Chapter no 37

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

“You think, but you’re not sure,” said Koyich. “That’s right.”

“That’s some seriously weak shit, Navárez. You really can’t give us a better idea than you think?”

“Sorry, no.”


Falconi said, “Doesn’t look like we can get there before the Jellies land.” Kira checked the position of the aliens: the first three ships were just entering orbit. Even as she watched, she saw them dipping lower as they

entered the atmosphere. “We have to try.”

“Dammit,” said Koyich. “Worst case scenario, we’ll hole up in that building, try to fight off the Jellies. They don’t know where we’re headed, so that gives us an advantage. Hawes, get two exos over to the location Navárez marked, full speed. Everyone else, form up on me, fast as you can. AOP is about to go hot.”


The first officer collapsed the comms dish and stowed it in his pack as they ran out of the plaza and down the nearest curving street.

“Can the Ilmorra give us any cover?” Kira asked.

Tatupoa and another Marine jogged out of a side street, joining them. “The Jellies would just shoot it down,” said Koyich.

The buzzing of drones grew louder as several of the machines took up positions high overhead, providing constant overwatch. The wind tugged at them, causing the drones to dip and sway as they fought to hold still.

“The Wallfish is on her way back,” Falconi announced. “Emergency burn. She’ll be here before long.”

“Better tell them not to,” said Koyich. “That barge of yours doesn’t stand a chance against the Jellies.”

Falconi didn’t answer, but Kira could tell he disagreed. <What are you planning? – Kira>

<A couple of Casaba-Howitzers in the right place could take out at least half of the Jellies. – Falconi>

<Can the Wallfish get close enough? – Kira>

<Let Sparrow and Gregorovich worry about that. – Falconi>

Thudding along next to her in his power armor, Trig looked nearly as worried as Kira felt. “Just stick close to me and you’ll be fine,” she said.

He flashed her a sickly grin. “Okay. Just don’t stab me with your suit.” “Not a chance.”

A pair of booms shook the air, and two Jelly ships pierced the cover of clouds and descended through the sunset sky on pillars of blinding blue flame. The vessels disappeared behind the towers near the eastern edge of the settlement, and then the roar of the rockets fell silent.

“Move,” Koyich barked, although none of them needed urging. They were already running fast as they could. Hawes, Nishu, and the rest of the search teams rejoined them and took up formation alongside Kira and the others.

The radio crackled in Kira’s ear. One of the two Marines who had gone ahead said, *Sir, made it to the target. It’s locked up tighter than a bank vault. No obvious entrance.*

“Cut your way in, if you can,” said Koyich between short breaths. “Whatever you do, defend that position at all costs.”

*Roger that.*

For a moment, Kira worried about the Marines damaging the staff. Then she shook off the worry. If they couldn’t get into the building, the point would be moot regardless.

To her left, Sanchez said, “Movement! Four hundred meters and closing.”

“Damn they’re fast,” said Nielsen. She racked the slide on her snub-nosed rifle.

Kira activated the targeting program on her blaster. A bright red crosshair appeared in the center of her vision.

Then Sanchez swore in a language Kira didn’t recognize, and her overlays failed to translate. “They just took out my drone,” he said.

“Mine too,” said another Marine.

“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” said Hawes. “Make that three.”

“We have to get off the street,” said Falconi. “We’re sitting ducks out in the open.”

Koyich shook his head. “No. We keep pushing forward. If we stop, they catch us.”

“Two hundred and fifty meters and closing,” said Sanchez. They could hear noises among the buildings now: thumping and clattering and the whine and buzz of drones.

Kira reassessed her mental hold over the Soft Blade. Only what I want,

she thought, doing her best to impress the notion on the xeno. No matter

how chaotic things became, no matter how much pain or fear she might end up in, she wasn’t going to let the Soft Blade inadvertently hurt someone again. Never that.

Then she willed the xeno to cover her face. Even though she was wearing the skinsuit helmet, she wanted the additional protection. Her vision went black for the length of a blink, and then she could see the same as before, only now with the addition of the hazy, violet bands of the local EM fields. Thick loops emanated from the walls of several nearby buildings, marking places where the power was still on. (Why hadn’t she looked before?)

“This is suicide,” said Falconi. He grabbed Kira by the arm and pulled her toward an open doorway in the nearest building. “This way.”

“Stop!” shouted Koyich. “That’s an order.”

“Bullshit. I’m not under your command,” said Falconi. Nielsen followed him, and also Trig and the Entropists. After a moment, Koyich had no choice but to order the Marines to do the same.

The ground level of the building was tall and lofty. Soaring pillars divided the space at regular intervals, a forest of stone trunks that branched as they approached the ceiling. The sight reminded Kira, with almost physical force, of her dreams.

