Chapter no 49

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The second jump was longer than the first: forty-three minutes to be precise.

While they waited, Kira went with Hawes to talk with Itari. “You okay?” she asked as they left Control.

He didn’t meet her gaze. “Fine, thanks.” “Akawe seemed like a good captain.”

“Yeah. He was. And he was crazy sharp. Him and Koyich.… There were a lot of good people on the Darmstadt.

“I know. I’m sorry about what happened.” He nodded, accepting the condolences.

“Is there anything you don’t want me to say?” Kira asked as they neared the airlock with the Jelly.

The lieutenant considered. “It probably doesn’t matter at this point, but whatever you know about Sol, the League, or the UMC, keep it to yourself.”

She nodded, lightly pushing against the wall to keep herself centered in the corridor. “I’ll try. If I’m not sure about something, I’ll check with you first.”

Hawes nodded. “That should work. We’re mostly interested in the Jellies’ military—placement of troops, tactics, future plans, et cetera—as well as their technology. Also details on why exactly this group of Jellies wants to join forces with us. So, politics, I guess. Anything else you can dig up would be a bonus.”

“Got it.”

At the airlock, Kira saw Itari floating near the back wall, its tentacles wrapped around itself in a protective embrace. The alien stirred and looked out with a single glossy eye from between a pair of tentacles. Curiosity. To be expected in any sentient organism, but Kira still found it intimidating. The intelligence lurking within the Jelly’s eye was a constant reminder that they were dealing with a creature just as capable as any human. Probably more so given its armored carapace and many limbs.

Hawes spoke with the Marines stationed on either side of the airlock— Sanchez and another man Kira didn’t recognize—and they opened the door, allowed Kira and the lieutenant inside. Kira moved to the front; Hawes stayed behind her and to the right.

[[Kira here: We would like to ask you questions. Will you answer them?]]

The Jelly rearranged its tentacles as it settled on the deck in front of them, holding itself in place with its suckers. [[Itari here: Speak, two-form, and I will answer as best I can.]]

First things first: definitions of terms. [[Kira here: Why do you call us two-forms? Do you mean…]] And she stalled out, unable to think of the Jelly word for male or female or even for sex. [[… do you mean like us?]] She motioned from herself to Hawes.

Nearscent of respectful disagreement. [[Itari here: No. I mean the form you have and the form that lives in your spaceships.]]

Of course. [[Kira here: Our ship minds?]]

[[Itari here: If that is what you call them, then yes. They give us much difficulty when we board your shells. Our first goal is always to disconnect or destroy them.]]

When Kira translated for Hawes, he snorted, darkly amused. “Good. At least they’ve learned to be scared of the minds.”

“As they should be,” Gregorovich whispered from the ceiling.

Hawes gave the speakers an annoyed glance. “This is classified, Gregorovich. Butt out.”

“And this is my ship,” Gregorovich answered, deadly quiet. Hawes grunted and didn’t argue the point.

The Jelly shifted, a wash of reddish-pink moving across its tentacles. [[Itari here: We wonder, what relation do your ship minds have to your current forms? The one you call]]—and it produced a jumble of scents that, with some difficulty, Kira realized was the Jelly’s attempt to reproduce Tschetter’s name—[[Tschetter refused to discuss the subject. Are the minds subordinate to your form or are they senior?]]

Kira checked with Hawes, and he gave her the go-ahead. “Might as well tell it a bit,” said the lieutenant. “Reciprocity has to be worth something, right? Their civilization wouldn’t work otherwise.”

“Maybe,” Kira said. She didn’t feel confident of anything when it came to an alien society.

[[Kira here: Ship minds begin as one of us. We have to decide to become a ship mind. It does not happen on its own. A ship mind often knows and understands more than we do, but we do not always take orders from them. That depends on what position or authority the ship mind has. And not all ship minds are in ships. Many exist elsewhere.]]

The Jelly seemed to chew on that for a while. [[Itari here: I do not understand. Why would a form that is larger and more intelligent not be your shoal leader?]]

“Why indeed?” asked Gregorovich when Kira repeated the Jelly’s words.

And he chuckled.

She struggled to answer. [[Kira here: Because … every one of us is different. Among our kind, you have to earn your position. It is not given to you just because you were born or built with certain traits.]] More definitions of terms, then: [[By forms you mean bodies, yes?]]

[[Itari here: Yes.]] For once the Jelly had said something expected.

