Back in her own cabin, Kira paused in front of the mirror by the sink. The dim, ship-night lighting cast heavy shadows across her face, which made the kink in her nose stand out in high relief.
She felt the crooked flesh; it would be easy to fix. A hard jerk would return it to normal, and then the Soft Blade would heal her face the way it should have the first time.
But she didn’t want that, and now she understood why. The xeno had erased every mark on her body, every bump and line and freckle and odd bit of jiggle. It had removed the physical record of her life and replaced it with the meaningless coating of fibers that retained no stamp of experience. So much it had taken from her, she didn’t want to lose more.
Keeping a crooked nose was her choice, her way of reshaping the flesh they shared. It also served as a reminder of past sins, ones she was determined not to repeat.
Flush with that determination, as well as a surfeit of images from the system they’d arrived at, Kira threw herself down and—even after three months of mostly hibernating—fell asleep.
She and her joined flesh—not a grasper but a giver—walked as witness behind the Highmost among the field of ill-shaped growths: cancerous intentions that bore poisonous fruit. And the Highmost raised the Staff of Blue and said a single, cutting word: “No.”
Down the staff then came, struck the heaving earth. A circle of grey expanded about the Highmost as each mutated cell tore itself apart. The stench of death and putrefaction smothered the field, and sorrow bent the Highmost.
An earlier fracture: one of her siblings stood before the assembled Heptarchy in their high-arched presence chamber. The Highmost descended
to the patterned floor and touched the Staff of Blue to the blood-smeared brow of her sibling.
“You are no longer worthy.”
Then flesh parted from flesh as the other Soft Blade flowed away from the staff, fleeing its power and leaving the body of its bonded mate exposed, vulnerable. For there was no denying the Staff of Blue.
Another disjunction, and she found herself standing beside the Highmost, upon the observation deck of an enormous starship. Before and below them hung a rocky planet, green and red with swarms of life. There was a wrongness to it, though—a feel of threat that made her wish she was elsewhere—as if the planet itself were malevolent.
The Highmost raised the Staff of Blue once again. “Enough.” The staff angled forward, a flash of sapphire light sent shadows streaming, and the planet vanished.
In the distance, well past the planet’s previous location, a patch of starlight twisted, and with it twisted her stomach. For she knew what the distortion heralded.…
Kira woke with a pounding heart. She stayed under the blankets for several minutes, reviewing the memories from the Soft Blade. Then she rolled upright and put a call through to both Falconi and Akawe.
As soon as they answered, she said, “We have to find the Staff of Blue.” Then she told them of her dream.
Falconi said, “If even only part of that is true—”
“Then it’s even more important we keep the Jellies from getting their tentacles on this tech,” said Akawe.
The call ended, and Kira checked their location: still on course for planet
e. It needs a better name, she thought. At the current distance, and without magnification, the planet was still just a gleaming dot in the ship’s cameras, no different from the other, nearby dots that marked the rest of the system’s closely packed planets.
During the night, the ship minds had found even more structures scattered about Bughunt. The system had clearly been a base for long-term
settlement. Kira glanced over the newest discoveries but saw nothing immediately revelatory, so she put them aside for later study.
Then she checked her messages. There were two waiting for her. The first—as she’d half expected—was from Gregorovich:
The dust from your alien companion is clogging my filters again, meatbag. – Gregorovich
Apologies. I didn’t have time to clean yesterday. I’ll see what I can do. –Kira
No matter; you’ll likely just make a mess of it. Leave your door unlocked, and I shall send one of my tricksy little service bots to sweep up your leavings. Would you like your sheets turned down as well? Y/N – Gregorovich
… No thank you. I can manage just fine myself. – Kira As you wish, meatbag. – Gregorovich
The other message was from Sparrow:
Let’s do this. Cargo hold; I’ll be waiting. – Sparrow
Kira ran a hand over the back of her head. She’d been expecting to hear from Sparrow. Whatever the woman had in store for her, it wasn’t going to be easy, but Kira was okay with that. She was curious to find out if her efforts with the Soft Blade were going to pay off. If nothing else, interfacing with the xeno ought to be easier now that she was fully awake and properly fed.
Kira fetched her morning chell from the galley and then headed down to the hold. The Marines were there, prepping their gear for the upcoming trip to the surface of planet e. The squad greeted her with nods and grunts and even a salute on the part of Sanchez. Whether it was their military augments or their natural constitutions, Kira didn’t know, but none of the men looked as drained from cryo as the crew of the Wallfish.
As promised, Sparrow was in the small gym hidden within the racks of equipment. She was chewing gum while doing painful-looking crunches on a mat. “Rehab,” she said in response to Kira’s querying look.
After finishing her set, Sparrow rolled onto her knees. “So?” she said. “Three months. Were you able to keep up with your training?”
“And? How’d it go?”