Koyich stormed over to Falconi. “You pull a stunt like that again and I’ll have them pick you up and carry you.” He jerked the barrel of his blaster toward the Marines in power armor.

“That’s—” Falconi stopped as the noises outside grew louder. Kira saw movement in the street they’d just abandoned.

The first Jelly crawled into view: a tentacled squid, similar in form to the ones Kira had encountered before. Following it were several more squids, a lobster-like creature, a chomper, and several more forms she’d only seen on the news. White, orb-shaped drones darted about over them, and farther back, she spotted some kind of segmented vehicle flowing across the rubble-strewn street.…

At almost the same moment, the Jellies and the Marines released clouds of chalk and chaff, hiding each other from view.

“Go, go, go!” Hawes shouted.

Laser blasts and gunfire erupted, and a chunk of masonry exploded out of the pillar above Kira’s head.

She ducked and ran, staying close to Trig’s exo. Explosions sounded behind them. Falconi turned and fired his grenade launcher, but Kira didn’t look back.

Their only hope now was speed.

The two Marines in the lead lowered their metal-clad shoulders and smashed straight through the wall in front of them. Another empty room followed by another wall, and then they burst out onto a narrow street.

“Keep going!” Nielsen shouted.

Kira looked for the Entropists and saw them dimly through the swirling chalk: ghost-like figures nearly doubled over, hands outstretched. “This way!” she called, hoping it would help guide them.

Together, she and the rest of the group sprinted across the street and into another building. This one was smaller, with tall, thin corridors barely wide enough for the exos. With every step, the machines scraped flakes off the mossy walls, showering the floor.

The Marines continued to bull forward, breaking past every barrier. Future archeologists, Kira reflected, weren’t going to be happy with all the damage.

They passed through a room with shallow, pool-shaped depressions in the floor—Kira remembered the scent of perfumes and the sound of splashing water—then an arcade with large, broken tubes of some transparent material extending upward along the walls—bodies rising through space, both pairs of arms outstretched for balance—and then they broke through onto another street, wider than the first.

The buzzing of drones grew louder, and Kira saw threadlike flashes of superheated air as lasers punched through the clouds of chalk surrounding them.

Then one of the lobster-like Jellies skittered around the side of the building high above—clinging to the wall like an oversized insect—and jumped onto the back of Tatupoa’s armor.

The man shouted and twisted, flailing his arms in a futile attempt to knock loose the chittering creature. “Hold still!” shouted Hawes, and a burst of gunfire erupted from his rifle. Each shot produced a pulse of pressure that Kira felt against the front of her chest.

Ichor exploded from the side of the lobster, and it fell twitching to the cracked pavement.

But it had accomplished its mission. The delay it caused was just enough for three squids to swarm around the building and close with them.

The Marines weren’t caught by surprise. The instant the squids entered their line of sight, the big chain guns mounted on the front of the two heavy exos sprang to life. Even through her helmet and even through the Soft Blade’s mask, the sound was painful and terrifying—visceral in its intensity.

Kira continued to stumble forward, feeling as if her bones were being hammered.

The three squids thrashed under the impacts of the Marines’ explosive bullets. Several of their tentacles returned fire with blasters and guns and a whirling blade of death that buried itself in a wall down the street.

One of the Marines threw a grenade. Falconi fired his launcher, and the paired set of blasts obscured the squids.

Chunks of twitching flesh splattered the buildings and rained down around Kira. She ducked, shielding her face with an arm.

Then they were inside again, and half the Marines turned to cover the rear. They spread to either side, using corners and rubble and what looked like high-backed benches for protection. Three of the men were bleeding: Tatupoa in his exo, the two others in skinsuits. It looked like they’d all been hit by lasers.

They didn’t stop to tend their wounds. Without lowering his blaster, one of the two pulled out a canister of medifoam, sprayed his wound, and tossed the can to his comrade, who sprayed his own injury. Neither of them lost a step throughout the whole process.

“Go! Go! Out the back!” shouted Koyich, continuing to retreat from the building entrance.

“How much farther?” said Nielsen. “Hundred meters!” shouted Hawes. “Th—”


The walls and ceiling vibrated like a drumhead, and centuries’ worth of accumulated dust plumed into the air as the corner of the building caved inward. The ceiling sagged, and everywhere Kira heard creaks and squeals and tearing moans. She willed the Soft Blade to switch to infrared. Through the new opening in the side of the room, she saw the Jelly vehicle directly

outside: black and menacing, with a segmented carapace that reminded her of a giant pillbug. On its back, a huge mounted turret was taking aim at them—

Trig and Nielsen opened fire along with the Marines. Then Jorrus and Veera surprised them all by stepping forward and—moving as one— slashing with their arms and shouting a shared word.

A burst of searing light obscured the room. Kira blinked, fear jolting through her at being suddenly blind.

