The Seeker was moving, but slowly, as if disoriented after its long sleep. “Run,” Kira said to both humans and Jellies. “Now. Don’t stop. Don’t
[[Lphet here: A Mind Ripper! Flee!]]
The Jellies threw down a smokescreen—hiding the Seeker from sight— and together, they and the Marines scrambled out the broken front of the temple. Kira’s heart was pounding with panic she couldn’t suppress. A Seeker. She remembered them from ages past: creatures made to enforce the word of the Heptarchy. A single one had wreaked havoc on the Jellies during the Sundering; she feared to think what it might do to the League if it escaped the planet.
Nielsen carried Trig’s mummified form in her arms as they clambered into the open. Falconi guarded her left; Kira her right.
“This way,” said Tschetter, leading them toward a narrow side street next to the temple—one that, for the moment, was empty of enemies.
Across the plaza, the two Jellies that had been fighting a delaying action tossed drones into the air and then abandoned their cover and sprinted on tentacles across the open space to join their companions. Orange ichor dripped from several holes in the carapace of the alien on the right.
“What was that thing?” cried Nielsen, hunching over to protect Trig. “Bad news,” said Kira.
The mushroom cloud still towered high overhead, overwhelming in its size. The wind tore at the central column, dragging streaks of it westward, into the planet’s nightside. A burnt, dirt-like smell pervaded the air, and the electric tang of ozone also, as if from an impending storm.
But the storm had already struck, in the form of annihilating antimatter.
Kira wondered how well the Soft Blade would protect her from the fallout. If they actually made it back into space, she’d have to get some
radiation pills from the medic.…
A terrifying chorus of beast-like yammering erupted several streets over, thousands of voices crying out with anger and pain. A wave of nearscent wafted through the city, stifling in its strength as the unseen nightmares clashed with the pursuing Jellies.
“Out of the frying pan—”
“—and into the fire,” said Jorrus and Veera.
Behind them, a high, keening sound cut the air, and if anything, the yammering intensified.
“Shit. Check this out,” said Hawes.
On Kira’s overlays, a window popped up with a feed from one of the Marines’ remaining drones, hovering high above the plaza by the temple. The Seeker had emerged from within the ruined building and was stalking among the banks of smoke while clumps of Jellies and nightmares fought around it.
Even as Kira watched, the Seeker seized a red, dog-like nightmare and sank its black fingers into its skull. After a half second, the Seeker released the nightmare, dropped it on the ground. The creature twisted back onto its feet and then, instead of attacking the Seeker, slunk behind it, faithful as a trained pet. Nor was it the only one: a half-dozen Jellies and nightmares already attended the Seeker, ranging about it in a swirling group that protected it from direct attack.
Neither the Jellies nor the nightmares seemed to have noticed the Seeker yet, they were so busy fighting each other.
“Gods,” said Nielsen, “what is it doing?” “I’m not sure,” said Kira.
[[Lphet here: The Mind Ripper controls your body, makes you do what it wants.]]
The Seeker could do more than that, Kira felt sure, but she couldn’t remember specifics, which was frustrating. She trusted her fear, though; if the Soft Blade was telling her to be careful, then the threat was indeed great.
Tschetter translated, and Koyich said, “If it gets close, don’t let it touch you.”
“Yessir!” “Not a chance, sir!” said the Marines. As a group, they were looking rather battered. Tatupoa was carrying Redding, the Marine who had
lost his leg. Nishu had blood smeared across his exo. Hawes and the team medic were limping, and most of the men had pits and dings on their helmets from debris. Two of the Marines from the Darmstadt seemed to be missing. Kira wasn’t sure where or when they’d fallen.
A crash sounded above them. Kira looked up to see a cluster of nightmares running along a vine-draped ledge that wrapped around a nearby tower.
The Marines opened fire, and the Jellies too: a hammering volley from automatic rifles and discharging blasters. The shots stopped several of the nightmares—blasting apart raw, scabrous-looking torsos—but the rest jumped down into their group. Two landed on Marines, driving them to the ground. The creatures were the size of a tigermaul, with rows of sharklike teeth as big as Kira’s hand. Three more nightmares, each with wildly different shapes—one sporting arms lined with spurs of bone, one with scaled wings sprouting from a crooked back, one fanged and tripod-legged
—crashed into Lphet’s Jellies amid a tangle of thrashing tentacles.
Different than before, was Kira’s first thought as she saw the nightmares hurtling toward them.
She wasn’t going to hold back as she had during the attack on Trig; she’d rather die first. Willing the Soft Blade to spike outward, she ran to tackle the nightmare grappling with the nearest Marine, Sanchez.
