Chapter no 47

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The day had started early. One by one the crew, the Entropists, and the Marines still able to walk gathered in the galley. With so many people present, the room was cramped, but no one seemed to mind.

Hwa-jung and Vishal took it upon themselves to heat and serve food to everyone. Despite the ration bars she’d consumed earlier, Kira didn’t refuse the bowl of rehydrated stew when it was pushed into her one remaining hand.

She sat on the floor in a corner, with her back propped against the wall. At 2.25 g’s, it was by far the most comfortable option, despite how much effort it took to get up or down. There, she ate while watching and listening to the others.

On each table, a holo displayed a live view of the ships behind them. The projections were the main focus of attention; everyone wanted to see what was happening.

The Jellies and the nightmares were still skirmishing. Some had fled to planet c or b and were currently chasing each other through the fringes of the atmosphere, while another group—three ships in total—were diving around the star, Bughunt.

“Looks like they still think they have plenty of time to catch us before we go FTL,” said Lt. Hawes. He was red-eyed and grim; all the Marines were. The losses they’d suffered during the escape from the planet, as well as the destruction of the Darmstadt, had left them looking hollow and withdrawn, shattered.

Kira thought it was an accurate representation of how everyone on the ship felt.

“Fingers crossed they don’t change their minds,” said Falconi.

Hawes grunted. Then he looked at Kira. “Once you’re up for it, we need to talk with the Jelly. This is the first chance we’ve had to communicate

with one of them. The brass back home is going to want every bit of intel we can squeeze out of that thing. We’ve been fighting in the dark until now. It’d be nice to have some answers.”

“Can we do it tomorrow?” said Kira. “I’m wiped, and it won’t make any difference if we can’t escape first.”

The lieutenant rubbed his face and sighed. He seemed even more exhausted than her. “Yeah, sure. But let’s not put it off any longer.”

While they waited, Kira withdrew deeper and deeper into herself, as if she were retreating into a shell. She couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d learned about the nightmares. She was responsible for creating them. It had been her own misguided choices, her own fear and anger that had led to the birth of the monstrosities currently running rampant among the stars.

Even though Kira knew that, logically, she couldn’t be blamed for the actions of what the humanoid nightmare had called the Maw—the twisted, mutated fusion of Dr. Carr, the Jelly, and the damaged parts of the Soft Blade—it didn’t change how she felt. Emotion trumped logic; the thought of everyone who had been killed in the conflict between humans, Jellies, and the nightmares made her heart ache with a dull, soul-crushing pain that the Soft Blade could do nothing to alleviate.

She felt as if she’d been poisoned.

The Marines ate quickly and soon returned to the hold to oversee preparations for the transition to FTL. The Entropists and the crew of the Wallfish lingered about the holos, quiet save for the occasional murmured comment.

At one point, Hwa-jung said in her blunt way, “I miss Trig.” To that, they could only nod and express their agreement.

Partway through the meal, Vishal looked over at Falconi and said, “Is there enough salt for you, Captain?”

Falconi gave a thumbs-up. “Perfect, Doc. Thanks.”

“Yeah, but what’s with all the carrots?” said Sparrow. She lifted a spoon piled high with orange disks. “Always seems like you put in an extra bag or something.”

“They’re good for you,” said Vishal. “Besides, I like them.”

Sparrow smirked. “Oh, I know you do. Bet you keep carrots hidden in sickbay to snack on when you’re hungry. Just like a rabbit.” And she made

a nibbling motion with her teeth. “Drawers and drawers full of carrots. Red ones, yellow ones, purple ones, you—”

A flush darkened Vishal’s cheeks, and he put his spoon down with a loud clack. Kira and everyone else looked. “Ms. Sparrow,” he said, and there was an uncharacteristic note of anger in his voice. “Always you have been, as you put it, ‘riding my ass.’ And because Trig admired you so much, he did the same.”

With an arch expression, Sparrow said, “Don’t take it so seriously, Doc.

