As the Wallfish cooled, Kira worked alongside Falconi to secure equipment, flush lines, shut down nonessential systems, and otherwise prepare the ship for their upcoming trip. It wasn’t easy for her with only one hand, but Kira made do, using the Soft Blade to hold objects she couldn’t directly grasp.
The whole time, she kept thinking about her conversation with Itari. A number of things the Jelly had said were bothering her: words and phrases that didn’t entirely make sense. Seemingly innocuous expressions that were easy to chalk up to quirks of the Jellies’ language, but that—the more Kira focused on them—seemed to hint at greater unknowns.
And she wasn’t comfortable with unknowns of that sort. Not after learning the truth about the Maw.
When most of the big, obvious tasks were complete, Falconi sent her and Sparrow to carry water and several bags of sugar to Itari. The Jelly claimed its form could digest the simple molecules of sugar without any difficulty, although it wasn’t an ideal food long term.
Fortunately, long term wasn’t an issue. Itari would be cocooning itself once the Wallfish returned to FTL. Or so the Jelly claimed. It made Kira nervous to think of the Jelly perhaps being awake while the rest of them were in a coma-like state, oblivious to their surroundings.
They left the Jelly pouring the bags of sugar into the beak-like maw on the underside of its carapace and went then to the storm shelter near the center of the ship.
There, Kira watched with an increasing sense of loneliness as, one by one, the crew again got into their cryo tubes. (The Entropists had already retired to their cabin and the tubes contained within.)
Before closing the lid over himself, Vishal said, “Ah, Ms. Navárez, I forgot to tell you earlier: there is another pair of contacts waiting for you in sickbay. So sorry. Check the cupboard above the sink.”
“Thanks,” she said.
As in 61 Cygni, Falconi waited until the last. Holding onto a grip with one hand, he pulled off his boots with the other. “Kira.”
“Are you going to practice with the xeno on the way back, like you did before?”
She nodded. “I’m going to try. I have control, but … it’s not enough. If I’d had a better feel for the xeno, I might have been able to save Trig.”
Falconi studied her with an understanding expression. “Just be careful.” “You know I will.”
“Since you’re going to be the only one up and around, can you do something for me?”
“Of course. What?”
He stashed the boots in the locker next to him and started peeling off his vest and shirt. “Keep an eye on the Jelly while we’re in cryo. We’re trusting it to not break out and kill us, and I’ll be honest, I don’t trust it that much.”
Kira nodded slowly. “I had the same thought. I can hang some webbing outside the airlock and hunker down there.”
“Perfect. We’ve got alarms set in case the Jelly does break out, so you should have plenty of warning.” He gave her a wry smile. “I know it won’t be that comfortable there in the entryway, but we don’t have any better options.”
“It’s fine,” said Kira. “Don’t worry about it.”
Falconi nodded and pulled off his shirt. Then he stripped off his pants and socks, put them in the locker, and pushed himself over to the one empty cryo tube. On the way, he trailed a hand across the side of Trig’s tube, leaving a three-fingered mark in the layer of frost coating the machine.
Kira joined Falconi as he popped open the lid to his tube. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but admire the play of muscles across his back.
“You going to be okay?” he said, fixing her with a look of unexpected sympathy.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
“Gregorovich will be up for a little while longer, and remember—if you need to talk, at any time, you wake me up. Seriously.”
“I will. Promise.”
Falconi hesitated, and then he put a hand on her shoulder. She covered it with her own, feeling the heat from his skin radiating into hers. He gave her a soft squeeze before letting go and pulling himself into the cryo tube.
“We’ll meet again at Sol,” he said.
She smiled, recognizing the lyrics. “In the shadow of the moon.” “By the shine of that green Earth.… Goodnight, Kira.” “Goodnight, Salvo. Sleep well.”
Then the lid of the cryo tube slid shut over his face, and the machine began to hum as it pumped in the chemicals that would induce hibernation.
Kira carefully guided a bundle of bedding through the ship’s corridors. She’d wrapped it with several tendrils from the Soft Blade, so as to keep her hand free and keep the blankets from floating away.
When she reached the airlock, she saw Itari floating near the outer door, looking out the clear sapphire porthole at the spray of stars outside.
The Wallfish still hadn’t jumped back to FTL. Gregorovich was waiting until the ship was fully chilled. Already the temperature had dropped by a noticeable amount as the radiators did their job.
Kira secured the blankets to the deck with clips and webbing from the port cargo hold. Then she went and fetched the few supplies she would need for the long journey ahead: water, ration bars, wipes, bags to store trash, the replacement contacts Vishal had printed out, and her concertina.