The black thorns from her suit pierced the four-legged nightmare, and it died with a terrifyingly human scream while blood gurgled from its loose throat.
Don’t hurt him, Kira thought. To her relief, the Soft Blade obeyed the thought, and none of its spikes touched Sanchez. He gave her a quick thumbs-up.
She started toward the next of the nightmares, but her help was unneeded. The combined firepower of the Marines and the allied Jellies had already killed the rest of the creatures.
Falconi wiped a smear of blood off his visor, his expression grim. “Now they know where we are.”
“Keep moving,” Koyich barked, and their group continued down the street.
“We’re getting low on ammo,” Hawes said.
“I see that,” said Koyich. “Switch to two-round bursts.”
They concentrated on running. “Contact!” shouted a Marine as he loosed several rounds at a nightmare that appeared around the corner of a building. The creature’s head exploded in a red mist.
Hemoglobin, Kira thought. Iron-based blood, unlike the Jellies.
The nightmares continued to harass them in ones and twos as they raced to the city’s edge. When the buildings gave way to moss-covered ground, Kira checked on the situation in orbit. The Wallfish had already passed by the planet and was heading toward the outer reaches of the system. A mess of Jelly and nightmare ships were fighting high overhead: both sides against one another, and the Jellies also against themselves. The Darmstadt was still some distance away from Nidus but inbound fast. Smoke trailed from several burn marks along the cruiser’s hull.
“Follow me,” said Tschetter, taking the lead over the blasted land. The moss there lay outside the shadow of the city. It had been exposed to the full fury of the nuclear explosion and had burned beneath the heat; the small fronds crunched with each step, leaving an ashy residue on their soles.
They headed westward, away from the buildings, deeper into the dusky dark.
As they ran, Kira maneuvered herself to Tschetter’s side and said, “After you were rescued, did you tell the Jellies I was still alive?”
The major shook her head. “Of course not. I wasn’t about to give our enemies actionable information.”
“So Lphet and the rest of them didn’t know where I was or that the suit existed?”
“Not until you sent your signal.” Tschetter shot her a glance. “In fact, they never actually asked. I think they assumed the suit had been destroyed along with the Extenuating Circumstances. Why?”
Kira took a moment to gather her breath. “Just trying to understand.” Something about Tschetter’s explanations didn’t seem right. Why wouldn’t the Jellies that hid the Soft Blade be curious about its location following the events at Adra? If they’d bothered to carry out a flash trace, they would have seen the Valkyrie leaving Sigma Draconis. Surely that would have been enough to track her to 61 Cygni. So why hadn’t they? And then there was the question of the nightmares.…
“Is Iska with you?” Kira asked Tschetter.
The major didn’t answer for a moment, her expression labored from exertion. “He stayed behind in case anything happened to me.”
“So how did you find us?”
“Lphet knew about the ships sent to track you down. We just followed them. It wasn’t hard. Corrupted must have done the same.”
A shriek sounded overhead, and a cluster of dark shapes dove toward them, flapping bat-like wings. Kira ducked while lashing out with one arm. She connected with a solid, disturbingly soft body, and then the suit hardened, forming an edge, and her arm sliced through flesh and bone with hardly any resistance.
A shower of orange ichor covered her. The rest of their group suffered a similar fate as humans and Jellies alike shot down the flock. The creatures had mandibles for mouths and tiny arms with pincers tucked close against their downy breasts.
When the shooting stopped, three of the Marines were lying motionless on the ground and half a dozen more appeared injured.
Nishu kicked one of the downed creatures. “No sense of self-preservation, these.”
“Yeah,” said Tatupoa, bending to pick up one of his wounded teammates. “Real eager-like to get themselves killed.”
[[Kira here: Are these things yours?]] She pointed at the winged corpses. [[Lphet here: No. These are also Corrupted.]]
Kira’s puzzlement deepened as she translated for the rest. Not hemoglobin this time, and there seemed to be no consistency among the shapes of the different nightmares. At least with the Jellies, it was clear the various types were somehow related, what with their shared blood, skin markings, muscle fibers, and the like. The nightmares lacked any such cohesion, aside from the consistently diseased look of their hides.
Tschetter gestured at a ridge of rock that rose before them. “The ships are just ahead, on the other side.”
As they trotted up the ridge—the Marines trailing along as they helped their injured—Nielsen said, “Look at the sky!”
The mushroom cloud had punched a large, circular hole in the overcast sky. Through the opening in the tattered billows of mist, Kira saw great sheets of color rippling across the twinkling expanse. Reds and blues and
green-yellows, shifting like ribbons of gossamer silk in a vast neon display, thousands of kilometers across.
