Chapter no 54

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Seven hours.

They passed faster than Kira expected. She recorded her response to her family—she told them what had happened at Bughunt, although as with Hawes, she avoided mentioning her role in creating the Maw—and she even showed them a little of what the Soft Blade was capable of by holding up her hand and forming the blossom of a Midnight Constellation from her palm. She hoped that would make her father smile. Most of what she said

were general well-wishes and exhortations for them to stay safe, and she ended with, “Hopefully you get this in the next week or so. I don’t know what the League is going to have me doing, but I’m guessing they won’t let me communicate with you for a while.… Whatever’s happening there on Weyland, just hold on. We have a chance for peace with the Jellies, and I’m going to be working to make it happen as fast as possible. So don’t give up, you hear me? Don’t give up.… Love you all. Bye.”

Afterward, Kira took a few minutes for herself in the dark of her cabin, eyes closed, lights off, while she allowed her breathing to slow and body to cool.

Then she gathered herself and returned to Control. Vishal was there, talking in low tones with Falconi and Sparrow. The doctor stood bending at the neck to be closer to their heights.

“—that’s too bad, Doc,” said Falconi. “Seriously. If you need to bail on us, I’d understand. We could pick up another—”

Vishal was already shaking his head. “No, that will not be necessary, Captain, although I thank you. My uncle said he will let me know as soon as they find out.”

Sparrow startled him with a slap on the shoulder. “You know we’ve got your back, Doc. Anything I can do to help, you just say the word, and”— she made a whistling sound—“wsipp, I’m there.”

At first Vishal appeared offended by her familiarity, but then his posture softened and he said, “I appreciate that, Ms. Sparrow. Most truly I do.”

As Kira took her seat, she gave Falconi an inquiring glance. <What’s up? – Kira>

<The Jellies destroyed Vishal’s hab-cylinder. – Falconi>

<Shit. What about his mother and sisters? – Kira>

<They might have gotten out in time, but so far, no news. – Falconi>

As Vishal moved over to his crash chair near her own, Kira said, “Falconi just told me. I’m so sorry. That’s horrible.”

Vishal lowered himself into the chair. A dark frown furrowed his brow, but his voice remained gentle as he said, “Thank you for your kindness, Ms. Kira. I’m sure everything will be fine, God willing.”

Kira hoped he was right.

She switched to her overlays and pulled up the feed from the Wallfish’s rear-facing cameras so she could watch their approach to the banded mass of Jupiter and the tiny, speckled disk that was Ganymede.

The sight of Jupiter in all its orange-colored glory reminded her with painful strength of Zeus hanging in the sky of Adrasteia. No wonder: the similarities had been the reason the original survey team had given Zeus its name.

Ganymede, by comparison, seemed so small as to be inconsequential, even though—as Kira’s overlays informed her—it was the largest moon in the system, larger even than the planet Mercury.

As for their destination, Orsted Station, it was a fleck of dust floating high above the battered surface of Ganymede. Several sparkling motes, smaller still, accompanied it on its orbit, each mote marking the position of one of the many transports, cargo haulers, and drones clustered around the station.

Kira shivered. She couldn’t help it. No matter how often she thought she understood the immensity of space, something would happen to drive home the fact that no, she really didn’t. The human brain was physically incapable of grasping the distances and scales involved. At least unaltered humans were. Maybe ship minds were different. All that empty vastness, and nothing humans had built (or would ever build) could compare.

She shook herself and returned her gaze to the station. Even the most experienced spacers could go mad if they stared into the void long enough.

It had always been a goal of Kira’s to visit Sol and, most particularly, Earth, that great treasure trove of biology. But she had never imagined that her visit would occur as it was: harried and hurried and in the shadow of war.

Still, the sight of Jupiter filled her with a sense of wonder, and she wished Alan was there to share the experience with her. They’d talked about it a few times: making enough money so they could afford to vacation in Sol. Or else getting a research grant that would allow them to travel to the system on the company dime. It had been nothing more than wishful thinking, though. Idle speculations on a possible future.

Kira forced her thoughts elsewhere.

“Everything shipshape?” Falconi asked when Nielsen came floating through the doorway a few minutes later.

“Shipshape as can be,” said Nielsen. “We shouldn’t have any problems with inspectors.”

“Aside from Itari,” said Kira.

The first officer smiled with a dry expression. “Yes, well, at least they can’t blame us for breaking quarantine. There hasn’t been proper biocontainment with the Jellies since day one.” Then she went and sat in the crash chair on the other side of Vishal.