I’m just ribbing you. If—”

Vishal faced her. “Well please don’t, Ms. Sparrow. There is none of this ribbing with anyone else, so I would thank you to treat me with the same respect as I treat you. Yes. Thank you.” And with that, he went back to eating.

Sparrow seemed embarrassed and taken aback. Then Falconi gave her a warning look, and she cleared her throat and said, “Sheesh. If you feel so strongly about it, Doc, then—”

“I do,” said Vishal with definitive firmness. “Uh, then sorry. Won’t happen again.” Vishal nodded and continued eating.

Good for him, Kira thought dully. She noticed a small smile on Nielsen’s face, and after a few minutes, the first officer got up and went to sit next to Vishal and started talking with him in a low tone.

Soon after, Sparrow left to check on the Jelly.

Everyone had finished eating, and Nielsen and Vishal were washing up, when Falconi trudged over to Kira and carefully lowered himself onto the floor next to her.

She watched without much curiosity.

He didn’t meet her gaze but stared somewhere at the ceiling across the room and scratched the day-old stubble on his neck. “You going to tell me what’s bothering you, or do I have to pry it out of you?”

Kira didn’t feel like talking. The truth about the nightmares was still too raw and immediate, and—if she was honest with herself—it made her feel ashamed. Also, she was tired, tired right down her to bones. Having a difficult, emotional discussion felt like more than she could deal with at the moment.

So, she deflected. Motioning at the holos, she said, “That’s what’s bothering me. What do you think? Everything’s gone wrong.”

“Bullshit,” Falconi said in a friendly tone. He gave her a look from under his dark brows, the blue of his eyes deep and clear. “You’ve been off ever since we got back from that Jelly ship. What is it? Your arm?”

“Sure, my arm. That’s it.”

A crooked smile appeared on his face, but there wasn’t much humor to his expression. “Right. Okay. If that’s the way you’re going to be.” He undid a pocket on his jacket and slapped a deck of cards down onto the floor between them. “Ever play Scratch Seven?”

Kira eyed him, wary. “No.”

“I’ll teach you then. It’s pretty simple. Play a round with me. If I win, you answer my question. If you win, I’ll answer any question you want.”

“Sorry. I’m not in the mood.” She started to stand, and Falconi’s hand closed about her left wrist, stopping her.

Without thinking, Kira formed a cuff of spikes around her wrist, spikes sharp enough to cause discomfort though not sharp enough to draw blood.

Falconi winced but kept hold of her. “Neither am I,” he said, his voice low, his expression serious. “Come on, Kira. What are you afraid of?”

“Nothing.” She sounded unconvincing even to herself.

He raised his eyebrows. “Then stay. Play a round with me.… Please.”

Kira hesitated. As much as she didn’t want to talk, she also didn’t want to be alone. Not right then. Not with the leaden ache in her chest and the fighting going on in the system around them.

That by itself wasn’t enough to change her mind, but then she thought of the scars on Falconi’s arms. Perhaps she could get him to tell her the story of how he acquired them. The idea appealed to her. Besides, there was a part of her—buried deep inside—that really did want to tell someone about what she’d learned. Confession might not make things any better, but perhaps it would help lessen the pain in her heart.

If only Alan were there. More than anything, Kira wished she could talk with him. He would understand. He would comfort and commiserate and perhaps even help her find a way of solving the galactic-level problem she’d caused.

But Alan was dead and gone. All she had was Falconi. He would have to do.

“What if you ask something I really don’t want to answer?” Kira said, a bit of strength entering her voice.

“Then you fold.” But Falconi said it as if he were daring her otherwise.

A sense of rebelliousness stirred within Kira. “Fine.” She settled back down, and he let go of her wrist. “So teach me.”

Falconi examined the hand she’d poked and then rubbed it against his thigh. “It’s a points game. Nothing special.” He shuffled the cards and started to deal: three cards for her, three for him, and four in the middle of the table. All of them facedown. The remainder of the deck he set aside. “The goal is to get as many sevens or times sevens as possible.”

“How? By multiplying the cards?”

