Chapter no 41

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

In an instant, a dense wall of smoke, chaff, and chalk clogged the air. The Marines opened fire, as did Wrnakkr and the rest of the Jellies—the deafening thunder of their guns obliterating all other sound.

The nightmares hardly slowed in the face of the barrage, and the sheer mass of the creatures allowed them to quickly cover the distance between them and the first line of Jellies.

The Jellies swung into action, their tentacles gripping and ripping every nightmare within reach. The beast-like attackers were foul to look at. Whether equipped with four limbs or two, arms or tentacles, teeth or beaks, scales or fur—or misbegotten combinations thereof—the creatures to the last appeared malformed, tumor-ridden, and sickly. Yet they possessed a crazed energy, as if hopped up on enough stims to kill a full-grown man.

Kira knew she might be able to survive the attack, but she didn’t think Nielsen or Falconi could. Nor could she protect them or Trig; there were just too many nightmares.

Falconi seemed to have reached the same conclusion. He was already retreating toward an opened shell door at the back of the room while pulling Trig’s cocooned form after himself. Nielsen followed close behind, firing occasional bursts into the horde of incoming bodies.

Kira didn’t hesitate. She dove after the two of them. Several bullets ricocheted off her as she flew through the air: hard thumps that made her catch her breath.

She arrived at the door just after Nielsen. Together, they hurried down the dark corridor on the other side.

“I got a signal through to the Wallfish!” said Falconi. “They’re on their way.”

“ETA?” Nielsen said, crisp and professional. “Seven minutes out.”

“Then we’ll—”

A thrashing something at the corner of Kira’s vision caused her to twist around, expecting to be jumped. Nielsen did the same.

A Jelly came crawling along the side of the round corridor. Ichor leaked from a crack in its carapace, and one of its tentacles had been shot off three-quarters of the way toward the tip.

[[Itari here: Strike Leader Wrnakkr orders me to guard you.]] “What does it want?” Falconi said, wary.

“It’s here to help.”

Several of the Marines scrambled into the corridor and took up positions on either side of the open door. “Keep going!” shouted one of them. “Find cover!”

“Come on,” said Falconi, kicking himself farther down the corridor. [[Itari here: This way.]] And the Jelly crawled into the lead. Its wounded

tentacle left splatters of ichor across the walls.

They hurried deeper into the ship, through dimly lit rooms and narrow passageways. The sounds of combat continued to reverberate through the hull: hollow booms and cracks and high-pitched shrieks of the enraged nightmares.

Then the ship lurched again, harder than before. Sparks filled Kira’s vision as the wall slammed into her, and her breath whooshed out. In front of her, Falconi lost his grip on Trig.…

With a horrendous scraping sound, a huge red and black spike plowed through the decking in front of her, separating her and Trig from the others. Another few meters of spike slid past, and then it slowed to a stop and stayed there, buried in the heart of the Jelly ship—a seeming impossibility.

Kira struggled to understand what she was seeing. Then she realized: the nightmares had rammed them. She was seeing the prow of one of their ships.

The radio crackled in her ear as she grabbed Trig’s comatose form.

*Kira, you okay?* said Nielsen.

“Yeah, and I’ve got Trig. Don’t wait for me. I’ll find a way around.”

*Roger that. There’s an airlock near the front of the ship. The Wallfish is going to attempt to pick us up there.*

*If they can get close enough,* said Falconi.

Pulling Trig behind her, Kira turned around and kicked back down the corridor toward the nearest shell-like doorway. Ahead of her, the noises of fighting increased in volume.

“Dammit,” she muttered.

The door split open, and she hurried past. She raced through room after room, shying away from any hint of the nightmares.

In a low, round passageway, she surprised one of the Jelly lobsters. It clicked its claws at her, alarmed, and then said: [[Sffarn here: Go that way, Idealis.]] And it pointed toward a door next to the one she’d entered through.

[[Kira here: My thanks.]]

The shell parted to reveal a blob of floating water, now untethered by gravity from the side of the room where it normally rested. Kira didn’t stop to think; she dove into the liquid mass, aiming for the far side.

Tiny mantis-like creatures flitted past her face as she swam. In the back of her mind, she remembered liking their taste. They were … crunchy and good with yrannoc, whatever that was.

