They were surrounded. They would have to stand and fight, and they would likely die.
Kira’s mind whirled as the reality of the situation clamped shut around her, like an iron coffin. There was no escape this time, no trick or turn or hope of reprieve. They were too far from anywhere to expect help, and neither the Jellies nor the nightmares would show them mercy.
It was all her fault, and it wasn’t something she could fix.
“Is it supposed to be like that?” Falconi asked, his voice harsh. He indicated the broken staff.
“No,” said Kira.
“Can you fix it?” said Koyich, echoing her thoughts. “No. I don’t even know if it can be fixed.”
“That’s not an acceptable answer, Navárez. We—”
The building shuddered. Pieces of the starry ceiling crashed to the floor, the heavens coming undone. The diamond case swayed and fell, shattered
—sending the pieces of the Staff of Blue flying in different directions.
The Entropists bent to pick up one of the shards.
Through the doorway to the inner sanctum, Kira saw the front of the temple had been blown apart. The Jellies’ pillbug-like vehicle was parked outside, no longer incapacitated, main gun trained on their location. The Marines were retreating from the jagged opening even as they peppered the vehicle with bullets and lasers.
Sparks erupted from the side of the pillbug’s gun as the concentrated fire slagged it.
“Falconi! How far out is the Wallfish?” said Koyich, shouldering his gun as he moved to the side of the doorway.
“Fifteen minutes,” said Falconi, taking the other side.
“Shit. Get in here! Get in here! Move! Move! Move!” Koyich shouted at his men even while firing into the clouds of smoke and chaff, as precise as a machine.
“Pinned down!” said Hawes. “Got wounded! Can’t—”
The clumping thuds of Nielsen’s exo startled Kira as the woman charged past her, into the front area of the temple. Falconi swore and fired three grenades in quick succession to buy her some time.
As each grenade detonated, it cleared a spherical area of smoke, chalk, and dust. Then the grey-white haze rushed in, obscuring the view once more.
Feeling ashamed of herself, Kira ran after Nielsen. She saw the first officer pick up a pair of downed Marines and sprint back toward the inner part of the temple. Kira spotted another wounded Marine, only this one still in his exo. She slid to a stop next to him and hit the quick-release latches on the side of the machine.
The front casing popped open, and the man fell out, coughing blood. “Let’s go,” said Kira, slipping his arm over her shoulders.
Half carrying him, she hurried toward the doorway to the sanctum. Nielsen had already dropped off her casualties and was returning to the open.
A numbing impact hit Kira on the right side, causing her to fall to one knee. She glanced down and immediately wished she hadn’t: the black fibers along her ribs were blown out like a spray of needles. Blood, muscle, and bone were visible scattered between.
Even as she looked, the fibers knitted together as they began to close over the wound.
She gasped and pushed against the floor with legs that had lost all feeling, trying to continue moving forward. One step, two steps, and then she was walking again with the man’s weight still heavy on her shoulder.
As she cleared the doorway, Falconi took the man off her.
Kira immediately turned to head back out, but Falconi caught her by the arm. “Don’t be stupid!” he said.
She shook him off and headed deeper into the clouds, looking for the last few Marines. Outside the temple, more explosions, more gunfire. If not for the Soft Blade, Kira doubted she would have been able to think or function amid the noise. Each blast was a concussion strong enough to feel in her
bones, and the objects around her blurred from the force of the blows. The noise seemed to be increasing too.
Where are they? She couldn’t see any Jellies through the mess of smoke, only twisted, incomprehensible shapes thrashing in the murk.
“SJAMs incoming,” barked Koyich. “Hit the deck!” Kira dropped flat, covering her head.
A half second later, four separate explosions struck the streets surrounding the plaza, lighting up the area with a hellish blaze. The ground rippled and smacked Kira in the cheek, causing her teeth to clack together with painful force.
“Status,” said Koyich. “Get me eyes on hostiles.”
