Chapter no 43

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Falconi was hunched over the central display along with Sparrow. In the holo, a window displayed the feed from a skinsuit headcam of someone moving about on the outside of the Wallfish’s hull.

Hwa-jung’s voice sounded through the comms: “—checking the welds. I promise. Five minutes, no more, Captain.”

“No more,” he said. “Falconi out.” He touched a button, and the holo switched to a map of the system, with all the ships marked for easy viewing.

As Kira sank into the welcome relief of a padded crash chair, Sparrow glanced at her. The woman’s eyes widened as she noticed what she hadn’t before. “Shit, Kira. What happened to your—”

“Not now,” said Falconi. “Storytime later.”

Sparrow bit back her questions, but Kira could feel the weight of her gaze.

The Jellies and the nightmares were still skirmishing near and around Nidus. But it was a confused fight. The three remaining ships that belonged to the friendly Jellies—including the one carrying Tschetter—were taking potshots at both the nightmares and their own kind. Two Jelly vessels and one of the nightmares had taken off from the planet and were shooting at any and all. Kira suspected the Seeker was in control of them. Likewise, the rest of the nightmares were fighting everyone but themselves.

As one of the Jellies’ ships—fortunately, not a friendly—exploded in a nuclear flare, Sparrow winced. “What a clusterfuck,” she said.

At first Kira thought the Wallfish had been lucky enough to escape pursuit, but then she spotted the trajectories plotted from two of the nightmares: intercept courses. The long, angular ships (they looked like bundles of enormous femurs bound together with strips of exposed muscle) were on the opposite side of the planet, but they were accelerating at the same insane, cell-destroying g’s the other nightmares had employed. At the current rate, they’d be in range within fourteen minutes.

Or maybe not.

Approaching from the near asteroid belt was the Darmstadt, trailing threads of coolant from its damaged radiators. Kira checked the numbers; the cruiser would just barely cross paths with the nightmares before they

shot past. If the nightmares piled on another quarter g of thrust, the UMC would be far too slow.

The comms crackled, and Akawe’s voice sounded: “Captain Falconi, do you read?”

“I read.”

“We can buy you some time here, I think. Maybe enough for you to get to the Markov Limit.”

Falconi gripped the edge of the table, the tips of his fingers turning white from the force. “What about you, Captain?”

A chuckle from Akawe surprised Kira. “We’ll follow if we can, but all that matters is that someone lets Command know about the offer from Tschetter’s Jellies, and right now the Wallfish has the best shot of escaping the system. I know you’re a civvy, Falconi—I can’t order you to do jack shit—but it doesn’t get more important than this.”

“We’ll get the message back to the League,” said Falconi. Then, after a moment’s pause, “You have my word, Captain.”

A crackle of static and then: “I’ll hold you to that, Captain.… Stand by for a light show. Over.”

“What are they planning?” said Kira. “They can’t outmaneuver the nightmares.”

Sparrow wet her lips, her gaze fixed on the holo. “No. But maybe Akawe can hit them hard and fast enough to take them off our tail. Depends on how many missiles the Darmstadt has left.”

Kira and the others were still sitting, waiting and watching, when Hwa-jung lumbered in through the doorway. Falconi gave her a nod. “Problem fixed?”

Hwa-jung surprised Kira by bowing past parallel. “It was my fault. The repair I made in Sixty-One Cygni, I made in anger. The work was bad. I am sorry. You should find a better machine boss to work for you.”

Falconi walked over, put his hands on Hwa-jung’s shoulders, and raised her back into a standing position. “Nonsense,” he said, voice unexpectedly gentle. “Just don’t let it happen again.”

After a moment, Hwa-jung ducked her head. Tears filled her eyes. “I will not. I promise.”

“That’s all I ask,” said Falconi. “And if—”

“Shit,” said Sparrow in a subdued tone, pointing at the holo.

The nightmares had increased their thrust. The Darmstadt was going to fall short by a good margin. Certainly more than the effective range of the cruiser’s main lasers.

“Now what?” Kira asked. She felt numb from the rolling series of catastrophes. What else could go wrong at this point? Didn’t matter. Just deal with it. If the nightmares docked with the Wallfish, she might be able to fight off some of the invaders, but if there were more creatures like the one that had grabbed her on the Jelly ship, then she would be lost. They would all be lost.

“We set up a killing zone in the main shaft,” said Falconi. “Funnel the nightmares into there and hit ’em from every side.”

“Assuming they don’t just blow us up,” said Sparrow.

“No,” said Hwa-jung, motioning toward Kira. “They want her.” “They do,” Falconi agreed. “We can use that to our advantage.” “Bait,” said Kira.

“Exactly.” “Then—”

A bloom of dazzling white in the center of the holo interrupted her and caused them all to stop and stare.

Both nightmare ships had exploded, leaving nothing but an expanding cloud of vapor.

