Chapter no 57

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Determined, Kira went to the door.

She had only two options. Find a way to disarm the explosives or find a way to reroute the current so she could break down the door without ending up as a white-hot lump of slag.

The floor rumbled.

Whatever she did, she’d have to do it fast.

Disarming would be safer, but she couldn’t figure out how to disarm it. Even if she could sneak a few tendrils past the slot in the door, she wouldn’t be able to see what she was doing on the other side. Groping around blindly, she’d be just as likely to blow herself up as not.

Okay. That left rerouting the current. She knew the xeno could protect her from being shocked. Which meant it could channel electricity into conductive paths around her body. So theoretically, it ought to be able to form wires or some such that could keep the current from being disrupted if she opened the door. Right? If not, she was dead.

The light dimmed for a second. She might be dead anyway.

She covered her face with the suit and studied the lines of electricity embedded within the polyhedron’s outer surface. A half-dozen of them crossed the door. Those were the ones she’d have to bypass.

Kira took a moment to visualize, with as much detail and clarity as she could manage, what she wanted. More importantly, she tried to impress her intentions on the Soft Blade, as well as the consequences of failure. As Alan would say, “All go boom.”

“No boom,” Kira murmured. “Not this time.”

Then she released the Soft Blade and willed it to act on its own.

A cluster of thin black wires sprouted from her chest and extended outward until they touched the spots, on either side of the door, where the

lines of electricity originated. Then additional wires leaped across the door and joined each contact point to its intended partner.

She could feel the xeno drilling into the walls then, burrowing with atomically sharp tips through the paneling, toward the leads.

The cell shuddered hard enough to rock her, and her breath caught.

Just a few more microns of drilling and … Contact! The glowing, blue-white lines of electricity jumped from their established paths into the wires the Soft Blade had laid down. Around them, the translucent loops of magnetic force shifted as well, roiling and realigning as they sought a new state of equilibrium.

Kira stood frozen, waiting for the inevitable explosion. When it didn’t happen, she relaxed slightly.

Hold, she told the Soft Blade, and reached between the wires. She placed her fingers over the door’s locking mechanism and drove the suit into the door. Metal screeched, and there was a sticky, tearing sound as the seal around the door parted.

The warbling whine of a siren seeped in through the gap.

Feeling as if she were trying to pet a sleeping tigermaul without waking it, Kira slowly pushed the door outward.

It swung open with a protesting squeal, but it did open. She almost laughed. No boom.

Then Kira stepped forward. The wires warped around her as she passed through the doorway, and though the lines of electricity bent, they never broke.


The concourse had become a garish nightmare. Emergency lights painted the walls red, while rows of yellow arrows glowed in the floor and the ceiling. The arrows pointed spinward, and she knew if she followed them, they would lead her to the nearest storm shelter.

Now what?

“Don’t move!” shouted a man. “Hands on your head!”

Kira turned and saw two power troopers standing by a pillar over nine meters to her right. One of them held a blaster, the other a slug thrower. Behind them, a quartet of drones rose off the floor and hung whirring overhead.

“You’ve got five seconds to comply or I’m putting a bolt through your head!” shouted the trooper with the blaster.

Kira lifted her arms and took a single step away from her cell. Two thin tendrils still connected her to the bypass circuits the suit had formed across the doorway.

The troopers stiffened, and the buzzing from the drones increased as the machines flew out and took up positions in a broad, rotating circle around her.

She took another step.


A gold slug flattened itself on the deck in front of her, and she felt a pinch in her left calf as a fragment struck her.

“I’m not shitting you, lady! We will ventilate you! On the floor, right now! I’m not saying it a—”

“Don’t be stupid,” she said in a sharp voice. “You’re not going to shoot me, Marine. Do you know how much trouble you’d be in with Colonel Stahl if you did? The UMC lost a lot of good people getting me here.”

“Fuck that noise. We’ve got orders to stop you if you try to escape, even if it means killing you. Now get on the goddamn floor!”

“Okay. Okay.”

Kira did the math. She was only about a meter and a half from the cell.

Hopefully that was enough …

She bent, as if to kneel, and then tucked and allowed herself to stumble forward into a roll. As she did, she yanked the wires out of the cell, back toward herself.

A white-hot flash obliterated her sight, and a thunderclap slammed into her so hard, she felt it in the roots of her teeth.

If not for her suit, the blast would have thrown Kira halfway across the concourse. As it was, the xeno kept her anchored against the deck, like a barnacle holding firm against a tsunami. A suffocating heat enveloped her

—a heat too intense for even the Soft Blade to fully protect her.

Then cooler air washed over her and her vision cleared. Dazed, Kira got to her feet.

The explosion had torn apart several meters of the floor, leaving behind a crater of crushed decking, wiring, pipes, and unidentifiable pieces of machinery. In the center of the crater was the misshapen, half-melted lump of metal and composite that had been the polyhedron.

Shrapnel had sprayed the ceiling and floor in a wide circle around the epicenter. A jagged piece of casing from one of the shaped charges had embedded itself into the deck only a few centimeters from her head.

Kira hadn’t expected the explosion to be so powerful. The UMC must have really wanted to stop the Soft Blade from escaping. The charges had been intended not just to kill but to obliterate.

She had to find Itari.

Off to the side, the two Marines lay sprawled on the floor. One of them moved his arms aimlessly, as if unsure which direction was up. The other had gotten to his hands and knees and was crawling toward his blaster.

Three of the drones lay broken on the floor. The fourth hovered tilted at an awkward angle, its blades rotating in fitful starts.

Kira stabbed the drone with a blade the xeno formed from the hand it had made for her. The ruined machine crashed to the floor with a pitiful whine as its propellers spun to a stop.

Then she sprinted across the concourse and tackled the Marine reaching for his blaster. She knocked him sprawling onto his belly. Before the man could react, she jammed the Soft Blade into the joints of his armor and cut the power lines, immobilizing him. The armor weighed a ton (more than that, actually), but she flipped him over, planted a palm on his faceplate, and ripped it away.

“—answer me, dammit!” the man shouted. Then he clamped his mouth shut and glared at her with fear disguised as anger. His eyes were green, and he looked about as young as Trig, although that meant nothing on its own.

So. Comms weren’t working. That was to her advantage. Still, Kira hesitated for a second. Escaping the cell had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, but now the reality of the situation crashed down upon her. There was no hiding on a space station. No avoiding the ever-present cameras. The UMC would be able to track her every move. And though comms were down, as soon as she asked the Marine about Itari, he would know where she wanted to go.

The man saw her indecision. “Well?” he said, sneering. “What the fuck are you waiting for? Get it over with.”

He thinks I’m going to kill him. The realization seemed so unjust, it left Kira feeling defensive.

The station lurched underneath them, and a pressure alert sounded with strident urgency in the distance.

“Listen to me,” she said, “I’m trying to help you, asshole.” “Sure you are.”

“Shut up and listen. We’re being attacked. Might be the nightmares. Might be the Jellies. Doesn’t matter. Either way, if they blow us up, it’s game over. That’s it. We lose. You get it?”

“Bullshit,” said the Marine, spitting in her face. “Admiral Klein just set out with the Seventh to kick those sumbitches back to the Stone Age. He’ll see they get what’s coming to them.”

“You don’t understand, Marine. The Jelly that came here with me on the Wallfish—the one you’ve got locked up—it came here with a peace offer. Peace. If it dies, how do you think the rest of the Jellies will take it? How do you think the Premier will take it?” Now Kira saw indecision similar to her own appear on the man’s face. “That Jelly gets blown up, it isn’t going to matter what the Seventh does. You understand? How long do you think this station is going to last?”

As if to punctuate her question, everything twisted around them as Orsted wobbled even more than before.

Kira swallowed a surge of bile, feeling green. “We have to get that Jelly out of here.”

The Marine squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Then he shook his head—making a face as if he were in pain—and said, “Goddammit. Biocontainment. That’s where they took the Jelly. Biocontainment.”

“Where i—”

“This deck. Up-spin. By the hydroponics bay.” “And what about the Wallfish crew?” “Holding cells. Same section. Can’t miss it.”

Kira shoved him back and stood. “Okay. You made the right decision.”