Crimson dots mottled her vision as the light faded. In front of their group, she saw a fine net of monofilaments covering the walls, the broken corner of the building, and the vehicle outside—which was curled on its side and convulsing as tendrils of electricity crawled across the plates of its exposed carapace.

In the distance, more Jellies were approaching. “Run!” the Entropists shouted.

They ran.

“What did you do?” Kira shouted.

“Magic!” Veera answered, which was wholly unsatisfying, but Kira didn’t have the breath to question her further.

They broke through the back of the building, and—across another plaza

—Kira spotted the mausoleum-like structure she’d identified from the air. The two other armored Marines were crouched by the closed-off entrance, the blue-white light of cutting torches bright beneath their metal gauntlets.

They switched off the torches and laid down covering fire as Kira and her companions sprinted across the plaza.

One of the Marines next to Koyich stumbled and fell. Blood and bone sprayed from his knee. Trig picked him up with one hand and carried him the rest of the way to the temple.

Kira dropped behind a slab of rubble, using it for cover while she caught her breath. If the Jellies got close enough, she could take them out with the Soft Blade, but so far, they’d kept their distance. They knew what they were dealing with, and they were behaving accordingly, goddammit. Did they have to be so smart?

A Jelly drone popped up over the top of the slab. Nielsen fried it with a single burst of laser fire from her exo. Through her faceplate, she appeared

red-faced and sweating. Strands of hair had broken free of her ponytail and fallen across her face.

Behind another slab, Trig laid the Marine with the mangled knee onto the ground. Redding said the tag on the front of his skinsuit. Sanchez ran over to them, and—before Kira could believe what she was seeing—he took his blaster and sliced off the rest of the Marine’s wounded leg.

Redding didn’t even scream, but he screwed his eyes shut during the cut. He must have been using a nerve-block to stop the pain. Sanchez cinched a tourniquet around the stump of the leg, sprayed the bloody end with medifoam, and then slapped the man on the shoulder and joined the rest of the Marines in firing over the tops of the rubble.

Kira looked at the front of the temple. The entrance was sealed with what looked like a plug of solid metal. The two Marines had only managed to cut into it a hand’s breadth or less.

Dirt showered her as Nielsen and Trig grabbed the slab of stone she was crouching behind and, with their exos, heaved it upright so it formed a barrier between them and the Jellies gathering at the edges of the plaza. The Marines did the same with the other slabs, setting them in a semicircle before the temple.

“If you’re going to do something, now’s the time,” said Falconi, reloading Francesca from the pouch on his belt.

“Fuck that,” said Koyich. “Use shaped charges; blow it open.” “No!” said Kira. “You could destroy the staff.”

Koyich ducked as bullets and shrapnel whined overhead. He pulled the tab on another canister of chalk and threw it into the center of the plaza. “We’ll get destroyed, if we can’t get in there.”

An image flashed through Kira’s mind of the moment when she’d ripped the transmitter out of the wall of the Jelly ship. “Just hold them off,” she said, scrambling to her feet. Keeping her head down, she ran to the blocked entrance of the temple and put her hands against the cold metal.

Sweat dripped into her eyes as she loosened her grip on the Soft Blade— just a fraction—and reached out with the suit, stretching and spreading herself, like a rubber sheet pulled taut. Don’t lose control … don’t lose control.…

A bullet flattened itself against the metal above her head, spraying her with silvery spall. Kira hunched her shoulders and tried to ignore the

constant, battering explosions of gunfire and grenades.

Her skin crawled as the Soft Blade tore open her skinsuit and formed a web of knotting tendrils between her fingers. The tendrils extended outward, flowing across the metal surface, seeking and grasping with millions of hairlike feelers.

“Thule!” Trig exclaimed.

“Might want to hurry,” Falconi said in a conversational tone.

Kira pressed inward with the xeno, driving it into every cranny and crevice and microscopic stress fracture. She felt the xeno—felt herself— burrowing through the bonded structure of the metal, like tree roots digging through hard-packed earth.

The metal was incredibly thick. Meters upon meters of it armored the entrance to the temple. What were they trying to keep out? she wondered. Then it occurred to her that perhaps the Soft Blade was the answer to that question.

Heat radiated from the surface of the metal as it began to give. “Get ready!” she shouted. The moment she felt movement between her various extruded tendrils, she yanked, hard.

With an anguished shriek, the metal parted. Glittering dust filled the air as the fibers of the suit pulled heavy, silver-grey chunks away from the building. A dark opening took shape before her.

Overhead, three more Jelly ships screamed across the sky, meteors trailing fire and smoke. From them fell scores of drop-pods: evil seeds planted throughout the city. Too late, Kira thought, triumphant.

She returned the Soft Blade to herself, and again she was whole.

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