She breached the surface of the water. It clung to her face with a wobbling film that distorted her vision. Blinking, she slung a tendril from her hand to the nearest wall and reeled herself over. Once secured, and with Trig’s feet tucked under her arm, she wiped the water off her face.

Tiny droplets flew free as she shook her hand.

For an instant, the situation got the better of her and she found herself incapacitated by fear. Then her gut relaxed and she took another breath.

Stay focused. Surviving long enough to rejoin Falconi and the others was the only thing that mattered at the moment. So far she’d been lucky; she hadn’t run into a single one of the nightmares.

She crawled along the curve of the wall until she found the next doorway and then pulled Trig and herself through it into another dark corridor. “You would have loved this,” she muttered, thinking how interested the kid was in the Jellies, and aliens in general.

Her earpiece crackled. *Kira, we’re at the airlock. Where are you?*

“Getting close, I think,” she said, keeping her voice low.

*Hurry it up. The Wallfish is almost here.*

“Roger. I—”

*Oh shi—* said Falconi, and static filled the line. A second later, the ship tilted around her, and the bulkheads creaked and snapped with alarming violence.

Kira stopped. “What? What is it?… Falconi? Nielsen?” She tried several more times, but neither of them answered.

Dread welled up inside Kira. Cursing under her breath, she tightened her grip on Trig and continued along the corridor, moving even faster than before.

A flicker of motion at the far end of the passage caused her to grab a ridge on the wall and freeze. A mess of jumbled shadows had appeared in the facing intersection, and whatever cast them was moving closer.…

Desperate, Kira looked for a place to hide. The only option was a shallow alcove with a coral-like structure directly across from her in the hall.

She pushed herself over to the alcove and tucked Trig and herself behind the coral. Trig’s stiff, shell-encased body bumped against the bulkhead, and she stiffened, hoping the sound wasn’t loud enough to attract attention.

Insectile chittering drifted toward her, growing louder now. Louder.

… Louder.

Kira pressed against the back of the alcove. Don’t see me. Don’t see me.


Four nightmares moved into view. Three of them were much like she’d seen before: raw-skinned mutations that crept along the deck upon four and six legs respectively, their fang-laden snouts swinging back and forth as they searched for prey. The fourth nightmare was different. It was humanoid, with only one pair of legs, and arms that began as segmented lengths of carapace and then transitioned into tentacles without suckers. Its elongated head had deep-set eyes as blue as Falconi’s and a mouth with tiny, moving mandibles that looked sharp enough to bite through steel. An armored lump between its legs hinted at some sort of genitalia.

The creature was frighteningly alert; it kept glancing around, checking corners, making sure no one was creeping up on them. There was an intelligence to it that Kira hadn’t sensed among the other nightmares. And something more: the skin on its plated torso shimmered in a way that seemed uncomfortably familiar, although she couldn’t quite figure out why.

A fast chitter came from the humanoid, and the three other nightmares responded by forming a tight knot around it.

Despite her overriding concern with protecting Trig and herself, Kira was intrigued. They hadn’t seen any evidence of hierarchy among the nightmares so far. If the humanoid was one of their leaders, then … maybe killing it would disrupt the others.

No. Attracting attention would just cause more problems. Don’t see me.

Don’t see me.…

It took all her self-control to hold still as the nightmares approached. Every instinct toward self-preservation urged her to leap out and attack before they spotted her, but the more rational part of her counseled patience, and for whatever reason, she listened.

And the nightmares didn’t see her.

As they hurried past, she smelled them: a burnt, cinnamon-like scent laced with a sickening mix of shit and putrefaction. Whatever they were, the creatures weren’t healthy. Two of the beast-like nightmares glanced in her direction as they passed by. Their eyes were tiny and red-rimmed and wept drops of yellowish fluid.

Confusion gripped Kira. Why hadn’t they noticed her? The alcove wasn’t that deep. She looked down at herself and, for a moment, felt dizzy; all she saw was the shadowed shape of the wall. She lifted her hand in front of herself. Nothing. Perhaps a small amount of glass-like distortion around the edges of her fingers, but that was it.