When she was satisfied with her little nest, she went and opened the airlock. Anchoring herself to the frame of the open doorway, she was about to speak when the Jelly preempted her: [[Itari here: Your scent lingers, Idealis.]]
[[Kira here: What do you mean?]]
[[Itari here: The things you said earlier … Your kind and mine differ in more ways than just our flesh. I have been trying to understand, but I fear it is beyond this form.]]
She cocked her head. [[Kira here: I feel the same.]]
The Jelly blinked, pale nictitating membranes flashing across the black orbs of its eyes. [[Itari here: What is it that two-forms consider sacred, Idealis? If not the Vanished, then what?]]
The question daunted her. Now she was supposed to discuss religion and philosophy with an alien? Her classes on xenobiology had never covered that particular possibility.
She took a fortifying breath.
[[Kira here: Many things. There is no one right answer. Every two-form has to decide for themselves. It is a…]]—she struggled to find a translation for individual—[[… a choice each two-form has to make on their own. Some find the choice easier than others.]]
One of the Jelly’s tentacles rolled across its carapace. [[Itari here: What do you consider sacred, Idealis?]]
That stopped Kira. What did she consider sacred? Nothing so abstract as the concept of god or beauty or anything like that. Not numbers, as the Numenists did. Nor scientific knowledge, as the Entropists did. She briefly considered saying humanity, but that wasn’t right either. Too limited.
In the end she said, [[Kira here: Life. That is what I think is sacred. Without it, nothing else matters.]] When the Jelly didn’t immediately reply:
[[What about the Wranaui? What about you? Is there anything other than the Vanished you consider sacred?]]
[[Itari here: We, the Wranaui. The Arms and our expanse into the swirl of stars. It is our birthright and our destiny and an ideal that all Wranaui are devoted to, even if we sometimes disagree on the means to accomplish our goal.]]
The answer disturbed Kira. There was too much of the zealot, the xenophobic, and the imperialistic about it for her liking. Hawes had been right; it wouldn’t be easy to live in peace with the Jellies.
Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, she reminded herself.
She changed the subject: [[Kira here: Why do you sometimes say this form when you refer to yourself? Is it because the Wranaui have so many different shapes?]]
[[Itari here: One’s form determines one’s function. If another function were needed, the form can be changed.]]
[[Kira here: How? Can you change the arrangement of your flesh just by thinking?]]
[[Itari here: Of course. If there were no thinking, why would one go to the Nest of Transference?]]
It was a term she didn’t recognize from the Soft Blade. [[Kira here: Is the Nest of Transference also a making of the Vanished?]]
[[Itari here: Yes.]]
[[Kira here: So if you want to change into your hatchling form or your rooted form, you would go to the Nest of Transference and—]]
[[Itari here: No. You misunderstand, Idealis. Those are forms of the original flesh. The Nest of Transference is used for forms that are manufactured.]]
Surprise gave her pause. [[Kira here: You mean your current form was made? In a machine?]]
[[Itari here: Yes. And if needed, I might choose another form at the Nest of Transference. Also too if this flesh were destroyed, I might select another.]]
[[Kira here: But, if your form were destroyed, you would be killed.]] [[Itari here: How can I be killed when there is a record of my pattern at
the Nest of Transference?]]
Kira frowned as she struggled to understand. Several more questions did little to clarify the matter. She couldn’t seem to get the Jelly to make a distinction between its body and its pattern, whatever that was.
[[Kira here: If your form were destroyed right now, would your pattern contain all your memories?]]
[[Itari here: No. All memories from when we left the system of the Vanished would be lost. This is why our shells always swim in sets of two or more unless the need for secrecy is great, as when we sent the Tserro to the reliquary.]]
[[Kira here: Then … the pattern is not you, is it? The pattern would be an out-of-date copy. A you from the past.]]
The Jelly’s colors grew more muted, neutral. [[Itari here: Of course the pattern would still be me. Why would it not? The passing of a few moments does not change my nature.]]
[[Kira here: What if your pattern were given a new form while your old form was still here? Would that be possible?]]
Nearscent of disgust spiked the air. [[Itari here: That would be the heresy of the Tfeir. No Wranaui from the other Arms would do such a thing.]]
[[Kira here: You disapproved of Lphet, then?]]
[[Itari here: Our goals are greater than our differences.]]
Kira thought on that for a while. So the Jellies were uploading their consciousness, or at least their memories, into different bodies. But they didn’t seem bothered by their actual deaths.… She couldn’t understand Itari’s seeming indifference to its individual fate.
