after, ma’am. No offense.”

“You should listen to her,” said Kira. “She was in the UMCM also.”

Next to her, Sparrow stiffened, and Kira had a sudden feeling she’d made a mistake.

Hawes stepped forward. “That so, ma’am? Where’d you serve?” “Doesn’t matter,” said Sparrow. To the man with the tattoos, she said,

“Your weight needs to be more on your front foot. Step forward like you mean it and pivot, hard. You’ll feel the difference immediately.”

Then Sparrow continued on her way, leaving the four Marines looking after her with a combination of bemusement and speculation.

“Sorry about that,” said Kira once they were out of sight.

Sparrow grunted. “As I said, doesn’t matter.” The tip of her crutch caught on the side of a shelving unit, and she yanked it free. “Over here.”

Buried at the back of the hold, past the crates of rations and pallets of equipment, Kira saw three things: a treadmill (rigged up for use in zero-g), an exercise machine (all cables and pulleys and angled grips) of the sort she’d used on the Fidanza, and to her surprise, a full set of free weights (dumbbells and barbells and anchored piles of weighted disks—giant poker chips colored red, green, blue, and yellow). When every kilo cost you in propellant, every kilo became precious. The gym was a minor extravagance of a sort Kira hadn’t expected to find on the Wallfish.

“Yours?” she asked, gesturing at the weights.

“Yuh-huh,” said Sparrow. “And Hwa-jung’s. Takes a lot to keep her fit in one g.” With a huff, she lowered herself onto the bench and stretched her left leg out in front. She pressed a hand against her side, over the bandages. “You know the worst part about being injured?”

“Not being able to work out?”

“Bingo.” Sparrow gestured at her body. “This doesn’t happen by accident, you know.”

There was nowhere else to sit, so Kira squatted next to the bench. “Really? Didn’t you get gene-hacked like those guys?” She motioned back toward the Marines. “I read somewhere that with the tweaks you get in the UMC, you can sit around eating whatever you want and still be in shape.”

“It’s not quite that easy,” said Sparrow. “You still have to do cardio if you don’t want to get gassed. And you still have to work hard if you want to build top-end strength. Gene-hacks help, but they sure as fuck ain’t magic. As for those apes … there are degrees. Not everyone gets the same mods. Our guests are what are called R-Sevens. Means they got the full set of

augments. You gotta volunteer for ’em, though, as it ain’t healthy long term. The UMC won’t let you run like that for more than fifteen years, tops.”

“Huh. I didn’t know,” said Kira. She looked back at the weights. “So why are we here? What’s the plan?”

Sparrow scratched the side of her bladelike jaw. “Haven’t you figured it out? You’re going to lift weights.”

“I’m what?”

The short-haired woman chuckled. “Here’s the deal, Navárez. I don’t know you particularly well. But I do know that every time you screw up with the xeno, it seems to be when you’re stressed. Fear. Anger. Frustration. That sort of thing. Am I wrong?”


“Right. So the name of the game is discomfort. We’re going to impose some carefully calibrated stress, and we’re going to see what that does to you and the Soft Blade. Okay?”

“… Okay,” said Kira, cautious.

Sparrow pointed at the exercise machine. “We’ll start simple-like, since that’s all I can count on from you.”

Kira wanted to argue … but the woman had a point. So Kira swallowed her pride and sat. One by one, Sparrow talked her through a series of lifts, testing her strength and the strength of the Soft Blade. First on the machine, and then with the free weights.

The results, Kira thought, were impressive. With the Soft Blade’s help, she was able to move nearly as much as a heavy exoskeleton. Her relative lack of mass was the greatest limiting factor; the slightest wobble of the weight threatened to unbalance her.

Sparrow didn’t seem much pleased. As Kira struggled to squat a bar loaded with an absurd number of plates, the woman tsked and said, “Shit, you really don’t know what you’re doing.” With a growl, Kira straightened her legs and dumped the bar onto the waiting rack and then glared at Sparrow. “The suit’s protecting you from your bad form.”

“So tell me what I’m doing wrong,” said Kira.

“Sorry, buttercup. Not what we’re here for today. Put another twenty kilos on, then try to use the suit to brace against the floor. Like a tripod.”

Kira tried. She really did, but the weight was more than her knees could withstand, and she wasn’t able to split her attention between the Soft Blade

and the effort of balancing a bar that was more than heavy enough to kill her. She could stiffen the material around her legs—that much she could do

—but extruding any sort of support at the same time was beyond her, and the xeno didn’t seem inclined to provide additional help on its own.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Beneath her jumpsuit, Kira felt the suit shifting and forming spikes in response to the strain. She tried to still herself (and by extension, the suit) but was only partially successful.

“Yeah,” said Sparrow as Kira racked the bar. “That’s what I thought.

Okay, over here, on the mat.”

Kira obeyed, and the moment she was in place, Sparrow threw a small, hard object at her. Without thinking, Kira ducked, and at the same time, the Soft Blade lashed out with a pair of tendrils and smacked away whatever the object was.

Sparrow dropped flat on the bench, a small blaster appearing in her hands. All emotion had vanished from her face, replaced by the flat-eyed intensity of someone about to fight for their life.