Trig’s encased body was still visible, but nothing about it seemed to attract the attention of the nightmares.

Kira grinned. She couldn’t help it. The Soft Blade was bending the light around her, same as with the invisibility cloak she and her sister had played with as kids. Only this was better. Less distortion.

The nightmares continued down the corridor another few meters. Then the one with six legs paused and swung its skull-like head back in her direction. Its nostrils flared as it tested the air, and its cracked lips retracted from its teeth in an evil snarl.

Shit. Just because the aliens couldn’t see her didn’t mean they couldn’t smell her.…

The six-legged nightmare hissed and started to turn back toward her, digging its claws into the deck for traction.

Kira didn’t wait. She loosed a yell and jumped after the creature. With one hand, she stabbed out toward it, and the Soft Blade complied by impaling the sore-covered nightmare with a triangular blade that then sprouted a pincushion of black needles.

The creature squealed, thrashed, and went limp.

With her other hand, Kira stabbed the next nightmare in line and killed it in the same fashion.

Two down, two to go.

The humanoid nightmare aimed a small device at her. A loud thump hit Kira in both her ears and her hip, knocking her off course. Her hip went numb, and pain radiated up her spine, sending electric shocks shooting through the nerves in her arms.

She gasped and, for a moment, found herself unable to move.

The other beast-like nightmare jumped her then. The impact knocked them both tumbling down the corridor. Kira covered her face with her arms as the creature attempted to savage her with its snapping jaws. Teeth skated across the hardened surface of the Soft Blade while claws scrabbled harmlessly against her belly.

Despite her instinctual fright, the nightmare couldn’t seem to hurt her.

Then it drew back its head and, from its gaping mouth, sprayed a stream of greenish liquid across her head and chest.

An acrid smell hit her nostrils, and wisps of smoke rose from the patches of skin hit by the liquid. But she felt no pain.

The creature had sprayed her with acid. The realization outraged Kira. How dare you?! If not for the Soft Blade, the acid would have burned her beyond recognition.

She jammed her fists into the creature’s mouth. With a heave of her arms, she tore its head apart, spraying blood and flesh across the walls.

Panting, she looked for the humanoid nightmare, intending to kill it as well.

The humanoid was right next to her, mandibles spread to reveal round, pearl-like teeth. Then it spoke, in a hissing, growling voice: “You! Forgotten flesssh! You ssshall join the maw!”

Shock delayed Kira’s reaction. The nightmare took the opportunity to wrap a tentacle around her right arm, and a current of fire seemed to course through her skin and into her brain.

A horrible sense of recognition seized her, and she howled as her vision flared white.

She saw herself from two different angles, standing in the storage room aboard the Extenuating Circumstances. The perspective was confusing: competing viewpoints that overlapped and intermingled to produce a warped re-creation of the moment. As with the images, she felt a jumbled mix of emotions, none of which seemed to relate: surprise, fear, triumph, anger, contempt, regret.

One of her perspectives was trying to hide, pulling itself behind a rack of equipment with speed born of terror. The other seemed confident, unafraid. It remained where it was and attacked, hot beams of light slicing through the air.

She saw herself flee toward the exit, but too slow, far too slow. Black spikes bristled from her skin in random, undisciplined outbursts.

Then she turned, face contorted with fear and anger as she lifted the pistol she’d taken from the dead crew member. The muzzle flashed, and bullets smacked into a wall.

The perspective that was afraid was shouting and waving, desperate for her to stop.

The perspective that wasn’t, evaded, darting across the walls. It felt no concern.

Sparks flashed as lasers vaporized bullets.

Then one of the bullets hit the red-labeled pipe at the back of the room, and her perspectives flew apart amid a thunderclap. A moment of blankness, and when perception returned, it was further fractured. Now there were three sets of memories, and none of them familiar. The newest addition was smaller, less distinct than the others; it did not see with eyes, yet was still aware of its surroundings in a vague and cloudy way. And it was possessed of the same fear and anger she had experienced, only now amplified by confusion and lack of direction.

The explosion had torn open the hull of the Extenuating Circumstances. Wind clawed at the separate parts of her, and then she was spinning through space. Three different minds beheld the same kaleidoscope of stars,

and pain racked her trinity of torn flesh. Of the three, the original two seemed weaker: their vision dimmed as consciousness faded. But not the third. Damaged it was, afraid and angry it was, incomplete it was, but not yet deprived of motive force.

