Chapter no 36

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The towers loomed ever higher as they approached the edge of the settlement. White was the predominate color among the buildings, but irregular panels of blue provided contrast to the structures, enhancing with a shot of vivid decoration an otherwise barren cityscape.

“They had a sense of beauty,” said Nielsen.

“We don’t know that,” said Falconi. “Everything could be for some practical purpose.”

“Does it really look like that to you?” The captain didn’t answer.

As they entered the city via a wide avenue from the south, an intense feeling of familiarity swept over Kira. It left her feeling displaced, as if she’d shifted through time. She had never been to that twilight city before, but the Soft Blade had, and its memories were nearly as strong as her own. She remembered … life. Moving things: flying and walking, and machines that did the same. The touch of skin, the sound of voices, the sweet scent of flowers carried on the wind … And for a moment, she could nearly see the city as it had been: vital, vibrant, standing tall with hope and pride.

Don’t lose control, she told herself. Don’t lose control. And she hardened her mental grip on the Soft Blade. Whatever happened that day, she was

determined not to let the xeno slip her grasp and run rampant. Not after her previous mistakes.

“When do you think this was built?” said Trig. He gaped through his visor with undisguised wonder.

“Centuries ago,” said Kira, recalling the sense of age from the Soft Blade’s memories. “Before we ever left Earth. Maybe even earlier.”

Koyich glanced over his shoulder at her. “Still no idea where to look?” She hesitated. “Not yet. Let’s head to the center.”

With two of the Marines in power armor taking the lead, they continued deeper into the maze of buildings. Overhead, the wind whirling between the tapered towers sounded as if it were trying to whisper secrets, but listen though she did, Kira could make no sense of the words in the air.

She kept scanning the buildings and streets, looking for anything that might spark a specific memory. The spaces between the structures were narrower than humans preferred; the proportions were taller, thinner, which matched the images she had seen of the Vanished.

Rubble blocked the avenue in front of them, forcing them to detour around. Veera and Jorrus stopped and bent to pick up a piece that had fallen from one of the nearby towers.

“It does not look like stone,” said Veera. “Nor metal,” said Jorrus. “The material—”

“Doesn’t matter now,” said Koyich. “Keep moving.”

Their footsteps echoed off the sides of the buildings, loud and disconcerting in the empty spaces.


Kira spun toward the noise, as did the rest of the squad. There, by an empty doorway, a rectangular panel flickered with artificial light. It was a screen of some sort, blue-white and distorted with cracks. No text or pictures appeared, just the pale field of light.

“How can there still be power?” said Nielsen in an overly calm voice. “Maybe we’re not the first ones to visit,” said Trig.

Kira started toward the screen, and Koyich put up an arm to bar her way. “Hold up. We don’t know if it’s safe.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, and walked past him.

Up close, the glowing panel produced a faint hum. Kira put a hand on it.

The screen didn’t change. “Hello?” she said, feeling slightly foolish.

Again, nothing happened.

The wall next to the panel was covered with grime. She wiped some of it away, wondering if there was anything beneath.

There was.

A sigil lay there, set within the surface of the material, and the sight of it froze her in place. The emblem was a line of fractal shapes, coiled close, one upon another.

Kira couldn’t decipher any meaning, but she recognized the language as belonging to the same, all-important pattern that guided the Soft Blade’s existence. Unable to take her eyes off the sigil, she backed away.

“What is it?” Falconi asked.

“I think the Vanished made the Great Beacon,” she said.

Koyich readjusted the sling on his gun. “What makes you think that?” She pointed. “Fractals. They were obsessed with fractals.”

“That doesn’t help us now,” said Koyich. “Not unless you can read them.”


“Then don’t waste—” Koyich stiffened, as did Falconi.

Alarmed, Kira checked her overlays. There—on the other side of Bughunt—another four Jelly ships had just emerged out of FTL. They were coming in hot; a lot hotter than the first batch of enemy vessels.

“Goddammit,” said Falconi between clenched teeth. “How many ships did they send?”

“Look: the rest of the Jellies are increasing their thrust so they’ll arrive at the same time,” said Koyich. He’d gone preternaturally calm, flipping the switch from serious to combat mode. Kira recognized the change in Falconi also. “We’ve got an hour to find this staff. Maybe less. Pick it up, everyone. Double time.”

With the exos still at the lead, they trotted deeper into the city until they arrived at an open plaza with a tall standing stone, cracked and weathered, in the center. As Kira examined the stone, she experienced a shock similar to when she’d seen the sigil, for it was covered with a fractal pattern, and when she looked at it closely, the smallest details of the pattern seemed to swim, as if moving of their own volition.

She felt as if the ground had shifted. What was happening to her? Tingles crawled across the surface of her skin, and the Soft Blade stirred as

if restless.