In that instant, Kira realized the woman’s bravado was just that—a cover

—and that she was treating Kira with the same caution as a live grenade.

The skin around Sparrow’s eyes tightened with pain as she pushed herself back up. “As I said, you need practice. Discipline.” She tucked the blaster into a pocket in her slacks.

By the bulkhead, Kira saw what Sparrow had thrown at her: a white therapy ball.

“Sorry,” said Kira. “I—”

“Don’t bother, Navárez. We know what the problem is. That’s why you’re here. That’s what we have to fix.”

Kira ran a hand over the curve of her skull. “You can’t fix the instinct for self-preservation.”

“Oh yes we can!” Sparrow snapped. “That’s what separates us from the animals. We can choose to go out and march for thirty klicks with a heavy ruck on our back. We can choose to put up with all sorts of unpleasant shit because we know our tomorrow selves will thank us for it. Doesn’t matter what kind of mental gymnastics you have to pull in that mush you call a brain, but there is sure as shit a way to keep from overreacting when you get surprised. For fuck’s sake, I saw Marines out drinking their morning coffee while our point-defense was picking off an ass-load of incoming

missiles, and they were the coolest, calmest motherfuckers I ever saw. Had a little poker game going with bets to see how many missiles would get through. So if they could do it, you sure as hell can, even if you are bonded with an alien parasite.”

Somewhat abashed, Kira nodded, took a breath, and with a concerted effort, smoothed the last few bumps on the Soft Blade. “You’re right.”

Sparrow jerked her head. “You’re damn right I’m right.”

Then just because, Kira asked, “What sort of drugs did Vishal pump into you?”

“Not enough, that’s for sure.… Let’s try something different.”

Then Sparrow put her on the treadmill and had her alternate between running sprints and attempting to coax the Soft Blade into performing certain tasks (mainly reshaping itself according to Sparrow’s instructions). Kira found she couldn’t concentrate past her panting and the pounding of her heart; the distractions were too great, and they kept her from imposing her will upon the Soft Blade. Moreover, sometimes the xeno would attempt to interpret what she wanted—like an overeager assistant—which usually resulted in it shooting out farther than she intended. But fortunately not with blades or spikes, and not so far as to endanger Sparrow (who nevertheless stayed as far away as the meager area would allow).

For over an hour, the ex-Marine worked Kira over, testing her as thoroughly as Vishal and Carr had. But not just testing, training. She pushed Kira to explore the limits of the Soft Blade and of her interface with the alien organism, and when she found those limits, to strain against them until they widened.

Throughout, Kira kept feeling the odd pains in her abdomen. They were starting to concern her.

One thing Sparrow had her do that Kira hated: poke herself in the arm with the tip of a knife and attempt, with each poke, to keep the Soft Blade from hardening in protection.

As Sparrow said, “If you can’t withstand a bit of discomfort for future gain, you’re pretty much a waste of space.”

So Kira kept stabbing her arm, biting her lip the whole while. It wasn’t easy. The Soft Blade insisted upon squirming out of her mental grasp and stopping or diverting the descending blade. “Stop that,” she finally

muttered, fed up. She stabbed again, only not at her arm, but at the Soft Blade, wishing she could cause it the same pain it had caused her.

“Hey! Watch it!” Sparrow said.

Kira looked to see a spray of jagged thorns extending half a meter from her arm. “Ah! Shit!” she exclaimed, retracting the thorns fast as possible.

Her expression grim, Sparrow scooted the bench back another few centimeters. “Not good, Navárez. Try again.”

And Kira did. And it hurt. And it was hard. But she didn’t give up.

Kira was sore, sweaty, and hungry by the time Sparrow called a halt to the proceedings. And she wasn’t only tired in body but in mind; contending with the xeno for so long was no easy matter. Nor had it been much of a success, which bothered her more than she liked to admit.

“It was a start,” said Sparrow.

“You didn’t have to push quite so hard,” Kira said, wiping her face. “You could have gotten hurt.”

“Someone already did get hurt,” said Sparrow in a cutting tone. “I’m just trying to keep it from happening again. Seems to me we pushed just hard enough.”

Kira glared at her. “You must have been real popular with your squad in the Marines.”

“Let me tell you what it was like. This one time in training, there was this dumbfuck from Stewart’s World. Berk was his name. We were doing a stint on Earth—you ever visit Earth?”


Sparrow half shrugged. “It’s a crazy place. Beautiful, but there’s living things wanting to kill you everywhere you go, just like Eidolon. Anyway, we were doing a manual-fire drill. That means no implants or overlays to help. Berk was having a rough go of it, and then he finally gets in the groove and starts hitting his targets. Bam, his gun jams.

“He tried to clear the blockage, but nothing doing. Thing is, Berk had a temper like an overheated kettle. He’s swearing and kicking, and he gets so worked up, he throws his gun into the dirt.”

“Even know better than that,” said Kira.

“Exactly. Our range master and three drill sergeants descend on Berk like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They chew him a new one, and then they have him pick up his rifle and march across the camp. Now, out by the back of the dispensary there was a hornet’s nest. Ever been stung by a hornet?”

Kira shook her head. She had lots of experience with bees on Weyland, but no hornets. They hadn’t been cleared by the colony terraforming board.