“Adding. One plus six. Ten plus four. You get the idea. Jacks are eleven, queens twelve, kings thirteen. Aces low. No jokers, no wild cards. Since each player has seven cards, counting the shared ones,” Falconi indicated the four cards on the deck, “the highest natural hand is a straight sweep: four kings, two queens, and an ace. That gives you—”


“For a score of eleven. Right. Cards always keep their face value, unless

—” He held up a finger. “—unless you get all the sevens. Then sevens are worth double. In that case, the highest hand is a full sweep: four sevens, two kings, and a nine. Which gives you…” He waited for her to do the math.


“For a score of thirteen. Betting is normally done after each shared card is turned over, but we’ll make it easy and just bet once, after the first card. There’s a catch, though.”


“You can’t use your overlays for the adding. Makes it too easy.” And a message popped up in the corner of Kira’s vision. She opened it to see a prompt from a privacy app that would lock their overlays for as long as they both chose to use it.

Annoyed, she hit Accept. Falconi did the same, and everything on Kira’s overlays froze. “Okay,” she said.

Falconi nodded and picked up his cards.

Kira looked at her own cards. A two, an eight, and a jack: twenty-one. How many sevens did that make? Despite the math she’d done during FTL, multiplying and dividing numbers in her head still wasn’t easy. Addition it

was. Seven plus seven is fourteen. Plus another seven is twenty-one. She smiled, pleased that she already had a score of three.

Then Falconi reached out and turned over the first of the four communal cards: an ace. “I’ll start the betting,” he said. Behind him, the Entropists deposited their empty meal wrappers in the trash and headed out of the galley.

“You dealt. Shouldn’t I?”

“Captain’s prerogative.” When she didn’t argue, he said, “Same question as before: What’s bothering you?”

Kira already had her own question ready: “How did you get those scars on your arms?” A hard expression settled on Falconi’s face. He hadn’t expected that from her, she could tell. Well, good. It served him right. “Call. Unless you think that’s a raise?” She asked in the same tone of challenge he had used before.

Falconi’s lips flattened into a thin line. “No. I think that counts as a call.” He turned over the next card. A five.

They were both silent as they checked their math. Kira still came up with the same figure: twenty-one. Was that a good hand? She wasn’t sure. If not, her only chance of winning would be to ask another question, one that might make Falconi fold.

Nielsen and Vishal were drying their hands after finishing the dishes. The first officer walked over—her steps painfully slow in the high-g—and touched Falconi on the shoulder. “I’m going back to Control. I’ll keep an eye on things from there.”

He nodded. “Okay. I’ll relieve you in, say, an hour.”

She patted him and moved on. As she left the galley, she turned and said, “Don’t bet anything too valuable, Kira.”

“He’ll steal the tongue right out of your mouth,” Vishal added, following after.

And then it was just the two of them in the galley. “Well?” said Kira.

Falconi turned over the third card. Nine.

Kira tried to keep her lips from moving as she did the sums. Keeping track of all the numbers wasn’t easy, and a few times she lost her place and had to start over again.

Thirty-five. That was the best she could come up with. Five sevens. A good sight better than what she’d had before. She started to feel as if there was a chance she might win the hand. Time to take some risks.

“I’m going to raise,” she said. “Oh?” said Falconi.

“Yeah. How did you manage to buy the Wallfish?” The skin under his eyes tightened. She’d struck another nerve. Good. If she was going to tell him about the nightmares, Kira didn’t want to be the only one sharing secrets. When Falconi still hadn’t responded after a few seconds, she said, “What’s it going to be? Fold, call, or raise?”

Falconi rubbed his chin. The stubble rasped against the pad of his thumb. “Call. What happened to your arm? How did you really lose it? And don’t give me that nonsense you told Sparrow about a nightmare grabbing you. It would take a half-dozen exos to give you any trouble.”

“That’s two questions.”

“It’s a restatement. If you want to say it’s two, just say I … upped the stakes.”