Where to go? It had lost contact with the parent form, and it no longer possessed the ability to locate it. Too many fibers were broken; too many loops interrupted. Redundancy failed and self-repair cycled and stalled, lacking both knowledge and required elements.

Driven by rage and terror that refused to abate, it stretched itself thin, cast spider-threads far into the void as it searched for the nearest sources of warmth, frantically seeking its parent form, as the pattern commanded. If it failed, dormancy would be its fated lot.

Just as the last gleam of light vanished from the view of the two others— just as the stifling press of oblivion enveloped them—threads caught and held their flesh. Confusion reigned. Then the imperative to heal overrode the other directives of the searching threads, and a new pain manifested: a needlelike prick that quickly expanded into a crawling agony that encompassed every centimeter of their battered bodies.

Flesh joined with flesh in a frantic mating as the three viewpoints became one. No longer were they grasper or two-form or Soft Blade. Now they were something else entirely.

It was a malformed partnership, born of haste and ignorance. The parts did not fit, though they were stitched together at the smallest level, and they revolted against themselves and against reality itself. Then within the cross-joined mind of the new flesh, madness took hold. Reasoned thought no longer dwelt therein, only the anger that had been hers, and the fear too. Panic was the result, and further dysregulation.

For they were incomplete. The fibers that had joined them had been flawed, imperfect, poisoned by her emotions. As was the seed, so was the fruit.

They struggled to move, and their contradictory urges caused them to flail without purpose.

Then the light of a double sun bathed them with heat as the Extenuating Circumstances detonated, destroying the Tserro—the grasper ship—at the same time.

The blast blew them away from the shining disk of the nearby moon, a piece of flotsam driven before a storm. For a time, they drifted in the cold of space, at the mercy of momentum. Soon though, their new skin gave them the means to move, and they stabilized their spin and looked anew upon the naked universe.

Unceasing hunger gnawed at them. They desired to eat and grow and spread beyond this barren place, as their flesh commanded. As the broken pattern dictated. And coupled with that ravenous appetite, a constant roar of fury and fear: an instinctual rejection of the extinction of self, inherited from her confrontation with Carr/Qwon.

They needed food. And power. But first food to feed the flesh. They spread themselves wide to catch the light of the system’s star and flew the short distance to the rocky rings around the great gas giant in whose gravity well they resided.

The rocks contained the raw materials they sought. They gorged themselves upon stone, metal, and ice—used it to grow and grow and grow. Power was plentiful and easy to acquire in space; the star provided all they needed. They extended themselves across the vastness and converted every ray of light they captured into useful forms of energy.

The system could have been a home for them; there were moons and planets fit for life. But their ambition was greater. They knew of other places, other planets, where life teemed in the billions and trillions. A banquet of flesh, and power also, waiting to be claimed and converted and put to use in service to their overriding cause: expansion. With such resources at their disposal, their growth would be exponential. They would spread like fire among the stars—spread and spread and spread until they filled this galaxy and others beyond.

It would take time, but time they had. For they were undying now. Their flesh could not stop growing, and so long as a single speck of it remained, still then their seeds would spread and flourish.…

But there was an obstacle to their plan. A problem of engineering that they could not overcome, not with all their flesh nor all their gathered power.

They did not know how to build the device that would allow them to slip between the fabric of space and travel faster than the speed of light. They

knew of the device, but no part of their mind knew the specifics of construction.

Which meant they were trapped in the system unless they were willing to venture forth at slower-than-light speeds, and they were not. Their impatience compelled them to stay, for they knew others would come. Others bearing the needed device.

So they bided their time, and waited and watched and continued to prepare.

They did not have long to wait. Three flashes along the boundary of the system alerted them to the arrival of grasper ships. Two were so foolish as to come close to investigate. The flesh was ready. They struck! They seized the ships, and in a rage, emptied them of their contents, absorbed the bodies of the graspers, and made the vessels their own.

The third ship escaped their maw, but that did not matter. They had what they needed: the machines that would allow them to bridge the chasms between the stars.