“Gregorovich,” said Falconi. “What just happened?” The ship mind said, “Casaba-Howitzers. Three of them.”

The image in the holo ran in reverse, and they saw the explosions collapse back into the nightmares’ ships and—just before—three needles of light flickering in a scattered line some tens of thousands of klicks away.

“How?” said Kira, confused. “The Darmstadt isn’t in range.”

Sparrow seemed about to answer when the comm line crackled again and Akawe came on. “There’s the light show, folks,” he said, sounding grimly amused. “We dropped a few RD Fifty-Twos on approach to Nidus. Something new we’ve been playing with. Hydrogen-cooled Casaba-Howitzers. Makes ’em nearly impossible to spot. In a pinch, they work pretty well as mines. We just had to force the nightmares into range. Stupid fucks didn’t even realize they were flying into a trap. We’re changing course now. Going to do our best to keep the rest of these hostiles off your backs. Just keep up your burn and don’t stop for anything. Over.”

“Roger that,” said Falconi. “… And thank you, Captain. We owe you one. Over.”

“There’ll be drinks to go around when this is done, Captain. Over,” said Akawe.

As the line went dead, Sparrow said, “I’d heard about the RD Fifty-Twos. Never got to play with them, though.”

Falconi leaned back from the holo. He ran his hands through his bristly hair, scrubbing at his scalp with the tips of his fingers, and then said, “Okay. We’ve got some breathing room. Not much, but a little.”

“How long until we can jump out?” Kira asked.

“At our current two g’s of thrust,” whispered Gregorovich, “we shall gain the freedom to depart this hallowed graveyard in exactly twenty-five hours.”

That’s too long. Kira didn’t have to say it; she could see the others were thinking it as well. The nightmares and the Jellies had only taken a few hours to reach Nidus after dropping out of FTL. If more of them decided to pursue the Wallfish, they’d have no trouble overtaking it.

“Gregorovich,” said Falconi, “any chance of a solar flare?”

Smart. Like all red dwarfs, Bughunt would be prone to high variability, which meant enormous and unpredictable solar flares. A large enough outburst would disrupt the magnetic fields used in the exhaust nozzles of their fusion drives and keep the Jellies or the nightmares from overtaking the Wallfish. Assuming they hadn’t found an effective way to shield themselves.

“None at the moment,” said Gregorovich. “Dammit,” Falconi muttered.

“We’ll just have to hope Akawe and Tschetter’s Jellies can keep everyone off our tail,” said Sparrow.

Falconi looked like he’d just bitten down on a rock. “I don’t like it. I really don’t like it. If even one of those assholes comes after us, we’re going to be in a world of trouble.”

Sparrow shrugged. “Not sure what we can do about it, Captain. The

Wallfish ain’t like a horse. She won’t go any faster if you hit her.”

A thought occurred to Kira: the malformed corruption that was the nightmares had been able to make use of the Jelly tech, so … why couldn’t they?

The idea was so outlandish, she nearly dismissed it. Only because of the desperate nature of their circumstances did she say, “What about the Jelly, Itari?”

“What about it?” said Falconi. “Maybe it could help us.”

Hwa-jung’s eyes narrowed, and she sounded outright hostile as she said, “How do you mean?”

“I’m not sure,” said Kira. “But maybe it can tweak our Markov Drive so we can jump to FTL sooner.”

Hwa-jung cursed. “You want to let that thing tinker with the Wallfish?


“It’s worth a try,” said Sparrow, looking at Falconi.

He grimaced. “Can’t say I like it, but if the Jelly can help us, we have to give it a shot.”

Hwa-jung looked profoundly unhappy. “No, no, no,” she muttered. Then, louder: “You do not know what it could do. It could break every system in the ship. It could blow us up. No! The Jelly doesn’t know our computers or our—”

“So you’ll help it,” Falconi said in a gentle tone. “We’re dead if we can’t get out of this system, Hwa-jung. Anything that can help us is worth trying at this point.”

The machine boss scowled and rubbed her hands together again and again. Then she grunted and got back to her feet. “Okay. But if the Jelly does anything to hurt the Wallfish, I will tear it apart.”

Falconi smiled slightly. “I’d expect nothing less. Gregorovich, you keep an eye on things also.”

“Always,” whispered the ship mind.

Then Falconi shifted his gaze. “Kira, you’re the only one who can talk with the Jelly. Go see if it thinks it can help, and if it can, then coordinate between it and Hwa-jung.”

Kira nodded and pushed herself out of the crash chair, feeling every one of the added kilos from their burn.

The captain was still talking: “Sparrow, you too. Make sure things don’t get out of hand.”


“When you’re done, take the Jelly back to the airlock.”

“You’re going to leave it there?” Sparrow asked.

“Seems like the only semi-secure place for it. Unless you have a better idea?”

Sparrow shook her head.

“Right. Then get to it. And Kira? When you’re finished, go see the doc and have him look at that arm of yours.”

“Will do,” said Kira.

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