Kira bit back a sarcastic reply. He wasn’t making it easy to open up, that was for sure. “Leave it. Keep going.”

“Last card,” Falconi said, seemingly unperturbed, and flipped it over. A king. Thirteen.

Her mind raced as she tried different combinations. The next multiple of seven was seven times six, or … forty-two. Eleven plus thirteen plus one plus eight plus nine—that did it! Forty-two!

Satisfied, Kira started to relax. Then she saw it: add in the two and the five, and she had another seven. Forty-nine. Seven times seven. Her lips curled. How appropriate.

“Now there’s a dangerous expression,” said Falconi. Then he laid his cards on the deck. Two threes and a seven. “Pity it won’t do you any good. Five sevens.”

She revealed her own cards. “Seven sevens.”

His gaze darted from card to card as he checked her math. A hard line formed between his eyebrows. “Beginner’s luck.”

“Sure, keep telling yourself that. Pay up.” She crossed her mismatched arms, pleased with herself.

Falconi tapped his fingers against the deck. Then he went still and said, “The scars are from a fire. And I managed to buy the Wallfish because I spent almost a decade saving every bit I could. Got a good deal and…” He shrugged.

His job must have been very well-paying for him to afford a ship. “Those aren’t much in the way of answers,” Kira said.

Falconi swept up their cards and shuffled them back into the deck. “So then play another round. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Maybe I will,” said Kira. “Deal.”

He dealt. Three for her, three for him, and four on the table.

She scanned her cards. No sevens, nor anything that added up to seven or a multiple of seven. Then Falconi turned over the first card on the table: the two of spades. That gave her … one seven.

“Why did you keep the scars?” she asked.

He surprised her with his counter: “Why do you care?” “Is that … your bet?”

“It is.”

Falconi turned over the next card. Kira still had only one seven. She decided to go for another bet. “What exactly did you do before you got the Wallfish?” she asked.

“Call: What’s bothering you?”

Neither of them wagered again through the rest of the round. With the last of the communal cards, Kira had three sevens. Not too shabby. However, when Falconi showed his hand, he said, “Four sevens.”

Dammit. Kira paused, checking his math, and then she made a sound of disgust. “Three.”

Falconi leaned back and crossed his arms, expectant.

For a few moments, the only sound was the rumble of the ship and the whirring fans of life support. Kira used the time to marshal her thoughts and then said, “I care because I’m curious. We’re way out past the rim, and yet I don’t really know anything about you.”

“Why does it matter?” “That’s another question.”

“Mmm.… You know I care for the Wallfish. And my crew.”

“Yes,” said Kira, and she felt an unexpected sense of closeness with him. Falconi was protective of his ship and crew; she’d seen it. And his bonsai

also. That didn’t mean he was necessarily a good person, but she couldn’t deny his sense of loyalty to the people and things he considered his own. “As for what’s bothering me, the nightmares.”

“That’s not much of an answer.”

“No, it isn’t,” said Kira and, one-handed, swept up the cards on the floor. “Maybe you can get more out of me if you beat me again.”

“Maybe I will,” said Falconi with a dangerous flash in his eyes.

It was difficult, but Kira managed to shuffle the cards. She plopped them next to her knee, stirred them in a muddled mess, and then dealt by picking up individual cards between thumb and index finger. She felt horribly clumsy throughout the whole process, and it annoyed her nearly enough to use the Soft Blade to facilitate. But she didn’t because, right then, she didn’t want anything to do with the xeno. Not then and not ever.

Since she hadn’t gotten her questions answered the last time, she repeated them. In turn, Falconi asked her: “What about the nightmares is bothering you so much?” And “How did you really lose your arm?”

To Kira’s extreme annoyance, she lost again, one to three. Still, she also felt a measure of relief at no longer having to avoid the truth.

She said, “… I haven’t been drinking enough for this.” “There’s a bottle of vodka over in the locker,” said Falconi.

“No.” She tilted her head back and rested it against the wall. “It wouldn’t fix anything. Not really.”

“Might make you feel better.”