A faint smile curled Sparrow’s lips. “They’re little bullets of hate and fury. Hurt like a sumbitch too. So Berk is ordered to stand underneath the hornet nest and poke it with his rifle. And then, while the hornets do their best to sting him to death, he had to clear the jam in his gun, strip it, give it a good field cleaning, and put it back together. And the whole time, one of the sergeants is standing nearby, covered head to toe in an exo, shouting at him, ‘Are you angry now?’”

“That seems … rather extreme.”

“Better a bit of discomfort in training than a Marine who can’t keep it together when bullets start flying.”

“Did it work?” Kira asked.

Sparrow got to her feet. “Sure did. Berk ended up being one of the finest


Footsteps sounded, and then Tatupoa poked his square-shaped head around the corner of one of the racks. “Everything alright with you? Got concerned what with all the noises over here.”

“We’re fine, thank you,” said Sparrow.

Kira dabbed the last traces of sweat from her forehead and stood. “Just exercising.” Her stomach knotted again, and she winced.

The Marine stared at her, skeptical. “If you say so, ma’am.”

Kira and Sparrow were quiet as they returned to the ship’s central shaft. There, Sparrow rested for a moment on her crutch. “Same time again tomorrow,” she said.

Kira opened her mouth and then clamped it shut. They would be jumping to FTL not long afterward. She could survive one more session with Sparrow, however difficult.

“Fine,” she said, “but maybe play it a bit safer.”

Sparrow pulled a stick of gum from her breast pocket, unwrapped it, and popped it in her mouth. “No deal. Terms are the same. You stab me; I shoot you. It’s a nice, simple arrangement, wouldn’t you agree?”

It was, but Kira wasn’t going to admit it. “How the hell did you survive this long without getting killed?”

Sparrow chuckled. “There’s no such thing as safety. Only degrees of risk.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Then put it this way: I’ve had more practice than most dealing with risk.” There was an unspoken implication to her claim: because I had to.

“… I think you just like the thrill.” Once more, a needle of pain shot through Kira’s abdomen.

Sparrow chuckled again. “Could be.”

When they arrived at sickbay, Hwa-jung was waiting for them outside. In one hand, she carried a small machine Kira didn’t recognize. “Aish,” the machine boss said as Sparrow hobbled up. “You shouldn’t walk around like this. It’s not good for you.” She wrapped her free arm around Sparrow’s shoulders and shepherded her into the room.

“I’m fine,” Sparrow protested weakly, but it was obvious she was more exhausted than she was letting on.

Inside, Vishal helped Hwa-jung lift Sparrow onto the exam table, and there the small woman lay back and closed her eyes for a moment.

“Here,” said Hwa-jung, placing the machine on the short countertop next to the sink. “You need this.”

“What is it?” said Sparrow, cracking open her eyes. “A humidifier. The air is too dry in here.”

Vishal examined the machine with a degree of doubt. “The air here is the same as—”

“Too dry,” Hwa-jung insisted. “It is bad for her. It makes you sick. The humidity needs to be higher.”

Sparrow smiled slightly. “You ain’t going to win this argument, Doc.”

Vishal seemed as if he was going to protest for a moment, and then he raised his hands and backed off. “As you wish, Ms. Song. It’s not as if I work here.”

Kira went over to him and, in a low voice, said, “Do you have a moment?”

The doctor bobbed his head. “For you, Ms. Navárez, of course. What seems to be the problem?”

Kira glanced at the other two women, but they seemed busy talking with each other. Lowering her voice further, she said, “My stomach has been hurting. I don’t know if it’s something I ate, or…” She trailed off, not wanting to give voice to the worst possibilities.

Vishal’s expression sharpened. “What did you have for breakfast?” “I haven’t eaten yet.”

“Ah. Very well. Please stand over here, Ms. Navárez, and I will see what I can do.”

Kira stood in a corner of the sickbay, feeling slightly embarrassed to have Sparrow and Hwa-jung watching while the doctor listened to her chest with a stethoscope and then pressed against her belly with his hands. “Does it hurt here?” he asked, touching just below her rib cage.


His hands moved a few centimeters lower. “Here?” She shook her head.

His hands moved lower still. “Here?”

The sharp intake of her breath was answer enough. “Yeah,” she said, her voice tight with pain.

A furrow appeared between Vishal’s brows. “One minute, Ms. Navárez.” He pulled open a nearby drawer and rummaged through it.

“Call me Kira, please.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. Ms. Kira.” “No, I mean … Never mind.”

Across the room, Sparrow popped her gum. “You’ll never get him to unbend. The doc here is as stiff as a rod of titanium.”

Vishal muttered something in a language Kira didn’t understand, and then he returned to her with an odd-looking device. “Please lay on the floor and unseal your jumpsuit. Not all the way; halfway will do.”

The deck was rough against her back. She held still while he spread cold goo across her lower stomach. A sonogram, then.

The doctor chewed on the inside of his lip while he studied the feed from the sonogram on his overlays.

Kira expected an answer of some kind when Vishal finished, but instead he held up a finger and said, “It is needful to do a blood test, Ms. Kira. Would you please remove the Soft Blade from your arm?”

That’s not good. Again, Kira followed his orders, trying to ignore the worm of unease turning in her gut. Or maybe it was just the pain from whatever was wrong inside her.