He spat again, this time on the floor. “You betray us, I’ll come kill you myself.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” said Kira, already moving away. It would take him at least half an hour to extricate himself from the power armor, so she figured he wasn’t a threat. The other Marine, though, was starting to move. She hurried over, grabbed the top of his helmet, pulled open the casing on his back, and ripped out his armor’s cooling system. The armor immediately shut down to avoid melting.

There. Just let them try to follow her now!

Kira left them and started to run up-spin, against the direction of the yellow arrows. Hide me, she told the Soft Blade. A soft, silk-like rustle passed across her skin, and when she glanced down, Kira could see through herself, as if her body had turned to glass.

Thermals would still pick her up, but she didn’t think it likely the station’s interior cameras were full-spectrum. Either way, it would at least be harder for the UMC to spot her like this. How long until troops arrived to investigate the implosion of her cell? Not long, she thought. Not long at all, even if Orsted Station was under attack.

Through the concourse exit was a long hallway. Empty. Everyone was either in hiding, helping emergency services, or fighting the attackers. Whatever the reasons, Kira was grateful. She really didn’t want to fight a bunch of Marines. They were on the same side after all. Or they were supposed to be.

Down the hallway she ran, avoiding the occasional moving walkway. She was faster on foot. The whole time, she looked for lettering on the walls that might indicate the location of the hydroponics bay. Most people just used their overlays to navigate, but legally, every ship and station had to have clearly marked signage in the case of emergencies.

This sure as hell qualifies as an emergency, Kira thought. Legal requirements or not, the lettering she did see was small, faint, and hard to read, which kept forcing her to slow in order to decipher it.

At one intersection between the hall and another passageway, she jogged around a fountain where the stream of water traced two-thirds of an infinity symbol as it rose and fell. It was a small thing, but the sight fascinated Kira in an obscure way. The Coriolis effect never failed to mess with her sense of how gravity (or the appearance of gravity) should work. She supposed she wouldn’t find anything strange about it if she had grown up in a hab-ring, especially a smaller one like Orsted’s.

She must have run almost half a klick, and she was starting to wonder whether the Marine had lied to her and she should turn back, when she spotted two lines of faint green lettering on a nearby corner.

The upper line said: Hydroponics Bay 7G

The bottom line said: Detention 16G

On the other side of the hallway was another set of lettering: Biocontainment & Decontamination 21G. Down that way, Kira saw what appeared to be a security checkpoint: a closed door flanked with armored portals and a pair of viewscreens. Two Marines in full exos stood watch outside the door. Even with the station under attack, they hadn’t left their post. Kira wouldn’t be surprised if there were more of them on the other side of the door.

She did the math. She might be able to get close enough to disable the armor of the two Marines, but anyone past that would be a challenge. And as soon as she broke Itari out, the rest of the UMC would know where she was.

Shit. If she attacked, there was no predicting what would happen next. Events would spin out of control in a shockingly short time, and then … and then a lot of people might end up dead.

A faint tremor passed through the deck. Whatever she was going to do, she had to do it now. Any longer and the station itself might spin out of control.

She growled and turned away from biocontainment. Fuck it. She needed help. If she could free the crew of the Wallfish, she knew they would have her back. Maybe, together, they could figure out a solution. Maybe.

Kira’s pulse was loud in her ears as she hurried down the side corridor that led toward the holding cells. If there was as much security around detention as biocontainment, she wasn’t sure what she would do. The temptation to let loose with the Soft Blade was strong, but Kira had more than learned her lesson. No matter what, she couldn’t make another mistake like the one that had resulted in the creation of the nightmares. The galaxy wouldn’t survive it.

The lettering on the walls led her through several lengths of identical hallway.

As she rounded one more corner, she spotted two people—one man, one woman—kneeling next to a pressure door halfway down the corridor, wrist

deep in a hatch they’d pried open in the wall, the actinic flicker of electricity lighting their faces. The pair was shirtless, pantless, wearing only drab grey shorts. Their skin was chalk white, and everywhere but their faces was covered with gleaming blue tattoos. The lines formed circuit-like patterns that reminded Kira of the shapes she’d seen in the cradle on Adrasteia.

Because of their lack of clothes, it took her a moment to recognize the two people as the Entropists, Veera and Jorrus.

She was still invisible and too far away to hear, and yet somehow the Entropists detected her. Never looking her direction, Jorrus said, “Ah, Prisoner Navárez—”

“—you were able to join us. We—” “—hoped as much.”

Then the Entropists wrenched something within the wall, and the pressure door snapped open to reveal a stark holding cell.

Falconi stepped out. “Well, about time,” he said.

Kira allowed her invisibility to subside, and Falconi spotted her. “There you are,” he said. “I was afraid we were going to have to go hunting for you.”

“Nope,” she said. She trotted over. The Entropists had moved on to the next door.

“Were you locked up too?” Falconi asked. She jerked her chin. “You know it.”

“Don’t suppose you got free without being noticed?” “Not a chance.”

He bared his teeth. “Shit. We gotta move fast.” “How did you manage to escape?” she asked.

Veera laughed, a quick, high sound, full of tension. “Always they take the robes and think—”

“—that is enough. We are more than our many-colored garments, Prisoner.”

Falconi grunted. “Lucky for us.” To Kira he said, “Any idea who’s hitting the station?”

She was about to say no, but then she stopped to think for a moment. No hint existed of the compulsion she always felt when the Jelly ships were near. Which meant … “Pretty sure it’s the nightmares,” she said.

“Great. Even more reason to move fast. There’ll be plenty of confusion to cover our departure.”

“Are you sure?” Kira said.

Falconi caught her meaning at once. If he and the rest of the crew broke out, their pardons would be null and void, and unlike the local government at Ruslan, the UMC wouldn’t stop pursuing them at the system border. The Wallfish crew would be fugitives throughout the entirety of known space, with the possible exception of Shin-Zar and various tiny freeholdings out on the fringes.

“You’re damn right I am,” he said, and Kira felt an immediate glow of comradery. At least she wouldn’t be alone. “Veera. Jorrus. Have you managed to get a line open to Gregorovich yet?”

The Entropists shook their heads. They were still fiddling with the wiring in the wall alongside the next pressure door. “Access to the station’s system is restricted and—”

“—we do not have transmitters powerful enough to reach the Wallfish

through all these walls.” “Shit,” said Falconi.

“Where’s security?” said Kira. She’d expected to find a whole squad of Marines stationed by the holding cells.

Falconi jerked his chin toward the Entropists. “Not sure. Those two hacked the cameras to buy us time. We’ve got about five minutes before the station control gets eyes on us again.”

Veera held up a finger without taking her attention from the inside of the hatch. “We may be able to spoof the—”

“—station’s sensors and buy us some more time,” said Jorrus.

Falconi grunted again. “See what you can do.… Can’t you get that blasted door open?”

“Trying, Captain,” they said.

“Let me,” Kira said. She raised her right hand, letting the Soft Blade fuse its replica of her fingers into blades and spikes.

“Careful,” said Falconi. “There could be pressure lines or high-voltage wires in the wall.”

“It should not be—”

“—a concern,” said the Entropists, and moved aside.

Kira moved forward, glad to finally be doing something. She slammed her fist into the metal and willed the Soft Blade outward. It spread across the surface of the wall, sending seeking tendrils deep within the mechanism holding the door closed. Then she pulled, and with a screech, the bolts snapped and the door slid back on its greased track.

Inside was a small holding cell. Sparrow stood half-crouched in front of the bunk, as if ready to fight. “Thule,” she said as she saw Kira. “Glad you’re on our side.”

Falconi snapped his fingers. “Perimeter watch, now.”

“Roger,” said the woman, hurrying out of the cell. She trotted down the corridor and peeked around the corner.

“Over there!” Falconi said to Kira, pointing at another pressure door. Kira went to the second door and, like the first, ripped it open. Inside, Hwa-jung rose from where she’d been sitting. “Fighting!” the machine boss said, and smiled.

“Fighting,” said Kira. “This one!” said Falconi.

Another door and another screech revealed Nielsen. She gave Kira a quick nod and went to stand with Falconi.

Last of all, Kira broke into the cell containing Vishal. He appeared somewhat haggard, but he smiled at her and said, “How delightful.” Further relief broke across his face as he came out and saw Nielsen and the others.

