Chapter no 44

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

As Kira left Control along with the other two women, Hwa-jung gestured at her arm and said, “Does it hurt?”

“No,” said Kira. “Not really. Just feels weird.” “What happened?” said Sparrow

“One of the nightmares grabbed me. The only way I could escape was by cutting myself free.”

Sparrow winced. “Shit. At least you made it out.” “Yeah.” But privately, Kira wondered if she really had.

Two of the Marines—Tatupoa and another man whose name Kira didn’t know—stood stationed in the airlock antechamber, keeping watch over the Jelly inside. The rest of the Marines had cleared out, leaving behind bandages and bloody streaks on the deck.

The two men were wolfing down rations as Kira and her companions approached. They both looked pale and exhausted, stressed. She recognized the look; it was the same way she felt. After the adrenaline wore off, then came the crash. And she’d crashed hard.

Tatupoa paused with his spork in the air. “You here what to talk with the squid?”

“Yeah,” said Kira.

“Gotcha. You need any help, just holler. We’ll be right behind you.” Although Kira doubted the Marines could protect her better than the Soft

Blade, it made her glad to know they were there, guns at the ready.

Sparrow and Hwa-jung hung back as she went to the airlock and peered through the diamond pressure window. The Jelly, Itari, was still sitting on the floor, resting amid its knotted tentacles. For a moment, apprehension

stalled her. Then Kira hit the release button and the airlock’s inner door rolled back.

The scent of the Jelly struck her: a smell that reminded her of brine and spice. It had an almost coppery tang.

The alien spoke first: [[Itari here: How can I help, Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: We are trying to leave the system, but our ship is not fast enough to outswim the Wranaui or the Corrupted.]]

[[Itari here: I cannot build you a flow modifier.]]

[[Kira here: Do you mean a—]] She struggled to find the right word: [[—a weight changer?]]

[[Itari here: Yes. It lets a ship swim more easily.]]

[[Kira here: I understand. What about the machine that lets us swim faster than light?]]

[[Itari here: The Orb of Conversion.]]

[[Kira here: Yes, that. Can you do anything to make it work better, so we can leave sooner?]]

The Jelly stirred and seemed to motion at itself with two of its tentacles. [[Itari here: This form is meant for fighting, not building. I do not have the assemblers or the materials needed for this sort of work.]]

[[Kira here: But do you know how to improve our Orb of Conversion?]]

The Jelly’s tentacles wrapped over themselves, rubbing and twisting with restless energy. [[Itari here: Yes, but it may not be possible without the proper time, tools, or form.]]

[[Kira here: Will you try?]]

… [[Itari here: Since you ask, Idealis, yes.]] [[Kira here: Follow me.]]

“Well?” said Sparrow as Kira left the airlock.

“Maybe,” Kira replied. “It’s going to take a stab at helping. Hwa-jung?” The machine boss scowled and said, “This way.”

“Whoa, there,” said Tatupoa, holding up a tattooed hand. “No one told us but nothing about this. You want to take the Jelly out?”

Sparrow had to call Falconi then, and Falconi call Hawes, before the Marines would relent and allow them to escort Itari to engineering. Kira kept close to the Jelly, the Soft Blade covered in short, dull spikes in preparation for potentially having to fight and kill.

But Kira didn’t think it would be necessary. Not yet.

Although she was alert and functional, she felt weak, wrung out by the trauma of the day. She needed food. And not just for herself; the Soft Blade needed nourishment as well. The suit felt … thin, as if the energy required for combat and the loss of the material covering her forearm had depleted its reserves.

“Do you have a ration bar on you?” Kira said to Sparrow. The woman shook her head. “Sorry.”

Where’s Trig when you need him? Kira winced at the thought. No matter; she would wait. She wasn’t about to pass out from hunger, and food—or rather the lack thereof—was far from the top of her priority list.

Engineering was a cramped room packed full of displays. The walls, floors, and ceiling were painted with the same flat grey Kira remembered from the Extenuating Circumstances. In contrast, every pipe, wire, valve, and handle was a different color: bright reds and greens and blues and even a tangerine orange, each of them distinct and impossible to confuse. Heavy studs of oversized braille marked the objects so they could be identified in the dark and while wearing a skinsuit.

The floor looked cleaner than the galley counter. Yet the air was thick with heat and moisture, and laden with the unpleasant tang of lubricants, cleaners, and ozone. It left the taste of copper on Kira’s tongue, and she could feel her eyebrows standing on end with static electricity.