[[Kira here: Don’t you want to live? Don’t you want to keep this form?]] [[Itari here: So long as my pattern endures, I endure.]] One of its tentacles reached out, and Kira struggled not to recoil as the rubbery appendage poked her in the chest. The Soft Blade stiffened as if it were about to attack. [[The form is unimportant. Even if my pattern is erased—as Ctein did to Nmarhl’s, long ago—it will continue to propagate in the ripples
[[Kira here: How can you say that? What do you mean by ripple? What do you mean those that follow?]]
The Jelly flashed red and green, and its tentacles wrapped tighter about its carapace, but it refused to answer. Kira asked her questions twice more,
to no response. And that was all she could extract from the Jelly on the subject of ripples.
She asked a different question then: [[Kira here: I am curious. What is the tsuro, the summons that I felt when the Knot of Minds arrived at the resting place of the Idealis? I’ve felt it from all your shells, except here in this system.]]
[[Itari here: The tsuro is another of the sacred artifacts of the Vanished. It speaks to the Idealis and coaxes it forth. Were it not bonded with you, the Idealis would answer of its own accord and move to present itself at the source of the summons. By use of the tsuro, Wranaui shells everywhere search for the Ideali.]]
[[Kira here: And have you found any more since the end of the Sundering?]]
[[Itari here: Since then? No. Yours is the last surviving. But we live in hope that the Vanished have left more of their makings for us to find and that, this time, we will treat them with greater wisdom than before.]]
She stared at the weave of fibers on the back of her hands: black, gleaming, complex. [[Kira here: Does your form know—does the Knot of Minds know—how to remove the Idealis from the one it is joined with?]]
The Jelly’s skin roiled with the colors of affront, and its nearscent acquired a mix of shock and outrage. [[Itari here: In what ripple would that be desired? To be joined with the Idealis is an honor!]]
[[Kira here: I understand. It is a matter of … curiosity.]]
The alien seemed to struggle with that, but in the end it said, [[Itari here: The only way this form knows to separate from the Idealis is death. Lphet and the other ruling forms of the Knot may be aware of other methods, but if so, they have not scented them.]]
Kira accepted the news with resignation. She wasn’t surprised. Just … disappointed.
Then the ghost of Gregorovich’s voice sounded from the speakers, and he said, “Retracting radiators. Transitioning to FTL in four minutes. Prepare thyselves.”
Only then did Kira notice how cold it had gotten in the antechamber. Frustrated that she didn’t have any more time for questions, she informed Itari of the impending jump and then retreated from the doorway and closed and locked the airlock door.
The lights switched to the dull red of ship-night, a whine sounded near the back of the Wallfish, and the exposed skin on Kira’s cheeks tingled as the Markov Drive activated and they set out on the last and longest leg of their journey: the trip to Sol.
Through the airlock window, Kira watched with interest as Itari wound a cocoon around itself with goo secreted from the undersides of its tentacles. The viscous substance hardened quickly, and within only a few minutes, the Jelly lay hidden within an opaque, somewhat greenish pod stuck to the floor of the airlock.
Kira wondered how the alien would know when to wake up. Not her problem.
She retreated to her own little nest, secured herself to the webbing, and wrapped herself with blankets. The antechamber was dark and intimidating in the nighttime lighting; hardly a friendly place to spend the next three months.
She shivered, finally feeling the cold.
“Just you and me, headcase,” she said to the erstwhile ceiling.
“Worry not,” whispered Gregorovich, “I shall keep you company, O Varunastra, until your eyes grow heavy and the soft sands of sleep dull your mind.”
“How comforting,” Kira said, but she only half meant the sarcasm. It
was nice to have someone to talk to.
“Forgive me for my irrepressible curiosity,” said Gregorovich, and he chuckled, “but what strange scents did you exchange with our be-tentacled guest? You stood there for quite some minutes, and you seemed most affected by the stench afflicting your delicate nostrils.”
Kira snorted. “You could say that.… I’ll write a proper account later.
You can see the details there.”
“Nothing immediately helpful, I take it,” said Gregorovich.
“No. But—” She explained about the Nest of Transference and ended with, “Itari said, The form is unimportant.”
“Bodies do tend to be rather fungible these days,” the ship mind said dryly. “As both you and I have discovered.”
Kira pulled the blankets tighter. “Was it difficult becoming a ship mind?” “Easy certainly isn’t the word I would use to describe it,” said Gregorovich. “Every sense of mine was stripped away, replaced, and what I was, the very foundation of my consciousness, was expanded beyond any
natural limit. ’Twas confusion piled upon confusion.”