“I doubt it.” Tears suddenly filled her eyes, and she blinked, hard. “Nothing will.”

“Kira,” said Falconi, his voice unexpectedly gentle. “What is it? What’s really going on?”

She let out a shuddering breath. “The nightmares … they’re my fault.” “How do you mean?” His eyes never left her.

So Kira told him. She told him the whole sorry tale, starting with the creation of the Carr-Jelly–Soft Blade monstrosity and all that had transpired with it since. It was as if a barrier broke inside her, and a tidal wave of words and feelings came rushing out in a tumult of guilt, sorrow, and regret. When she stopped, Falconi’s expression was unreadable; she couldn’t tell what he was thinking, only that his gaze had grown hooded and the lines about his mouth deepened. He started to speak, but she preempted

him: “The thing is, I don’t think I can fight the nightmares. At least, not the ones like the Soft Blade. When we touched, I could feel it absorbing me. If I’d stayed…” She shook her head. “I can’t beat them. We’re too similar, and there are so many more of them. I’d drown in their flesh. If I met this Carr-Jelly-thing, it would eat me. I know it would. Flesh for the Maw.”

“There has to be a way to stop these things,” said Falconi. His voice was low, gravelly, as if he were suppressing an unpleasant emotion.

Kira lifted her head and let it bang back against the wall. In the two-and-a-quarter g’s, the impact was a hard, painful blow that made stars flash before her eyes. “The Soft Blade is capable of so much. More than I really understand. If it’s unbound and unbalanced, I don’t see how it can be stopped.… This situation with the nightmares is the worst sort of grey goo, nanobot catastrophe.” She snorted. “A real nightmare scenario. It’s just going to keep eating and growing and building.… Even if we kill whatever it is that Carr and the Jelly, Qwon, have turned into, there are still the other nightmares with the flesh of the Soft Blade. Any one of them could start the whole thing over. Hell, if a single speck of the Maw survives, it could infect someone else, just like at Sigma Draconis. There’s just no, no way to—”


“—to contain it. And I can’t fight it, can’t stop it, can’t—”

“Kira.” The note of command in Falconi’s voice cut through the swarm of buzzing thoughts in her head. His ice-blue eyes were fixed on her, steady and—in a way—comforting.

She allowed some of the tension to bleed out of her body. “Yeah. Okay… I think the Jellies might have dealt with something like this before. Or at least, I think they knew it was possible. Itari didn’t seem surprised.”

Falconi cocked his head. “That’s encouraging. Any idea how they contained the nightmares?”

She shrugged. “With a whole lot of death is my guess. I’m not real clear on the details, but I’m pretty sure their whole species was endangered at one point. Not necessarily because of nightmares, but just because of the scale of the conflict. They were even fighting a Seeker at one point, same as us.”

“In that case, it sounds like Hawes is right; you need to talk with the Jelly. Maybe it can give you some answers. There might be ways we don’t know about to stop the nightmares.”

Encouragement wasn’t what Kira was expecting from Falconi, but it was a welcome gift. “I will.” She looked down at the deck and picked at a piece of dried food stuck in the grating. “Still … it’s my fault. All of this is my fault.”

“You couldn’t have known,” said Falconi.

“That doesn’t change the fact that I’m the one who caused this war. Me.

No one else.”

Falconi tapped the edge of his cards against the floor in an absentminded fashion, although he was too sharp, too aware, for the motion to be careless. “You can’t think like that. It’ll destroy you.”

“There’s more,” she said, soft and miserable.

He froze. Then he gathered up the rest of the cards and started to shuffle them. “Oh?”

Now that she’d started confessing, Kira couldn’t stop. “I lied to you. The Jellies weren’t the ones who killed my team.…”

“What do you mean?”