“Anything?” said Koyich.

“I … I don’t recognize anything. Not specifically.”

“Right. We can’t wait. Hawes, set up a search pattern. Look for anything that might resemble a staff. Use the drones; use everything we’ve got. If you haven’t found the staff by the time the Jellies enter orbit, then we focus on digging in and denying them territory.”


The lieutenant and Corporal Nishu split the rest of the Marines into four squads, and then they dispersed into the buildings. All of them save Koyich, who took up position by the side of the plaza and—from the pack he was carrying—removed a comms dish that he aimed at the sky.

“Navárez,” he said, fiddling with the controls. “I’m hooking you up to the squad’s feed. See if you recognize anything.”

Kira nodded and sat hunched on the ground, next to the standing stone. A contact appeared on her overlays. She accepted, and a grid of windows filled her vision. Each window displayed the video from a Marine or a drone.

It was confusing to watch, but she did her best, shifting her attention from one window to the next as the Marines hurried through the decaying buildings, rushing through one empty room after another.

And still, she felt no sense of certainty. They were in the right place; of that she was sure. But where in the complex they were supposed to go continued to elude her.

Tell me! she commanded the Soft Blade, desperate. No answer was forthcoming, and with each passing moment, Kira was aware of the Jellies growing closer.

Falconi paced around the perimeter of the plaza along with Trig and Nielsen, keeping watch. By one side, the Entropists stood huddled next to a panel that had come loose from the corner of a building, studying whatever lay underneath.

“Navárez,” said Koyich after a while. She shook her head. “Still nothing.”

He grunted. “Hawes, start scouting for a location we can hole up in.”

*Yessir,* the sergeant replied over the radio.

After half an hour of near-silence, Falconi came over to Kira and squatted next to her while resting Francesca across his knees. “We’re almost out of time,” he said quietly.

“I know,” she said, eyes darting from one window to the next. “Can I help?”

She shook her head. “What are we missing?”

“No idea,” she said. “Maybe it’s been too long since the Soft Blade was here. A lot could have changed. I’m just—I’m afraid I brought us all here to die.”

He scratched his chin and was quiet for a few seconds. “I don’t believe that. This has to be the place. We’re just not looking at it right.… The Soft Blade doesn’t want to die or get captured by the Jellies, does it?”

“No,” she said slowly.

“Okay. So why show you this system? This city? There has be something the Blade expects you to find, something so obvious we’re missing it.”

Kira glanced at the standing stone. We’re not looking at it right. “Can you give me control of a drone?” she said, calling over to Koyich.

“Just don’t crash it,” said the first officer. “We’re going to need every one we’ve got.”

Kira linked the drone to her overlays and then closed her eyes so she could better concentrate on the feed from the machine. It was hovering next to a tower, half a klick away.

“What are you thinking?” said Falconi. She could feel his presence next to her.

“Fractals,” she said. “Meaning?”

She didn’t answer but zoomed the drone straight into the air, higher and higher until it was flying above the top of even the tallest tower. Then she looked at the settlement as a whole, really looked, trying to see not only the individual buildings but also the larger, overall shapes. A flicker of recognition came from the Soft Blade, but nothing more.

She turned the drone in a slow circle, angling it up and down to make sure she wasn’t missing anything. From the air, the towers were stark and

beautiful, but she didn’t allow herself to linger over the sight, dramatic though it was.

crack echoed through the city from the west. Kira’s eyelids flew open, and as she looked for the source of the sound, the image of the city slipped out of focus.

Her perception shifted, and she saw what she’d been searching for. The decay of the buildings and the encroachment of the native flora had hidden it until that very moment, but she saw. The ancient outline of the city was— as she had suspected—a fractal, and the shape of it contained meaning.

There. At the nexus of the pattern, where it coiled in on itself like a nautilus shell. There, at the center of it all.

The structure that she identified was on the far side of the settlement: a low, dome-shaped place that, had it been on Earth, she would have thought was a temple from some long-dead civilization. But temple felt like the wrong word. If anything, mausoleum seemed more appropriate, given the pale starkness of the building.

The sight of it triggered no memory or sense of confirmation from the Soft Blade, no more so than the city as a whole. That the building was important seemed undeniable, knowing the affinity the Vanished had for fractals, but whether or not it had anything to do with the staff … Kira couldn’t say.

Dismayed, she realized she was going to have to guess. They didn’t have time to wait for the xeno to disgorge another fragment of useful information. They had to act, and they had to act now. If she chose wrong, they’d die. But hesitation would kill them just as surely.

“Hawes, was that you?” said Koyich.

*Yessir. We located the entrance to an underground structure. Looks like it’s defensible.*

Kira tagged the building on the drone’s feed and then quit the program. “We might not need it,” she said, standing. “I think I found something.”

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