Chapter no 26

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira returned to Control and stayed there for the rest of the afternoon, watching as new discoveries continued to pop up on their screens. There were scores of artificial structures throughout the system, both on the planets and in space: monuments to a lost civilization. None appeared to have power. By the gas giant floated the hull of what looked to be a ship. By planet e, a cluster of junked satellites parked in what would have been a geostationary orbit if the planet hadn’t been tidally locked. And of course, there was the Dyson ring (if that’s what it was), which seemed to be filled with technological relics.

“This place—” said Veera.

“—is a treasure house beyond compare,” finished Jorrus.

Kira agreed. “We’ll be studying it for centuries. Do you think these were the aliens who made the Great Beacon?”

The Entropists inclined their heads. “Perhaps. It very well could be.”

Dinner that night was a subdued, informal affair. No one bothered cooking; everyone’s stomach but Kira’s was still in a delicate state from cryo. As a result, it was prepackaged rations across the board, which made for a monotonous, if healthy, meal.

The Marines still didn’t join them. Nor did Nielsen. The first officer’s absence was conspicuous; without her quiet, steady presence, the conversation around the tables was sharper, more hard-edged.

“Tomorrow,” said Vishal, “I would like to see you, Ms. Sparrow, for a checkup. It is necessary to make sure your new organs are working well.”

Sparrow bobbed her head in an imitation of Vishal and said, “Sure thing, Doc.” Then an evil little grin spread across her face. “Just using this as an excuse to get your hands on me, aren’t you?”

Color bloomed on Vishal’s cheeks, and he stuttered. “Ms.! I would— That is, no. No. That would not be professional.”

Trig laughed through a mouthful of food. “Ha! Look, he’s blushing.”

Sparrow laughed as well, and a faint smile appeared on Hwa-jung’s broad face.

They continued to tease the doctor, and Kira could see him getting more and more frustrated and angry, but he never snapped, never lashed out. She didn’t understand it. If he just stood up for himself, the others would knock

it off, or at least back off for a while. She’d seen it plenty of times before on the mining outposts. Guys who didn’t punch back always ended up getting picked on more. It was a law of nature.

Falconi didn’t interfere, not directly, but she noticed how he unobtrusively steered the conversation in a different direction. As they took up another topic, Vishal sank back in his seat, as if hoping no one would notice him.

While they talked, Kira went to the Entropists, who were hunched over a bluish, oblong-shaped object on their table, turning it over as if trying to find a key or a latch to open it.

She sat next to Veera. “What is that?” she asked, indicating the object. It was the size of both her fists combined.

The Entropists peered at her, owlish under the hoods of their robes. “We found this—” said Jorrus.

“—on the ship of the Jelly,” said Veera. “We think it is a—” “—processor or control module for a computer. But to be honest—” “—we are not entirely sure.”

Kira glanced back at Falconi. “Does the captain know you have this?”

The Entropists smiled, mirroring each other’s expression. “Not this specifically,” they said, their voices coming in stereo, “but he knows we salvaged several pieces of equipment off the ship.”

“May I?” asked Kira, and held out her hands.

After a moment, the Entropists relented and allowed her to take the object. It was denser than it looked. The surface was pitted slightly, and there was a smell of … salt? to it.

Kira frowned. “If the xeno knows what this is, it’s not telling me. Where did you find it?”

The Entropists showed her via footage from their implants.

“The Aspect of the Void,” said Kira. The English translation tasted strange on her tongue; it was accurate, but it failed to capture the feel of the Jelly original. “That was the name of the room. I didn’t go in there, but I saw the sign.”

Veera carefully took back the oblong object. “What, in this instance—” “—does the word void refer to? Likewise, what does—”

“—the word aspect?”

She hesitated. “I’m not sure. Maybe … communication? Sorry. Don’t think I can help you any more than that.”

The Entropists dipped their heads. “You have given us more than we had previously. We shall continue to ponder upon this matter. May your path always lead to knowledge, Prisoner.”

“Knowledge to freedom,” Kira replied.

When dinner was over, and people were dispersing, she contrived to get a moment alone with Falconi by the sink. “Is Nielsen alright?” she asked in a low tone.

His hesitation confirmed her suspicions. “It’s nothing. She’ll be fine tomorrow.”

“Really.” Kira gave him a look. “Really.”

She wasn’t convinced. “Do you think she’d like it if I brought her some tea?”

“That’s probably not a good id—” Falconi stopped himself as he dried off a plate. “You know what? I take it back. I think Audrey would appreciate the gesture.” He reached up into a cupboard and removed a packet. “This is the stuff she likes. Ginger.”

For a moment Kira wondered if he was setting her up. Then she decided it didn’t matter.

Upon fixing the tea, she followed Falconi’s directions to Nielsen’s cabin, trying to keep the liquid from sloshing too much in the two safety cups she carried.

She knocked, and when there was no response, knocked again and said, “Ms. Nielsen? It’s me, Kira.”

“… Go away.” The first officer’s voice was strained. “I brought you some ginger tea.”