So they left to feed their hunger. First to the nearest grasper system: a newly settled colony, weak and undefended. There they found a station orbiting in the darkness: a ripe fruit ready for plucking. They crashed into it and made themselves part of the structure. The information contained within the computers became their own, and they grew confident in their ambition.

Their confidence was premature. The graspers sent more ships after them: ships that burned and blasted and cut away their flesh. No matter. They had what they needed, though not what they wanted.

They fled back into interstellar space. This time, they chose a system free of graspers or two-forms. But not barren of all life. One of the planets was a festering boil of living creatures busy eating other living creatures. So the Maw descended and devoured them all, converted them to new forms of flesh.

There then, they held. There they ate and increased and built in a heated frenzy. Soon the surface of the planet was covered and the sky dotted with the ships they were building.

No, not building … growing.

With the ships, they also grew servants, in substance based upon half-remembered templates from their binding flesh, in shape based upon a grafting of forms suggested by the different parts of their mind. The results were crude and unlovely, but they obeyed as required and that was sufficient. A horde of creatures made to carry out the dictates of the pattern. Life self-sufficient and capable of propagating itself. But some of the servants were more—pieces of the Maw, given a seed of their own flesh, that their essence might travel among the stars.

When the strength of their forces was sufficient, they sent them forth to recapture the graspers’ system, and to attack others besides. The hunger was yet unsated, and the fear-driven anger of their two minds still no less.

A season of feasting followed. The graspers fought back, but they were unprepared, and they were too slow to replace their fallen. The Maw had no such difficulty. Each system it struck, it quickly established a permanent foothold and began the process of spreading across every available planet.

Progress brought their servants closer to the space of the two-forms. The flesh of the Maw spanned seven systems now, and it felt confident in its strength. So it sent its minions against the two-forms, to drive them back and begin the process of conversion.

And then, when least expected, they had heard a cry in the dark: Stop it! And they recognized the signal and the voice as well. The first belonged to the makers of the flesh, now long vanished, and the second to her, Kira Navárez.

Again she saw her face contort with fear and anger as she fired the pistol.…

The Maw roared, and they told their servants: Find the forgotten flesh!

Break it! Smash it! EAT IT!

*Kira … Where are you?… Kira?*

Kira screamed as she returned to herself.

The humanoid nightmare still had the tentacle wrapped around her arm, but there was more to it than that. Black threads joined the surface of the Soft Blade to the flesh of the nightmare, and she could feel the creature’s consciousness pressing against her, seeking to blot her out. The nightmare’s

skin was eating into her own as it assimilated the Soft Blade. It wasn’t a process she could stop by force of will; the xeno didn’t recognize the nightmare as an enemy. Rather, it seemed to want to assimilate with the creature’s broken flesh, to become one again with its lost parts.

If she delayed, Kira knew she would die. Or least be converted into something she abhorred.

She tried to yank her arm away from the humanoid, and they spun end over end until they smacked into the deck. The flesh of the nightmare was still melting into her.

“Give up,” said the monster, mandibles clicking. “You cannot win. All will be flesssh for the mouth of many. Join usssss and be eaten.”

“No!” said Kira. She willed the Soft Blade outward, and it responded with a thousand jutting spikes, piercing the nightmare through and through. The creature shrieked and writhed, but it did not die. Then Kira felt the spikes impaling its body dissolve and flow into the nightmare, leaving the Soft Blade thinner, smaller than before.

The tentacle had sunk deep into her arm; only the top of it was visible above the churning surface of the Soft Blade.

No! She refused to die like this. Flesh was expendable. Consciousness wasn’t.

Kira formed the suit on her left arm into a blade, and—with a yell of desperation—she cut twice.

Once through her right arm, severing it at the elbow. Once through the nightmare, slicing it in two at the waist.

Blood fountained from the stump of her arm, but only for an instant.

Then the Soft Blade closed over the raw end of the wound.

It should have hurt, but whether from adrenaline or the xeno, it didn’t. The two halves of the nightmare flew to opposite ends of the corridor.

And still the creature didn’t die; the torso half continued to move its arms and head and chitter with its mandibles, while the lower half kicked as if trying to run. Even as she watched, black tendrils emerged from the exposed surfaces of its insides, reaching and searching in an attempt to pull themselves back together.

