Kira wasn’t sure why she had expected anything different. But she had, and the UMC’s behavior left her angry and disappointed.
“You fucking bastards!” said Falconi.
The voice boomed across the terminal again: “On the floor. NOW!”
There was no point in fighting. Kira would just get herself killed. Or the crew. Or the troopers, and they weren’t her enemies. At least, that was what she kept telling herself. They were human, after all.
Kira put her hands on her head and dropped to her knees, never taking her eyes off the soldiers. Around her, the crew did the same, the Entropists too.
A half-dozen troopers rushed forward, boots clanging in a metallic cacophony. The weight of their suits made the deck shake; Kira felt the vibrations through her shins.
The troopers moved behind them and began securing the crew’s wrists with restraints. The Entropists’ also. Hwa-jung snarled when one of the troopers grabbed her arms. For a second she resisted, and Kira could hear the soldier’s armor whine as it struggled against her strength. Then Hwa-jung relaxed and muttered an expletive in Korean.
The troopers dragged Falconi and the others to their feet and marched them off to the side, toward a pressure door that slid open at their approach. “Don’t let them hurt you!” Falconi shouted back at her. “They touch you, rip off their hands. You hear me?!” One of the troopers shoved him in the back. “Gah! We have a pardon! Let us go or I’ll get a lawyer who’ll tear this whole place down for breach of contract. You’ve got nothing on us.
His voice faded away as they passed through the doorway and out of sight. Within seconds, the rest of the crew and the Entropists were gone.
A chill crept into Kira’s fingers, despite the best efforts of the Soft Blade.
Once again, she was alone.
“This is a waste of time,” she said. “I need to speak with whoever is in command. We have time-sensitive intel about the Jellies. Trust me, the Premier is going to want to hear what we have to say.”
The troopers moved aside, clearing a path forward, and for a moment, Kira thought her words had had the desired effect. Then the thunderous voice again sounded: “Take out your contacts and drop them on the floor.”
Dammit. They must have detected the contacts when she boarded Orsted. “Weren’t you listening?” she half shouted. The skin of the Soft Blade tightened in response. “While you’re jerking me around, the Jellies are out
there killing humans. Who’s in charge? I won’t do a damn thing until—”
The volume of the voice was enough to make her ears hurt: “You WILL comply, or you WILL be shot! You have ten seconds to obey. Nine. Eight. Seven—”
For just a moment, Kira imagined pulling the Soft Blade over herself and letting the troopers shoot her. She was pretty sure the xeno could protect her against all but the largest of their weaponry. But if the fighting on Nidus was anything to go by, the largest would be more than enough to hurt her, and then there would be the consequences for Falconi and the rest of his crew.…
“Fine! Fine!” she said, tamping down her anger. She wasn’t going to lose control. Not now, not ever again. At her urging, the Soft Blade returned to its normal relaxed state.
She reached for her eyes, hating that she was once again going to lose access to a computer.
Once the contacts were on the floor, the voice returned: “Hands back on your head. Good. Now, when I tell you, you’re going to stand up and walk to the other side of the terminal. You will see an open door. Go through that door. If you turn to the side, you will be shot. If you try to go back, you will be shot. If you lower your hands, you will be shot. If you do anything unexpected, you will be shot. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” “Walk now.”
It was awkward, but Kira got to her feet without using her arms for balance. Then she started forward.
“Faster!” said the voice.
She quickened her pace, but not by much. She’d be damned if she was going to run for them like a server bot programmed to obey their every word.
The battle drones followed her as she walked, their incessant buzzing as maddening as a headache. As she passed the troopers, they closed in behind her, forming a wall of iron, blank and impassive.
At the far end of the terminal was the open door the voice had promised. Another group of troopers waited for her on the other side—a double row of them standing with their weapons trained on her.
Keeping to the same measured pace, Kira left the terminal behind and walked out into the concourse beyond. It was a large chamber (decadent almost with its extravagant use of space), lit by bright panels embedded in the ceiling, which made the whole chamber appear to be bathed in Earth-norm sunlight. The light was needed too, for the walls and floor were dark, and that darkness gave the room an oppressive feel, despite the brightness of the illumination.
