Escorting Itari to the cargo hold, waiting while it extracted the three Marines and—with another secreted gel—revived them, took nearly forty minutes. When not translating, Kira stood by one of the racks of equipment, skimming news reports from Weyland.
They weren’t encouraging.
At least one article claimed that Weyland had suffered orbital bombardment near Highstone. Her family didn’t live especially close to the city, but they were close enough that the news made Kira even more worried.
The Jellies had also landed near Toska, a settlement in Weyland’s southern hemisphere, but according to the most recent news (which was nearly a month old), they hadn’t stayed. Several nightmares had passed through the outer part of the system, and they and the Jellies had engaged in a furious fight, the outcome of which was unknown, as all ships involved had jumped to FTL, one after another. The League had sent reinforcements to the system, but it had only been a small task force; the bulk of their ships were kept concentrated in and around Sol, to protect Earth.
Kira stopped reading when Itari finished with the Marines, and she walked the Jelly back to the airlock. When Kira told it about Orsted, Itari expressed polite acknowledgement and nothing more. The alien seemed surprisingly uncurious about where the Wallfish was heading or what would happen when they arrived. When she asked about that, it replied, [[Itari here: The ripple will spread as it will.]]
With the Jelly back in the airlock, Kira swung by the galley to grab some food and then climbed back up to Control. Nielsen arrived just as she did. The first officer was flushed and had tears in her eyes.
“Everything okay?” Falconi asked from across the holo table.
Nielsen nodded as she sank into her crash chair. “My family is alive, but my daughter, Yann, lost her home.”
“On Venus?” Kira asked.
Nielsen sniffed and smoothed the front of her tan shirt. “The whole city was shot down. She barely escaped.”
“Damn,” said Falconi. “At least she made it.”
A minute of silence followed. Then Nielsen stiffened and looked around. “Where’s Vishal?”
Falconi waved toward the back of the ship in a distracted way. “Went to check on sickbay. Said something about running a few tests on the Marines.”
“Didn’t he live in a hab-cylinder here at Sol?”
Concern spread across Falconi’s face. “Did he? He never mentioned that to me.”
Nielsen let out an exasperated sound. “Men. If you ever actually bothered asking some questions, you might learn—” She shoved herself up from her chair and stalked out of Control.
Falconi watched her go with a faint look of puzzlement. He looked over at Kira, as if hoping for an explanation. She shrugged and looked back at her overlays.
Interstellar wars were slow-moving affairs—even with technology as advanced as the Jellies’—but what had occurred was of a depressing sameness. Weyland’s experience was mirrored by those of the other colonies (although the battles at Stewart’s World were more similar in size to those at Sol).
And then there were the nightmares. As the months swept past, they had become increasingly prevalent, to the point where the UMC was fighting them as often as the Jellies. Every time they appeared, the monsters seemed to take a different set of forms, as if the result of constant mutation. Or, as Kira felt more likely, as if the driving intelligence behind them—the mashing Maw born of the unholy fusion of human, Wranaui, and Soft Blade
—was feverishly, frantically, insanely, and randomly experimenting to find the best possible flesh for fighting.
The scale of suffering that the nightmares must be enduring, as well as inflicting, sickened Kira to think of.
She was unsurprised to see that the war had resulted in an unprecedented drawing together of humanity. Even the Zarians had put aside their differences with the League in order to join forces against their shared enemies. What was the point of arguing amongst yourselves if the monsters in the dark were attacking?
And yet for all that, the combined might of every living human wasn’t enough to fight off their attackers. Fragmented though the news was, it was more than clear that they were losing. Humanity was losing, despite every effort to the contrary.
The news was overwhelming, exhausting, and depressing. At last, unable to bear any more, Kira tabbed out of her overlays and sat staring at the banks of lights and switches overhead, trying not to think about how everything seemed to be falling apart.
An alert appeared in the bottom corner of her vision. A message waiting for her. Kira opened it, expecting to see something from Gregorovich.
Sitting in her inbox was a reply to the video she’d sent to her family from 61 Cygni. A reply from her mother’s account.
Kira stared, shocked. With a start, she remembered to breathe. She hadn’t expected an answer. Her family couldn’t have known where or when she would return, so how could there be a message waiting for her here, at Sol? Unless …
Trembling slightly, she opened the file.
A video appeared in front of her, a dark window into what appeared to be an underground bunker. Kira recognized it as the sort used for radiation shielding by the first wave of colonists on Weyland.… Her parents were
sitting facing her, gathered around a desk cluttered with tools and medkits. Isthah stood behind them, peering between their mom and dad with an anxious face.