“Looks like we took out most of ’em,” said Hawes, “but can’t tell for sure. Waiting for a better view.”
The explosions had only added to the swirling clouds, thickening them to the point where it was nearly pitch-black in the plaza.
Kira listened; she no longer heard gunfire nor the sounds of moving Jellies. As the wind began to clear the air, she risked poking her head up and looking around.
Clang! Across the exposed antechamber of the temple, Nielsen staggered back, a large dent in the front of her power armor. She fired her arm-mounted machine gun several times into the haze, and Kira heard the splatter of bullets hitting flesh.
Down the clogged streets, she saw dozens more heat-spots approaching.
Trig came running out of the temple’s inner sanctum, heading for Nielsen. As he skidded to a stop beside her, Koyich said, “That’s all the help we can expect from the Ilmorra. We’ll be lucky if they don’t go after her for setting off those SJAMs. Get everyone inside. Make it fast!”
There were still four Marines on the ground. Kira started toward the nearest one.
One of the Jellies’ white drones flew into view around the edge of the temple’s broken façade, while at the same time, a large, tentacled squid climbed over the mounded rubble, a pair of blasters held by its twisting limbs.
Kira scrabbled for her weapon but couldn’t find it. Where was it? Had she dropped it? There wasn’t enough time, no time, no time—
Trig jumped in front of Nielsen, firing his blaster and his rifle at the same time. His face was contorted, and he was screaming over the radio: “Yaaaah! Come on, you fucker! Eat it!”
The white, orb-shaped drone spun as bullets slammed into it, and then it sparked and tumbled to the ground. Behind it, the squid flinched, raised a tentacle holding a long, bar-shaped railgun.
The Soft Blade pulsed outward as it struggled to attack. Out of habit, Kira resisted, unwilling to let go, unwilling to trust the xeno—Bang.
The sound from the Jelly’s weapon was short and sharp. It cut through the commotion like auditory punctuation. Startling silence followed. Trig’s guns ceased firing as his armor locked up, and then he slowly toppled backward, a statue falling.
Centered on the front of his visor was a finger-sized hole, and frozen on his face, a look of terrible surprise.
“No!” Falconi shouted.
Shock paralyzed Kira for a moment, and then horrified understanding spurred her back into action. Too slow. She relaxed her hold on the Soft Blade and reached out with it, intending to loose the xeno and tear the Jelly to shreds.
Before she could, a woman in a skinsuit ran in front of the squid, waving a piece of white cloth. “Wait! Stop! Stop! We come in peace!”
Kira froze, unable to process what she was seeing.
As the stranger clambered into the temple, the gold sheen of her visor cleared to reveal a hard, lined face.
For a moment, Kira saw only a collection of unfamiliar features. Then her perspective shifted, and the planet seemed to tilt underneath her. “You!” she said.
“Navárez,” said Major Tschetter.
More Jellies gathered around the broken front of the temple, but for some reason they didn’t shoot, so Kira ignored them as she rushed to Trig’s side.
Falconi and the squad’s medic were only a step behind. The medic removed Trig’s helmet with practiced speed, and pooled blood poured out across the tessellated floor in bright crimson streaks.
The kid was still conscious, his white-rimmed eyes darting around with a panicked look. A bullet had hit him near the base of his neck, ripping apart the arteries. Blood pumped out at a frightening rate, each spurt weaker than the last. His mouth worked, but no words came forth, only a horrible bubbling sound—the desperate gasps of a drowning swimmer.
My fault, Kira berated herself. She should have acted faster. She should have trusted the xeno. If only she hadn’t been so focused on control, she would have been able to protect the kid.
From a pocket, the medic produced an oxygen mask that he fixed over Trig’s mouth. Then he took a canister of medifoam, pressed the nozzle into the center of the wound, and sprayed.
Trig’s eyes rolled back, and his breathing stuttered. His arms began to quiver.