As elsewhere, all the doors and passageways leading out of the room had been sealed off, some with freshly welded plates. Benches, terminals, and a few potted trees were distributed in a grid throughout the area, but what really caught her attention was the structure in the very center of the concourse.
It was a polyhedron of some sort, perhaps three meters tall and painted army green. Surrounding it and separated from it by the width of a hand was a wire framework that exactly matched the polyhedron’s shape. A host of thick metal disks (each about the diameter of a dinner plate) were attached to the framework, arranged so the empty space between them was minimized. Every disk had a panel on the back with buttons and a tiny glowing display.
Within the facing side of the polyhedron was a door, and the door stood open. The polyhedron was hollow. Inside was a single chamber so dim and shadowy she couldn’t make out the details.
Behind and above her, she heard the troopers and the drones stop as well. “Inside. Now!” said the voice.
Kira knew she was testing their patience, but she paused a little longer, savoring her last moment of freedom. Then she steeled herself and walked forward and entered the polyhedron.
A second later, the door slammed shut behind her, and the dark confines rang with what felt and sounded like her death knell.
Several minutes passed, during which Kira listened to the troopers thudding about as they shifted equipment into place next to her prison.
Then a new voice sounded outside the door: a man with a rough, burred accent so thick she wished she still had her overlays to provide subtitles.
“Ms. Navárez, can you hear me?”
His words were muffled by the walls, but she could hear well enough. “Yes.”
“My name is Colonel Stahl. I’ll be debriefing you.”
Colonel. That wasn’t a navy rank. “What are you? Army?”
A brief hesitation on his part. “No, ma’am. UMCI. Intelligence.”
Of course. Same as Tschetter. Kira nearly laughed. She should have guessed. “Am I under arrest, Colonel Stahl?”
“No, ma’am, not as such. You are being held in accordance with article thirty-four of the Stellar Security Act, which states—”
“Yes, I’m familiar with it,” she said.
Another pause, this time as if Stahl was surprised. “I see. I realize your accommodations aren’t what you were expecting, Ms. Navárez, but you have to appreciate our position. We’ve seen all sorts of crazy stuff from the nightmares over the past few months. We can’t afford to trust the xeno you’re carrying.”
She bit back a sarcastic response. “Yes, alright. I get it. Now, can we please—”
“Not quite yet, ma’am. Let me be explicitly clear, lest there be any, ah, unwarranted accidents down the road. The disks you saw on the outside of your cell, do you know what they are?”
“Shaped charges. Self-forging penetrators. The walls of your cell are electrified. If you break the current, the charges will detonate and crush you
and everything around you into a molten-hot ball less than half a meter across. Not even your xeno can survive that. Do you understand?”
“Do you have any questions?”
She had lots of questions. A bedevilment of questions. So many questions, she doubted she would ever find enough answers. But she had to try. “What’s going to happen to the crew of the Wallfish?”
“They’ll be detained and interrogated until the full extent of their involvement with you, the suit, and the Jellies is determined.”
Kira swallowed her frustration. The UMC couldn’t really be expected to do otherwise. Didn’t mean she had to like it. Still, there was no point in antagonizing Stahl. Not yet. “Okay, so are you going to debrief me or what?”
“Whenever you’re ready, Ms. Navárez. We have the recording of your initial conversation with Captain Akawe on Malpert Station, so why don’t you begin there and bring us up to date?”
So Kira told him what he wanted to know. She spoke quickly, concisely
—striving to present the information in the most organized fashion possible. First, she explained their reasons for leaving 61 Cygni for Bughunt. Second, she described what they had discovered on Nidus. Third, she recounted the events of the nightmare attack. And fourth, she outlined in painstaking detail the offer of friendship Tschetter had conveyed from the rebellious Jellies.
The one thing Kira didn’t tell Stahl was her role in the creation of the nightmares. She’d planned on it. She’d promised Falconi she would. But the way the League was treating her did nothing to engender a sense of charity. If the information could have helped them win the war, then she would have shared it, regardless of any discomfort. But as she saw no way it could, she didn’t.
Afterward, Stahl was silent for so long that she began to wonder if he was still there. Then he said, “Your ship mind can provide corroboration?”
Kira nodded, even though he couldn’t see. “Yes, just ask him. He also has all the relevant records from the Darmstadt.”