Kira wanted to continue that line of questioning, but Hawes had other ideas. “Ask it about the Soft Blade,” he said. “Where does it come from?”

The nearscent of the Jelly thickened, grew sharper, and conflicted colors rolled across its skin. [[Itari here: You ask for secrets we do not share.]]

[[Kira here: I am a secret.]] She gestured at herself, at the Soft Blade. [[And the Corrupted are chasing us. Tell me.]]

The Jelly rolled and twisted its tentacles, one around another. [[Itari here: Many cycles ago, we discovered the works of the Vanished. It was their makings that allowed us to swim through space, both slower and faster than light. Their makings that gave us weapons to fight.]]

[[Kira here: You found these … makings on your homeworld?]] Nearscent of confirmation. [[Itari here: Deep on the Abyssal Plain. Later,

we found more remnants of the Vanished floating around a star counterspin to our homeworld. Among those findings were the Idealis, including the one you now are bonded with. It was that which began the war that led to the Sundering.]]

How much of their technology did the Jellies actually invent? she wondered. [[Kira here: Who are the Vanished? Are they Wranaui?]]

[[Itari here: No. They swam long before us, and we do not know where they went or what happened to them. If not for them, we would not be what we are, so we give praise to the Vanished and their makings.]]

[[Kira here: But their makings led to war.]]

[[Itari here: We cannot blame the Vanished for our own failings.]]

Hawes made notes while Kira translated. He said, “So it’s confirmed: there were or are at least two other advanced civilizations in this area of the galaxy. Great.”

“Sentient life isn’t as rare as we thought,” said Kira.

“That’s not exactly a good thing if we’re at the bottom of the pecking order. Ask if any of the Vanished are still around.”

The response was quick and definitive: [[Itari here: None that we know of, but always we hope.… Tell me, Idealis, how many makings of the Vanished have you found?]] The bite of avid desire flavored the alien’s words. [[There must have been a great number in your system for you to spread so quickly.]]

Kira frowned and again checked with Hawes. “They seem to think—” “Yeah.”

“Should I mention the Great Beacon?”

The lieutenant thought for a second. “Okay. But don’t give away its location.”

With some trepidation, she said, [[Kira here: We have found one of the Vanished’s makings. I think. We found … a large hole that emits lowsound farscent at regular intervals.]]

A burst of reddish satisfaction spread across the Jelly’s skin. [[Itari here: You speak of a Whirlpool! One as yet unknown to us, for we keep close watch on all makings of the Vanished.]]

[[Kira here: Are there more Whirlpools?]] [[Itari here: Six that we know of.]]

[[Kira here: What purpose do they serve?]]

[[Itari here: Only the Vanished could say.… But, I do not understand.

Our scouts have not scented a Whirlpool in any of your systems.]]

She cocked her head. [[Kira here: That is because it is not in one of our main systems, and because we only found it a few cycles ago. The Vanished’s makings have not helped us learn how to fight or swim through space.]]

Itari went a dull grey, and its tentacles knotted in on themselves, as if it were rubbing its hands together—hands with fingers that were far too long and flexible. The alien seemed unreasonably perturbed. Even its scent changed, growing bitter and almondy. (Was that arsenic she was smelling?)

“Navárez?” said Hawes. “What’s going on? Talk to me.”

As Kira opened her mouth, the Jelly said, [[Itari here: You lie, Idealis.]] [[Kira here: I do not.]] And she impressed the nearscent of sincerity

upon her words.

The Jelly’s agitation increased. [[Itari here: The Vanished are the source of all wisdom, Idealis.]]

[[Kira here: Wisdom can come from within as well as without. Everything my kind has done, we have done on our own, without help from Vanished, Wranaui, Idealis, or any other form or kind.]]

With a wet, sticky stound, Itari let go of the deck with its suckers and started to push itself around the airlock, as if it were swimming in circles. It was, Kira thought, the Jellies’ version of pacing. Out of the corner of her mouth, she said, “The idea that we invented all our technology ourselves seems to be a bit disturbing to our friend here.”

Hawes smirked. “Score one for humanity, eh?”

The Jelly stopped and turned its tentacles toward Kira, pointing them at her as if they had eyes on the tips. [[Itari here: Now I understand.]]

[[Kira here: Understand what?]]

[[Itari here: Why it has been the plan—since first we scented your kind after the end of the Sundering—to destroy your conclaves once we reached a ripple of appropriate strength.]]

A splinter of unease burrowed into Kira. She resisted the urge to fidget in response. [[Kira here: Have you changed your mind? Do you agree with that plan?]]

