Chapter no 33

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira watched on her overlays as the Wallfish and the Darmstadt receded into the distance: two bright points of light that quickly dwindled to near nothing. The ships moved as a locked pair, on course for the asteroid they’d chosen to mine. Behind them, Bughunt was a dull, ruddy orb—a dying coal set within a field of black.

Kira sat buckled into a jump seat along the wall, next to Falconi. The rest of the expedition was likewise secured, except for those—like Trig and Nielsen—who were wearing power armor. They stood locked into hard points near the back of the shuttle.

Their group numbered twenty-one. Fourteen of them, including Hawes and the three other Marines from the Wallfish, were in exos. Two of the UMC exos looked to be heavy armor variants: walking tanks with portable turrets attached to the fronts of their breastplates.

Most of the Marines were enlisted men, although Akawe had also sent along his second-in-command, Koyich, to oversee the operation.

The yellow-eyed man was in the middle of saying to Falconi, “—we say you jump, you jump. Clear?”

“Perfectly,” said Falconi. He didn’t look happy, though.

Koyich’s upper lip curled. “I don’t know why the captain agreed to let rim runners like you along, but orders are orders. If shit goes down, stay the hell out of our way, you hear? You cross our line of fire, we’re going to shoot through you, not around. Get it?”

If anything, Falconi’s expression became even more glacial. “Oh I got it.” In her mind, Kira checked the box labeled asshole next to Koyich’s name.

Overhead, the lightstrips switched from the clean white shine of full-spectrum illumination to the purple glow of irradiating UV, and from jets

mounted along the walls, gusts of decon gasses buffeted her and the other passengers.

The Ilmorra was laid out differently than the Valkyrie, but it was similar enough that Kira felt a strong sense of déjà vu. She tried to put aside the emotion and focus on the present; whatever happened on the planet, they weren’t going to get stuck in the shuttle. Not with the Darmstadt and the Wallfish nearby. Even so, it was unsettling to be in such a small ship, so far from any human-settled system. They were truly explorers of the deep unknown.

They had enough food to stay on the planet for a week. If more was needed, the Darmstadt could drop it from orbit once the ship got back from the asteroid belt. Barring unforeseen complications, they would stay on the planet until they found the Staff of Blue or were able to determine it wasn’t there. Returning to the ships was going to be a huge hassle, not only because of the propellant needed to lift the shuttle into orbit, but also because of the decontamination they would need to go through before being allowed back on board.

Like everyone not clad in an exo, Kira had donned a skinsuit and helmet, which she’d be living in until they left the planet. Everyone but the Entropists, who had somehow transformed the smart fabric of their gradient robes into fitted suits complete with helmets and visors. As always, their technology impressed.

The suits would have been necessary regardless of concerns over biocontainment. Spectrographic analysis had shown that the surface atmosphere on the ground would kill them without protection (not immediately, but fast enough).

The Wallfish and the Darmstadt had decelerated a considerable amount as they neared the planet, but neither ship had come to a complete, relative stop, which left the Ilmorra with several hours of thrusting before it could enter orbit.

Kira closed her eyes and waited.

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