“I see.” The terseness of the colonel’s reply couldn’t hide the underlying anxiety. Her account had shaken him, and more than a little. “In that case
I’d best look at them immediately. If there’s nothing else, Ms. Navárez, then I’ll—”
“Actually…” said Kira. “What?” said Stahl, wary.
She took a breath, preparing herself for what was to come. “You should know, we have a Jelly on the Wallfish.”
And Kira heard the rapid drumbeat of troopers running toward her cell. “Everything okay, sir?” someone called out.
“Yes, yes,” said Stahl, irritable. “I’m fine. Get out of here.” “Yessir.” The weighted footsteps retreated.
Stahl swore quietly. “Now, Navárez, what the hell do you mean you’ve got a goddamn Jelly on the Wallfish? Explain.”
When she finished, Stahl swore again.
“What are you going to do?” she asked. If the UMC tried to force their way onto the Wallfish, there wasn’t a whole lot Gregorovich could do to stop them, not without taking drastic and most likely suicidal measures.
“… Give Earth Central a call. This is way above my pay grade, Navárez.”
Then Kira heard Stahl walk away, and the clamor of the troopers’ footsteps followed, rising and swelling until the sound broke like a passing wave, leaving her alone in silence.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” she said, feeling a certain perverse satisfaction.
Kira looked around.
The inside of the polyhedron was empty. No bed. No toilet. No sink. No drain. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of the same green plating. Above her, a small round light provided the only source of illumination. Slits with fine mesh covers edged the ceiling: vents for airflow, she assumed.
And there was her. The only occupant of the strange, faceted prison.
She couldn’t see them, but she assumed there were cameras recording her, and that Stahl or someone else was watching everything she did.
Let them watch.
Kira willed the Soft Blade to cover her face, and her vision expanded to encompass both the infrared and the electromagnetic.
Stahl hadn’t lied. The walls glowed with bluish loops of force, and between the end points of each loop ran a snake of twisting electricity, bright and shining. The leads weren’t built into the walls; it looked to Kira as if the current was coming from the framework that held the shaped charges, flowing through wire contacts dotted across the entire polyhedron. Even the floor glowed with the soft haze of an induced magnetic field.
Over the door and in the corners of the ceiling, Kira spotted several small disturbances in the fields: knot-like eddies that connected to tiny threads of electricity. She’d been right. Cameras.
She allowed the mask to withdraw and sat on the floor. There was nothing else to do.
For a moment, anger and frustration threatened to overwhelm her, but then she beat them back. No. She wasn’t going to allow herself to get worked up over things she couldn’t change. Not this time. Whatever was going to happen, she’d strive to face it with a sense of self-control. Things were difficult enough without making them harder on herself.
Besides, coming to Sol had been their only real option. The offer from the Knot of Minds was too crucial to risk delay by trying to pass it along from another system in the League. With all the jamming and fighting going on, there was no guarantee the intel would have gotten through. And then there was Itari; the Jelly was an important link to the Knot of Minds, and Kira needed to be there to translate for it. She supposed they could have just jumped in, transmitted the information to the League, and then jumped out. But that would have been a dereliction of duty. If nothing else, they owed it to Captain Akawe to deliver the Jellies’ message in person.
Kira just wished that she hadn’t gotten Falconi and the rest of the crew tangled up in her mess. That she felt guilty about. Hopefully the UMC wouldn’t detain them for too long. A small consolation, but the only one she could think of at the moment.
A deep breath, and then another as Kira tried to empty her mind. When that didn’t work, she recalled a favorite song, “Tangagria,” and let the
melody displace her thoughts. And when she tired of the song, she switched to another, and then another.
After what felt like hours, she heard the heavy tread of an approaching suit of power armor. The armor stopped next to the cell, and then a narrow slot in the door was pulled open and a metal-clad hand shoved a tray of food toward her.
She took it, and the hand withdrew. The cover to the slot clicked back into place, and the trooper said, “When you’re done, bang on the door.”
Then the footsteps withdrew, but not very far.
Kira wondered how many troopers were standing guard. Just the one? Or was there a whole squad of them?