The experience sounded deeply unpleasant, and it reminded Kira— somewhat to her distaste—of the times when she had extended the Soft Blade, and in doing so, extended her sense of self.
She shivered. The soft sway of her body in zero-g caused her to swallow hard and focus on a fixed spot on the wall while she tried to calm her inner ear. The darkness of the antechamber and the abandoned, empty feeling of the Wallfish affected her more than she liked. Had it really been less than half a day since they’d been fighting through the streets on Nidus?
It seemed as if it had been more than a week ago.
Trying to fend off her sudden loneliness, she said, “My first day here, Trig told me how—in your last ship—you crashed and got stranded. What was it like … being by yourself for so long?”
“What was it like?” said Gregorovich. He laughed with a demented tone, and at once, Kira knew she’d gone too far. “What was it like?… It was like death, like the obliteration of the self. The walls around my mind fell away and left me to gibber senselessly before the naked face of the universe. I had the combined knowledge of the entire human race at my disposal. I had every scientific discovery, every theory and theorem, every equation, every proof, and a million, million, million books and songs and movies and games—more than any one person, even a ship mind, could ever hope to consume. And yet…” He trailed off into a sigh. “And yet I was alone. I watched my crew starve and die, and when they were gone, there was nothing I could do but sit alone in the dark and wait. I worked on equations, mathematical concepts you could never comprehend with your puny little brain, and I read and watched and counted toward infinity, as the Numenists do. And all it did was stave off the darkness for one more second. One more moment. I screamed, though I have no mouth to scream. I wept, though I have no eyes for tears. I crawled through space and time, a worm inching through a labyrinth built by the dreams of a mad god. This I learned, meatbag, this and nothing more: when air, food, and shelter are assured,
only two things matter. Work and companionship. To be alone and without purpose is to be the living dead.”
“Is that so great a revelation?” Kira asked quietly.
The ship mind tittered, and she could hear him swaying on the edge of madness. “Not at all. No indeed. Ha. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Banal even. Any reasonable person would agree, wouldn’t they? Ha. But to live it is not the same as hearing or reading it. Not at all. The revelation of truth is rarely easy. And that is what it was like, O Spiked One. It was revelation. And I would rather die than endure such an experience again.”
That much Kira could understand and appreciate. Her own revelations had nearly destroyed her. “Yeah. Same for me.… What was the name of the ship you were in?”
But Gregorovich refused to answer, which upon reflection, Kira decided was probably for the best. Talking about the crash only seemed to make him more unstable.
She pulled up her overlays and stared at them without seeing. How did you provide therapy for a ship mind? It wasn’t the first time she had wondered. Falconi had said that most of the psychiatrists who worked with them were ship minds themselves, but even then … She hoped Gregorovich would find the peace he was looking for—as much for their own sake as his
—but solving his problems was beyond her.
The long night crept past.
Kira wrote up her conversation with Itari, played her concertina, watched several movies from the Wallfish’s database—none of them particularly memorable—and practiced with the Soft Blade.
Before she started working with the xeno, Kira took time to think about what she was trying to accomplish. As she’d said to Falconi, control alone wasn’t enough. Rather, she needed … synthesis. A more natural joining between her and the Soft Blade. Trust. Otherwise she would always be second-guessing her actions, as well as those of the xeno. How could she not, given past mistakes? (Her mind wandered toward the subject of the Maw; with an effort of will, she resolutely pulled it back.) As she’d learned
through painful experience, second-guessing could be every bit as deadly as overreacting.
She sighed. Why did everything have to be so hard?
With her goal in mind, Kira began much as she had before. Isometric exercises, unpleasant memories, physical and emotional strain … everything she could think of to test the Soft Blade. Once she was confident her grip on the xeno was as strong as ever, then and only then did she start to experiment by relaxing her dictatorial control. Just a little bit at first: a tiny amount of leeway so she could see how the Soft Blade would choose to act.
The results were mixed. Around half of the time the xeno did exactly what Kira wanted in the way she wanted, whether that was forming a shape on her skin, helping to hold a stress position, or fulfilling whatever other task she’d put to the organism. Perhaps a quarter of the time the Soft Blade did what she wanted but not as she expected. And the rest of the time, it reacted in a completely disproportionate or unreasonable manner, sending spikes or tendrils every which way. Those, of course, were the occurrences Kira was most concerned with.