The scent equivalent of a shrug. [[Itari here: Were it not for the Corrupted, yes. But circumstances are not what they were or will be.]]

“Did it really say that?” asked Hawes. “Really?”

Bemused, but not in a pleasant way, Kira said, “It doesn’t seem worried about how we might react.”

The lieutenant scrubbed his fingers through his short-cropped hair. “So … what? The Jellies think xenocide is normal? Is that it?” He was very young, Kira suddenly thought. No STEM shots for him. He couldn’t have

been older than his midtwenties. Still just a kid despite all the responsibility the military had given him.

“Could be,” she said.

He gave her a worried look. “How is peace ever going to work then?

Long term, that is.”

“I don’t know.… Let me ask a few more questions.” He gestured toward Itari. “Go for it.”

Returning her attention to the Jelly, she said: [[Kira here: Tell us of the Sundering. What was it exactly?]]

[[Itari here: The greatest struggle of our kind. Arm fought against Arm in an attempt to control the makings of the Vanished. In the end, the makings nearly destroyed us. Entire planets were left uninhabitable, and it took us many cycles to rebuild and regain our strength.]]

“Say,” Hawes remarked, “do you think the Sundering explains why we haven’t seen any signals from the Jellies over the past hundred years? If they got knocked back and had to rebuild their tech, the light might not have had time to reach us.”

“Could be,” Kira said.

“Mmm. The brass back home are going to love this.”

Now they were coming to the crux of the matter. [[Kira here: Much of the destruction during the Sundering was caused by Corrupted, yes?]]

Again, nearscent of confirmation. [[Itari here: It was they that brought about the greatest calamities of the war. They that marked the darkest days of the conflict. And they that woke one of the beings you call the Seeker from its sleep.]]

[[Kira here: And how were the Corrupted stopped?]]

[[Itari here: Few records survived from the Sundering, so we do not know exactly how. But we know this much: the colony where the Corrupted first emerged was blasted out of existence by an impact from above. The seabed is cracked, and all forms of life on the planet are now gone. Some of the Corrupted swam into space, and those spread much as they are now spreading, and it was only with many resources and great effort that we killed them.]]

Queasiness formed in her stomach, and it wasn’t just from the weightlessness. [[Kira here: Do you think we can stop the Corrupted now?]]

The Jelly’s tentacles flushed with a deep purple. [[Itari here: You and the rest of your co-forms? No. Nor do we believe the Wranaui can. Not alone. These Corrupted are stronger and more virulent than those of the Sundering. We must fight them together if we are to have any hope of success. Know this, Idealis: to stop the Corrupted, every cell in their bodies must be obliterated or else they will grow anew. That is why we sought the Staff of Blue. It had the power to command the Idealis and more besides. With it, we could have broken the Corrupted. Without it, we are weak and vulnerable.]]

“What’s wrong?” Hawes murmured. “You’ve gone all green about the gills.”

“The nightmares…” Kira started to say, and then paused, tasting acid. Right then, she didn’t want to reveal her part in creating the Maw to the lieutenant or to the UMC at large. It would come out eventually, but she couldn’t see how the truth would make any difference to the League’s response. They needed to kill the nightmares. What else mattered? “The nightmares come from the Vanished,” she said, and translated the rest of Itari’s words.

The lieutenant scratched at his neck. “Well that’s not good.” “Nope.”

“Don’t count out the UMC,” he said with false confidence. “We’re damn good at killing things, and we’ve got some real geniuses back home figuring out new ways of dealing out death. We’re not out of the fight by a long shot.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Kira.

He fiddled with a UMC logo patch on his sleeve. “What I don’t understand is, why are we seeing nightmares now? They’ve been around for a while, yeah? So what triggered them? You finding the xeno?”

She shrugged, uncomfortable. “The Jelly didn’t say.” Technically it was true.

“Has to be,” the lieutenant muttered. “Doesn’t make sense otherwise. Signal goes out, then…” His expression shifted. “Say, how did Tschetter’s Jellies know to show up at Adra when they did? Were they keeping an eye on the system, in case anyone found the xeno?”

[[No,]] Itari said in response. [[That would have attracted attention we did not want. When the reliquary was breached, lowsound farscent was

released, and after it reached us, we sent our ship, the Tserro, to investigate.]]

Kira said, “Should I get some details on who exactly this we is?”

Hawes nodded. “Good idea. Let’s find out who we might be forming an alliance with.”