She placed the tray on the floor and sat cross-legged before it. With a single look, she cataloged the contents: a paper cup full of water. A paper plate with two ration bars, three yellow tomatoes, half a cucumber, and a slice of orange melon. No fork. No knife. No seasoning.
She sighed. She’d had enough ration bars to last the rest of her life, but at least the UMC was feeding her. And the fresh produce was a welcome treat.
As she ate, she eyed the slot in the door. Things could obviously pass through it without triggering the explosives. If she could sneak a fiber or two through the seams, maybe she could find a way to turn off the current on the outside of the cell.…
No. She wasn’t trying to escape. Not this time. If she—or more accurately the Soft Blade—could help the League, then she had a responsibility to stay. Even if they were a bunch of assholes.
When she finished eating, she shouted at the door a few times, and as promised, the trooper came and took the tray away.
After that, she tried pacing, but the walls were only two and a half steps apart, so she soon gave up and instead did push-ups, squats, and handstands until she burned off her nervous energy.
She’d just finished when the light overhead began to dim and grow red.
In less than a minute, it plunged her into almost total darkness.
Despite her resolution not to worry or obsess, and despite her tiredness, Kira had difficulty falling asleep. Too much stuff had happened during the day for her to just relax and drift off into unconsciousness. Her thoughts
kept going round and round—returning each time to the nightmares—and none of it was useful. It didn’t help that the floor was hard, and even with the suit, she found it uncomfortable.
She concentrated on slowing her breathing. Everything else might be outside of her control, but that much she could do. Gradually her pulse slowed and the tension drained from her neck, and she could feel a welcome coolness creeping through her limbs.
While she waited, she counted the cell’s faces: twelve in total, which made it a … dodecahedron? She thought so. In the faint red light, the walls appeared brown, and the color and the concave shape reminded her of the inside of a walnut shell.
She laughed softly. “—and count myself a king of infinite space…” She wished Gregorovich could see. He of all people would appreciate the joke.
She hoped he was okay. If he behaved himself with the UMC, he might get off with a fine and a few citations. Ship minds were too valuable to ground over even relatively major infractions. However, if he yammered at them the way he had during some of his conversations with her, and the UMC decided he was unstable, the League wouldn’t hesitate to yank him out of the Wallfish and ban him from flying. Either way, he was going to have to endure a gauntlet of psych tests, and Kira didn’t know if Gregorovich was willing or able to hide the crazy. If he didn’t—
She stopped, annoyed with herself. Those were the sorts of thoughts she needed to avoid. What would be would be. All that mattered was the present. What was, not word-castles and hypotheticals. And right then, what she needed to do was sleep.
It must have been almost three in the morning before her brain finally allowed her to sink into welcome unconsciousness. She’d hoped that the Soft Blade might choose to share another vision with her, but though she dreamed, her dreams were her own.
The light in the cell brightened.
Kira’s eyes snapped open, and she sat upright, heart pounding, ready to go. When she saw the walls of her cell and remembered where she was, she growled and bounced her fist against her thigh.
What was taking the League so long? Accepting the offer of support from Tschetter’s Jellies was a no-brainer. So why the delay?
She stood, and a faint layer of dust fell from her body. Alarmed, she checked the floor underneath herself.
It appeared the same as before.
Kira let out her breath, relieved. If the Soft Blade had chewed through the plating during the night, she would have been in for an explosive surprise. The xeno had to know better, though. It wanted to live as much as she did.
“Behave yourself,” she murmured.
A fist pounded on the outside of the door, startling her. “Navárez, we have to talk,” said Stahl.
Finally. “I’m listening.”
“I have some additional questions for you.” “Ask away.”
And Stahl did. Questions about Tschetter—had the major seemed to be in her right state of mind, had she been as Kira remembered from the Extenuating Circumstances, and so forth and so on—questions about the Jellies, questions about the Seeker and the Staff of Blue, and also many, many questions about the nightmares.
Finally Stahl said, “We’re done here.”
“Wait,” said Kira. “What happened to the Jelly? What did you do about it?”
“The Jelly?” said Stahl. “We moved it to biocontainment.” A sudden fear struck Kira. “Is it … is it still alive?”