After a few seconds, the door creaked open to reveal Nielsen standing in burgundy pajamas and a pair of matching slippers. Her normally immaculate hair was tied back in a shoddy bun, dark rings surrounded her eyes, and her skin was pale and bloodless even beneath her spacer’s tan.

“See?” said Kira, and held out a cup. “As promised. I thought you might like something hot to drink.”

Nielsen stared at the cup as if it were a foreign artifact. Then her expression eased, if only slightly, and she accepted it and moved aside.

“Guess you’d better come in.”

The interior of her cabin was clean and tidy. The only personal effect was a holo on the desk—three children (two boys and a girl) in their early teens. On the walls, overlays created the illusion of oval, brass-framed windows looking out upon a vista of endless clouds: orange, brown, and pale cream.

Kira sat on the lone chair while Nielsen sat on the bed. “I don’t know if you like honey, but…” Kira held out a small packet. The movement of the clouds kept catching her eyes, distracting her.

“I do, actually.”

While Nielsen stirred the honey into the tea, Kira studied her. She’d never seen the first officer so frail before. “If you want, I can get you some food from the galley. It won’t take more than—”

Nielsen shook her head. “I wouldn’t be able to keep it down.” “Bad reaction to the cryo, huh?”

“You could say that,” said Nielsen.

“Can I get you something else? Maybe from the doctor?”

Nielsen took a sip. “That’s very thoughtful, but no. I just need a good sleep, and I’ll be—” Her breath hitched, and a spasm of pain knotted her face. She bent forward, putting her head between her knees, her breath coming in ragged gasps.

Alarmed, Kira darted to her side, but Nielsen held up a hand and Kira stopped, uncertain what to do.

She was just about to call for Vishal when Nielsen straightened. Her eyes were watery, and her expression was tight. “Dammit,” she said in an undertone. Then, louder: “It’s okay. I’m fine.”

“Like hell you are,” said Kira. “You couldn’t even move. That’s more than just cryo sickness.”

“Yes.” Nielsen leaned back against the wall behind the bed.

“What is it? Cramps?” Kira couldn’t imagine why the other woman would have her periods turned on, but if she did …

Nielsen uttered a short laugh. “I wish.” She blew on her tea and took a long drink.

Still on edge, Kira returned to the chair and studied the other woman. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not particularly.”

An uncomfortable silence developed between them. Kira took a drink of her own tea. She wanted to press Nielsen harder, but she knew it would be a mistake. “Have you seen all the stuff we’ve found in the system? It’s amazing. We’ll be studying it for centuries.”

“As long as we don’t get wiped out.” “There is that small detail.”

Nielsen peered at Kira over the top of her cup, eyes sharp and feverish. “Do you know why I agreed to this trip? I could have fought Falconi on it. If I’d tried hard enough, I could have even convinced him to refuse Akawe’s offer. He listens to me when it comes to things like this.”

“No, I don’t know,” said Kira. “Why?”

The first officer pointed at the holo of the kids on the desk. “Because of them.”

“Is that you and your brothers?” “No. They’re my children.”

“I didn’t know you had a family,” said Kira, surprised. “Grandchildren, even.”

“You’re joking! Really?”

Nielsen smiled a little. “I’m quite a bit older than I look.” “I never would have guessed you’d had STEM shots.”

“You mean my nose and ears?” Nielsen touched them. “I had them fixed about ten years ago. It was the thing to do where I lived.” She looked out the window overlaid on the wall, and her gaze grew distant, as if she saw something other than the clouds of Venus. “Coming here to Bughunt was the only thing I could do to help protect my family. That’s why I agreed to it. I just wish … Well, it doesn’t matter now.”

“What doesn’t?” said Kira, gentle.

A sadness settled over Nielsen, and she sighed. “I just wish I could have talked with them before we left. Who knows what it’s going to be like when we get back.”

Kira understood. “Do they live at Sol?”

“Yes. Venus and Mars.” Nielsen picked at a spot on her palm. “My daughter is still on Venus. You might have seen, the Jellies attacked there a while back. Fortunately it wasn’t close to her, but…”

“What’s her name?” “Yann.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine. Of all the places they could be, Sol is probably the safest.”

Nielsen gave her a don’t bullshit me look. “You saw what happened on Earth. I don’t think anywhere is safe these days.”

In an attempt to distract her, Kira said, “So how did you end up on the

Wallfish, then—so far away from your family?”

Nielsen studied the reflections in her cup. “Lots of reasons.… The publishing company I worked for declared bankruptcy. New management restructured, fired half the staff, canceled our pensions.” Nielsen shook her head. “Twenty-eight years spent working for them, all gone. The pension was bad enough, but I lost my health coverage, which was a problem given my, ah, particular challenges.”

“But isn’t—”

“Of course. Basic access is guaranteed, as long as you’re a citizen in good standing. Even sometimes if you’re not. But basic coverage isn’t what I needed.” Nielsen glanced at Kira from the corner of her eyes. “And now you’re wondering just how sick I am and whether it’s contagious.”