“Here,” said Hwa-jung, leading the way to the back of the room, where one half of a large, black sphere, over a meter across, protruded: the Wallfish’s Markov Drive.

The quarter hour that followed was a frustration of failed translations for Kira. The Jelly kept using technical terms that she didn’t understand and couldn’t render into comprehensible English, and likewise, Hwa-jung kept using technical terms that Kira couldn’t adequately convert into the Jellies’ language. The machine boss toggled a holo-display built into the console next to the Markov Drive and brought up schematics and other visual representations of the machine’s inner workings, which helped some, but— in the end—still failed to fully bridge the language gap.

The math behind a Markov Drive was anything but simple. However, the execution—as Kira understood it—was fairly straightforward. Annihilation of antimatter was used to generate electricity, which in turn was used to power the conditioned EM field that allowed for transition into

superluminal space. The lower the energy density of the field, the faster a ship could fly, as less energy equaled higher speeds when going FTL (exactly the opposite of normal space). Efficiencies of scale meant bigger ships had higher top speeds, but in the end, the ultimate limiting factor was one of engineering. Maintaining the low-energy fields was tricky. They were prone to disruption from numerous sources both within and without a ship, which was why a strong gravity well would force a ship back into normal space. Even during interstellar flight, the field had to be adjusted multiple times every nanosecond in order to maintain some semblance of stability.

None of which gave Kira much confidence that Itari could somehow redesign their Markov Drive on the fly, without the proper equipment and without understanding English or the coding of human math. Nevertheless, she hoped, despite what reason told her.

At last, Falconi’s voice came over the comms: “Making any progress?

Things aren’t looking too good out there.”

“Not yet,” said Hwa-jung. She sounded as annoyed as Kira felt. “Keep at it,” said the captain and signed off.

“Maybe—” said Kira, and was interrupted by the Jelly turning away from the holo and crawling over the bulging surface of the Markov Drive.

“No!” Hwa-jung exclaimed as the alien started to pull at the paneling with one of its tentacles. The machine boss moved across the room with surprising nimbleness and tried to pull the Jelly off the drive, but the creature effortlessly pushed her back with another of its tentacles. “Kira, tell it to stop. If it breaks containment, it’ll kill us all.”

Sparrow was already lifting her blaster, finger on the trigger, when Kira said, “Stop! Everyone be calm. I’ll ask, but don’t shoot. It knows what it’s doing.”

The sound of bending metal made her wince as Itari wrenched free the protective shell from around the guts of the Markov Drive.

“It better,” Sparrow muttered. She lowered her blaster some, but not entirely.

[[Kira here: What are you doing? My shoalmates are worried.]]

[[Itari here: I need to see the way your Orb of Conversion is built. Do not worry, two-form. I will not destroy us.]]

Kira translated, but Itari’s assurances did little to alleviate Hwa-jung’s concern. The machine boss stood next to the Jelly, peering over its humped tentacles, scowling, and knotting her hands. “Shi-bal,” she growled. “Not the … no … ah, you stupid thing, what are you doing?”

After several minutes of tense standoff, the Jelly withdrew its armlike pincers from the insides of the drive and turned to face Kira.

[[Itari here: I cannot make your Orb work better.]] The burn of acid hit Kira’s stomach as the Jelly continued talking: [[I could make it stronger, but


[[Kira here: Stronger?]]

[[Itari here: By increasing the flow of energy, the strength of the bubble can be improved, and the conversion to faster than light will happen closer to the star. But to do that, I would need equipment from one of our ships. There is no time to make the wanted parts from raw materials.]]

“What is it saying?” Hwa-jung asked. Kira explained, and the machine boss said, “How much closer?”

[[Itari here: With your Orb of Conversion … at least half again.]] “You don’t look impressed,” Kira said, after she finished translating.

Hwa-jung snorted. “I’m not. We already boost the field strength before going FTL. It’s an old trick. The drive can’t handle any more power, though. The reaction chamber will fail or the circuits will burn out. It’s not workable.”

“Doesn’t matter in any case,” said Sparrow. “You already said it: the Jelly can’t do anything without the right equipment. We’re just shitting out an airlock.” She shrugged.

While they talked, Kira had been thinking. At first she wondered if the Soft Blade could provide Itari with the tools and materials it needed. She felt sure it ought to be possible, but she had no idea where or how to start, and the xeno gave her no hint. Then, she ran through everything she knew of on the Wallfish, searching for something—anything—that might help.

The answer sprang to her mind almost at once.

