Chapter no 23

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Outside the Wallfish, the Darmstadt was flying along a parallel course, swaddled in its own protective soap bubble of energy. Communication between ships in FTL was possible but difficult: the data rate was slow and lossy, and since they didn’t want to attract the attention of the Jellies or anyone else who might be listening, the only signals passing between them were an occasional ping to check the ships’ relative positions.

Inside the Wallfish, it was as quiet as Kira had feared.

She drifted along the dark corridors, feeling more like a ghost than a person.

Gregorovich was still awake and talking: a whispering presence that filled the hull but was poor substitute for face-to-face interaction with another person. Nevertheless, a poor substitute was better than nothing, and Kira was grateful for the company, strange as it was.

The ship mind needed to enter cryo himself. His oversized brain produced more heat than most people’s entire bodies. However, as he said, “I shall wait with you, O Tentacled Queen, until you sleep, and then I too shall sink into oblivion.”

“We’re both bounded in a nutshell right now, aren’t we?” “Indeed.” And his lingering sigh dwindled through the ship.

A sigil appeared on a display next to her; it was the first time she’d seen the ship mind represent himself with any sort of avatar. She studied the symbol for a moment (her overlays couldn’t identify it) and said, “Since you’re still up, shouldn’t you be the acting captain of the Wallfish?”

A chuckle like burbling water surrounded her. “A ship mind cannot be captain, foolish meatbag. And a captain cannot be a ship mind. You know that.”

“It’s just tradition,” said Kira. “There’s no good reason why—”

“There are most comely and toothsome reasons. For safety and sanity, no ship mind should be master of their own ship … even if the ship is become our flesh.”

“That seems like it would be terribly frustrating.”

Kira could almost hear Gregorovich’s shrug. “There is no reason in railing against reality. Besides, my charming infestation, while the letter of the law may say one thing, the execution of the law is often quite different.”


“In practice, most ships are run by ship minds. How else could it be?”

She caught a handhold by her cabin door, stopping herself. “What’s the name of the Darmstadt’s mind?”

“She is the most crisp and delightful Horzcha Ubuto.” “That’s quite a mouthful.”

“With no tongue to taste and no throat to sing, all names are equal.”

In her cabin, Kira dimmed the lights and lowered the temperature. The time had come for a winding down of mind and body. She would hibernate as soon as the Soft Blade would allow, but hibernation wasn’t her only concern. She also needed to practice with the xeno. Sparrow was right. Falconi was right. She had to master the Soft Blade as much as it could be mastered, and as with all skills, doing so would require diligence.

Over the course of the next three months, the Wallfish would drop out of FTL on at least six occasions to dump its excess heat. Each time would be an opportunity for her to push herself physically, as she had with Sparrow. In between, Kira would have to minimize her activity, but she still planned on waking once per week to work with the Soft Blade. That would give her a total of twelve practice sessions before they arrived at their destination; enough, she hoped, to make meaningful progress.

Whether or not the Soft Blade could pull her in and out of hibernation each week wasn’t something Kira was sure of. But it was worth a try. If the xeno couldn’t … she’d have to eliminate some of the training. Regardless of the heat she produced and the resources she consumed, it was crucial to minimize the amount of time she spent awake and alone. True isolation

could cause serious psychological damage in a surprisingly short span. It was a problem for any small crew on a long-haul mission, and being entirely by herself would only exacerbate the problem. Either way, she’d have to keep close tabs on her mental health.…

At least on this trip she didn’t have to worry about starving to death. There was plenty of food on the Wallfish. Still, she didn’t plan on eating much—only when exercising during their breaks in FTL. Besides, hunger seemed to be one of the triggers that helped convince the Soft Blade to place her into stasis.

Eat the path.

Having decided on a course of action, Kira set her weekly alarm and then spent the next hour contending with the Soft Blade in the first of their sessions.

Since she wasn’t using exercise to induce physical or mental stress this time, Kira found another, equally challenging test for herself: attempting to solve mental problems while coaxing the xeno into making different shapes. Mathematical equations proved to be an excellent stressor in that regard. She also imagined being back on the Jelly ship, with tentacles wrapped around her, unable to move—or the jolt of pain from the Numenist breaking her nose—and she let the memory of fear quicken her pulse, flood her veins with adrenaline, and then Kira did her best to shape the Soft Blade as she saw fit.

The second way wasn’t the healthiest choice; she was just training her endocrine system to overreact to physical danger. But she needed to be able to work with the Soft Blade under less-than-ideal circumstances, and right then, she didn’t have many options.

When she no longer had the mental focus to keep practicing, Kira relaxed by playing her new concertina. It had pearl-like buttons and a swirling inlay along the sides of the box. The design had been an addition of Hwa-jung’s, and Kira appreciated it. When not playing, she traced the swirls with her fingers and admired how the faint emergency lights reflected red.

Gregorovich listened to her music. He had become a constant, unseen companion. Sometimes he offered commentary—a piece of praise or a suggestion—but mostly he seemed content to be her respectful audience.

First one day, then two crept by. Time seemed to slow: a familiar telescoping that left Kira feeling trapped in a shapeless limbo. Her thoughts grew slow and clumsy, and her fingers no longer found the right buttons on the concertina.

She put the instrument aside, then, and again turned on Bach’s concertos and allowed the music to sweep her away.

Gregorovich’s voice roused her from a state of torpor. The ship mind was speaking soft and slow: “Kira.… Kira.… Are you awake?”

“What is it?” she murmured. “I have to leave you now.” “… Alright.”

“Are you going to be okay, Kira?” “Yes. Mm’good.”

“Okay. Goodnight, then, Kira. Dream of beautiful things.”