[[Kira here: The ones you serve, the ones who want to form a … shoal … with our leaders, do they have a name?]]

Nearscent of confirmation. [[Itari here: The Knot of Minds.]]

From the Soft Blade came an image of tentacles gripping and intertwining, and with that a sense of close trust. And Kira understood that a knot was a form of group bonding among the Jellies, one that signified a joint—and unbreakable—cause.

Itari was still talking: [[The Knot was formed to protect the secret of Shoal Leader Nmarhl.]]

A thrill of recognition passed through her at the name. She remembered Nmarhl from one of the memories the Soft Blade had shown her when she was investigating the computer system on the Jelly ship, back at 61 Cygni. And she again recalled the unusual fondness the xeno seemed to have for the shoal leader. [[Kira here: And what was that secret?]]

[[Itari here: The location of the Idealis, which Nmarhl hid at the end of the Sundering.]]

Kira had so many questions, she didn’t know what to ask first. [[Kira here: Why did Nmarhl hide the Idealis?]]

[[Itari here: Because the shoal leader failed in its attempt to seize control of the Arms. And because hiding the Idealis was the only way to protect it and to protect us from further Corruption. If this Idealis had been in use, the Sundering could easily have been the end of the Wranaui.]]

Kira took a moment to process that and to translate for Hawes. “You remember this shoal leader?” the lieutenant asked.

She nodded, keeping her eyes on Itari. “A bit. It was definitely joined with the Soft Blade at some point.”

Hawes motioned for her to look at him. “Let me get this straight. The Knot of Minds tried to stage a coup back during the Sundering—whenever that was—and now they’re trying to do the same again?”

When he put it that way, it didn’t sound so good. “That’s what it looks like,” Kira said.

“So what was their justification back then, and what’s their justification now?”

The Jelly’s response was swift: [[Itari here: Our reason was and is the same: we believe there is a better current to follow. The one we are caught in now can only lead to the death of Wranaui everywhere, in this ripple and others.]]

[[Kira here: Then, if you succeed in replacing your leadership, is there one among the Knot of Minds who will scent for the Wranaui?]]

The Jelly was slow to answer. [[Itari here: That will depend on those whose patterns survive. Mdethn may, perhaps, be fitted to the task. Lphet, also, but the other Arms would dislike answering to one who followed the heresy of the Tfeir. Either way, it would be difficult for any of the Wranaui to replace the great and mighty Ctein.]]

At that name, and at that phrase, a line of ice poured down Kira’s spine. Flashes of images from her dreams filled her head: a vast bulk rooted amid the Abyssal Conclave; a huge, scheming presence that saturated the water with its pungency. [[Kira here: Is Ctein a name or a title?]]

[[Itari here: I do not understand.]]

[[Kira here: Are all your leaders called Ctein, or is it the name of just one?]]

[[Itari here: There is but one Ctein.]]

“It can’t be,” she murmured, fear prickling the back of her neck. [[Kira here: How old is Ctein?]] She had to stop herself from adding the phrase “the great and mighty.”

[[Itari here: The wise and ancient Ctein has guided the Arms since the last cycles of the Sundering.]]

[[Kira here: How many cycles around your sun has that been?]]

[[Itari here: The number would mean nothing to you, but Nmarhl placed the Idealis within its keeping place when your kind were first venturing off your homeworld, if that gives you an idea.]]

She did the math in her head. Over two and a half centuries. [[Kira here: And Ctein has ruled the waters for all that time?]]

[[Itari here: And longer.]]

[[Kira here: All in the same form?]] [[Itari here: Yes.]]

[[Kira here: How long do Wranaui live?]]

[[Itari here: That depends on when we are killed.]]

[[Kira here: What if … you aren’t killed? How long would it take you to die from old age?]]

Nearscent of understanding. [[Itari here: Age does not kill us, two-form.

Always we can revert to our hatchling form and grow anew.]]

[[Kira here: Your hatchling form…?]] Several more questions only left her more confused about the Jelly life cycle. There were eggs, hatchlings, pods, rooted forms, mobile forms, forms that didn’t seem to be sentient, and

—as Itari seemed to indicate—a host of forms adapted to specific tasks or environments. The unique nature of the Jellies’ biology sparked Kira’s professional curiosity, and she found herself shifting back into her role of xenobiologist. It just didn’t make sense. Complex life cycles were nothing new. Plenty of examples existed on Earth and Eidolon. But Kira couldn’t figure out how all the parts and pieces Itari was mentioning were supposed to fit together. Every time she thought she had a handle on it, the Jelly would mention something new. As a puzzle, it was frustrating and exhilarating.