The colonel seemed to take a certain offense at that. “Of course, Navárez. What do you take us for, complete incompetents? It took some doing, but we managed to incentivize your, ah, tentacle-covered friend to move from the Wallfish to the station.”
Kira wondered what that incentivizing had involved, but she decided it was wiser not to probe. “I see. So what is the League going to do about this? Tschetter, the Knot of Minds, and all the rest of it?”
“That’s need-to-know, ma’am.”
She gritted her teeth. “Colonel Stahl, after everything that’s happened, don’t you think I ought to be part of this conversation?”
“Maybe so, ma’am, but that’s not up to me.”
Kira took a calming breath. “Can you at least tell me how long I’m going to be held here?” If the League was going to transfer her to a UMC ship, that would be fairly clear evidence that they were going to take her to meet with the Knot of Minds so she could help negotiate the terms of alliance.
“You’ll be moved to a packet ship at zero nine hundred hours tomorrow and taken to the LaCern research station for further examination.”
“Excuse me?” said Kira, nearly sputtering. “Why would you … I mean, isn’t the League going to at least talk with the Knot of Minds? Who else do you have to translate for you? Iska? Tschetter? We don’t even know if she’s still alive! And I’m the only one who can actually speak the Jellies’ language.”
Stahl sighed, and when he answered, he sounded far more tired than he had a moment ago. “We’re not going to talk with them, Navárez.” And Kira realized he was breaking protocol by telling her.
A horrible sense of dread came over her. “What do you mean?” she asked, not believing.
“I mean that the Premier and his advisors have decided that the Jellies are too dangerous to trust. Hostis Humani Generis, after all. Surely you heard. It was announced before you left Sixty-One Cygni.”
“So what are they going to do?” she said, nearly whispering.
“It’s already done, Navárez. The Seventh Fleet departed today under the command of Admiral Klein to attack the Jelly fleet stationed at the star Tschetter gave us info on. It’s a K-type star about a month and a half away. Objective is to smash the Jellies when they’re least expecting it, make sure they can’t ever threaten us again.”
“But…” Kira could think of any number of things wrong with that plan. The UMC might be cast-iron bastards, but they weren’t stupid. “They’ll see the Seventh coming. And they can jump out before you get close enough to shoot. Our only chance is to take out the leadership before—”
“We’ve got it covered, ma’am,” said Stahl, terse as ever. “We haven’t been sitting on our hands the past six months. The Jellies might outclass and outgun us, but if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s codging together makeshift solutions. We’ve got ways of keeping them from seeing us and ways to keep them from jumping out. Won’t last long, but it’ll last long enough.”
“Then what about Tschetter’s Jellies?” Kira asked. “The Knot of Minds?”
Stahl grunted. When he spoke again, his voice had acquired a brittle tone, as if he were guarding himself. “A batch of hunter-seekers was dispatched toward the meeting location.”
“Eliminate with extreme prejudice.”
Kira felt as if she’d been struck. She wasn’t the biggest fan of the League, but she’d never thought of it as being actively evil. “What the hell, Colonel? Why would—”
“It’s a political decision, Navárez. Out of our hands. It’s been determined that leaving any of their leadership alive, even if they’re rebels, is too great a risk for humanity. This isn’t a war, Navárez. This is extermination. Eradication. First we break the Jellies, and then we can focus on taking out these nightmares.”
“It’s been determined,” she said, spitting out the words with all the scorn she could muster. “Determined by who?”
“By the Premier himself.” A brief pause, then: “Sorry, Navárez. That’s the way it is.”
The colonel started to walk away, and Kira shouted after, “Yeah, well fuck the Premier and fuck you too!”
She stood there, breathing heavily, fists clenched by her sides. Only then did she notice that the Soft Blade—that she—was covered with spikes poking through her jumpsuit. Again her temper had gotten the better of her. “Bad, bad, bad,” she whispered, and she wasn’t sure if she meant herself or the League.
Calm but still filled with a cold, clinical anger, Kira sat cross-legged on the floor while she tried to think through the situation. In retrospect, it seemed apparent that Stahl didn’t approve of the Premier’s decision either. That Stahl would tell her the League’s plans meant something, although she wasn’t sure what. Maybe he wanted her forewarned for some reason.