Falconi returned to the Entropists. “Have you found him yet?” There was a silence that made Kira want to scream with impatience. Jorrus said, “Uncertain, but it seems that—”

“—they’ve left Trig in stasis on the Wallfish.

“Falconi,” said Kira, lowering her voice. “We have to rescue the Jelly. If we can’t get it out of here, there’s a chance none of this will matter.”

He stared at her, his glacial eyes focused, searching, nearly devoid of emotion, though she could tell that he—like her—was concerned. So concerned that no room for panic existed.

“You sure?” he said, deadly quiet. “I’m sure.”

With that, she saw the switch flip inside him. His expression hardened, and a deadly gleam appeared in his eyes. “Sparrow,” he said.


“We need to jailbreak a Jelly and then somehow get off this hunk of metal. Give me options.”

For a moment, Sparrow looked as if she were going to argue. Then, like Falconi, she seemed to put aside her objections and concentrate only on the problem at hand.

“We could try cutting the power to biocontainment,” said Nielsen, coming over.

Sparrow shook her head. “Won’t work. It has its own backup power sources.” While she spoke, she knelt and pulled up the right leg of her pants. Then she dug her fingers into the skin over her shin, and to Kira’s puzzlement, lifted it off to reveal a small compartment underneath, embedded within the bone. “Pays to be prepared,” said Sparrow in response to Kira’s look.

From the compartment Sparrow produced a narrow, thin-bladed knife of some glassy, non-metallic material, a black wire mesh that she pulled over her hands like a set of gloves, and three small marbles that appeared soft, almost fleshy.

“Someday you’re going to have to explain that,” said Falconi, gesturing toward Sparrow’s shin.

“Someday,” the short-haired woman agreed, covering up the compartment and standing. “But not today.” To Kira she said, “What did you see over at biocontainment?” Kira described the security checkpoint and the two Marines stationed outside. A faint smile crossed Sparrow’s face. “Right, here’s what we do.” She snapped her fingers and beckoned for Veera to come over. “You, Entropist, when I give the signal, I want you to walk over to where the Marines can see you.”

“Is that—”

“Just do it. Kira—”

“I can hide myself,” Kira quickly said. She explained.

Sparrow jerked her sharp chin. “That makes it easier. I’ll take care of the two standing guard. You be ready to jump anyone who comes out. Get it?”

“Got it.”

“Good. Let’s hustle.”

Kira willed herself back to invisibility while she hid with Sparrow in the hall that opened on the central corridor.

“Nice trick, that,” Sparrow said under her breath.

Ahead of them, Veera walked out across the intersection, heading toward biocontainment. The Entropist was more voluptuous than she had appeared when garbed in her gradient robes, and the tattoos across her pale skin only enhanced the impression. The sight was rather distracting, which—Kira had to admit—was the point.

“Go,” said Sparrow. She darted out and to the side, avoiding the Marines’ line of sight.

Kira broke in the opposite direction, and the two of them flanked Veera and took up positions on opposite sides of the passageway that led to biocontainment.

Just as Veera reached the doorway, the Marines spotted her. Kira heard the heavy treads as their armor turned, and a man said with a tone of obvious confusion, “Hey, you! What the—”

He never finished. Sparrow reached around the corner and tossed the fleshy marbles toward the Marines. Three quick bzzts! sounded as the Marines’ exos shot the marbles out of the air.

That was a mistake.

A triple strobe of light flashed the hall, smoke clogged the air, and with her enhanced vision from the Soft Blade, Kira saw flickers of violet EM energy. What the hell?

Sparrow didn’t wait. She sprinted around the corner and disappeared into the smoke. Metallic screeches sounded, and then a moment later, two enormous thuds as the exos crashed to the deck, immobilized.

Kira followed a half step behind. Switching her vision to infrared, she saw the door to biocontainment roll open. Another Marine in power armor stepped out, blaster raised to fire. Behind him or her, she saw three more Marines scrambling to take cover behind desks.

Even with all the sensors of a military-grade exo, the Marine in the doorway never saw her coming. She slammed into his power armor while driving a hundred different fibers from the Soft Blade into the machine. It

took her only a fraction of a second to find the weak spots and disable the exo.

The Marine’s armor locked up and began to fall. Kira pulled it to the side, landed inside biocontainment, and rolled across her shoulders and back to her feet. None of the Marines inside were able to triangulate her exact location, but that didn’t stop them from firing blindly toward the spot she’d been.

Too slow. A laser blast seared a hole through the back of a chair next to her, but Kira was already moving, throwing tendrils across the room and snaring each of the Marines.

Don’t kill, she told the Soft Blade, hoping against hope it would heed.

A clutch of heartbeats later, and the other Marines dropped to the floor. The weight of their armor crushed tables, smashed shelves, and dented the deck.

“Get ’em all?” Sparrow asked, poking her head in.

Kira allowed her invisibility to fade and nodded. Deeper into the room was another door leading to what she recognized as an impressively large decon chamber. Past that was a third pressure door, which she assumed opened to the isolation chamber where Itari was being held.

“Watch my back,” she said. “Roger.”

It might have been possible to get the access codes off the Marines, but Kira saw no point in wasting time. Hurrying forward, she extended her arms and allowed the Soft Blade to flow out and rip open the decon door.

At the other end of the chamber, she saw Itari through the pressure door window. The Jelly was sitting with its tentacles curled underneath it, like the legs of a dead spider.

A flash of relief passed through Kira. At least they were in the right place.

She set herself against the pressure door and again allowed the Soft Blade to worm its way into the mechanism and then to tear.

Clank. The lock broke. Pulling and pushing with the xeno, Kira rolled the door back.

A questioning scent reached her from the Jelly as it unfurled its tentacles. [[Itari here: Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: If you truly want peace, we must leave this place.]]

[[Itari here: Are these two-forms our enemies?]]

[[Kira here: No, but they do not know better. Do not kill them, I ask you.

But do not let yourself be killed either.]] [[Itari here: As you will, Idealis.]]

Kira left to rejoin the others outside biocontainment, and she heard Itari follow with a dry-leaf shuffle of tentacles.

“We good?” Falconi asked as she, Sparrow, and Itari emerged from the smoke. Veera had found a jacket somewhere in the biocontainment offices and was pulling it on, covering herself.

“Yup,” said Sparrow. “Boobs, works every time. Everyone falls for them.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Kira.

Orsted rumbled around them, and Vishal said, “Heavens preserve us, yes.”

“Veera! Jorrus!” said Falconi. “Yessir?”

“Still nothing from Gregorovich?” “Nothing.”


“No. They have him in lockdown.” “He’ll be fighting mad,” said Hwa-jung.

“Good. We can use that,” said Falconi. He rounded on the rest of them. “Right. We’ll go up the main passage. Anyone shows up, break right, take cover. Don’t let ’em use you as hostages. Kira, you’ll have to deal with any opposition. None of us have weapons.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Sparrow. She held up her right hand. The glass-like dagger glinted between her fingers.

Kira gestured at the fallen Marines. “What about—”

“No good,” said Falconi. “They’re locked. Civvies can’t use UMC weapons. Not without authorization. Enough yapping. Let’s—”

With a dull thunk, pressure doors slammed shut around the intersection, closing off the corridor everywhere but the direction Kira had originally come from. There, she heard the thunder of approaching power armor, and then twenty or more Marines trotted into view, carrying blasters, railguns, and heavy turrets. A small cloud of wasp-like drones accompanied them.

“Freeze! Don’t move!” shouted an amplified voice.

Kira and the others, including the Jelly, retreated into the hall leading to biocontainment and hid behind the corners of the doorway.

The voice rang out again: “We know you’re trying to rescue the Jelly, Navárez. Private Larrett told us everything.”

Kira guessed Larrett was the Marine she’d talked to outside her imploded cell. “Bastard,” she muttered.

“Unless anyone has any ideas, we’re shit out of luck,” said Falconi, his face grim.

Then Stahl spoke from the speakers embedded within the glowing ceiling, loud enough to cut through the alarms. “Kira, you don’t want to do this. Fighting isn’t going to help anyone, least of all you. Stand down, tell the Jelly to return to its cell, and no one has to—”

The deck rumbled and twisted underneath them again. Kira didn’t hesitate. She had to do something.

She jumped into the corridor and sent a score of shafts out from her chest and legs. They angled forward and downward, and pierced the deck in different spots.