The sight left Kira awestruck. She had only seen the aurora a few times on Weyland, and never in anything but the darkest night. It looked unreal. It looked like a bad overlay, too bright and smooth and colorful to be natural.
“What’s causing it?” she asked.
“Nukes or antimatter in the upper atmosphere,” said Tschetter. “Anything that dumps charged particles into the ionosphere.”
Kira shivered. The sight was beautiful and yet, knowing its cause, terrifying.
“It’ll die down in a few hours,” said Hawes.
At the top of the ridge, Kira paused to glance back at the city behind them. She wasn’t the only one.
A horde of bodies was streaming out of the overgrown streets: nightmares and Jellies together, their previous differences now forgotten. And walking along behind them, the Seeker—tall, skeletal, almost monastic in appearance with its seeming hood and cape. The Seeker stopped at the edge of the buildings. The same high-pitched keen rang out over the fields of blasted moss, and the Seeker spread both pairs of arms. Its cape lifted as well, unfolding to reveal a pair of wings, veined and purplish and nearly nine meters across.
“Moros,” said Koyich in a surprisingly conversational tone. “See if you can put a bullet through that bastard’s head.”
Kira nearly objected, but she held her tongue. If there was a chance they could kill the Seeker, it would be for the best, even though a part of her would mourn the loss of a creature so old, capable, and obviously intelligent.
“You got it, sir,” said one of the Marines in power armor. He stepped forward, lifted one arm, and—without a moment’s delay—fired.
The Seeker’s head snapped to one side. Then it slowly looked back at them with what Kira could only interpret as sheer malevolence.
“Did you hit it?” said Koyich. “Nossir,” said Moros. “It dodged.”
“It … Marine, nail that thing with the strongest laser blast you’ve got.” “Yessir!”
The whine of charging supercapacitors sounded within Moros’s armor, and then a BZZT! as loud as any gunshot sounded. Kira’s skin tingled from the residual electrical charge.
She saw the laser pulse with her thermal sight: a seemingly instantaneous bar of ravening force that joined Moros to the Seeker.
Only the blast didn’t touch the dark-shrouded alien. Rather, it curved around the creature’s hide and burned a fist-sized hole in the wall of the building behind.
Even at a distance, Kira would have sworn the Seeker was smiling. And a memory came to her: it was they that enforced the wishes of the Heptarchy, and they that guarded the dangerous depths of space.…
[[Lphet here: This is to no point.]] As it spoke, the Jelly started down the other side of the ridge, along with its comrades.
Lphet’s words needed no translation. Kira followed with everyone else. The knife-edge keening rang out again, and underlying it, she could hear the drumming of approaching feet.
The two Jelly ships were parked at the foot of the ridge. The globular vessels weren’t particularly large by the standards of spaceships—the Darmstadt would dwarf them in length—but sitting there on the ground, they seemed enormous: as large as the administrative building in Highstone, where she’d gotten her seed license.
A loading ramp lowered from the belly of each ship.
The Jellies divided into two groups, one heading for each ship. Tschetter paired off with Lphet and several other Jellies heading toward the left-hand vessel. “You take that one,” she said to Koyich, pointing at the ship on the right.
“Come with us!” said Kira.
Tschetter never missed a step as she shook her head. “It’s safer if we split up. Besides, I’m staying with the Jellies.”
“There’s a chance for peace here, Navárez, and I’m not going to give up on it. Go!”
Kira would have argued further, but they were out of time. As she sprinted alongside Falconi toward the other Jelly ship, she couldn’t help but feel grudging admiration for Tschetter. Assuming the major was still in her
right mind, what she was doing was incredibly brave, same as her decision to stay behind on Adra.
Kira doubted she would ever like the major, but she would never question the woman’s devotion to duty.
More Jellies were waiting for them at the top of the loading ramp, guarding the opening with an impressive array of weapons. They moved aside as Kira and the others ran up. Koyich shepherded his men aboard, shouting at them to hurry. They stumbled in, dripping blood from bodies and fluids from exos. Nishu and Moros brought up the rear, and then the ramp retracted and the ship’s loading port slid shut and locked in place, sealing the hull.
“I cannot believe we’re doing this,” Falconi said.
[[Wrnakkr here: Secure for ascension.]]
Ridges along the wall made for convenient handholds. Kira snared one, as did the other humans, while the Jellies used their tentacles to do likewise or—in the case of the legged Jellies—scurried off into darkened corridors.
Like the other Jelly ship Kira had been on, this one smelled of brine, and the lighting was a dim, watery blue. The room was an ovoid, with tubes and masses of unidentifiable equipment along one half, and egg-like capsules along the other. Stored on rows of double-layered racks were scores of what she recognized as weapons: blasters, guns, and even blades.