A sharp prick as the needle broke her unprotected skin. Then silence for a few minutes as they waited for the sickbay’s computers to run the diagnostics.

“Ah, here we are,” said the doctor, and started reading his overlays, eyes darting from side to side.

Sparrow said, “Well, what is it, Doc?”

“If Ms. Kira chooses to tell you, that is her choice,” said Vishal. “However, she is still my patient, and I am still her physician, and as such, this is privileged information.” He gestured toward the door and said to Kira, “After you, my dear.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sparrow, but there was no concealing the spark of curiosity in her eyes.

Once out in the hallway, with the door closed behind them, Kira said, “How bad is it?”

“It is not bad at all, Ms. Kira,” said Vishal. “You are menstruating. What you are feeling are uterine cramps. Quite normal.”

“I’m…” For a moment, Kira was at a loss. “That can’t be possible. I had my periods turned off when I first hit puberty.” And the only time she’d reactivated them had been in college, during the stupidest six months of her life, with him.… A flush of unwelcome memories crowded her mind.

Vishal spread his hands. “I am sure you are right, Ms. Kira, but the results are unmistakable. You are most certainly menstruating. There is no doubt whatsoever.”

“That shouldn’t be possible.” “No, it shouldn’t.”

Kira put her fingers to her temples. A dull ache was forming behind her eyes. “The xeno must have thought I was injured somehow so it … repaired me.” She walked back and forth across the corridor and then stopped, hands on her hips. “Shit. So am I going to have to deal with this from now on? Can’t you do something to turn them back off?”

Vishal hesitated and then made a helpless motion. “If the suit will heal you, then nothing I can do would stop it, unless I remove your ovaries, and


“There’s no way the Soft Blade would let you. Yeah.”

The doctor glanced at his overlays. “There are hormonal treatments we could try, but I must warn you, Ms. Navárez, they can have some undesirable side effects. Also, I can’t guarantee their efficacy, as the xeno might interfere with absorption and metabolism.”

“Okay … Okay.” Kira paced the breadth of the corridor again. “Fine.

Leave it. If I feel any worse, maybe we can try the pills.”

The doctor nodded. “As you wish.” He drew a long finger across his bottom lip and then said, “One, ah, point to remember, Ms. Navárez, and I apologize most seriously for mentioning it. Practically, there is no reason you could not become pregnant now. However, as your physician, I have to


“I’m not getting pregnant,” Kira said, harsher than she intended. She laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “Besides, I don’t think the Soft Blade would allow it, even if I wanted.”

“Exactly, Ms. Kira. I could not guarantee your safety, nor the safety of the fetus.”

“Understood. I appreciate your concern.” She scuffed her heel against the deck, thinking. “You don’t have to report this to anyone on the Darmstadt, do you?”

Vishal twisted a hand in the air. “They wish me to, but I would not betray the confidentiality of a patient.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course, Ms. Kira.… Would you like me to fix your nose for you now? Otherwise it will have to wait until tomorrow. I will be busy with Sparrow later.”

“She told me. Tomorrow.”

“As you wish.” He returned to the sickbay, leaving her alone in the corridor.


Kira’s stomach twisted, and not from the cramps. After what had happened in college, she’d sworn she would never have children. It had taken meeting Alan to make her reconsider, and only because she’d liked him so much. Now though, the thought filled her with revulsion. What sort of hybrid monstrosity would the xeno produce if she got pregnant?

She reached up to fiddle with a lock of hair; her fingers scraped scalp. Well. It wasn’t like she was going to get pregnant by accident. All she had to do was avoid sleeping with anyone. Not so difficult.

For a moment, her thoughts detoured into mechanical details. Would sex even be possible? If she had the Soft Blade retract from between her legs, then … It might work, but whomever she was with would have to be brave

—very brave—and if she lost her hold on the suit and it closed shut …


She glanced down at herself. At least she didn’t have to worry about bleeding. The Soft Blade was as efficient as always in recycling her body’s waste.

The door to the sickbay opened as Hwa-jung exited.

“Do you have a moment?” said Kira. “Could you help me?”

The machine boss stared at her. “What?” From anyone else the question would have sounded rude, but from Hwa-jung, Kira thought it was just a simple request.

Kira explained what she needed and what she wanted. They weren’t the same things.

“This way,” said Hwa-jung, and lumbered off toward the core of the ship.

As they started down the central ladder, Kira eyed the machine boss, curious. “How did you end up on the Wallfish, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Captain Falconi needed a machine boss. I needed a job. Now I work here.”

“Do you have family back on Shin-Zar?”

The top of Hwa-jung’s head moved as she nodded. “Many brothers and sisters. Many cousins. I send them money when I can.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Because,” said Hwa-jung as she stepped off the ladder on the deck just above the cargo holds. She lifted her hands, fingers bunched, the tips

pressed together. “Boom.” And she opened her hands, splaying her fingers. “Ah.” Kira couldn’t decide if the machine boss was being literal or not,

and she decided it was better not to ask. “Do you ever visit?” “Once. No more.”

Leaving the shaft, they passed through a narrow passageway and entered a room close to the hull.