Don’t lose control. Don’t—

Her ears rang as a bullet skipped off her head, and she felt what were like several punches to her ribs, directly above her heart. Then she pulled the shafts inward, tearing up large chunks of the deck.

At her command, the Soft Blade slammed the pieces of decking together, layering them like scales to form a tall, wedge-shaped shield in front of her. Finger-sized holes—white-hot around the edges and dripping molten metal—peppered the shield as the angry bzzt! of laser fire sounded

throughout the concourse.

Kira took a step forward, and the Soft Blade moved the shield with her. As she did, she reached out farther with the suit and grabbed more pieces of the deck, adding them to the barrier, thickening it, widening it.

“With me!” she shouted, and the crew and the Jelly scurried after her. “Right behind you!” said Falconi.

Bullets whined overhead, and then an explosion shook the shield, and Kira felt the impact through her body.

“Grenade!” shouted Sparrow.

[[Itari here: Can I help, Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: Do not kill anyone if you can avoid it, and do not get in front of me.]]

A pair of drones appeared around the edge of the shield. Kira lanced them with two quick stabs and continued plodding forward. The floor was a tattered mess of twisted girders and exposed pipes; it was difficult to keep her footing.

“Just get us to the terminal!” Falconi said.

Kira nodded, barely paying attention. Even though she couldn’t see what was in front of her, she kept using the suit to grab decking, panels off the wall, benches—any and everything she could use to protect them. She didn’t know how much weight the suit could move or support, but she was determined to find out.

Another grenade hit the shield. That one she barely felt.

Several of the suit’s tentacles encountered something long and smooth and warm (very warm, burning hot even; if she’d touched it with bare flesh, she suspected it would have seared a hole right through her skin): one of the laser turrets. That too she added to the pile, tearing the weapon free from the floor and jamming it into the gap between two benches.

“More drones!” said Vishal.

Before he’d finished speaking, Kira created a web of struts and rods (some metal, some made from the suit itself) between the shield, the ceiling, and the distant walls. In several places, she felt and heard the drones collide with the barrier; the tone of their blades increased from the strain.

She flinched as grenades blew open a hole in the web. “Jesus!” shouted Falconi.

The drones swung toward the hole. One of them darted through, and Itari smacked it out of the air with a well-timed swing of a tentacle. Before the rest could make it past, and before they could find an angle that would allow them to shoot any of the crew, Kira snared the machines out of the air

—like a frog snapping up flies—and crushed them.

All of them.

She could feel the suit growing in size, reinforcing itself with metal and carbon and whatever else it needed from the structure of the station. Her arms seemed thicker, her legs too, and a sense of power coursed through her; she felt as if she could claw her way through solid rock.

The gunfire subsided as the Marines in front of her stopped shooting and started to run back along the concourse, their heavy steps pounding a rapid beat.

Kira bared her teeth. So they’d realized it was pointless to fight. Good.

Now if she could just get everyone safely to the Wallfish, then—

She heard, not saw, the pressure door in front of them slam shut. Then the one beyond it, and so forth and so on down the concourse.

“Shit!” said Nielsen. “They’ve locked us in.” “Stay with me!” said Kira.

She continued forward until she felt her shield bump into the pressure door. The door itself was too large and heavy to cut through in a reasonable amount of time, but the frame around it wasn’t. It took her and the Soft Blade only a few moments of work before the door toppled outward and crashed with deafening results against the deck.

Ten meters down the corridor, the next blast door blocked their way.

Kira repeated the procedure, and the second door soon followed the example of the first. Then a third.… And a fourth.

All of the doors ahead of them seemed to be closed. It wasn’t stopping them, but it did slow Kira down. “The UMC is trying to buy themselves time,” Falconi said to her.

She grunted. “Bet they’re preparing a nice welcome party for us at the terminal.” A loud hissing sounded near the walls. The back of her neck prickled with alarm. Was the air being pumped out or was something being pumped in?

“Gas!” Falconi shouted, and pulled the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose. The others did the same. The cloth molded to their faces, forming skin-tight filters. The Entropists made arcane gestures with their hands, and the lines of their tattoos slid across their faces, forming a paper-thin membrane that covered their mouths and noses.

Kira was impressed. Nanotech of the highest order.

She knew the instant she broke through to the last section of concourse

—the one adjacent to the terminal—as a heavy barrage of bullets, laser blasts, railgun projectiles, and explosives pounded into the barrier she’d built. The impacts rocked her back, but she set her shoulder and pressed forward with deliberate steps.

A third of the way through the concourse section, Falconi tapped her shoulder and said, “Right! Go right!” He pointed toward the terminal entrance.

As Kira started to edge in that direction, the pipes under her feet shook, and she heard a sound like an oncoming avalanche as the Marines charged.

With less than a second to prepare, she wrenched several of the floor girders upward, so they supported the inside of the shield and prevented it from sliding backwards.

“Brace!” she shouted.

Thick as it was, the shield bent and gave as the troopers slammed into it with their power armor. There was a terrible screeching as the soldiers began to tear away pieces of the shield.

“Gotcha,” said Kira, baring her teeth.

She willed hundreds of hairlike fibers through the bulk of the shield, through all the little nooks and crannies and hidden crevices until, sightless creeping, they found the smooth shells of the troopers’ armor. Then she did as she had done before. She sent the fibers boring into the joints and seams of the armor, and she cut every wire and coolant line she could find, stopping only when she encountered the touch of overheated flesh.

It was an effort to stop, but the Soft Blade obeyed her will and respected the boundaries of flesh. Her confidence swelled.

On the other side of the shield, the screeching stopped, and the troopers collapsed with a sound fitting the fall of titans.

“Did you kill them?” asked Nielsen, her voice sounding too loud in the sudden silence.

Kira licked her lips. “No.” Talking felt weird. The shield seemed to occupy a larger part of herself than her own body. She could sense every square centimeter of the barrier. The amount of information was overwhelming. Was the experience similar to what ship minds had to deal with? She wondered.

She was about to detach herself from the shield when more boots sounded ahead of them, at the other end of the concourse.

Before Kira could react, the lights flickered and went out, save for small emergency floods along the floor, and the deck rippled like a wave, causing everyone but Kira and Itari to stagger and fall.

An industrial crash of crumpling metal echoed through the concourse, and a dark dart of veined hull punched through the decking farther up the main hallway, past the newly arrived Marines. Pressure alarms shrieked, and from a weeping cleft in the side of the intruding spaceship poured dozens of scrambling nightmares.

The heavy chatter of cycling machine guns filled the air, along with the electric snap of discharging lasers as the Marines engaged the grotesque invaders.

“Shi-bal!” cried Hwa-jung.

Kira shouted and drove the shield forward, plowing past the limp weight of the troops she’d incapacitated. If the nightmares realized who and what she was, they’d all converge on her. She half trotted, half walked the shield across the floor, and for the moment, she stopped adding material to it, her only concern to escape.

She turned, pivoting the shield around Falconi and the others so her back was to the concourse exit and the terminal beyond. Then she retreated, step by step, until the edges of the shield banged into the wall on either side of the doorway.

Moving quickly, she pulled the shield in toward herself, collapsing it into a dense cap over the doorway. She secured it to the floor, ceiling, and walls with twisted pieces of metal, making it so the only practical way to remove it would be by cutting.

Falconi pounded her on the shoulder. “Leave it!” he shouted.

boom echoed through the terminal as a grenade detonated on the other side of the barrier. A moment later, Marines began to bang on it, producing a muffled din.

The shield would hold, but not for very long.

Kira extricated the suit from the material, and as she did, she felt diminished, reduced to her normal sense of size.

Whirling around, she saw the others had already crossed the small terminal and were forcing open the doors to a maglev car.

From the ceiling came a man’s voice: “This is Udo Grammaticus, stationmaster of this installation. Cease resisting, and I guarantee you won’t be harmed. This is your final warning. There are twenty power troopers outside your—”

He kept talking, but Kira tuned him out. She jogged over to the maglev car as Falconi said, “Can we use it?”

“Aside from the lights, all power’s been cut,” said Hwa-jung. “So we can’t leave?” said Nielsen.

Hwa-jung grunted. “Not like this. Maglev won’t work.”

“There must be another way into the docking ring,” said Vishal.