“Hold on,” she said. Hwa-jung and Sparrow paused, looked at her. Kira tabbed her comms and put a call through to the Entropists: “Veera, Jorrus, we need you down in engineering, posthaste. Bring that object you found on the Jelly ship.”

“On our way, Prisoner,” the two replied.

Hwa-jung’s eyes narrowed. “You cannot expect a random piece of machinery scavenged off an alien ship to be of any real use, Navárez.”

“No,” said Kira. “But it’s worth a try.” She explained to Itari, and the Jelly settled onto the deck to wait, tentacles wrapped around itself.

“How can this squid do anything anyway?” Sparrow demanded. She jerked the barrel of her blaster toward Itari. “It’s just a soldier. Are all their soldiers trained engineers?”

“I would like to know that too,” said Hwa-jung, her eyebrows beetling.

Kira relayed the question to the Jelly, and it said: [[Itari here: No, this form is not for making machines, but each form is given a seed of information to serve when needed.]]

“What do you mean by form?” said Sparrow.

Several of the alien’s tentacles twisted in on themselves. [[Itari here: This form. Different forms serve different uses. You should know; you have two forms yourselves.]]

“Do they mean men and women?” said Hwa-jung.

Sparrow also frowned. “Can Jellies change form? Is that what it—”

The arrival of the Entropists interrupted her. The two Questants cautiously approached Kira and—keeping both sets of eyes fixed on Itari— handed her the bluish, oblong-shaped object they had retrieved from the Jelly ship at 61 Cygni.

Nearscent of excitement struck Kira’s nostrils as she handed the piece to Itari. The Jelly turned the fist-sized object over with its crab-like arms, and its tentacles flushed with autumnal reds and oranges.

[[Itari here: This is a nodule from an Aspect of the Void.]]

[[Kira here: Yes. That was the room where my shoalmates found it. Is the nodule of any use?]]

[[Itari here: Perhaps.]]

Then Kira watched with interest and some astonishment as a pair of even smaller arms unfolded from a hidden slot within the rim of the Jelly’s carapace. Like their larger brethren, the limbs were cased in a shiny, chitinous material, but unlike them, they were fine-jointed and tipped with a set of delicate cilia no more than a centimeter or two in length.

With them, Itari rapidly disassembled the nodule. Inside were a number of solid components, none of which resembled any part of a computer or

mechanical device Kira was familiar with. If anything, the pieces most closely resembled shaped sections of a gem or crystal.

Components in-cilia, Itari returned to the Markov Drive and reached with its small, tertiary limbs into the depths of the spherical device.

As banging, scrabbling, and sharp metal screeches sounded inside the drive, Hwa-jung said, in a warning tone, “Kira.”

“Give it a chance,” said Kira, though she was equally tense. Along with the Entropists and machine boss, she peered over Itari’s tentacles, into the drive. There, Kira saw the Jelly fitting the crystalline components to different parts of the machine’s innards. Whatever the components touched, they bonded to after a few moments, tiny glittering threads joining them to the nearby material. But only—Kira noticed—where appropriate. Either Itari’s direction or some inbuilt programming guided the threads.

“How are they doing that?” Hwa-jung asked, a strange intensity to her voice.

Upon Kira’s translation: [[Itari here: By the will of the Vanished.]]

The Jelly’s answer did nothing to lessen Kira’s concerns, nor—it seemed

—Hwa-jung’s. But they stood by and let the alien work unhindered. Then it said:

[[Itari here: You will need to turn off the rock mind governing the Orb of Conversion for this to work.]]

“Rock mind?” said Hwa-jung. “Does it mean the computer?” “I think so,” said Kira.

“Mmh.” The machine boss seemed less than pleased, but after several moments of silence as her eyes darted back and forth across her invisible overlays, she said, “Done. Gregorovich is overseeing the drive now.”

After Kira informed the Jelly, it said, [[Itari here: The Orb of Conversion is ready. You may activate it twice as soon as before.]]

Hwa-jung scowled as she bent over the drive, studying the mysterious additions to the machine’s internals. “And afterward?”

[[Itari here: Afterward, the energy flow will be returned to normal, so your ship may swim as fast as always.]]

The machine boss seemed unconvinced, but she grunted and said, “Guess that’s the best we’re going to get.”

“Twice as soon as before,” said Sparrow. “We’re thrusting at two g’s, so that means we can jump out … when?”

“Seven hours,” said Hwa-jung.