The medic stood. “He needs cryo. Unless you can get the Ilmorra here in the next few minutes, he’s dead.” As he spoke, Nielsen got back to her feet, holding a hand against the dent in her chestplate. He pointed a finger at her. “Need help?”
“I’ll survive,” she said.
With that, the medic hurried past to the Marines waiting for his attention. “Can’t we—” Kira started to say to Koyich.
“The Ilmorra is already on her way.”
Kira looked to the sky. After a few seconds, she heard the distinctive rumble of an approaching rocket. “Where should—”
A trio of laser beams, each beam equal to the output from a dozen handheld blasters, stabbed upward from somewhere beyond the outskirts of the city. A second later, a burning star plummeted through the shelf of clouds: the Ilmorra, trailing blue shock diamonds and a line of white exhaust. The shuttle vanished behind the flank of the nearest mountain, and a blinding flash illuminated the valley, sending shadows streaming eastward from the base of the buildings.
“Cover!” Koyich shouted, diving behind a pile of rubble.
Falconi threw himself across Trig; Kira did likewise, using a net of fibers from the Soft Blade to hold them in place.
She counted the seconds in her head: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—
The floor buckled and the direction of the wind reversed as the shockwave hit, louder and more powerful than a thousand claps of thunder. With it came a wave of suffocating heat. The towers swayed and groaned— chunks of walls flying free—and streamers of dirt blasted through the howling streets. Debris filled the air, deadly as any bullet. Dozens of the fragments shotgunned the rubble they huddled behind. Beneath her arm, Kira saw the cratered body of the pillbug blown away into the dark.
She glanced up. A gigantic mushroom cloud rose above the mountain, climbing toward the stratosphere. The pillar of nuclear fury was staggeringly huge; before it, she felt smaller than she ever had before.
If not for the protection of the mountain, they would all be dead.
She released Falconi and Trig from the net of fibers. Falconi said, “Was that—”
“The Ilmorra’s gone,” said Koyich.
The bulk of the explosion would have come from the antimatter stored within the shuttle’s Markov Drive. What now? Things had just gone from bad to apocalyptically bad.
As the howl of the wind began to subside, they got to their feet. Trig was still twitching; Kira could tell he didn’t have long to live.
The Jellies had gathered close around them during the blast. Now Tschetter stood next to one, and she seemed to be speaking to it, although Kira heard nothing.
The squid started to move toward Trig.
Falconi hissed and lifted his grenade launcher, and Kira crouched, extruding razor-sharp blades from her fingers. “Stay the fuck away or I’ll blast you to pieces,” said the captain.
“My companions say they can help,” said Tschetter. “Is that why they shot him?”
Tschetter made a regretful expression. “It was a mistake.”
“Sure. And just who the fuck are you?” Falconi’s nostrils were flared, his eyes narrowed and savage.
The woman’s back stiffened. “Major Ilina Tschetter of the UMCI, human and loyal citizen of the League of Allied Worlds.”
“She’s the one I told you about,” Kira muttered to Falconi. “From the Extenuating Circumstances?”
Kira nodded, keeping her gaze fixed on Tschetter and the Jellies.
Falconi seemed unimpressed. “How—”
Nielsen put a hand on his shoulder. “Trig’s not going to make it if you don’t let them help.”
“Make up your mind, Falconi,” said Koyich. “We don’t have time to be dicking around.”
After a moment, Falconi shook off Nielsen’s hand and backed away from Trig, still pointing Francesca at the aliens. “Fine. But if they kill him, I’ll shoot them, no questions asked.”
Outside, the mushroom cloud continued to climb.
Kira kept the blades on her fingers as the squid crawled over to Trig. Moving as precisely and delicately as any surgeon, the Jelly used its tentacles to disassemble Trig’s power armor until the kid lay on the crumbled floor in nothing but his skinsuit and oxygen mask. Then the Jelly wrapped a single, thick tentacle around him, and within seconds, a thick, gelatinous substance began to ooze from its suckers.