“How?” said Sparrow. “We’re moving waaay too fast to just jump over. Maybe Kira or the Jelly could make it, but the rest of us would get turned into a bloody smear. It’s a fucking dead end.”

Outside the shield, gunfire continued to erupt: dull thumps that came in controlled bursts as the Marines fought back the nightmares. Or so Kira assumed.

“Yes, thank you,” Falconi said in a dry tone. He turned back to Hwa-jung. “You’re the engineer. Any ideas?” He glanced at the Entropists. “How about you?”

Veera and Jorrus spread their hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Mechanics—”

“—are not our specialty.”

“Don’t give me that. There has to be a way to get us from here to there without killing us.”

The machine boss frowned. “Of course there is, if we had enough time and materials.”

Another boom sounded in the concourse.

“No such luck,” said Falconi. “Come on, anything. Doesn’t matter how far-fetched. Be creative, Ms. Song. That’s what I hired you for.”

Hwa-jung’s frown deepened, and for a moment she was silent. Then, she muttered, “Aigoo,” and scrambled into the maglev car. She ran her hands over the floor, rapping it with her knuckles in different places. Then she waved Kira over and said, “Here. Open the floor here.” And she traced a square on the floor. “Be careful. Just remove the top layer. Don’t damage anything underneath.”

“Got it.”

Kira retraced the square with her index finger, and the tip of her nail scored the grey composite. She repeated the motion, increasing the pressure, and a thin, diamond-like blade extended from her finger and sliced through the first centimeter or so of material. Then she gripped the square—

bonding it to her palm as if with gecko pads—and pulled it free from the rest of the floor, like snapping a cracker along pre-established lines.

Hwa-jung got down onto her hands and knees as she peered into the hole, studying the wires and banks of equipment within. Kira had no idea what any of them were for, but Hwa-jung seemed to understand what she was looking at.

The banging outside the terminal intensified. Kira glanced back at the shield. It was beginning to dent inward. Another minute and she figured she would have to go reinforce it.

Hwa-jung made a sound in the back of her throat and then stood. “I can move the car, but I need a power source.”

“Can’t you—” Falconi started to say.

“No,” said Hwa-jung. “Without power, it is a no-good stupid rock. I can’t do anything with it.”

Kira looked over at the Jelly. [[Kira here: Can you fix this machine?]] [[Itari here: I have no energy source that would work.]]

“What about a set of power armor?” asked Nielsen. “Would that do the trick?”

Hwa-jung shook her head. “Enough power, yes, but it wouldn’t be compatible.”

“Could you use a laser turret?” Kira asked.

The machine boss hesitated, then nodded. “Maybe. If the capacitors can be set to—”

Kira didn’t wait to hear the rest. She jumped out of the car and sprinted back to the makeshift barrier. As she reached it, the banging stopped, which worried her, but she wasn’t going to complain.

Extending the suit in dozens of wriggling tentacles, she rooted through the mangled plug of scraps, searching for the turret she’d buried within the mass. It wasn’t long before she found it: a smooth, hard piece of metal, still warm from being fired. Moving as fast as she dared, she bent and pressed the parts of the shield until she created a tunnel just large enough to pull the turret through—all the while struggling to maintain the structural integrity of the shield and keep the front of it a solid, unmoving face.

“Faster, please!” said Falconi.

“What do you think I’m doing?” she shouted.

The turret came free, and she caught it in her hands. Cradling it like a live bomb, she hurried back to the car and handed the weapon to Hwa-jung. Sparrow tapped her glass-like knife against her thigh as she glanced around. Then she grabbed Kira by the arm and dragged her a few steps


“What?” said Kira.

In a low voice, tight with tension, Sparrow said, “Those grease-heads are going to blast their way in through the ceiling or the walls. Guarantee it. You’d better work up some kinda fortification shit, or we’re goners.”

“On it.”

Sparrow nodded and returned to the car, where Vishal was helping Hwa-jung take apart the turret.

“Everyone stay back!” Kira said. Then she faced the cramped terminal and, as in the concourse, sent forth dozens of lines from the Soft Blade, allowing it to do what was needed. A painfully loud din assaulted her as the xeno started to dismantle the floor, walls, and ceiling. She drew the pieces closer and, fast as she could, began to assemble them into a dome around the front of the maglev docking port.

As the chunks crashed into place, she could feel her sense of self expanding again. It was intoxicating. She distrusted the feeling—distrusted both herself and the Soft Blade—but the lure of more was seductive, and the ease with which she and the xeno were working together bolstered her confidence.

One of the panels she yanked free must have contained the intercom speaker, because she heard sparks, and then the stationmaster’s voice cut out.

Meter by meter, she stripped the terminal, exposing Orsted’s underlying skeleton of cross-joined beams, anodized against corrosion and riddled with holes to save on weight.

Soon she couldn’t see anything but the inside of the dome, and still she kept adding to it. Darkness enveloped them, and from the car, Vishal called, “You’re not making this easy, Ms. Navárez!”

“It’s that or getting shot!” she shouted back. A blast shook the terminal.

“Time to get this show on the road,” said Falconi. “I’m working on it,” said Hwa-jung.

Kira extended herself even farther, stretching to the limits of her reach and finding she could reach yet farther still. Consciousness thinned, spread over a greater and greater area, and the amount of input became disorienting: pressures and scrapes here, pipes there, wires above and below, the tickle of electrical discharges, heat and cold and a thousand different impressions from a thousand different points along the Soft Blade, and all of them squirming, changing, expanding, and inundating her with ever more sensations.

It was too much. She couldn’t oversee it all, couldn’t keep up. In places, her supervision failed, and where it failed, the Soft Blade acted of its own, moving forward with deadly intent. Kira felt her mind fragmenting as she tried to focus first on one place, then another, then another, and each time quickly bringing the suit back to heel, but while she was occupied, it continued to swarm elsewhere, growing … building … becoming.

She was drowning, disappearing into the expanding existence of the Soft Blade. Panic sparked within her, but the spark was too feeble to rein in the suit. A sense of pleasure emanated from the Soft Blade at finally being let loose to pursue its purpose; from it Kira had flashes of … yellow fields with flowers that sang … memories that … a treelike growth with metal scales for bark … disoriented her further, made it almost … a group of long, furry creatures that yipped at her from between brindled mandibles … impossible to concentrate.

In a brief shard of lucidity, the horror of the situation struck Kira. What had she done?

With ears not her own, she heard a sound like doom itself: the measured tramp of armored soldiers marching into the outer part of the terminal. Discomfort, sharp and piercing, disturbed several grasping pseudopods. Startled, she/they retracted.

Attack her/it, would they?

Walls and beams and structural supports crumpled beneath her/their grasp as they collapsed the station in around the shield. The deck buckled, but it didn’t matter. Only finding more mass: more metals, more minerals, more, more, more. A hunger formed inside her/it, an insatiable, world-eating hunger.


The voice sounded as if from the far end of a tunnel. Whoever they were, she/it didn’t recognize the person. Or maybe she/it didn’t care to. There were other, more important things that needed her/its attention.

“Kira!” At a remove, she/it felt hands and shaking and pulling. None of which, of course, could budge her/it from place: her/their cords of banded fibers were too strong. “Kira!” Pain shot through her/its face, but it was so slight and distant as to be easily ignored.

The pain appeared again. And then a third time.

Anger formed in some part of her/itself. She/it looked inward from every direction, with eyes above and eyes below and eyes still made of flesh, and with them beheld a man standing next to her, red-faced and shouting.

He slapped her across the face.

The shock of it was enough to clear Kira’s mind for a moment. She gasped, and Falconi said, “Snap out of it! You’re going to kill us all!”

She could already feel herself slipping back into the morass of the Soft Blade. “Hit me again,” she said.

He hesitated and then did.

Kira’s vision flashed red, but the bright sting on her cheek gave her something outside of the Soft Blade to focus on and help center herself. It was a struggle; gathering the different parts of her mind back together felt as if she were trying to free herself from a pool of grasping hands—one for each fiber of the suit, and all of them freakishly strong.

Fear gave Kira the motivation she needed. Her pulse soared until she teetered on the brink of passing out. But she didn’t, and moment by moment she was able to retreat into herself. At the same time, she recalled the Soft Blade from the surrounding walls and rooms of the station. It fought her at first; it was reluctant to abandon its grand project and surrender what it had already subsumed.