That was better than Kira had feared but far worse than she’d hoped. Seven hours was still more than enough time for one or more of the enemy ships to catch up with them.

When Hwa-jung called up to Control and informed Falconi of the situation, he said, “Well. Good. We’re not out of the woods, but we might be able to see the light between the trees. Neither the Jellies nor the nightmares are going to expect us to jump out so soon. If we’re lucky, they’ll think they have plenty of time to come after us and just concentrate on blowing each other out of the sky.… Good work, everyone. Kira, thank the Jelly for us and check if it needs any food, water, blankets, that sort of thing. Sparrow, make sure it gets back to the airlock.”

“Yessir,” said Sparrow. Then, when the comm line went dead, she said, “If we’re lucky. Sure. When have we had any luck recently?”

“We are still alive,” said Jorrus. “That—” “—counts for something,” said Veera.

“Uh-huh,” said Sparrow. Then she motioned at Itari. “Comeon, big-and-ugly. Time to go.”

Mention of the nightmares again turned Kira’s mind to unpleasant thoughts. As they ushered the Jelly into the narrow corridor outside engineering, she conveyed Falconi’s thanks and asked after the Jelly’s needs, to which it replied:

[[Itari here: Water would be welcome. That is all. This form is hardy and requires little to sustain it.]]

Then she said, [[Kira here: Did you know that the Corrupted came from the Idealis?]]

The alien seemed surprised she would ask. [[Itari here: Of course, two-form. Did you not?]]

[[Kira here: No.]]

Garish colors roiled the surface of its tentacles, and nearscent of confusion tinged the air. [[Itari here: How is that possible? Surely you were present for the spawning of these Corrupted.… We have been most curious about the circumstances of this, Idealis.]]

Kira put a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder. “Hold on. I need a minute.” The woman glanced between her and the alien. “What’s up?”

“Just trying to clarify something.”

“Really? Now? You can chat all you want back at the airlock.” “It’s important.”

Sparrow sighed. “Fine, but make it snappy.”

Despite her immense reluctance, Kira explained to Itari the sequence of events that had resulted in the birth of the Maw. But she skimmed over the specifics of how exactly the explosion on the Extenuating Circumstances had happened, for she felt ashamed of what she had done and the consequences it had led to.

When she finished, a bouquet of unpleasant scents wafted from the Jelly’s hide. [[Itari here: So the Corrupted we see now are a mixture of Wranaui, two-forms, and the blessed Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: Yes.]]

The Jelly shivered. Not a reaction Kira had seen from any of their species before. [[Itari here: That is … unfortunate. Our enemy is even more dangerous than we first thought.]]

You’re telling me.

Itari continued: [[Until you responded to the tsuro, the searching signal of the Vanished, we thought you were the Corrupted. How could we not, when we found Corrupted lying in wait for us around the star where we hid the Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: Is that why you did not search for me after I left that system?]]

Nearscent of affirmation. [[Itari here: We did search, Idealis, but again, we thought you were the Corrupted, so it was the Corrupted we followed. Not your little shell.]]

She frowned, still struggling to understand. [[Kira here: So, the reason you and the rest of the Wranaui thought the Corrupted were allied with us is because … you knew that I’d created them?]]

[[Itari here: Yes. Such a thing happened once before, during the Sundering, and it nearly proved our undoing. Even though the others of our kind did not know the exact source of these Corrupted, they knew it had to be from an Idealis. And since, as your co-form said, the Corrupted used your language and, for a time, did not attack your pools, it seemed clear that they were your shoalmates. It was only once we heard your signal and saw the response of the Corrupted that we realized you were not growing them to wage war against us.]]

[[Kira here: The rest of the Wranaui must have realized this as well, yes?]]

[[Itari here: Yes.]]

[[Kira here: And yet they continue to attack us.]]

[[Itari here: Because they still think you and your co-forms are responsible for the Corrupted. And you are, Idealis. From that point of view, the how and the why do not matter. It has long been our plan to dam your pools and limit your spread. The appearance of the Corrupted did nothing to change that. But the ones this form serves believe otherwise. They believe the Corrupted are too great a threat for the Wranaui to overcome alone. And they believe that now is the best chance since the Sundering to replace the leadership of the Arms. For that, we need your help, Idealis, and the help of your co-forms.]]

[[Kira here: What exactly do you expect me to do?]]

The Jelly flushed pink and blue. [[Itari here: Why, to oppose the Corrupted. Is not that obvious? Without the Staff of Blue, you are our greatest hope.]]

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