It was a machine shop, small and cramped—stuffed with more pieces of equipment than Kira recognized—but impeccably organized. The scent of solvents stung her nose, and the smell of ozone put a bitter, nickel-like taste on her tongue.

“Warning, some chemicals are known by the League of Allied Worlds to cause cancer,” said Hwa-jung as she edged sideways between the different machines.

“That’s easy enough to treat,” said Kira.

Hwa-jung chuckled. “They still require the disclaimers. Bureaucrats.” She stopped by a wall of drawers at the back of the shop and slapped them. “Here. Powdered metals, polycarbonates, organic substrates, carbon fiber, more. All the raw stock you could need.”

“Is there anything I shouldn’t take?”

“Organics. Metals are easy to replace; organics are harder, more expensive.”

“Okay. I’ll avoid them.”

Hwa-jung shrugged. “You can take some. Just not too much. Whatever you do, do not cross-contaminate—with any of these. It will ruin whatever we make with them.”

“Gotcha. I won’t.”

Then she showed Kira how to unlock the drawers and open the storage packs inside. “You understand now, yes? I will go and see if I can print what you want.”

“Thank you.”

As Hwa-jung left, Kira dipped her fingers into a mound of powdered aluminum while at the same time telling the xeno: Eat.

If it did, she couldn’t tell.

She sealed the pack, closed the drawer, cleaned her hand with a wet wipe from the dispenser on the wall, and—once her skin was dry—tried the same thing with the powdered titanium.

Drawer by drawer, she worked her way through the ship’s supplies. The suit seemed to absorb little to none of the metals; it had apparently sated most of its hunger during the night. However, it displayed a distinct preference for some of the rarer elements, such as samarium, neodymium, and yttrium, among others. Cobalt and zinc, too. To her surprise, it ignored all the biological compounds.

When Kira was finished, she left the machine shop with Hwa-jung still there working—bent over the control display for the ship’s main printer— and returned to the galley.

Kira fixed herself a late breakfast, which she ate at a leisurely pace. It was nearly noon, and she was already wiped from the day’s events. Sparrow’s training—if it could be called that—had taken a serious toll.

Her abdomen twinged again, and she grimaced. Wonderful. Just wonderful.

She looked up as Nielsen walked in. The first officer got herself some food from the fridge and then sat opposite Kira.

They ate in silence for a time.

Then Nielsen said, “You’ve set us on a strange path, Navárez.”

Eat the path. “Can’t argue with you there.… Does it bother you?”

The woman set down her fork. “I’m not happy that we’ll be gone for over six months, if that’s what you’re asking. The League is going to be in serious trouble by the time we get back, unless through some miracle, these attacks let off.”

“But we might be able to help, if we find the Staff of Blue.”

“Yes, I’m aware of the rationale.” Nielsen took a sip of water. “When I joined the Wallfish, I didn’t think I was signing up for combat, chasing alien relics, or expeditions into the unexplored regions of the galaxy. And yet here we are.”

Kira tipped her head. “Yeah. I wasn’t looking for any of this either.… Aside from the exploration.”

“And the alien relics.”

A smile forced its way onto Kira’s face. “And that.”

Nielsen smiled slightly also. Then she surprised her by saying, “I heard Sparrow put you through the wringer this morning. How are you holding up?”

Simple as it was, the question softened Kira. “Okay. But it was a lot. It’s

all a lot.”

“I can imagine.”

Kira made a face. “Plus, now…” She half laughed. “You’re not going to believe it, but—” And she told Nielsen about the return of her periods.

The first officer made a sympathetic face. “How inconvenient. At least you don’t have to worry about bleeding.”

“No. Small favors, eh?” Kira raised her glass in a mock toast, and Nielsen did the same.

Then the first officer said, “Listen, Kira, if you need someone to talk with, someone other than Gregorovich … come find me. My door is always open.”

Kira studied her for a long moment, gratitude welling up inside her. Then she nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

Kira spent the rest of the day helping around the ship. A lot still needed doing before they went FTL: lines and filters to check, diagnostics to run, general cleaning, and so on.

Kira didn’t mind the work. It made her feel useful, and it kept her from thinking too much. She even helped Trig fix the damaged bed in her cabin, which she was grateful to have done, knowing as she did that—if all went well—she would be spending months there on the mattress, lost in the death-like sleep of the Soft Blade’s induced hibernation.

The thought frightened her, so she worked harder and tried not to dwell on it.

When ship-evening came, everyone but the Marines gathered in the galley, even Sparrow. “I thought you had surgery,” said Falconi, glowering at her from under his thick eyebrows.

“I put it off until later,” she said. They all knew why she wanted to be there. Dinner was their last chance to spend time together as a group before going into FTL.

“That safe, Doc?” Falconi asked.

Vishal nodded. “As long as she does not eat any solid food, she will be fine.”

Sparrow smirked. “Good thing then you were the one cooking tonight, Doc. Makes it easy to wait.”

A shadow flitted across Vishal’s face, but he didn’t argue. “I am glad you are safe for your surgery, Ms.,” was all he said.