But in the end, it obeyed. The Soft Blade recoiled upon itself, constricting and contracting as it returned to the shape of her body. There was more of it than she needed, and at the thought, ropes of the suit’s material shriveled and turned to dust, leaving nothing useful behind.

Falconi started to lift his hand again. “Wait,” said Kira, and he did.

Her hearing was returning to normal; she noticed the whistle of escaping air and pressure alarms sounding in the distance, overriding all other


“What happened?” said Falconi. She shook her head, still not feeling entirely whole. “You ripped a hole in the hull, nearly spaced us.”

Kira glanced up and quailed as she saw—directly above them—a thin, dark rift of space showing through the ruined ceiling and several layers of ruptured decks. Stars spun past the opening, a crazed kaleidoscope of constellations, dizzying in their speed.

“Lost control. Sorry.” She coughed.

Something clanged against the outside of the dome.

“Hwa-jung!” he shouted. “We need to be outta here. I mean it!” “Aigoo! Stop bothering me!”

Falconi turned back to Kira. “You good to move?”

“Think so.” The Soft Blade’s intrusive presence still wormed restless within her mind, but her sense of identity held strong despite.

From the source of the clang, Kira heard a spitting, hissing noise, like something a congested blowtorch would produce. A spot on the inside of the dome began to glow dull red, then yellow, and almost immediately, she felt the temperature in the space increasing.

“What is that?” said Nielsen.

“Shit!” said Sparrow. “The pricks are using a thermal lance!” “The heat will kill us!” said Vishal.

Falconi gestured. “Everyone in the car!”

“I can stop them!” said Kira, though the thought filled her with fear again. As long as she concentrated upon one area of effort and didn’t let the Soft Blade run amuck … Even as she spoke, she started ripping up the floor within the dome and slapping the pieces onto the glowing hotspot. Fumes shot out sideways from the sections of composite as they turned red and softened.

“Forget it. We gotta go!” shouted Falconi. “Just close the doors. I’ll buy you some time.”

“Stop fucking around and get in the car! That’s an order.”

[[Itari here: Idealis, we must leave.]] The Jelly was already crammed into the front end of the car, tentacles pressed against the sides.

“No! I can hold them off. Let me know when you’re—”

Falconi grabbed her by the shoulders and twisted her toward him. “Now! I’m not leaving anyone behind. Comeon!” By the burning light, his blue

eyes seemed bright as flaming suns.

At that, Kira relented. She released the dome and allowed him to pull her into the car. Sparrow and Nielsen shoved the maglev door shut; it locked with a loud click.

“You trying to get yourself killed?” Falconi growled in Kira’s ear. “You’re not invincible.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Stow it. Hwa-jung, we good to go?” “Almost, Captain. Almost…”

Outside the car, a spray of white-hot metal erupted from the center of the glowing spot as the lance burned its way through the full thickness of the dome. The spray started to move downward, slowly cutting one side of a trooper-sized opening.

“Don’t look at it!” said Sparrow. “It’s too bright. It’ll burn out your retinas.”


“Ready!” said the machine boss. Kira and everyone else turned to face her. The turret lay in parts between her feet. The power pack had been pried open, and wires led from it into the machinery that filled the car’s undercarriage.

“Listen to me,” said Hwa-jung. She tapped the power pack. “This is damaged. When I turn it on, it might melt and explode.”

“We’ll risk it,” said Falconi. “There is more.”

“Not really the time for a lecture right now.”

“Listen! Aish!” Hwa-jung’s eyes gleamed with the searing light of the thermal lance. “I was able to splice into the feeds for the electromagnets. This thing will lift us, but that is all. I can’t access the directional controls; it won’t move us forward or backward.”

“Then how—” Nielsen tried to say.

“Kira, you do this: break off a chair for each of us, and then knock out the windows, there and there.” Hwa-jung pointed at each side of the car. “When I activate the circuit, you use your suit to pull us forward, and we will coast into the main tube. The supercapacitors only have enough charge to keep us suspended for forty-three seconds. We’re going about two hundred and fifty klicks per hour relative to the docking ring. We have to

shed as much of that speed as possible before we crash. The way we do that is by sticking the chairs out the windows and pushing them against the walls of the tube. They will act as brakes. Clear?”

Kira nodded along with the others. Outside, the fountain of molten metal vanished for a second as the thermal lance reached the floor. Then it reappeared at the top of the dripping incision and started to make a horizontal cut.

“You will have to push very hard,” said Hwa-jung. “As hard as you can.

Otherwise the crash will kill us.”

Kira grabbed the nearest chair and wrenched it off its gimbaled mount with a hollow ping. The next three chairs produced similar sounds. With a quick exchange of scents, she explained what they were doing to Itari, and the Jelly also grabbed a pair of chairs with its coiled limbs.

“This is some shit-crazy plan, Unni,” said Sparrow. Hwa-jung grunted. “It’ll work, punk. You’ll see.”

“Watch your eyes,” Kira said. Then she lashed out with the Soft Blade and smashed the windows along both sides of the maglev.

A furnace-blast of heat washed over them from the interior of the half-shell dome. Falconi, Nielsen, Vishal, and the Entropists dropped to the floor, and Falconi said, “Seven hells!”

The thermal lance started its second downward cut.

“Get ready,” said Hwa-jung. “Contact in three, two, one.

The floor rose a few centimeters underneath Kira. It listed slightly and then stabilized.

Lifting her arms, she launched several ropy strands from her fingers, through the shattered windows, and onto the walls outside. The xeno understood her intent, and they stuck, like lines of spider silk, and she pulled.

The car was heavy, but it slid forward, seemingly without friction. With a soft brushing sound, it passed through the seal at the end of the station and then tilted downward and raced into the dark, rushing tube set within the inner face of the docking ring.

Wind screamed past them. If not for her mask, Kira would have had difficulty seeing or hearing in the ferocious torrent of air. It was cold too, although—again because of the suit—she wasn’t sure how cold.

She scooped up one of the loose chairs and stuck it out the nearest window. A horrible screeching split the wind, and a comet’s tail of sparks streamed back along the inside of the tube. The impact nearly tore the chair out of her hands, even with the help of the Soft Blade, but she clenched her teeth and tightened her grip and held it in place.

Ahead of her, Itari did the same. Behind her, she was dimly aware of the others staggering to their feet. The screeching worsened as Nielsen, Falconi, Vishal, Sparrow, and the Entropists also pressed their chairs against the wall of the tube. The car rocked and chattered like a jackhammer.

Kira tried to keep track of the seconds, but the noise was too loud, the wind too distracting. It felt as if they weren’t slowing down, though. She leaned on the chair even harder, and it squirmed in her hands like living thing.

The tube had already ground through the chair’s legs and half of its seat; soon she wouldn’t have anything to hold on to.

Slowly—far too slowly—she felt her herself growing lighter, and the soles of her feet started to slip. She fixed herself to the floor via the suit and then slung out lines and secured the others so they could keep pushing and wouldn’t drift away.

The screeching lessened, and the banner of sparks grew shorter and fatter, and soon they began to curl and spiral in elaborate patterns instead of flying straight back.

Kira had just begun to think they would make it when the electromagnets cut out.

The car slammed into the outer rail with a yammering shriek that dwarfed the noise of the chairs. The capsule bucked, and the ceiling twisted and tore like taffy being pulled. Itari flew through the front windshield, tentacles flopping, and from the back, there was an electric flash, bright as lightning, and then smoke billowed through the maglev.

With a dwindling whine, they slid to a stop.

Kira’s stomach lurched as the sensation of weight vanished, but for once, her gorge didn’t rise. That was fine with her. Nausea was the last thing she wanted to deal with right then. Explosions, thermal lances, and maglev

crashes… She’d had enough for one day. Suit or not, her whole body felt bruised.

Itari! Was the Jelly still alive? Without it, everything they were doing would be pointless.

Moving jerkily, even in zero-g, she released her hold on the car and the crew. Falconi was bleeding from a cut on his temple. He put the heel of his hand to the wound and said, “Everyone okay?”

Vishal groaned and said, “I believe that removed a few years from my life, but yes.”

“Yeah,” said Sparrow. “Same.”