“What the hell is that?” said Falconi in a barely controlled tone. “It’s okay,” said Tschetter. “They did it to me. It’s safe.”
The Jelly used its tentacle to smear the goo over the whole of Trig’s body. Then the coating grew opaque and hardened, forming a glistening, human-shaped pod. The whole process took less than a minute.
The alien laid the pod on the floor and retreated to Tschetter’s side.
Falconi put a hand on top of the shell. “What did they do? Can he still breathe in there? We don’t have time for—”
“It’s their form of cryo,” said Tschetter. “Trust me. He’ll be fine.” In the distance, gunfire again sounded in the streets, and several of the Jellies slipped away, heading toward the noise. Tschetter drew herself up and looked at Kira, Koyich, and what remained of the rest of their group. “They’ll buy us some breathing room. In the meantime, we need to talk. Now.”
“How do we know you’re really you?” Koyich demanded. He had been present, Kira remembered, when she’d told Akawe about having to leave the major and Corporal Iska on Adrasteia.
Tschetter’s lips quirked as she seated herself on a block of rubble and looked at Kira. “I seem to recall asking you something similar on the Extenuating Circumstances.”
The major was much as Kira remembered, although she seemed thinner
—as if she’d lost four or five kilos—and there was a certain manic intensity to her expression that hadn’t been present before. Maybe it was a result of current circumstances or maybe it was indicative of something else. Kira wasn’t sure.
She was having trouble wrapping her mind around Tschetter’s presence. Kira had never expected to see the major again, much less there, on a dead planet at the far end of space. The sheer incongruity left Kira feeling even more dazed than the explosion earlier.
Falconi crossed his arms. “The Jellies could have scanned your implants, learned everything they needed in order to impersonate you.”
“It doesn’t matter if you believe me,” said Tschetter. “Who I am has nothing to do with why I’m here.”
Koyich eyed her skeptically. “And why are you here, Major?” “First things first. Did you find the Staff of Blue?”
When neither Kira nor anyone else answered, Tschetter snapped her fingers. “This is important. Do you have it or not? We need to know, now.”
Koyich motioned toward the Entropists. “Show her.”
Veera and Jorrus extended their hands. In them lay one fragment of the Staff of Blue.
“It’s broken,” Tschetter said, her tone bleak. “Yes.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Dammit,” she said quietly. “The Jellies were counting on using the staff against the Corrupted. That’s their name for the nightmares. Without it…” She drew herself upright, stiffening her back. “I’m not sure how much of a chance we stand. Them or us.”
“Is it really that bad?” Kira asked.
The major nodded, grim. “Worse. The Corrupted have been hitting the Jellies throughout their territory. Small raids at first, then bigger and bigger. Some of the Corrupted were already poking around Sigma Draconis when Iska and I got picked up. They took out two of the Jellies’ ships, and the one we were on barely got away.”
“What are the Corrupted?” Kira asked. “Do you know?”
Tschetter shook her head. “Only that the Jellies are scared shitless of them. The Jellies say they’ve fought the Corrupted before. From what I gather, it didn’t go well, and the current batch of Corrupted are supposedly even more dangerous. They have different forms, better ships, that sort of thing. Also, the Jellies seem convinced that we have something to do with the Corrupted, but I’m not clear on the details.”
Nielsen raised a hand. “How do you know what we call the Jellies and the nightmares? And how are you talking with the Jellies?”
“The Jellies,” said Tschetter, “have been monitoring all the broadcasts out of the League. They brought me up to date before we left.” She tapped the front of her helmet. “Talking is scent to sound, and vice versa. Same method the Jellies use for conversion to EM signals. Made it possible to actually learn their language, though it sure as hell wasn’t easy.”
Koyich shifted, impatient. “You still haven’t explained: Why are you here, Major? And why are the Jellies with you playing nice?”
Tschetter took a breath. The gunfire in the streets was growing closer. “The details are in a file I’m sending you. The short version is that the Jellies with me represent a faction that wants to overthrow their leadership and form an alliance with the League in order to ensure the survival of both our species. But they need our help to pull that off.”