Kira knew she was outmatched.

She looked for the alcove: there. She kicked herself over to it, grabbed Trig’s cocoon with her one hand, and then willed the Soft Blade to propel

them back along the corridor, in the direction they’d been headed originally. As they neared the end of the passage, she glanced over her shoulder at the nightmare. The two parts of the creature’s body were nearly rejoined.

Then she saw the torso half lift its remaining tentacle and point the same small device at her as before.

She tried to duck her head behind her arm. Too slow.

A bell-like ringing filled her ears as she regained awareness. At first, she couldn’t remember who she was or where she was. She gaped at the blue-lit walls as they drifted past, trying to understand, for she was convinced something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

Her breath rushed in, and with it memory. Knowledge. Fear.

The nightmare had shot her in the head. Kira could feel a dull throb in her skull, and her neck spasmed with jolts of pain. The creature was still at the other end of the corridor, still working to rejoin its severed halves.

Boom! It fired at her again, but this time the bullet glanced off her shoulder, deflected by the hardened surface of the Soft Blade.

Kira didn’t wait to see more. Still dazed, she grabbed the wall, pulled herself and Trig around the corner at the end of the corridor, breaking the line of sight with the nightmare.

As she moved through the ship, Kira felt disconnected from reality, as if everything were happening to someone else. Sounds made little sense, and she saw rainbow-colored halos around lights.

Must have a concussion, she thought.

The things she had seen from the nightmare … They couldn’t be, and yet she knew they were. Dr. Carr and the Jelly, joined together into an abomination by the fragments of the Soft Blade blasted off her. If only she hadn’t been so consumed by her emotions during their confrontation. If only she had listened to Carr’s pleading. If only she had avoided shooting the oxygen line.… She was the mother of the Corrupted. Her actions had led to their creation, and their sins were hers. All those dead: Jellies, humans, and so many innocent life-forms on distant planets—her heart ached to think of it.

She was barely conscious of where she was going. The Soft Blade seemed to decide for her: left here, right there.…

A voice drew her from her haze: “Kira! Kira, over here! Where—”

She looked up to see Falconi hanging before her, a fierce expression on his face. The Jelly, Itari, was with him, weapons aimed at the doorway. Behind them was a large, jagged hole in the hull, big enough for a car to pass through. The dark of space showed through it, and hanging in the dark, like a gleaming gem, the Wallfish, over a hundred meters away.

With a start, Kira realized they were in vacuum. Somehow that had happened without her noticing.

“… your arm! Where—”

She shook her head, unable to find the words.

Falconi seemed to understand. He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her and Trig toward the opening in the hull. “You have to jump. They can’t get any closer. Can you—”

On the side of the Wallfish, Kira saw the airlock was open. In it, several figures moved: Nielsen and some of the Marines.

Kira nodded, and Falconi released her. She gathered her strength and then leaped into the void.

For the length of a breath, she floated in silence.

The Soft Blade adjusted her course by a few centimeters, and she flew straight into the Wallfish airlock. A Marine caught her, stopped her momentum.

Falconi followed a moment later, bringing Trig with him. The Jelly came also, somewhat to Kira’s surprise, and crowded its tentacled bulk into the airlock.

The instant the outer door closed, Falconi said, “Hit it!”

Gregorovich’s whispering voice answered, “Aye-aye, Captain. Currently

hitting it.”

A surge of high-g thrust dropped them to the floor. Kira yelped as the stump of her arm banged against the inside of the airlock. Then she thought of the nightmare she’d cut in two, and fear focused her thoughts.

She looked at Falconi and said, “You have to … You have to…” She couldn’t seem to fit her tongue around the words.

“Have to what?” he said.

“You have to destroy that ship!”

Sparrow was the one to answer, her voice emanating from the intercom overhead: “Already taken care of, sweetcheeks. Hold on tight.”

Outside the airlock, there was a flash of pure white light, and then the window darkened until it was opaque. Seconds later, the Wallfish shuddered, and a series of faint pings sounded against the outer hull. Then the ship grew still again.

Kira let out her breath and allowed her head to drop back against the floor.

They were safe. For now.

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