Nielsen brushed bits of glass out of her hair, sending them drifting forward through the destroyed windshield, like a small cloud of crystal motes. “A bit shaken up, Captain.”

“Second that,” said Veera and Jorrus. The male Entropist had a row of bloody scrapes across his bare ribs, which looked painful but not serious.

Kira pulled herself to the front of the ruined maglev and peered out. She could see Itari several meters ahead of them, clinging to a rail in the hull. Orange ichor oozed from a nasty-looking wound near the base of one of the Jelly’s larger tentacles.

[[Kira here: Are you okay? Can you move?]]

[[Itari here: Worry not about me, Idealis. This form can take much damage.]]

Even as it spoke, one of the Jelly’s bony arms reached out from its carapace and, to Kira’s shock, began to snip away with its pincer at the wounded tentacle.

“What the hell!” said Sparrow, joining Kira.

With startling speed, the alien cut off the tentacle and left it drifting in the air, abandoned amid a cloud of orange blobs. Despite the size of the raw stump left on Itari’s carapace, the Jelly’s bleeding had already stopped.

Hwa-jung coughed and swam her way out of the bolus of smoke, like a ship rising from the depths of oily water. She caught a handhold and pointed out the front. “The next maglev station is just ahead.”

Kira went first, using her suit to knock out the jagged remains of the windshield. Then she pushed herself away from the car, and one by one, the others extricated themselves from the wreckage. Hwa-jung was last; she barely fit through the frame, but with some effort, she made it.

Using maintenance grips on the walls, they crawled along the interior of the black and echoing tube until lights flicked on a few meters ahead of them.

With a sense of relief, Kira aimed herself for them.

As they floated over to the station, a pair of automatic doors in the wall opened and allowed them to dive into the vestibule on the other side.

They paused then to regroup and check their directions.

“Where are we?” Kira asked. She noticed that Vishal had a nasty cut on his right forearm and both of Hwa-jung’s hands were burned and blistering. It must have been excruciating, but the machine boss hid her pain well.

“Two stops past where we should be,” said Nielsen. She pointed downspin (not that they were spinning anymore).

With her in the lead, they started through the abandoned hallways of Orsted’s docking ring.

Occasionally they encountered bots: some recharging from sockets in the walls, some scurrying about on tracks, some jetting about on bursts of compressed air, busy with one of the myriad tasks necessary to the functioning of the station. None of the machines seemed to pay them any mind, but Kira knew each and every one was recording their location and actions.

The outer decks were filled with heavy industry. Refineries that, even during an attack from the nightmares, still rumbled and groaned with the imperatives of their operation. Fuel processing stations, where water was cracked into its component elements. Storage units packed to the brim with useful materials. And of course, the vast stacks of zero-g factories, where everything from medicines to machine guns was produced in quantities not only sufficient to satisfy the needs of Orsted’s resident population but also much of the larger UMCN fleet.

Empty as they were, the nether regions of the station gave Kira the creeps. Even there, the alarm sirens still wailed, and glowing arrows (smaller and dimmer than in the main part of the station) pointed the way to the nearest storm shelters. But no shelter could help her now. That much she’d admitted and accepted. The only safety she could count on was the isolation of deep space, and there too, the nightmares or the Jellies might find her.

They moved quickly, and after only a few minutes, Falconi said, “Here,” and pointed at a hallway that led rimward.

Kira recognized it as the same hallway they’d passed through during their arrival at Orsted.

With a sense of growing eagerness, she kicked her way along its crooked length. After everything that had happened on the station, returning to the Wallfish felt like returning home.

The pressure door to the loading dock slid open, and through the airlock at the far side, she saw …



And perhaps a kilometer in the distance, the Wallfish rapidly shrinking in size, driven by a white plume of RCS thrusters.

Falconi shouted. Not a word or a phrase, just a raw cry of anger and loss. As she heard it, Kira felt herself collapsing inward, surrendering to despair. She allowed the mask to slide off her face.

They’d lost. After all that, they’d—

Falconi jumped toward the airlock. He landed awkwardly and his breath ran out of him with an audible whoof, but he kept hold of the rungs next to the lock. Then he dragged himself across to the window and pressed his face against the sapphire wedge and stared after the Wallfish.

Kira looked away. She couldn’t bear to watch. Seeing him like that embarrassed her, as if she were intruding on something private. His grief was too open, too desperate.

“Ha!” said Falconi. “Gotcha! Oh yeah! Just caught her in time.” He turned and grinned at them with a wicked expression.

“Captain?” said Nielsen, floating over to join him.

He pointed out the window, and to her astonishment, Kira saw the

Wallfish slow and reverse its course as it headed back toward the airlock. “How did you manage that?” rumbled Hwa-jung.

Falconi tapped his blood-smeared temple. “Direct visual signal sent through my overlays. As long as the ship’s passive sensors are working, and

as long as they’re in range and there’s a clear line of sight, they can’t be jammed. Not like radios or FTL broadcasts.”

“That is quite a few qualifiers, Captain,” said Vishal.

Falconi chucked. “Yeah, but it worked. I set up an override system just in case anyone tried to steal the Wallfish. Ain’t no one hijacking my ship.”

“And you never told us about this?” said Nielsen. She actually seemed offended. Kira, on the other hand, was impressed.

Falconi’s levity vanished. “You know me, Audrey. Always know where the exits are. Always have an ace up the sleeve.”

“Uh-huh.” She looked unconvinced.

“Here, let me see your hands, please,” said Vishal, moving over to Hwa-jung. She dutifully let him examine her. “Mmm, not too bad,” he said. “Mostly second-degree burns. I will give you a spray to prevent any scarring.”

“And some painkillers, please,” she said.

He laughed softly. “Of course, and painkillers.”

The Wallfish didn’t take long to reach them. As it loomed large in the window, Veera grabbed the handle in the center of the airlock in an attempt to get a better view.

“Ahhh!” Her yell ended in a strangled gurgle. She arched her back nearly in half, and her whole body went rigid, save for small twitches in hands and feet. Her face contorted into a hideous rictus, teeth clenched.

Jorrus matched her yell, although he was nowhere near the airlock, and he likewise contorted.

“Don’t touch her!” Hwa-jung shouted.

Kira didn’t listen; she knew the suit would protect her.

She looped several tentacles around Veera’s waist while, at the same time, attaching herself to the nearest wall. Then she pulled the convulsing Entropist free of the door. It wasn’t easy; Veera’s hand was clamped around the handle with unnatural strength. As the woman’s grip gave way, Kira hoped she hadn’t torn any of the muscles in her hand.

The instant Veera’s fingers lost contact with the door, her body went limp, and Jorrus’s howl ceased, though he retained the expression of a man who had just seen unspeakable horror.

“Someone grab her!” said Nielsen.

Vishal lunged out from the wall and snared Veera by a sleeve of her jacket. He wrapped an arm around the Entropist and, with his free hand, peeled back her eyelids. Then he opened Veera’s mouth and peered down her throat. “She’ll live, but I need to get her to sickbay.”

Jorrus groaned. He had his arms wrapped around his head, and his skin was alarmingly pale.

“How bad is it?” Falconi asked.

The doctor gave him a worried look. “Uncertain, Captain. I will have to keep an eye on her heart. The shock might have burned out her implants. I can’t tell yet. They need a hard reboot.”

Jorrus was muttering to himself now: nothing that Kira could make sense


“That was a nasty trick,” said Nielsen.

“They’re panicked,” said Sparrow. “They’re trying anything to stop us.”

She raised a middle finger toward the center of the station. “I hope you get your own asses electrified! You hear me?!”

“It’s my fault,” said Kira. She motioned at her face. “I should have kept the mask on. I would have seen the electricity.”

“Not your fault,” said Falconi. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.” He maneuvered over to Jorrus. “Hey. Veera’s going to live, yeah? Relax, it’s alright.”

“You don’t understand,” said Jorrus between hitching breaths. “Explain.”

“She—Me—Us—” He wrung his hands, which caused him to start floating away. Falconi caught him, stabilized him. “There is no us! No we. No I. All gone. Gone, gone, gone, ahhh!” And his voice dropped into meaningless rambles again.

Falconi shook him. “Pull yourself together! The ship’s almost here.” It made no difference.

“Their hive mind is broken,” said Hwa-jung. “So? He’s still himself, isn’t he?