By the looks on everyone’s faces, Kira wasn’t the only one having trouble wrapping their mind around the situation.
Koyich’s yellow eyes narrowed, and he glanced skyward. “You getting this, Captain?”
After a few seconds, Akawe answered: *Loud and clear. Major, if this is true, why didn’t you approach the League directly? Why come all the way out here to make the offer? *
“Because, as I just said, the Jellies are monitoring all transmissions in and out of human space. My companions couldn’t risk trying to contact the Premier directly. If their superiors noticed, they’d be caught and executed. Plus, there was the matter of the Staff of Blue and the need to keep Kira and her suit from falling into the wrong hands.”
*I see. Alright, I’ll look at the file. In the meantime, you need to find a way off that rock. We’re tied down at the moment, and you’ve got Jellies and nightmares incoming.*
“Roger that,” said Koyich.
“There’s more,” said Tschetter hurriedly. “The Jellies are building a massive fleet just outside the League. As soon as it’s ready, they’re going to sweep through and crush our forces before concentrating on the Corrupted. I’m told the Jellies have been planning on conquering us for a long time, but recent events have accelerated their timetable. The Jelly leadership is going to be on-site for several months to oversee the completion of the fleet. What my companions are proposing is that the UMC rendezvous with them near the fleet and that we coordinate a surgical strike to decapitate their government.”
A muffled explosion sounded farther off in the city. The fighting seemed to have turned so it was moving sideways to the plaza and the temple-like structure.
*Are your friends one hundred percent sure that their leaders will be with the fleet?* Akawe asked.
“That’s what they claim,” said Tschetter. “For whatever it’s worth, they seem to be telling the truth.”
Akawe made a sound deep in his throat. *Understood. Even if this intel ends up being a bust, getting it back to the League just became our top priority. The Jellies are jamming the whole system, so that rules out a direct signal. Would take too long in any case. At this distance, only high-power, slow-as-ass signals would make it back. That means at least one of our ships has to get out of here, and that’s going to take some doing.*
While Akawe was talking, Falconi walked a few steps away, his lips moving silently. Then he swore loudly enough to be audible through his helmet. “Goddammit! I don’t believe it.”
“What?” said Kira.
He grimaced. “The coolant line Hwa-jung repaired back at Cygni just broke again. The Wallfish can’t stop until they fix it. They’re going to fly right past us.”
“My companions have two ships out by the edge of the city,” said Tschetter, gesturing at the Jellies behind her, who had been waiting patiently the entire time. “They can get you back into space.”
Kira glanced at Falconi, Koyich, and Nielsen. She could tell they were all thinking the same thing: Trust the Jellies enough to get onto their ships?
What if they decided to strip her of the Soft Blade? Would she be able to stop them?
“I’m sure you’re right, Major,” said Koyich, “but I’m not exactly thrilled with the idea.”
Akawe broke in: *Too bad, Commander. You need to get off that rock, and now. As for you, Major, if this is a trap, the Darmstadt will blow up both your ships before you get out of the system, so don’t let your friends get any ideas.*
Tschetter jerked her head as if she were about to salute. “Yessir. Nossir.” Koyich started to turn away. “Alright, we need to—”
“Wait,” Kira said, and went to stand directly in front of Tschetter. “I have a question.”
“Stow it, Navárez,” Koyich snapped. “We don’t have the time.”
Kira didn’t budge. “Why do the Jellies think we started this war?
They’re the ones who attacked the Extenuating Circumstances.”
Koyich paused, his finger resting on the trigger of his blaster. “I’d like to know that as well, Major.”
Tschetter spoke quickly. “The Jellies I’ve been dealing with placed the xeno on Adra in order to hide it from the rest of their species. Apparently the xeno was a major threat in the past, and the Jellies seem to view it with a mix of fear and reverence. From what they’ve told me, their group would have done anything, anything, to keep the xeno from bonding with another host.”