“Like with the Numenist. When I’m scared, angry, upset, the Soft Blade acts out. Or it tries to.…” The tears were rolling down her cheeks now, and Kira made no attempt to stop them. “Pretty much everyone on the team was pissed off when I came out of cryo. Not at me, not exactly, but I was still responsible, you know? The colony was getting canceled, we were going to lose our bonuses. It was bad. I ended up getting in an argument with Fizel, our doctor, and when Alan and I went to bed—” She shook her head, the words stuck in her throat. “I was still all messed up, and then … then that night, Neghar was coughing. She must have gotten a bit of the xeno in her, from rescuing me, see? She was coughing and coughing, and there was … there was so much blood. I was scared. C-couldn’t help it. Scared. A-and the Soft Blade came out stabbing. It-it stabbed Alan. Yugo. Seppo. J-Jenan. But it was because of me. I’m responsible. I killed them.”

Kira bent her neck, unable to bear Falconi’s gaze, and allowed the tears to fall freely. On her chest and legs, the suit roiled in response. Revulsion filled her, and she clamped down on the xeno’s reactions, forcing it to subside.

She flinched as Falconi’s arms wrapped around her shoulders. He held her like that, and after a few seconds, Kira allowed her head to rest against his chest while she cried. Not since the Extenuating Circumstances had she

mourned so openly. The revelation of the nightmares had stirred up old pains and added to them.

When her tears had begun to dry and her breathing slow, Falconi released her. Embarrassed, Kira dabbed at her eyes. “Sorry,” she said.

He waved a hand and got to his feet. Moving as if he had bone-rot, he shambled across the galley. She watched as he turned on the kettle, made two mugs of chell, and then carried them back to where she sat.

“Careful,” he said, handing her one.

“Thanks.” She wrapped her hands around the warm mug and breathed in the steam, savoring the smell.

Falconi sat and ran his thumb around the rim of his cup, chasing a drop of water. “Before I bought the Wallfish, I worked for Hanzo Tensegrity. It’s a big insurance company out of Sol.”

“You sold insurance?” Somehow Kira found that hard to believe.

“I got hired to vet claims by miners, stakeholders, freelancers, that sort of thing. Only problem was, the company didn’t really want us to vet anything. Our actual job was to, ah, discourage claimants.” He shrugged. “Couldn’t take it after a while, so I quit. Not the point. One claim I had, there was a boy who—”

“A boy?”

“It’s a story. Listen. There was a boy who lived on a hab-ring out by Farrugia’s Landing. His father worked maintenance, and every day, the boy would go with his father, and the boy would clean and check the skinsuits the maintenance crew used.” Falconi flicked the drop of water off the mug. “It wasn’t a real job, of course. Just something to keep him busy while his father was working.”

“Didn’t he have a mother?” Kira asked.

Falconi shook his head. “No other parent. Not mother, not a second paterfamilias, not grandparents, not even a sibling. All the boy had was his father. And every day, the boy cleaned and checked the suits, laid them in a line, ran diagnostics before the maintenance crew went out to tend the hull of the hab.”

“And then?”

Falconi’s eyes seemed to burn into her. “One of the guys—they were almost all guys—one of the guys, he didn’t like anyone touching his suit. Made him antsy, he said. Told the boy to knock it off. Thing is, regs were

clear; at least two people had to inspect all safety equipment, skinsuits included. So the boy’s father told him to ignore the jerk and keep doing what he was doing.”

“But the boy didn’t.”

“But he didn’t. He was young, just a kid. The jerk convinced him that it was okay. He—the jerk, that is—would run the diagnostics himself.”

“But he didn’t,” Kira murmured.

“But he didn’t. And one day … poof. The suit ripped, a line tore, and Mr. Jerk died a horrible, agonizing death.” Falconi moved closer. “Now who was to blame?”

“The jerk, of course.”

“Maybe. But the regs were clear, and the boy ignored them. If he hadn’t, the man would still be alive.”

“He was only a child, though,” Kira protested. “That’s true.”

“So then the father was to blame.”

Falconi shrugged. “Could be.” He blew on his chell and then took a sip. “Actually, it turned out to be bad manufacturing. Defect in the suits; the rest of them would have failed, given time. The whole batch had to be replaced.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Sometimes,” Falconi said, “everything just turns to crap, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” He looked at her. “No one’s to blame. Or maybe everyone’s to blame.”