That hardly mattered now. The League’s impending betrayal of the Knot of Minds was far more important than her own troubles. Finally they had a chance of peace (with the Jellies at least) and the Premier had to throw it away because he wasn’t willing to try. Was trying so great a risk, after all?
Frustration joined anger within Kira. She hadn’t even voted for the Premier—none of them had!—and he was going to set them at perpetual odds with the Jellies. Fear was driving them, she thought, not hope. And as events had taught her, fear was a poor guide indeed.
What was the Premier’s name? She couldn’t even recall. The League tended to shuffle through them like cards.
If only there was a way to warn the Knot of Minds. Maybe then some sort of alliance could be saved. Kira wondered if the Soft Blade could somehow contact the Jellies. But no, whatever signals the xeno could produce, they seemed to be indiscriminate, blasted forth to the whole of the galaxy. And luring even more Jellies and nightmares to Sol would hardly be helpful.
If she could somehow manage to break out, then—then what? Kira hadn’t seen the file of information Tschetter had given Akawe (and that the Darmstadt had copied over to the Wallfish), but she felt sure there had to be contact information in it: times, frequencies, and locations, that sort of thing. But she doubted that the UMC technicians would have left even a single copy of the file on the Wallfish’s computers, and Kira had no idea whether Gregorovich had bothered to memorize any of the information.
If not—and Kira thought it would be irresponsible to assume otherwise
—then Itari would be their only hope of warning the Knot of Minds. She’d not only have to rescue herself, she’d also have to rescue Itari, get the Jelly to a ship, and then fly the ship out of the system, where they’d be clear of any jamming, and the whole time the UMC would be doing their damnedest to stop them.
It was the sheerest fantasy, and Kira knew it.
She groaned and looked up at the faceted ceiling. She felt so helpless it hurt. Of all the torments a person could endure, that—she felt sure—was the worst of all.
Breakfast was a long time coming. When it arrived, she could hardly eat, her stomach was so cramped and unsettled. After disposing of the tray, she sat in the center of the cell, meditated, and tried to think of what she could do.
If only I had my concertina. Playing would help her concentrate, of that she felt sure.
No one else came to see her for the rest of the day. Kira’s anger and frustration remained, but boredom smothered them like a blanket. Without her overlays, she was again left with nothing but the contents of her mind for amusement. And her thoughts were far from amusing at the moment.
In the end, she did what she always did when trying to while away the time during each of the long FTL trips she’d endured since leaving Sigma Draconis. Which was to say, she dozed, drifting into the hazy half-sleep that allowed the Soft Blade to preserve her strength while still keeping ready for whatever might happen next.
And so she spent the day, her only interruption being the bland lunch and even blander dinner the troopers delivered.
Then the lights dimmed to red, and her half-sleep became a full-sleep.
A tremor ran through the floor.
Kira’s eyes snapped open, memories of the Extenuating Circumstances coursing through her. It might have been midnight. It might have been three in the morning. There was no way to tell, but she’d been lying on her side for so long her hip was sore and her arm was numb.
Another tremor, larger than the first one, and with it, an odd twisting sensation, similar to what she’d felt in the maglev. A moment of vertigo caused her to grab the floor for support, and then her balance steadied.
A shot of adrenaline cleared the last of her sleep haze. There was only one explanation: the hab-ring had wobbled. Shit. Not good. The very definition of not good. Jellies or nightmares—someone was attacking Orsted Station.
She looked at one of the cameras. “Hey! What’s going on?” But no one answered.
A third tremor shook the cell, and the light overhead flickered. Somewhere in the distance, she heard a thud that might have been an explosion.
Kira went cold as she dropped into survival mode. The station was under attack. Was she safe? That depended on the cell’s power source, assuming she wasn’t hit by a missile or a laser. If the cell was hooked up to the main
reactor, and the reactor went offline, the explosives surrounding her could detonate. Same if there was a large enough power surge. On the other hand, if the cell was hooked up to batteries, then she might be okay. It was a gamble, though. A big one.
She staggered as the cell shook around her. The light flickered again, more than before, and her heart clutched. For an instant, she was certain she was dead, but … the universe continued to exist. She continued to exist.
Kira straightened and looked at the door.
Screw the UMC and screw the League. She was getting out.