Veera woke with a gasp and a wild start that sent her spinning. An instant later she clutched her temples and began to scream. At the sound, Jorrus curled into a fetal ball and whimpered.

“Great,” said Falconi. “Now we’ve got a pair of crazies to deal with. Just great.”

Soft as a falling feather, the Wallfish slowed to a stop outside the airlock. A series of clanks sounded as the docking clamps activated, securing the nose of the ship.

Falconi gestured. “Kira. If you wouldn’t mind?”

As the doctor struggled to calm the Entropists, Kira allowed the mask to cover her face again. The current in the airlock door appeared to her as a thick bar of bluish light, as if part of a lightning bolt had been trapped in the handle of the door. The bar was so bright and wide, she was surprised it hadn’t killed Veera outright.

Extending a pair of tendrils, she sank them into the door and—as she had in her cell—rerouted the flow of electricity through the cabled surface of the Soft Blade.

“It’s safe,” she said.

“Outstanding,” said Falconi, but he still looked wary as he reached for the airlock controls. When no shock hit him, his shoulders relaxed and he quickly activated the release.

There was a beep, and a green light appeared above the control panel.

With a hiss of escaping air, the door rolled open.

Kira released her hold then, retracting the Soft Blade and allowing the electricity to resume its normal path. “No one touch the handle,” she said. “It’s still hot.” She repeated herself for Itari.

Falconi went first. He floated over to the nose of the Wallfish, punched a combination of buttons, and the ship’s own airlock popped open. Kira and the others trailed after, Vishal with one arm around Veera while Hwa-jung helped with Jorrus, as he was barely able to move on his own. Last of all was Itari, the Jelly graceful as an eel as it pulled itself through the airlock.

A thought occurred to Kira. A horrible, cynical thought. What if the UMC chose that moment to blow the docking clamps and space her and everyone else? Given everything the League and the military had done, it wasn’t something she’d put past them at that point.

However, the seal between the airlocks held, and once the last centimeter of Itari’s tentacles were inside the Wallfish, Nielsen closed the ship’s door.

“Sayonara, Orsted,” said Falconi, heading down the Wallfish’s central shaft.

The ship seemed dead. Abandoned. Most of the lights were off, and the temperature was freezing. It smelled familiar, though, and that familiarity comforted Kira.

“Morven,” said Falconi. “Initiate ignition sequence and prepare for launch. And get the damn heat back on.”

The pseudo-intelligence answered, “Sir, safety procedures specifically state that no—”

“Disable safety procedures,” he said, and rattled off a long authorization code.

“Safety procedures disabled. Beginning launch preparations.”

To Hwa-jung, Falconi said, “See if you can get Gregorovich hooked back up before we blast out of here.”

“Yessir.” The machine boss handed Jorrus off to Sparrow and then flew down the corridor, continuing deeper into the ship.

“Come now, please,” said Vishal, pulling Veera in the same direction. “Off to sickbay for you. And you too, Jorrus.”

Leaving the incapacitated Entropists with Sparrow and the doctor, Kira, Nielsen, and Falconi proceeded to Control. Itari trailed behind, and no one, not even the captain, objected.

Falconi uttered a sound of disgust as he entered the room. Dozens of small items cluttered the air: pens, two cups, a plate, several q-drives, and other pieces of random flotsam. It looked as if the UMC had ransacked every drawer, cupboard, and bin, and they hadn’t been too careful about it either.

“Get this cleared up,” said Falconi, moving to the main console.

Kira made a net with the Soft Blade and began to sweep the flotsam out of the air. Itari stayed by the pressure door, tentacles coiled close to itself.

Falconi tapped several buttons underneath the console, and around them, lights brightened and machines powered up. In the center of the room, the holo-display sprang to life.

“Okay,” said Falconi. “We’ve got full access again.” He tapped buttons along the edge of the holo, and the display switched to a map of the area surrounding Orsted Station with the locations and vectors of all nearby vessels labeled. Four red-blinking dots marked hostiles: nightmares currently skirmishing with the UMC forces around the curve of Ganymede. A fifth dot marked the nightmare ship embedded in Orsted’s inner ring.

Kira hoped Lt. Hawes and the other Marines would be safe on the station. They might have answered to the UMC and the League, but they’d been good people.

“Looks like they hit the station and flew on past,” said Nielsen.

“They’ll be back,” Falconi said with grim certainty. His eyes darted back and forth as he studied whatever his overlays were showing. He uttered a sharp bark of laughter. “Well, I’ll be…”

“Who’d have thought?” said Nielsen. Kira hated to ask: “What?”

“The UMC actually refueled us,” said Falconi. “Can you believe it?” “Probably planned on commandeering the Fish and using it for shuttling

around supplies,” said Nielsen.

Falconi grunted. “They left us the howitzers as well. Thoughtful of them.”

Then the intercom clicked on, and Gregorovich’s distinctive voice rang out, “My, you’ve been busy, my pretty little moppets. Mmm. Kicked up the hornets’ nest, did you. Well, we’ll see what we can do about that. Yes we will. Tee-hee.… By the way, my charming infestations, I have reignited the fusion drive. You’re welcome.” A low hum sounded from the back of the ship.

“Gregorovich, yank the restrictor,” said Falconi.

An infinitesimal pause on the part of the ship mind. “Are you absolutely

sure, Captain O my Captain?” “Yes, I am. Yank it.”

“I live but to serve,” said Gregorovich, and he tittered a bit more than Kira would have liked.

She couldn’t help but worry about the ship mind as she pulled herself into the nearest seat and buckled the harness. The UMC had put Gregorovich in lockdown, which meant he’d been kept in near total sensory deprivation since they’d arrived at the station. That wouldn’t be good for anyone, but especially for an intelligence like a ship mind, and doubly so for Gregorovich, given his past experiences.

“What’s the restrictor?” she asked Falconi.

“Long story. We have a choke in the fusion drive that changes our thrust signature, makes it a hair less efficient. Take it out, bam! we look like a different ship.”

“And you didn’t pull it out back at Bughunt?” Kira asked, scandalized. “Wouldn’t have helped. Not enough, at least. We’re talking a difference

of a few hundredths of a percentage point.” “That’s not going to hide us from—”

Falconi made an impatient gesture. “Gregorovich plants a virus in every computer we send registry info to. It creates a second entry with a different ship name, different flight path, and engine specs that match what our drive is like sans restrictor. Far as the computers go, it won’t be the Wallfish blasting off. Probably won’t fool anyone for more than a few minutes, but right now, I’ll take any advantage we can get.”

“Clever trick.”

“Unfortunately,” said Nielsen, “it’s a single-use device. At least until we can get into dock and have a new one installed.”

“So what’s the name we’re flying under now?” Kira asked. “The Finger Pig,” said Falconi.

“You really like pigs, don’t you?”

“They’re smart animals. Speaking of which … Gregorovich, where are the pets?”

“They are again blocks of furry ice, O Captain. The UMC decided to return them to cryo rather than deal with the hassle of feeding and cleaning up.”

“How considerate of them.”

The Wallfish jolted as it disconnected from the docking ring, and then the maneuver alert sounded seconds before the RCS thrusters kicked in and shoved them away from the station.

“We’re going to give Orsted an extra dose of radiation today,” said Falconi, “but I think they earned it.”

“With interest,” said Sparrow as she sailed past Itari by the doorway. She snared a seat of her own. The Jelly braced itself against the floor, preparing for the upcoming burn.

Vishal’s face appeared in the holo-display. “We’re good to go in sickbay, Captain. Hwa-jung is here as well.”

“Roger that. Gregorovich, get us the hell out of here!” “Yes, Captain. Proceeding to ‘get us the hell out of here.’”

With a rising roar, the Wallfish’s main rocket slammed Kira back into her seat as they hurtled away from Orsted Station. The thrust forced a laugh

from her, though the laugh was lost in the sea of sound. They’d actually made it. The realization seemed almost absurd. Now maybe they could keep the Seventh Fleet from destroying any chance of peace.

A bell-like tone sounded, and her elation curdled.

With an effort, she craned her neck to see the display, wishing that she still had her contacts. The holo switched to a view of Saturn as a large cloud of red dots appeared close to the gas giant.

Fourteen more nightmares had just dropped out of FTL.

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