Hawes had other ideas in mind. “Enough with all the questions about eggs,” he said. “You can figure out the squishy stuff later. Right now we’ve got bigger problems.”

From then on, the conversation revolved around things Kira considered less interesting but—as she would acknowledge—were no less important. Things such as fleet placement and numbers, shipyard capabilities, travel distances between the Jelly outposts, battle plans, technological capabilities, and so forth. Itari answered most of the questions in a straightforward manner, but some subjects it evaded or outright refused to answer. Mostly questions having to do with the locations of the Jelly worlds. Understandable, Kira thought, if sometimes frustrating.

Yet, no matter what the topic, she couldn’t stop thinking about the great and mighty Ctein. The formidable Ctein. And at last, she interrupted the stream of Hawes’s questions to ask one of her own: [[Kira here: Why does Ctein refuse to join with us to fight the Corrupted?]]

[[Itari here: Because the cruel and hungry Ctein has grown bloated with age, and in its arrogance, it believes the Wranaui can defeat the Corrupted without help. The Knot of Minds believes otherwise.]]

[[Kira here: Has Ctein been a good leader?]]

[[Itari here: Ctein has been a strong leader. Because of Ctein we have rebuilt our shoals and expanded again across the stars. But many of the Wranaui are dissatisfied with the decisions Ctein has made these recent cycles, so we fight to have a new leader. It is not a big problem. Next ripple will be better.]]

Hawes made a noise of impatience, and Kira returned to asking questions for the lieutenant, and no more was said on the subject of Ctein.

They were still talking with Itari when the jump alert sounded and the

Wallfish transitioned back to STL space.

“Two more to go,” said Hawes, dragging a sleeve across his forehead.

During their time in the Markov Bubble, the air in the ship had grown thick and stifling and hot enough that even Kira had begun to feel uncomfortable. She could only imagine how bad it was for the others.

They gripped the handholds in the walls while Gregorovich reoriented the Wallfish, and then off they went again, flying away many times faster than the speed of light.

The interrogation of Itari continued.

The third jump was shorter than the last—only a quarter of an hour—and the fourth one was shorter still. “Just to throw them for a real loop-de-loop,” Gregorovich said.

Then the Wallfish disengaged its Markov Drive, and they sat, seemingly motionless, in the dark depths of interstellar space, with radiators spread wide and the interior of the ship pulsing with heat.

“Gregorovich, any sign of the Jellies or the nightmares?” Kira asked. “Not a whisper. Not a whisker,” said the ship mind.

She felt herself relax slightly. Maybe, just maybe, they had really managed to escape. “Thanks for getting us out of there in one piece,” she said.

A soft peal of laughter echoed from the speakers. “It was my neck on the line as well, O Meatbag, but yes, you are most welcome.”

“Alright,” said Hawes, “we’ll call it quits with the Jelly for now. We’ve got plenty of material. It’s going to take the spooks back home years to parse all this intel. Good job translating.”

Kira released the Soft Blade’s grip on the wall. “Of course.”

“Don’t go yet. I’m going to need you to translate for a little longer. Still have to get my men settled.”

So she stayed while Hawes summoned the Marines who didn’t have cryo tubes and, one by one, Itari cocooned them. The men were not happy with the prospect, but since there was no reasonable alternative, they had no choice but to agree.

Once the cocooned Marines were safely placed in the cargo hold, next to where Hawes and the rest of his squad would soon be lying frozen in their tubes, Kira left them and went to help the crew prepare the Wallfish for the three-month-long trip back to the League.

“Gregorovich gave me an update,” said Falconi as he descended toward her on the central ladder.

Good. That saved her from having to repeat everything Itari had said. “I feel like I have more questions than answers,” she said.

Falconi made a noncommittal noise and stopped in front of her. “You didn’t tell Hawes, did you?”

She knew what he meant. “No.”

His blue eyes fixed her in place. “You can’t avoid it forever.”

“I know, but … not yet. When we get back. I’ll tell the League then. It wouldn’t do any good now anyway.” She allowed a faint note of pleading into her voice as she spoke.

Falconi was slow to answer. “Okay. But don’t put it off any longer. One way or another, you’re going to have to face this thing.”

“I know.”

He nodded and continued down the ladder, passing so close she could smell the musk of his sweat. “Come on then. Could use your help.”

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