Kira chewed over the story in her mind, searching for the kernel of truth at the center. She felt Falconi had offered it up in the spirit of understanding, if not absolution, and for that, she was grateful. But it wasn’t enough to soothe her heart.

She said, “Maybe. I bet the boy still felt responsible.”

Falconi inclined his head. “Of course. I think he did. But you can’t let the guilt from something like that consume your life.”

“Sure you can.” “Kira.”

She pressed her eyes shut again, unable to block out the image of Alan slumped against her. “What happened can’t be changed. I killed the man I loved, Falconi. You’d think that was the worst thing ever, but no, I had to

go and start a war—a goddamn interstellar war, and it is my fault. There’s no fixing something like that.”

A long silence came from Falconi. Then he sighed and put his cup down on the deck. “When I was nineteen—”

“Nothing you can say is going to make this any better.”

“Just listen; it’s another story.” He fiddled with the handle of the mug, and as she didn’t interrupt again, continued: “When I was nineteen, my parents left me to watch my sister while they went out for dinner. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck babysitting, especially on a weekend. I got pretty angry, but it didn’t matter. My parents left, and that was that.”

Falconi rapped the mug against the deck. “Only it wasn’t. My sister was six years younger than me, but I figured she was old enough to take care of herself, so I snuck out and went to hang with some of my friends, same as I would any other Saturday. Next thing I knew—” Falconi’s voice caught, and his hands opened and closed as if crushing something invisible. “There was an explosion. By the time I got back to our rooms, they’d half caved in.”

He shook his head. “I went in after her, but it was already too late. Smoke inhalation.… That’s how I got burned. We found out later my sister had been cooking, and somehow a fire started. If I’d been with her, where I was supposed to be, she would have been fine.”

“You can’t know that,” said Kira.

Falconi cocked his head. “Oh can’t I?…” He picked up the deck of cards, worked the free ones into the middle, and shuffled them twice. “You didn’t kill Alan or anyone else on your team.”

“I did. I—”

“Stop,” Falconi said, stabbing a middle finger at her. “Maybe you are responsible, but it wasn’t a conscious decision on your part. You wouldn’t have killed them any more than I would have killed my sister. As for this goddamn war, you’re not all-powerful, Kira. The Jellies made their own choices. So did the League and this Maw. In the end, they’re the only ones who can answer for themselves. So stop blaming yourself.”

“I can’t seem to help it.”

“Bullshit. The truth is you don’t want to. It makes you feel good to blame yourself. You know why?” Kira shook her head, mute. “Because it gives you a sense of control. The hardest lesson in life is learning to accept

that there are some things we can’t change.” Falconi paused, his eyes hard and glittering. “Blaming yourself is perfectly normal, but it doesn’t do you any good. Until you stop, unless you can stop, you’ll never be able to fully recover.”

Then he unbuttoned the cuffs on his shirt, and rolled back his sleeves to expose the melted surface of his forearms. He held them up for Kira to see. “Why do you think I keep these scars?”

“Because … you feel guilty over—”

“No,” Falconi said harshly. Then, in a gentler tone: “No. I keep them to remind me of what I can survive. Of what I have survived. If I’m having a rough time, I look at my arms, and I know I’ll get through whatever problem I’m dealing with. Life’s not going to break me. It can’t break me. It might kill me, but nothing it throws at me is going to make me give up.”

“What if I’m not that strong?”

He smiled without humor. “Then you’ll crawl through life with this monkey sitting on your back, and it’ll tear at you until it kills you. Trust me on that.”

“… How did you manage to get rid of it?”

“I drank a lot. Got in a bunch of fights. Nearly ended up dead a few times. After a while, I realized that I was just punishing myself for no good reason. Plus, I knew my sister wouldn’t have wanted me to end up like that, so I forgave myself. Even though it wasn’t my direct fault—just like it’s not your fault—I forgave myself. And that’s when I was finally able to move on and make something of my life.”