“So that’s why they showed up shooting,” said Kira.
Tschetter nodded. “From their point of view, we were no different than thieves who had broken into a top-secret military installation. Imagine how the UMC would have reacted.”
“That still doesn’t explain why the rest of the Jellies have been attacking us,” said Koyich. “Did your friends tell them what happened at Adra?”
The major didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely not. As far as I can tell, the majority of Jellies only found out about Kira when she sent the signal from Sixty-One Cygni.” She made a wry face. “That was when my friends here hauled me out of a cell and started actually talking with me. Point is, as far as the Jelly leadership was concerned, this war started when the Corrupted started attacking them out of nowhere while broadcasting messages in
English. That’s why they thought we were allied. That and because, at the time, the Corrupted weren’t attacking human territory.”
“But the Jellies still planned on invading us no matter what,” Falconi said.
Kira spoke then: “Do the Corrupted know about the staff or the Soft Blade?”
Tschetter stood. “The staff I can’t say, but the Jellies seem to think the Corrupted are drawn to the presence of the suit or something like that. I’m not entirely sure, given the language barrier.”
As if to punctuate her words, a double set of sonic booms shook the valley, and four dark, angular ships descended screaming from the sky and crashed into the city at various locations. They didn’t look like the Corrupted ships from 61 Cygni, but there was still a sense of wrongness about them that Kira couldn’t shake.
The thought that the nightmares might be specifically hunting her was deeply disturbing.
Sounds of gunfire and laser pulses bounced off the towers of the city, distorted heralds of violence. Half a klick away, maybe less. The fighting was growing closer again.
“That’s it, everyone form up!” said Koyich. “We gotta hustle.”
Tschetter said, “Let me make sure my companions understand the plan.” She turned to the Jellies and started talking, her voice now inaudible in her helmet.
While the major talked, Kira ripped off her torn skinsuit. It would just get in the way, and besides, she wanted to … yes, there it was: the nearscent of the assembled Jellies. With the skin of the Soft Blade fully exposed, she could sense the swirling cues from the Jellies as they watched and reacted to their surroundings.
She should have stripped earlier. She could have been putting her questions directly to the aliens.
The leader of the Jellies was obvious from the forms and structures of the scents used. It was a huge squid with a dark layer of flexible armor coating on its limbs. Armor that, to Kira’s eye, was not so different from the Soft Blade.
She approached the alien and said: [[Kira here: What is your name, Shoal Leader?]]
The collected Jellies stirred with surprise, their tentacles shifting and turning with a life of their own. [[Lphet here: The Idealis lets you scent us! What else has—]]
A series of choppy explosions interrupted them. The sounds were dangerously close. Approaching via an eastbound street was a large swarm of Jellies, who were exchanging fire with a pair of retreating squids that Kira assumed belonged to Lphet. And converging upon them via several of the westbound streets were masses of twisted bodies climbing over the piles of rubble and even climbing over themselves: tortured flesh that was red and black and melted like the scars on Falconi’s forearms—an army of the Corrupted. An army of nightmares.
Then a crack sounded behind them, loud as a gunshot. Kira crouched and whirled, expecting to be ambushed.
In the depths of the temple’s inner sanctum, the dark obelisk fractured, white lines racing across its surface, shedding dust. The nape of Kira’s neck prickled as the front of the pillar fell forward with a doom-laden peal.
The obelisk was hollow. Inside it stirred a tall, angular something—a figure as lean as a skeleton, with legs that jointed backwards and two pairs of arms. A cloak of black seemed to hang from its pointed shoulders, and a hard, hood-like shape hid all its face, save the crimson eyes that burned within that shadowed recess.
Kira hadn’t thought it possible to be any more afraid. She was wrong. For she recognized the creature from her dreams. It wasn’t one of the Vanished, but one of their dread servants.
It was a Seeker, and that meant death.