Her dad had a bandage around his right thigh. He looked painfully thin, and the lines around his eyes and nose were far deeper than she remembered. There was white in his sideburns that shouldn’t have been there, not if he’d gotten his scheduled STEM shots. As for her mom, she’d grown even harder, like an eagle carved from granite, and her hair was cut short, in the style favored by colonists who spent most of their time living in skinsuits.
Only Isthah appeared much the same, and Kira took some comfort in that.
Her mom cleared her throat. “Kira, we just received your message yesterday. It was a month late, but it got here.”
Then her dad: “We’re really happy to know you’re alive, honey. Really happy. You had us worried for a while.” Behind him, Isthah ducked her head. Kira was surprised she didn’t butt in; the restraint was uncharacteristic. But then, they were living in uncharacteristic times.
Her mom glanced at the other two before focusing on the camera again. “I’m sorry, we’re sorry, to hear about your teammates, Kira. And … Alan. He seemed like a good person.”
“This can’t be easy for you,” her father added. “Just know we’re thinking about you and wishing you the best. I’m sure the scientists here in the League can find a way to get this alien—” He hesitated. “—this alien parasite off you.” Her mom put a comforting hand on his arm.
She said, “I’m not sure why the League let your message go through. Maybe they missed it, but whatever. I’m glad it got here. You can see we’re not at home. The Jellies came by a few weeks ago, and there’s been fighting around Highstone. We had to evacuate, but we’re okay. We’re doing fine. We have a place to stay here with some folks called the Niemerases—”
“Over on the other side of the mountains,” said her father.
A tip of the head from her mom. “They’re letting us live in their shelter for the time being. It’s decent protection, and we have plenty of room.” It didn’t look like plenty of room to Kira.
“The Jellies burned the greenhouses,” Isthah said in a low voice. “They burned them, sis. Burned all of them.…”
Their parents shifted, uncomfortable. Her dad looked down at his large hands where they rested on his knees. “Yeah,” he said. Kira had never seen him appear so sad or defeated. A hollow chuckle escaped him. “Got this scratch trying to get out in time.” He tapped the bandage on his leg and forced a smile.
Then her mom stiffened her back and said, “Listen to me, Kira. You don’t worry about us, okay? Go do this expedition you have to do, and we’ll be here when you get back.… We’re going to send this recording to every system in the League, so no matter where you arrive, it’ll be waiting for you.”
“We love you, honey,” said her father. “And we’re very proud of you and the work you’re doing. Try to stay safe, and we’ll see you soon.”
There was a bit more, a few more words of farewell from her mom and Isthah, and then the video ended.
Kira’s overlays swam before her, blurred and watery. She took a hitched breath and realized she was crying. Closing the display, she hunched forward and buried her face in her hands.
“Hey now,” said Falconi, sounding alarmed and concerned at the same time. He came over, and she felt his hand light between her shoulder blades. “What’s wrong?”
“I got a message from my family,” she said. “Are they—”
“No, no, they’re fine, but—” Kira shook her head. “They had to leave our home, where I grew up. And, just seeing them … my mom, my dad, my sister; they’re not having an easy time of it.”
“No one is these days,” Falconi said gently.
“I know, but this was from—” She checked the date on the file. “Almost two months ago. Two months. The Jellies hit Highstone with orbital bombardment about a month ago, and—and I don’t even know if they’re…” She trailed off. The surface of her arms prickled with tiny points as the Soft Blade mirrored her emotions. A tear fell onto her left forearm and was quickly absorbed by the fibers.
Falconi knelt next to her. “Is there anything I can do?”
Surprised, she considered for a moment. “No, but … thank you. Only thing you or I or anyone can do to help is find a way to end this damn war.”
“That would certainly be nice.”
She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “What about your family?
A flicker of pain darkened his eyes. “No, and they’re too far away to just call. I don’t know if they’d want to hear from me anyway.”
“You don’t know that,” said Kira. “Not for sure. Look at what’s happening out there. We’re facing what could be the end of everything. You should touch base with your parents. If not now, when?”
Falconi was silent for a while, and then he patted her on the shoulder and stood. “I’ll think about it.”
It wasn’t much, but Kira didn’t think she could expect anything more from him. She got to her feet as well and said, “I’m going to my cabin. I want to answer them before we arrive at Orsted.”
Falconi grunted, already lost in examination of the holo. “I wouldn’t count on the League letting you get a message out. Them or the Jellies. Bet you a bucket of bits Weyland is jammed up as bad as the toilet we had in the hold.”
A moment of uncertainty shook Kira’s confidence. Then, accepting the situation as it was, she steadied herself and said, “Doesn’t matter. I have to try, you know?”
“Family is that important to you, huh?” “Of course. Isn’t it to you?”
He didn’t answer, but she saw the muscles in his shoulders bunch and tense.