Kira made her decision then. She couldn’t see a path clear from the mire she was stuck in, but she could at least try to fight free. That much she could do: try.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay,” Falconi repeated softly, and at that moment, Kira felt a bone-deep sense of connection with him: a bond born of shared sorrows.

“What was your sister’s name?” “Beatrice, but we always called her Bea.”

Kira stared at the oily surface of the chell, studying her dark reflection. “What do you want, Falconi?”

“Salvo.… Call me Salvo.”

“What do you really want, Salvo? Out of all the universe?”

“I want,” he said, drawing the words out, “to be free. Free from debt. Free from governments and corporations telling me how to live my life. If that means I spend the rest of my years as captain of the Wallfish, well then

—” He lifted his mug in mock salute. “—I accept my fate willingly.” She mirrored his gesture. “A worthy goal. To freedom.”

“To freedom.”

The chell made the back of her throat tingle as she took another sip, and right then, the terrors of the day no longer seemed quite so immediate.

“Are you from Farrugia’s Landing?” she asked.

A small nod from Falconi. “Born on a ship thereabouts, but I grew up at the outpost itself.”

A half-forgotten memory stirred in the back of Kira’s brain. “Wasn’t there an uprising there?” she said. “Some sort of corporate rebellion? I remember seeing an article about it. Most of the workers went on strike, and a lot of people ended up hurt or in prison.”

Falconi took a drink of chell. “You remember correctly. It got real bloody, real fast.”

“Did you fight?”

He snorted. “What do you think?” Then he glanced at her from the corners of his eyes, and for a moment it seemed as if he were trying to decide something. “What does it feel like?”


“The Soft Blade.”

“It feels like … like this.” She reached out and touched Falconi on the wrist. He watched with caution, surprised. “It feels like nothing at all. It feels like my skin.”

Then Kira willed a row of razor-sharp edges to rise from the back of her hand. The xeno had become such a part of herself, willing the blades into existence took hardly any effort.

After a moment, she allowed them to subside.

Falconi placed his hand over hers. She shivered and nearly flinched as he traced the tips of his fingers across her palm, sending cold sparks shooting up her arm. “Like this?”


He lingered a moment more, the pads of his fingers just touching hers.

Then he pulled his hand back and picked up the cards. “Another round?”

The last of the chell didn’t taste quite so good as Kira downed it. What the hell was she doing? Alan … “I think I’ve had enough.”

Falconi nodded, understanding.

“Are you going to tell Hawes about Carr and the Maw?” she asked.

“No reason to yet. You can file a report when we get back to the League.”

Kira made a face at the thought. Then, heartfelt, she said, “Thank you for talking and listening.”

Falconi slipped the cards back in his pocket. “Of course. Just don’t give up. None of us are going to get through this if we stop fighting.”

“I won’t. Promise.”

Kira left Falconi brooding in the galley. She debated going straight to Itari and trying to talk with the Jelly. (Would it even be awake? Did Jellies sleep?) But as much as she wanted answers, right then, she needed rest. The day had left her exhausted in a way no amount of AcuWake could fix. Sleep was the only remedy.

So she returned to her cabin. No messages from Gregorovich were waiting for her, nor would she have answered them if there were. Leaving the lights off, she lay on the bed and sighed with relief as the weight came off her throbbing feet.

Falconi’s words—she couldn’t bring herself to think of him by his first name—were still running through her head as Kira closed her eyes and, almost at once, fell into a dreamless state.

A bell-like tone echoed throughout the Wallfish.

Kira tried to bolt upright and struggled as she remained pinned to the mattress, held in place by tendrils of the Soft Blade. The 2.25 g’s of thrust had let off, leaving her in weightlessness. If not for the xeno, she would have floated off in her sleep.

Heart pounding, she forced the Soft Blade to relax its hold and pulled herself over to the desk. Had the sound been in her imagination? Had she really slept that long?

She checked the console. Yes, she had. They’d just jumped to FTL.

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