In close quarters, the nearscent of the Jellies accumulated until it nearly obliterated any other odor. The aliens stank of anger and stress and fear, and from them Kira felt a constant shifting of forms, functions, and honorifics.
It seemed to Kira that she and her companions were surrounded by monsters. She kept the Soft Blade on the verge of action, ready to send it spiking out if any of the Jellies made a hostile move. Koyich and his Marines seemed to feel likewise, for they gathered in a defensive half circle near the loading door, and while they kept their weapons aimed at the floor, they did not lower them entirely.
“Can you get us to our ship, the Wallfish?” said Falconi. Then he looked at Kira. “Can they get us to the Wallfish?”
“The Darmstadt is where we need to be, not your rusty old tub,” said Koyich.
“The Wallfish is closer,” said Falconi. “Besides—”
Kira repeated Falconi’s question, and in answer, the Jelly that had spoken earlier said: [[Wrnakkr here: We will try to reach the closer ship, but the Corrupted are near.]]
A distant rumble passed through the curved deck, and Kira felt the strangest dropping, twisting sensation, as if she’d fallen and risen at the same time. It was a similar feeling to jumping in a descending elevator. Then her sense of weight increased to somewhat over 1 g: noticeable but not unpleasant. But she knew they were thrusting at far, far more than 1 g.
This must be the gravity of the Jellies’ homeworld, she realized. “Jesus Christ,” said Hawes. “Look at our altitude.”
Kira checked her overlays. Her local coordinates were going crazy, as if the computer couldn’t decide where exactly she was nor how fast she was moving.
“Artificial gravity has to be messing with our sensors,” said Nishu. “Can you get a signal out?” said Falconi, his face pinched with worry. Hawes shook his head. “Everything’s jammed.”
“Dammit. No way to tell where we’re heading.”
Kira focused on Wrnakkr. The alien had a white streak across its central carapace that made it easy to single out. [[Kira here: Can we see what’s happening outside the ship?]]
With one tentacle, the Jelly caressed the wall. [[Wrnakkr here: Look, then.]]
A curved patch of hull turned transparent. Through it, Kira could see the coin-sized disk of Nidus shrinking into the distance. Explosions flared along the terminator line: bright flashes reminiscent of the florescent discharges of lightning sprites. Even from so far away, the resulting auroras were visible, laced across the top of the turbulent atmosphere.
Kira searched for other ships, but if any were present, they weren’t close enough to spot with the naked eye. Not that that meant much in space.
“How long to reach the Wallfish?” she asked.
The Entropists were the ones to answer: “If we are thrusting at the same
“—acceleration generally observed among the Jellies—”
“—and given the prior distance to the Wallfish—” “—no more than five or ten minutes.”
Nielsen sighed, and the joints of her power armor squealed as she sank into a crouch. She was still holding Trig’s rigid form. “Do we really have any chance of getting out of the system? The—”
The light within the room flashed, and nearscent of alarm suffused the room, clogging Kira’s nostrils.
[[Wrnakkr here: We have Corrupted in pursuit.]]
Kira told the others, and then they sat in silence—waiting—while the ship’s rocket strained. There was nothing else they could do. Outside the window Wrnakkr had created, the stars swung in crazy arcs, but the only centrifugal force Kira felt was a slight pull in the direction of their turns.
As they’d seen at 61 Cygni, the nightmares could out-accelerate even the Jellies. That implied a level of technology that only a highly advanced interstellar civilization could possess, which just didn’t seem to match with the creatures they’d been seeing.
Don’t judge by appearances, Kira cautioned herself. For all she knew, the ravening, animal-like nightmares with the shark teeth were as intelligent as a ship mind.
A burst of silvery chaff glittered through the window. A poof of chalk followed a moment later, obscuring the view for a few seconds.
Koyich and Hawes were murmuring together. Kira could tell they were preparing to fight.
Then the ship jolted underneath them, and her gorge rose as, for a moment, she felt yanked along all three axes at once. The artificial gravity rippled—producing a feeling of rolling compression through her body— before cutting out entirely.
The lights flickered. Finger-sized holes stitched their way across the inside of the bulkhead, and a dull boom echoed through the hull. Alarms began to shriek, loud even over the hiss of escaping air.
Kira stayed where she was, clinging to the wall, uncertain of what else to do.
The ship jolted again. A white-hot circle appeared on what had just been the ceiling, and seconds later, a disk-shaped section of the hull flew inward. “Form up!” Koyich shouted as a dense swarm of nightmares poured into
the Jelly ship.