A text popped up on Kira’s overlays:

<Sparrow told me about your session together. Sounds like she worked you over pretty good. – Falconi>

<That about sums it up. She’s intense. But thorough. Very thorough. –Kira>

<Good. – Falconi>

<How did she think it went? – Kira>

<She said she served with worse trainees in boot. – Falconi>

<Thanks … I guess. – Kira>

He chuckled quietly. <Trust me, coming from her, it’s a compliment. –Falconi>

The mood around the room was lighter than the previous day, although there was an underlying tension that gave their conversations a manic edge. None of them wanted to discuss what was about to come, but it hung over them like an unspoken threat.

The conversation loosened until Kira felt bold enough to say, “Okay, I know this is rude, but there’s a question I have to ask.”

“No, you don’t,” said Falconi, sipping from his glass of wine.

She plowed onward as if he hadn’t said anything. “Akawe mentioned you wanted pardons before you’d agree to go. What for?” Around the room, the crew shifted uneasily while the Entropists looked on with interest. “Trig, you mentioned some difficulties at Ruslan, so … I was just wondering.” Kira leaned back and waited to see what would happen.

Falconi scowled at his glass. “You can’t help sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, can you?”

In a somewhat placating tone, Nielsen said, “We should tell her. There’s no reason to keep it secret, not now.”

“… Fine. You tell her then.”

How bad was it, Kira wondered. Smuggling? Theft? Assault?… Murder? Nielsen sighed and then—as if she’d guessed what Kira was thinking— said, “It’s not what you imagine. I wasn’t on the ship at the time, but the

crew ended up in trouble because they imported a whole bunch of newts to sell on Ruslan.”

For a moment Kira wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “Newts?”

“Yeah, a metric newt-ton of them,” said Trig. Sparrow laughed and then grimaced and clutched her side.

“Don’t,” said Nielsen. “Just don’t.”

Trig grinned and dug back into his food.

“There was a children’s show on Ruslan,” said Falconi. “Yanni the Newt,

or something like that. It was really popular.” “Was?”

He made a face. “All the kids wanted newts as pets. So it seemed like a good idea to bring in a shipload of them.”

Nielsen rolled her eyes and shook her head, which sent her ponytail flying. “If I’d been on the Wallfish, I wouldn’t have allowed such nonsense.”

Falconi took issue with that. “It was a good job. You would have jumped at the opportunity faster than any of us.”

“Why not just grow the newts in a lab?” asked Kira, puzzled. “Or gene-hack something like a frog to look like them?”

“They did,” he said. “But the rich kids wanted real newts. From Earth.

You know how it is.”

Kira blinked. “That … could not have been cheap.”

Falconi dipped his head with a sardonic smile. “Exactamento. We would have made a fortune. Only—”

“The damn things didn’t have a kill switch!” said Sparrow.

“They didn’t—” Kira started to say and then stopped herself. “Of course, because they were from Earth.” All macroorganisms (and more than a few micro) grown on colonized worlds had built-in genetic kill switches, to make it easy to manage their population and keep any one organism from disrupting the nascent food chain or, if present, the native ecology. But not on Earth. There, plants and animals just existed, mixing and competing in a chaotic mess that still defied attempts at control.

Falconi extended a hand toward her. “Yup. We found a company that breeds newts—”

“Fink-Nottle’s Pious Newt Emporium,” Trig helpfully supplied.

“—but we didn’t exactly tell them where the newts were going. No reason for the ITC to know what we were up to, now was there?”

“We didn’t even think to ask about a kill switch,” said Sparrow. “And by the time we sold them, it was too late to fix.”

“How many did you sell?”

“Seven hundred and seventy-seven … thousand, seven hundred and seventy-seven.”

“Seventy-six,” said Sparrow. “Don’t forget the one Mr. Fuzzypants ate.” “Right. Seventy-six,” said Trig.

Kira had difficulty even imagining that many newts.

Falconi continued the tale: “As you’d expect, a bunch of the newts escaped, and without any natural predators, they wiped out a good chunk of Ruslan’s insects, worms, snails, et cetera.”

“Good god.” Without insects and the like, it was pretty much impossible for a colony to function. Worms alone were worth more than their weight in refined uranium during the early years of transforming sterile or hostile land to fertile soil.


“It was like a newt-tron bomb,” said Trig.

Sparrow and Nielsen groaned, and Vishal said, “That was the sort of pun we had to endure for the whole trip, Ms. Kira. It was most unpleasant.”

Kira fixed Trig with a look. “Hey. What do you call a really smart newt?”

He grinned. “What?” “Newton, of course.”

“Permission to jettison both of them as punishment, Captain?” said Nielsen.

“Granted,” Falconi said. “But not until we reach our destination.” At that, the mood in the galley grew more somber.

“So what happened after, with the newts?” Kira asked. The punishment for violating biocontainment protocols varied from place to place, but it usually involved heavy fines and/or jail time.

Falconi grunted. “What do you think? The local government issued warrants for our arrest. Fortunately, they were only planetary warrants, not stellar or interstellar, and we were long gone before the newts started to cause a problem. But yeah … they’re not too happy with us. They even

ended up canceling Yanni the Newt because so many people were pissed off.”

Kira chuckled, and then she burst out into a full laugh. “Sorry. I know it’s not funny, but—”

“Well, it is a little funny,” said Vishal.