Sparrow made a disgusted noise and looked over at Nielsen. “You see what the Stellarists are up to?”

“Mmm. No worse than the Expansion or Conservation Parties. They’d do the same if they were in charge.”

Sparrow shook her head. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. The Premier is using this whole state of emergency thing to really clamp down on the colonies.”

“Ugh,” said Kira. Why was she not surprised? The Stellarists were always putting Sol first. Understandable to a point, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.

Nielsen assumed a pleasantly blank face. “That’s a rather extreme point of view, Sparrow.”

“Just you watch,” the short-haired woman said. “After this whole mess is over, if there even is an after, you won’t be able to so much as spit without getting permission from Earth Central. Guarantee it.”

“You’re overst—”

“What am I saying? You’re from Venus. Of course you’re going to back Earth, just like everyone else who grew up with their heads in the clouds.”

A frown settled on Nielsen’s face, and she started to answer when Falconi said, “Enough with the politics. Save it for when we’ve got enough drink to make it tolerable.”

“Yessir,” said Sparrow in a surly voice.

Kira returned her attention to her overlays. She never could keep track of the finer points of interstellar politics. Too many moving parts. But she did know she didn’t like the Stellarists (and most politicians, for that matter).

As she watched, Orsted swelled in size until it dominated the aft view. The station looked heavy and brutal, like a gothic gyroscope, dark of hue and sharp of edge. The stationary shield ring appeared undamaged, but the rotating hab-ring mated to it had several large rents along one quadrant, as

if a monster had raked Orsted with its claws. Explosive decompression had peeled the hull back along the edges of the holes, turning the plating into lines of jagged petals. Between the petals, rooms were visible, white and glittery with a layer of frost.

The top face of Orsted’s central hub (where top meant pointing away from Ganymede) was a bristle of antennas, dishes, telescopes, and weapons, standing motionless on their frictionless bearings. Most of the equipment appeared broken or slagged. Fortunately, the attacks didn’t seem to have penetrated to the fusion reactor buried within the core of the hub.

The spindly, cross-braced truss that extended for several hundred meters from the bottom face of Orsted’s hub appeared intact, but many of the transparent radiators that fringed it had holes punched through them or had been shattered, reducing them to knifelike shards that dribbled molten metal from their severed veins. Dozens of service bots were flitting about the damaged radiators, working to stanch the loss of coolant.

The auxiliary communications and defense array mounted at the far end of the truss appeared scorched and mangled. Through some incredible stroke of luck, the containment chamber in the Markov generator (which powered the station’s FTL sensors) hadn’t been breached. The generator only held a minuscule amount of antimatter at any given time, but if it had lost containment, the whole array (and a good part of the truss) would have been annihilated.

Four UMC cruisers hung off the port side of the station, a visible demonstration of the League’s military power.

“Thule,” said Sparrow, taking a seat. “They really got the shit beaten out of them.”

“Ever been to Orsted before?” Kira asked.

Sparrow licked her lips. “Once. On leave. Wouldn’t care to repeat the experience.”

“Better strap in,” said Falconi from across Control. “Yessir.”

They secured themselves, and then the burn ended. Kira made a face at the return to zero-g. The Wallfish performed one last skewflip (so it was flying nose-first toward the station), and Gregorovich said, “ETA, fourteen minutes.”

Kira tried to empty her mind.

Hwa-jung joined them soon after, pulling herself into Control with the grace of a ballet dancer. An expression of disgust marred her face, and she seemed more surly than usual.

“How are Runcible and Mr. Fuzzypants?” Falconi asked.

The machine boss grimaced. “That cat had another accident. Yuck. There was poop everywhere. If I ever buy a ship myself, I won’t have a cat. Pigs are okay. Not cats.”

“Thanks for cleaning up.” “Mmh. I deserve hazard pay.”

For a time they were silent. Then Sparrow said, “You know, speaking of biocontainment, they really shouldn’t have been so angry with us on Ruslan.”

“Why’s that?” Nielsen asked.

“All those escaped animals were a great source of newtrition.”

Kira groaned along with everyone else, but it was a token protest. Most of them, she thought, were just sorry Trig wasn’t there to make his usual jokes.

“Thule be saving us from puns,” said Vishal. “Could be worse,” said Falconi.

“Yeah? How?”

“She could be a mime.”

Sparrow threw a glove at him, and the captain laughed.

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