Kira knelt as well. “Good, I think. It was hard to tell at times, but I tried my damnedest. I really did.”
A crooked little smile cut Sparrow’s face. “Show me.”
So Kira did. She pressed and pulled and ran and otherwise performed all the exercises Sparrow asked of her … while also shaping and reshaping the Soft Blade the whole time. To Kira’s satisfaction, she did well. Not perfect. But very close. She never lost control of the xeno to the point where it stabbed or lashed out; at the most, it formed a few studs or ripples in response to the stresses imposed on her body. And she was able to form intricate shapes and patterns with its fibers. It felt as if the organism was working with her, not against her, which was a welcome change.
Sparrow watched with focused intensity. She gave no praise and showed no sign of approval, and when Kira continued to meet her demands, she merely asked for more. More weight. More complexity with the Soft Blade. More time under tension. More.
At last, Kira was ready to call it quits. She felt that she had done quite enough to demonstrate her new skills. But Sparrow had other ideas.
The woman hopped down from the bench where she was sitting and strode over to where Kira was standing by the weight rack, panting and sweating. She stopped only centimeters away: too close for comfort.
Kira fought the urge to step back.
“Make the most detailed pattern that you can,” said Sparrow.
Kira was tempted to argue. She resisted, though, and—after thinking— willed the Soft Blade to imitate the fractal it had shown her on more than one occasion. The surface of the suit rippled and deformed into an almost microscopically detailed design. Holding it in place wasn’t easy, but then, that was the point.
Kira sucked in her breath. “Okay. What else do—” Sparrow slapped her cheek. Hard.
Shocked, Kira blinked, tears forming in her left eye, the side Sparrow had hit. “What the—”
Sparrow slapped her again, a bright, icy shock that sent stars shooting across Kira’s vision. She felt the mask start to crawl across her face and the Soft Blade start to spike out, and with a mighty effort, she held it in place. It
felt as if she were holding a high-tension wire with a metric ton of weight at the other end, pulling her forward, threatening to snap.
She set her jaw and glared at Sparrow, now knowing what the woman was up to.
Sparrow grinned—an evil little grin that did nothing but piss off Kira even more. It was the sadistic superiority of the expression that really got to her.
Sparrow slapped her a third time.
Kira saw the blow coming. She could have ducked or flinched or protected herself with the Soft Blade. She wanted to. She also could have struck back with the suit. The xeno was eager to fight, eager to stop the threat.
A moment’s lapse, and Sparrow would have been lying on the floor, blood oozing from a half-dozen different wounds. Kira could see it in her mind.
She took another breath and then forced herself to smile. Not an angry smile. Not an evil smile. A flat, calm smile that said, You can’t break me. She meant it, too. She and the Soft Blade were working together, and Kira felt a solid sense of control, not only over the xeno, but herself.
Sparrow grunted and stepped back. The tension in her shoulders slacked. “Not bad, Navárez.… Not bad.”
Kira allowed the pattern to melt into the surface of the Soft Blade. “That was really fucking risky.”
A quick laugh from Sparrow. “It worked, didn’t it.” She returned to the bench and sat.
“And if it hadn’t?” In the back of her mind, Kira couldn’t help but feel a sense of triumph. She really had made progress on the way to Bughunt. All those practice sessions alone in the dark had been worth it.…
Sparrow clipped a bar attachment to the weight machine. “You’re going dirtside tomorrow to poke around an alien city, looking for some scary-ass alien superweapon. Shit could go sideways real fast, and you know it. If you couldn’t handle a little something like this”—she shrugged—“you shouldn’t leave the Wallfish. Besides, I had confidence in you.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?” But Kira smiled as she said it.
“Nothing new there.” Sparrow started to do pulldowns on the weight machine, using fairly light weight. She did a set of ten and then stopped and
hunched over, eyes screwed shut.
“How’s your recovering going?” Kira asked.
Sparrow made a disgusted face. “Well enough. The doc kept me at a slightly higher metabolic rate than normal in cryo, which helped with the healing, but it’s still going to be another few weeks before I’m rated to get back in an exo. And that really burns me.”
“Why?” said Kira.
“Because,” said Sparrow, massaging her side, where she’d been injured, “I can’t fight like this.”
“You shouldn’t have to. Besides, we’ve got the UMC with us.” Sparrow snorted. “You grow up on a colony or what?”
“Yeah. What’s that got to do with it?”
“Then you ought to know you can’t off-load responsibility on someone else. You have to be able to take care of yourself when shit goes down.”
Kira thought about that for a moment as she put away the weights she’d been holding. “Sometimes we can’t, and that’s when we have to rely on other people. That’s how societies work.”
Sparrow sucked her lips against her teeth in an unpleasant little smile. “Maybe. Doesn’t mean I have to like being disabled.”
“No, it doesn’t.”