Chapter no 55

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira’s stomach tightened as the Wallfish slowed and, with a faint shudder, coupled with their assigned docking port in Orsted’s shield ring.

After a few seconds, the all-clear sounded.

“Alright, listen up,” said Falconi, pulling off his harness. “Captain Akawe arranged pardons for us—” He gave Kira a look from under his brow. “All us miscreants, that is. The League should have them on file, but that doesn’t mean you should go making fools of yourself. No one say nothing until we have representation and we’re clear on the situation. That goes double for you, Gregorovich.”

“As you say, Captain O my Captain,” the ship mind responded.

Falconi grunted. “And don’t go blabbing about the Jelly neither. Kira and I will take care of that.”

“Won’t Hawes and his men have already told the UMC?” Kira asked.

A grim little smile from Falconi. “I’m sure they would have if I’d given them comms access. But I haven’t.”

“Hawes is fighting mad about it too,” Nielsen said.

Falconi kicked his way over to the pressure door. “Doesn’t matter. We’re going to talk with the UMC straightaway, and it’s going to take them some time to debrief our friendly neighborhood Marines.”

“Do we all have to go?” said Hwa-jung. “The Wallfish still needs maintenance after that jump.”

Falconi gestured toward the door. “You’ll have plenty of time to deal with the ship later, Hwa-jung. I promise. And yes, we all have to go.” Sparrow groaned, and Vishal rolled his eyes. “The liaison officer on Orsted specifically asked for everyone on the ship. I think they’re not sure what to make of us yet. They mentioned having to check for orders with Earth Central. Besides, we’re not letting Kira walk in there alone.”

“… Thanks,” she said, and she meant it.

“Of course. Wouldn’t let any of my crew go off by themselves.” Falconi grinned, and though it was a hard, dangerous grin, Kira found it reassuring. “If they don’t treat you right, we’ll kick up a ruckus until they do. Rest of you, you know the drill. Eyes peeled and mouths shut. Remember, this isn’t shore leave.”

“Roger that.” “Yessir.”

“Of course, Captain.” Hwa-jung nodded.

Falconi slapped the bulkhead. “Gregorovich, keep the ship on standby, case we have to leave in a hurry. And full monitoring of our overlays until we’re back.”

“Of course,” said Gregorovich in a warbling tone. “I shall keep an ever-so-close watch upon the feeds from your peepers. Such delightful snooping. Such scrumptious snooping.”

Kira snorted. Their long sleep certainly hadn’t changed him. “Are you expecting trouble?” asked Nielsen as they left Control. “No,” said Falconi. “But better safe than sorry.”

“Second that,” said Sparrow.

With Falconi at the lead, they went to the central shaft of the Wallfish and pulled themselves along the ladder until they reached the airlock mounted in the nose of the ship. The Entropists joined them there, the Questants’ robes billowing in free fall, like wind-blown sails. They dipped their heads and murmured, “Captain” as they slowed to a stop.

“Welcome to the party,” said Falconi.

The airlock was crowded with all nine of them crammed in—especially with Hwa-jung taking up nearly as much space as three of them combined

—but with some pushing and shoving, they managed to fit.

The airlock cycled with the usual assortment of clicks and hisses and other unidentifiable sounds. And when the outer door rolled open, Kira saw a loading dock identical to the one she’d arrived at on Vyyborg over a year ago. It gave her a strange feeling, not quite déjà vu, not quite nostalgia. What had once been familiar, even friendly, now seemed cold, stark, and— though she knew it was just nerves—out of joint.

A small spherical drone was waiting for them, floating just to the left of the airlock. The yellow light next to its camera was on, and from a speaker came a man’s voice: “This way, please.”

With puffs of compressed air, the drone turned and jetted away toward the pressure door at the other end of the long, metal-clad room.

“Guess we follow,” said Falconi. “Guess so,” said Nielsen.

“Don’t they realize we’re in a hurry?” said Kira.

Sparrow clucked her tongue. “You should know better, Navárez. You can’t rush a bureaucracy. There’s time, and then there’s military time. Hurry up and wait is standard operating procedure.”

Then Falconi launched himself off the lip of the airlock toward the pressure door. He spiraled slowly through the air, one arm above his head to catch himself when he landed.

“Show-off,” said Nielsen as she crawled out of the airlock and grabbed the handholds in the nearby wall.

One by one, they left the Wallfish and crossed the loading dock, with its gimbaled waldos and grooved strips for holding cargo containers in place. As they did, Kira knew that lasers and magnets and other pieces of equipment were checking their ID, scanning them for explosives and other

weapons, looking for traces of contraband, and so on. It made her skin crawl, but there was nothing she could do about it.

For a second she considered allowing the mask to cover her face … but then she dismissed the urge.

She wasn’t going into battle, after all.

Past the pressure door, the drone zipped into the wide hallway beyond. It was at least seven meters across, and after so long spent on the Wallfish, the amount of space seemed enormous.

All the doors along the hallway were closed and locked, and aside from themselves, not one person was to be seen. Not there and not around the corners of the first dogleg. Nor the second.

“Some welcoming committee,” Falconi said dryly. “Must be they are scared of us,” said Vishal. “No,” said Sparrow. “They’re just scared of her.” “Maybe they should be,” Kira muttered.

Sparrow surprised her by laughing so loudly, the sound echoed up and down the hall. “That’s it. You show them.” Even Hwa-jung looked amused.

The hallway led them through all five floors of the shield ring and then, as Kira knew it would, to a maglev car waiting at the end. The car’s side door was already open, the seats inside empty.

From the blackness on the other side of the car, she could hear the whisper of the rotating hab-ring, turning, turning, constantly turning.

“Please watch your hands and feet as you enter,” said the drone, stopping next to the car.

“Yeah, yeah,” Falconi muttered.

Kira took a seat with the rest of them and strapped herself in. Then a musical tone sounded, and from hidden speakers, a woman’s voice said, “The car is about to leave. Please tighten your seat belts and secure all loose items.” The door slid shut with a squeal. “Next stop: hab-section C.”

The car accelerated forward, smoothly and with hardly any noise. It passed through the pressure seal at the end of the terminal and entered the main transit tube that lay embedded between the docking ring and the hab-ring. As it did, Kira felt the cab rotate inward—felt herself rotate—and a sensation of weight began to press her down into the seat. Her arms and legs settled, and within seconds, she felt as if she’d regained her usual number of kilos.

The rotation combined with the acceleration was a weird feeling. For a moment it left her dizzy, and then her perspective shifted as she adjusted to her new down.

Down was between her feet (where it ought to be). Down pointed outward, through the shield ring and away from the station’s hub.

The car slid to a stop, and the door opposite the one they’d entered through popped its seal and retracted.

“Ah. I feel as if I’ve been twisted around a spindle,” said Vishal. “You and me both, Doc,” said Falconi.

A chorus of clicks as they released their belts, and then they stumbled out into the terminal, still finding their balance on unsteady legs.

Falconi stopped before he’d gone more than a step or two. Kira stopped next to him.


Waiting for them was a phalanx of troopers in black power armor. All carrying weapons. All aimed at her and the crew. A pair of heavy assault units stood looming behind the others, like blocky giants, bug-faced and impersonal. At intervals between the troopers, turrets had been bolted to the floor. And filling the air with a hum like a million angry wasps was a swarm of battle drones.

The door to the maglev snapped shut.

A voice boomed: “Hands on your heads! Drop to your knees! You will

be shot if you fail to comply. MOVE!

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