Kira lay on her bed, attached to it by the Soft Blade. There were straps mounted along the side for sleeping in zero-g. She had used them at first, but when she realized the xeno could hold her in place without constant supervision, she undid them.

As she drifted ever deeper into the hazy twilight of near unconsciousness, she allowed the mask to slide into place over her face, and she was dimly aware of the suit bonding with itself, joining limb to limb and winding her in a protective shell, black as ink and hard as diamond.

She could have stopped it, but she liked the feeling.

Sleep. She urged the Soft Blade to rest and wait as it had once before, to enter dormancy and no longer strive. The xeno was slow to understand, but in time the pangs of hunger eased and a familiar chill crept through her limbs. Then the strains of Bach faded from awareness, and the universe constricted to the confines of her mind.…

When she dreamed, her dreams were troubled, full of anger and dread and malignant forms lurking in the shadows.

An enormous room of grey and gold with ranks of windows revealing the dark of space beyond. Stars glimmered in the depths, and by their dim light

there gleamed the polished floor and pillars of fluted metal.

Flesh-that-she-was could see nothing among the hidden corners of the chamber that seemed to have no end, but she felt the eyes of unknown, unfriendly intelligences watching … watching with unsated hunger. Shards of fear affixed her, and no relief had she of action, for the covetous observers remained hidden, though she could feel them creeping closer.

And the shadows twisted and churned with incomprehensible shapes.

… Flashes of images: an invisible box filled with a broken promise that thrashed with mindless rage. A planet blanketed in black and pregnant with malevolent intelligence. Streamers of fire descending through an evening sky: beautiful and terrifying and heartbreakingly sad to see. Towers toppled. Blood boiling in a vacuum. The crust of earth shuddering, splitting, spilling lava across a fertile plain …

And worse still. Things unseen. Fears that had no name, ancient and alien. Nightmares that revealed themselves only in a sense of wrongness and a twisting of fixed angles.…

b-b-b-beep … b-b-b-beep … b-b-b-beep …

The ratcheting alarm hauled Kira back to wakefulness. She blinked, confused and bleary, for a long moment not understanding. Then a sense of self and place returned to her and she groaned.

“Computer, stop alarm,” she whispered. Her voice sounded clearly even through the material that covered her face.

The jarring bleat fell silent.

For a handful of minutes she lay in the dark and the silence, unable to bring herself to move. One week. It felt longer, as if she’d been anchored to the bed for an eternity. And yet, at the same time, as if she’d just closed her eyes.

The cabin was stifling, oppressive, like a chamber deep underground.… Her heart quickened.

“Alright. Come on, you,” she said to the Soft Blade.

Kira willed the mask off her face and freed her limbs from the web of fibers that bound them to her torso. Then she worked hard with the xeno, straining with and against it.

When she finally stopped, her stomach was grinding and she was fully awake, even though she’d left the lights off.

She drank a few sips of water and again attempted to sleep. It took longer than she wanted—half a day at least—but in time, her mind and body relaxed, and she sank back into welcome latency.

And when she slept, she moaned and fretted in the torment of her dreams, and nothing there was to break the spell as the Wallfish hurtled ever deeper into unknown space.

Thereafter things grew hazy and disjointed. The empty sameness of her surroundings coupled with the strangeness of the xeno-induced hibernation left Kira disoriented. She felt detached from events, as if all were a dream, and she a disembodied spirit observing.

Yet in one particular, she felt very bodied. And that was her time practicing with the Soft Blade. Seemingly endless practice. Were there changes in her ability to control the xeno? Were there improvements?… Kira wasn’t sure. But she persisted. If nothing else, an innate stubbornness wouldn’t let her give up. She had faith in the value of work. If she just kept putting in the effort, it had to do some good.

The thought was her only consolation when something went wrong with the Soft Blade. Failure came in many forms. The xeno refused to move as she wished. Or it overreacted (those were the slipups that most concerned Kira). Or it obeyed, but in generalities, not specifics. She might will it to form a rose-like pattern on her hand only for it to produce a round, lumpy dome.

It was hard, frustrating labor. But Kira stuck to it. And, though at times the Soft Blade seemed frustrated also—as she could tell by the lag in its responses or by the types of shapes it formed—she felt a willingness to cooperate from the xeno, and it encouraged her.

During the times the Wallfish dropped out of FTL, she allowed herself to leave her cabin, wander the ship. Have a cup of chell in the galley. Run on the zero-g treadmill and do all the exercises she could with bands and straps. They weren’t enough to maintain muscle or bone—for that she relied

upon the xeno—but they were a welcome break from the monotony of her weekly practice.

Then the ship’s systems would again power down, the jump alert would sound, and she would retreat back to her darkened cave.

A month had passed.… A month, and sometimes Kira was convinced she was stuck in a never-ending loop. Close her eyes, wake, free her limbs, practice, close her eyes, wake, free her limbs, practice.

It was getting to her. She seriously debated waking Gregorovich or Falconi or Nielsen to have someone to talk with, but waking them would be a huge inconvenience for only a few hours of conversation, if that. It might even delay the expedition, depending on how much heat they generated. No matter how strange or lonely she felt, Kira wasn’t willing to risk that. Finding the Staff of Blue was more important than her desire for human company.

Two months. Nearly there. That was what she told herself. She celebrated with a ration bar and a cup of hot chocolate.

The training with the Soft Blade was getting easier. Or maybe that was just what she wanted to believe. She could hold and shape the xeno in ways that had escaped her before. That was progress, wasn’t it?

Kira thought so. But she felt so detached from anything tangible that she didn’t trust her own judgment.

Not so long now.… Not so long.…

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