“Yeah, goddamn hilarious,” said Falconi. To Kira, “They retroactively nulled the bits we earned, which left us out food, fuel, and propellant for the whole trip.”

“I can see how that might have left you feeling … newtered,” she said. Nielsen facepalmed. “Thule. Now we have two of them.”

“Gimme that,” said Falconi and reached for his holstered pistol, which was slung over the back of Vishal’s seat.

The doctor laughed and shook his head. “Not a chance, Captain.” “Gah. Mutineers, the lot of you.”

“Don’t you mean, newtineers?” said Trig.

“That’s it! Enough with the punning or I’ll have you thrown into cryo right now.”


To Kira, Nielsen said, “We had a few other, smaller difficulties, mainly ITC violations, but that was the main one.”

Sparrow snorted. “That and Chelomey.” In response to Kira’s inquiring look, she said, “We got hired by a guy named Griffith back at Alpha Centauri to bring in a load of, uh, sensitive cargo for a guy on Chelomey Station. Only our contact wasn’t there when we dropped off the goods. The idiot got himself arrested by station security. So the station wanted our asses as well. Griffith claims we failed delivery and won’t pay, and since we used up the last of our antimatter getting here, there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”

“And that,” said Falconi, emptying his glass, “is how we ended up stranded at 61 Cygni. Couldn’t land back at Chelomey and couldn’t land on Ruslan. Not, uh, legally, that is.”

“Gotcha.” Overall, it wasn’t as bad as Kira had feared. A bit of smuggling, a small amount of what might be classified as ecoterrorism … Really, she’d expected far worse.

Falconi waved his hand. “That’s all cleared up now, though.” He peered at her, his eyes slightly bleary from drink. “I suppose we have you to thank

for that.”

“My pleasure.”

Later, once most of the food was cleared off the tables, Hwa-jung left her seat by Sparrow and vanished out the door.

When the machine boss returned, she brought with her Runcible and Mr. Fuzzypants, but also—tucked under one arm—the other thing Kira had asked her for.

“Here,” said Hwa-jung, and held out the concertina to Kira. “It just finished printing.”

Kira laughed and took the instrument. “Thank you!” Now she would have something to do other than stare at her overlays while she waited alone in the empty ship.

Falconi raised an eyebrow. “You play?”

“A little,” said Kira, slipping her hands through the straps and testing the keys. Then she performed a simple little arrangement called “Chiara’s Folly” as a warm-up.

The music brought a sense of cheer to the room, and the crew gathered in close. “Hey, you know ‘Toxopaxia’?” Sparrow asked.

“I do.”

Kira played until her fingers were numb, but she didn’t mind. And for a time, no thoughts of the future intruded, and life was good.

Mr. Fuzzypants still kept his distance from her, but at some point deep in the evening—long after she’d put aside the concertina—Kira found herself with Runcible’s warm weight in her lap while she scratched behind the pig’s ears and he wiggled his tail in delight. A surge of affection passed through Kira, and for the first time since the deaths of Alan and her other teammates, she felt herself relaxing, truly relaxing.

So maybe Falconi was a hard-edged bastard and their ship mind was eccentric and Sparrow was somewhat of a sadist and Trig was still just a kid and Hwa-jung was weird in her own ways and Vishal—Kira wasn’t sure what the deal was with Vishal, but he seemed nice enough—so maybe all that. So what? Nothing was ever perfect. Kira knew one thing for certain, though: she’d fight for Falconi and his crew. She’d fight for them the same as she would have for her team on Adra.

As a group, they ended up staying in the galley far later than they should have, but no one complained, least of all Kira. The evening ended with her showing—at the Entropists’ request—how the Soft Blade could form different shapes on its surface.

She made a smiley face rise out of her palm, and Falconi said, “Talk to the hand.”

Everyone laughed.

At some point, Sparrow, Vishal, and Hwa-jung departed for sickbay.

Without them, the galley was noticeably quieter.

Sparrow’s surgery was going to take quite some time. Long before it finished, Kira returned to her cabin, fell onto her new mattress, and slept. And for once she didn’t dream.

Morning arrived, and with it, a sense of dread. The jump to FTL was only a few hours away. Kira lay where she was for a while and tried to reconcile herself with what was to come.

I brought this on myself. The thought made her feel better than believing she was a victim of circumstances, but it still didn’t make her feel great.

She roused herself and checked her overlays. No news of significance (aside from reports of minor fighting on Ruslan), and no texts. Also no cramps. That was a relief.

She messaged Sparrow:

<Do you still want to do this? – Kira>

After a minute: <Yes. In sickbay. – Sparrow>

Kira washed her face, dressed, and headed out.

When the door to sickbay opened, she was shocked by how weak Sparrow looked. The woman’s face was drawn and pale, and she had an IV pinned in her arm.

Somewhat taken aback, Kira said, “Are you going to be able to handle cryo?”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Sparrow said dryly. “Doc seems to think I’ll do just fine. Might even help me heal better, long term.”

“Are you really up for more … whatever the hell this is?”

Sparrow produced a crooked smile. “Oh yeah. I’ve thought of a whole bunch of different ways to test your patience.”