When she’d had enough and stopped, Kira didn’t feel as if she had made any noticeable progress. The thought dampened her mood until she reminded herself that it would be over three months before they arrived at Sol. She still had lots of time to work with the Soft Blade. Lots and lots of time …
Gregorovich started talking with her again soon afterward. He seemed to have returned to his usual self, which she was pleased to hear. They played several games of Transcendence, and though he beat her every time, Kira didn’t mind, as she enjoyed having the company, any company.
She tried not to think too much about the nightmares or the Maw or even the great and mighty Ctein brooding in the depths of the Plaintive Verge … but her mind returned to them time and time again, making it difficult to relax into the state of dormancy needed to survive the journey.
It might have been a few hours, it might have been more than a day, but eventually Kira felt the familiar slowing of her body as the Soft Blade responded to the lack of food and activity and began to prepare her for the sleep that was more than sleep. Each time she entered hibernation, it
seemed to become easier; the xeno was getting better at recognizing her intent and taking the appropriate action.
She set her weekly alarm, and as her eyes drifted shut, she said, “Gregorovich … think I’m going to sleep.”
“Rest well, meatbag,” the ship mind whispered. “I think I shall sleep as well.”
“… perchance to dream.” “Indeed.”
His voice faded away, and the soft strains of a Bach concerto took its place. Kira smiled, snuggled deeper into the blankets, and at long last, allowed herself to relax into oblivion.
A shapeless while passed, full of half-formed thoughts and urges: fears, hopes, dreams, and the ache of regrets. Once a week, the alarm roused Kira, and she—groggy and bleary-eyed—would train with the Soft Blade. It often felt like fruitless labor, but she persisted. And so did the xeno. From it she sensed a desire to please her, and with repetition of action came clarity of intent, if not mastery of form, and she began to feel a hint of yearning from the Soft Blade. As if it aspired to some type of artistry in its endeavors, some form of creativity. For the most part, she shied from those instincts, but they stirred her curiosity, and often Kira had long, deeply strange dreams of the greenhouses of her childhood and of plants sprouting and twining and leafing and spreading life, good and healthy.
Once every two weeks, the Wallfish emerged from FTL, and Kira went down to Sparrow’s makeshift gym and pushed her mind and body to their limits while the ship cooled. Each time, she sorely missed her right hand. The lack of it caused no end of difficulty, even though she used the Soft Blade as a substitute to hold and lift things. She consoled herself with the knowledge that using the xeno like that was good practice. And it was.
As she trained in the hold, the Marines stood watch among the nearby racks of equipment: Hawes and three others frozen in their blue-lit cryo tubes; Sanchez, Tatupoa, Moros, and one other wrapped in the same cocoons that had saved Trig’s life. Seeing them there left Kira feeling as if she’d stumbled upon a row of ancient statues set to defend the souls of the
dead. She gave them a wide berth and did her best to avoid looking at them, an odd bit of superstition for her.
Sometimes she ate a ration bar after exercising, to keep up her strength, but mostly she preferred water and a return to hibernation.
Partway through the first month, in the empty hours of the night, as she floated outside Itari’s airlock—all but insensate to the universe around her
—a vision coalesced behind her shuttered eyelids, a memory from another time and another mind:
Summoned once more to the high-vaulted presence chamber, she and her flesh stood as witness before the gathered Heptarchy, three to each ascension, and the Highmost stationed between.
The central seal broke, and through the patterned floor rose a gleaming prism. Within the faceted cage, a seed of fractal blackness thrashed with ravening anger, the perversion pulsing, stabbing, tearing, ceaselessly battering its transparent prison. Flesh of her flesh, but now tainted and twisted with evil intent.
“What now must be done?” the Highmost asked.
The Heptarchy replied with many voices, but one spoke most clearly: “We must cut the branch; we must burn the root. The blight cannot be allowed to spread.”
But dissent made itself known with another voice: “True it is we must protect our gardens, but pause a moment and consider. There is potential here for life beyond our plans. What arrogance have we to put that aside unexamined? We are not all-knowing nor all-seeing. Within the chaos might also dwell beauty and, perhaps, fertile soil for the seeds of our hope.”
Long discussion followed, much of it angry, and all the while the captive blackness struggled to escape.
Then the Highmost stood and struck the floor with the Staff of Blue and said, “The fault is ours, but the blight cannot be allowed to persist. The risk is too great, the rewards too uncertain, too slight. Although light may emerge from dark, it would be wrong to allow the dark to smother the light. Some acts exist beyond forgiveness. Illuminate the shadows. End the blight.”
“End the blight!” cried the Heptarchy.
Then the rainbowed prism flashed blindingly bright, and the malevolence within shrieked and burst into a cloud of falling embers.