Kira raised an eyebrow. “Well, I assume Falconi wouldn’t have let you on board if you were carrying some deadly, flesh-eating bacteria.”

The other woman nearly laughed, and then she pressed a hand against her chest and made a pained face. “It’s not that dire. At least not for anyone else.”

“Are you—I mean, is it terminal?”

Life is terminal,” said Nielsen dryly. “Even with STEM shots. Entropy always wins in the end.”

Kira raised her cup. “To the Entropists, then. May they find a way to reverse the time-ordered decay of all things.”

“Hear, hear.” And Nielsen clinked cups with her. “Although, I can’t say the prospect of life unending appeals to me.”

“No. It would be nice to have some choice in the matter.”

After another sip and another pause, Nielsen said, “My … condition was a gift from my parents, believe it or not.”

“How so?”

The first officer rubbed her face, and the true depths of her exhaustion became evident. “They were trying to do the right thing. People always are.

They just forget the old adage regarding the problem with good intentions and the road to Hell.”

“That’s a rather cynical view.”

“I’m in a rather cynical mood.” Nielsen straightened her legs out on the bed. It seemed to hurt. “Before I was born, the laws on gene-hacking weren’t as strict as they are now. My parents wanted to give their child—me

—every possible advantage. What parent wouldn’t?” Kira instantly grasped the problem. “Oh no.”

“Oh yes. So they packed me full of every known gene sequence for intelligence, including a few artificial ones that had just been developed.”

“Did it work?”

“I’ve never needed to use a calculator, if that’s what you mean. There were unintended side effects, though. The doctors aren’t quite sure what happened, but some part of the alterations triggered my immune system— set it off like a pressure alarm in a dome that’s been ripped open.” Nielsen’s expression became sardonic. “So I can calculate how fast the air is rushing out without having to check my math, but there’s nothing I can do to keep myself from asphyxiating. Metaphorically speaking.”

“Nothing?” Kira said.

Nielsen shook her head. “The doctors tried fixing the conflicts with retroviral treatments, but … they can only do so much. The genes changed tissue up here,” she tapped the side of her head. “Delete them, remove them, or even just edit them and it could kill me or mess with my memories or my personality.” Her lips twisted. “Life is full of little ironies like that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It happens. I’m not the only one, although most of the others didn’t make it past thirty. As long as I take my pills, it isn’t too bad, but some days

—” Nielsen winced. “Some days, the pills don’t do much of anything.” She picked up her pillow and wedged it behind her back. Her tone was bitter as arsenic: “When your body isn’t your own, it’s worse than any prison.” Her eyes flicked toward Kira. “You know.”

She did know, and she also knew dwelling on it wouldn’t help. “So what happened after you got laid off?”

Nielsen drained the last of her tea in a single gulp. She put the empty cup on the edge of the desk. “The bills started piling up, and … well, my husband, Sarros, left. I don’t blame him, not really, but there I was, having

to start all over again at sixty-three.…” Her laugh could have cut glass. “I don’t recommend it.”

Kira made a sympathetic noise, and the first officer said: “I couldn’t find a job that suited me on Venus, so I left.”

“Just like that?”

The steel inside Nielsen came to the fore again. “Exactly like that. I spent some time moving around Sol, trying to find a steady position. Eventually I ended up at Harcourt Station, out by Titan, and that’s where I met Falconi and talked him into bringing me on as first officer.”

“Now there’s a conversation I would have liked to hear,” said Kira.

Nielsen chuckled. “I may have been a bit pushy. I practically had to force my way onto the Wallfish. The ship was a bit of a mess when I arrived; it needed organizing and scheduling, and those have always been my strong points.”

Kira toyed with the extra packet of honey she’d brought. “Can I ask you a question?”

“It’s a little late to be asking for permission, don’t you think?” “About Falconi.”

Nielsen’s expression grew more guarded. “Go ahead.”

“What’s the story behind those scars on his arms? Why didn’t he get them fixed?”

“Ah.” Nielsen shifted her legs, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

“I wasn’t sure if it was a sensitive subject.”

Nielsen stared at her with an overly direct gaze. Her eyes, Kira noticed for the first time, had flecks of green in them. “If Falconi feels like telling you, he will. Either way, it’s not really my story to share. I’m sure you understand.”

Kira didn’t press the issue, but Nielsen’s reticence only increased her curiosity.

After that, they spent a pleasant half hour chatting about the intricacies of living and working on Venus. To Kira, the planet seemed beautiful and exotic and dangerous in an alluring way. Nielsen’s time in the publishing industry there had been so different from Kira’s profession, it made her consider the vast array of personal experiences that existed throughout the League.

At last, when Kira’s cup was empty and Nielsen seemed in relatively good cheer, Kira stood to leave. The first officer caught her by the wrist.

“Thank you for the tea. It was very nice of you. I mean it.”

The praise warmed Kira’s heart. “Any time. It was my pleasure.” Nielsen smiled then—a genuine smile—and Kira smiled in return.

You'll Also Like