She proved true to her word. Back to the makeshift gym they went, and again she put Kira through a rigorous series of exercises while Kira struggled to retain control over the Soft Blade. Sparrow didn’t make it easy. The woman had a talent for distraction, and she indulged in it, harassing Kira with words, sounds, and unexpected movements during the most difficult parts of the exercises. And Kira failed. Again and again she failed, and she grew increasingly frustrated with her inability to maintain her mental footing. With so much input, it was almost inevitable that her concentration would slip, and where it slipped, the Soft Blade took over, choosing of its own judgment how best to act.

The organism’s decisions built a sense of character: one that was impulsive and eager to find flaws that could be exploited. Its was a questing consciousness full of unbridled curiosity, despite its oftentimes destructive nature.

So it went. Sparrow continued to harass her, and Kira continued to try to retain her composure.

After an hour, her face was drenched with sweat and she felt nearly as exhausted as Sparrow looked. “How’d I do?” she asked, getting up from the deck.

“Don’t go watch a scary movie. That’s all I have to say,” said Sparrow. “Ah.”

“What? You want cookies and compliments? You didn’t give up. Keep not-giving-up and you might impress me someday.” Sparrow lay back on the bench and closed her eyes. “It’s on you, now. You know what you need to do while we’re corpsicles.”

“I have to keep practicing.”

“And you can’t make it easy on yourself.” “I won’t.”

Sparrow cracked open an eye. She smiled. “You know what, Navárez? I believe you.”

The hours that followed were a frenzy of preparation. Kira helped Vishal sedate the ship pets, and then both Runcible and Mr. Fuzzypants were placed inside a cryo tube just big enough to hold the both of them.

Shortly thereafter, the thrust alert sounded and the Wallfish cut its engines so it could cool down as much as possible before hitting the Markov Limit. Nearby, the Darmstadt did the same, the cruiser’s diamond radiators glittering in the dim light from the system’s star.

One by one, the Wallfish’s systems were shut down, and the inside of the ship became progressively cooler and darker.

The four Marines in the port hold were the first to enter cryo. They gave their notice, and then their systems vanished from the ship intranet as they lapsed into deathlike stasis.

Next were the Entropists. Their cryo tubes were in their cabin. “We are off to lay ourselves—”

“—in our hibernacula. Travel safely, Prisoners,” they said before sequestering themselves.

Kira and the crew of the Wallfish gathered in the ship’s storm shelter, right near the center of the ship, just below Control and adjacent to the sealed room that contained the armored sarcophagus Gregorovich called home.

Kira hung by the door of the shelter, feeling helpless as Sparrow, Hwa-jung, Trig, Vishal, and Nielsen stripped to their underwear and got into their tubes. The lids closed, and within seconds, the interiors fogged over.

Falconi waited until the last. “You going to be okay on your own?” he asked, pulling his shirt over his head.

Kira averted her gaze. “I think so.”

“Once Gregorovich goes under, our pseudo-intelligence, Morven, will be in charge of navigation and life support, but if something goes wrong, don’t hesitate to wake any of us up.”


He unlaced his boots, stuck them in a locker. “Seriously. Even if you just need to talk with another person. We’re going to have to drop out of FTL a few times anyway.”

“If I need to, I promise I will.” She glanced over to see Falconi in just his skivvies. He was more heavily built than she’d realized: thick chest, thick arms, thick back. Sparrow and Hwa-jung obviously weren’t the only ones who used the weights in the hold.

“Good.” Then he pulled himself along the wall and floated over to her. Up close, Kira could smell the sweat on him, a clean, healthy musk. A mat

of thick, black hair covered his chest, and for a moment—just a moment— she imagined running her fingers through it.

Falconi noticed her gaze and met it with an even more direct look. He said, “One other thing. Since you’re the only person who’s going to be up and around—”

“Not much, if I can help it.”

“You’ll still be more functional than any of us. Since that’s the case, I’m naming you acting captain of the Wallfish while we’re in cryo.”

Kira was surprised. She started to say something, thought better of it, and then tried again: “Are you sure? Even after what happened?”

“I’m sure,” said Falconi firmly.

“Does that mean I’m part of the crew then?”

“I suppose it does. For the duration of the trip, at least.”

She considered the idea. “What sort of responsibilities does an acting captain have?”

“Quite a few,” he said, going over to his cryo tube. “It gives you executive access to certain systems. Override ability too. Might be needed in an emergency.”

“… Thank you. I appreciate it.”

He nodded. “Just don’t wreck my ship, Navárez. She’s all I’ve got.” “Not all,” said Kira, and gestured at the frozen tubes.

A faint smile appeared on Falconi’s face. “No, not all.” She watched as he lowered himself into the tube, hooked up the drip to his arm, and attached the electrodes to his head and chest. He looked at her once more and gave her a small salute. “See you by the light of a strange star, Captain.”


Then the lid closed over Falconi’s face, and silence settled over the shelter.

“Just you and me now, headcase,” said Kira, looking in the direction of Gregorovich’s sarcophagus.

“That too shall pass,” said the ship mind.

Fourteen minutes later, the Wallfish went FTL.

Kira watched the transition on the display in her cabin. One moment a field of stars surrounded them; the next a dark mirror, perfectly spherical.

She studied the ship’s reflection for a long, wordless while and then closed the display and wrapped her arms around herself.

They were finally on their way.

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