Chapter no 58

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Itari moved closer to the display, tentacles braced against the deck. “Kira,” said Falconi in a warning tone.

“It’s okay,” she said, hoping she was right.

Nielsen zoomed out in the holo, and for the first time, Kira could see what was happening throughout Sol. In addition to the nightmares by Orsted, and the fourteen by Saturn, dozens of other nightmares had entered the system. Some were on a hard burn toward Mars. Others were out by Neptune, harassing the planet’s defense network. Still more were heading toward Earth and Venus.

A bright line flashed across the holo, from a satellite near Jupiter over to one of the nightmares’ vessels. The ship vanished in a flare of light. The bright line stabbed outward again and again, and each time, another of the intruders exploded.

“What’s that?” Kira asked.

“I’m … not sure,” said Sparrow, frowning as she studied her own overlays.

Gregorovich chuckled. “I can explain. Yes, I can. The League has built a solar laser. Energy farms by Mercury collect sunlight and then beam it to receivers throughout the system. Most of the time the energy is just used for power production. But in the event of an exogenic intrusion, well, you can see for yourself. Pump the energy through a giant-ass laser, and you have yourself a proper death ray. Yes you do.”

“Clever,” said Falconi.

Sparrow grinned. “Yeah. Having the local receivers cuts down on the light lag. Not bad.”

“Is anyone following us?” Kira asked.

“Not yet, my pretties,” said Gregorovich. “Our ersatz credentials continue to hold firm.”

“So what the hell is a Finger Pig?” said Kira.

“Thank you!” said Nielsen, with an exasperated tone. She gestured at Falconi. “See?”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “It’s a finger that’s a pig.” “Or a pig that’s a finger,” said Sparrow.

In the holo, Vishal raised his eyebrows. “My understanding is that it’s

slang for a pork hot dog.” Then his face vanished as he signed off. “You’re saying we’re in a flying hot dog then?” said Kira.

Falconi chuckled with false humor. “Maybe.”

A snort came from Sparrow. “That’s not how we used the phrase in the Marines.”

“What did you use it for?” Kira asked. “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Enough chitchat,” said Falconi. He twisted in his chair to look at Kira. “There’s more going on than we know, isn’t there? That’s why you were so insistent we rescue the Jelly.”

Kira tensed. Escaping had been easy compared with what she had to do now. “Did the UMC tell you what they decided to do?”

“Nope.” “Nothing.”

“Not a damn clue.”

“… Okay.” Kira took a moment to prepare, but before she could open her mouth, an incongruously cheery chirp sounded from the display.

Gregorovich said, “Orsted Station is broadcasting a message on all channels. It’s Colonel Stahl. I think it’s meant for you, O Spiky One.”

“Play it for us,” said Falconi. “Can’t hurt to hear what he has to say.” “I wouldn’t go so far as that,” Sparrow mumbled.

An image of Stahl replaced the holo of the system. The colonel appeared harried, out of breath, and there was a bloody scrape on his left cheekbone.

“Ms. Navárez,” he said. “If you can hear this, I’m imploring you to turn back. The xeno is too important to the League. You are too important. I don’t know what you think you’re going to do, but I promise it won’t help. If anything, you’re going to make the situation worse. If you get yourself killed, if our enemies get ahold of the xeno, it could be the death of all of us. You don’t want that on your conscience, Navárez. You really don’t. I know the situation isn’t what you wanted, but please—for the survival of

our species—turn back. I promise you and the crew of the Wallfish won’t face any additional charges. You have my word.”

Then the transmission ended, and the holo returned to a view of the system.

Kira could feel the weight of everyone’s gazes upon her, even Itari with its many small, button-like eyes strung round its carapace.

“Well?” said Falconi. “It’s your call. We’re not going back, but if you want, I’ll cut the engine long enough for you to jump out the airlock without getting fried. I’m sure the UMC would be happy to pick you up.”

“No,” said Kira. “We keep going.” Then she told them, including Itari, about the Premier’s decision to betray the Knot of Minds and attack the gathering Jelly fleet.

Sparrow made a sound of disgust. “That’s what I hated the most about the service. Damn politics.”

The Jelly’s skin roiled with greens and purples. Its tentacles twisted with seeming distress. [[Itari here: If a Knot cannot be formed between your kind and ours, the Corrupted will overswim us all.]]

After Kira translated, Falconi said, “What do you have in mind?”

She looked at Itari. “I was hoping Itari might be able to send a warning to the Knot of Minds before the UMC’s hunter-seekers get there.”

She repeated the thought for the Jelly and then said, [[Kira here: Can you use our transmitter to warn the Knot of Minds?]]

[[Itari here: No. Your farscent is not fast enough. It would not reach the meeting point in time to save the Knot of Minds.… The Seventh Shoal your conclave has sent cannot kill the great Ctein of their own. They need our help, and they need us to take the leadership and to guide the Arms in the proper direction. Without the Knot of Minds, your shoal will be doomed, as will we all.]]

A sense of despair threatened to unbalance Kira as she felt her plans unraveling. Surely there had to be a way! [[Kira here: If we swam after the Seventh Shoal, could we get close enough to the meeting place that we could warn the Knot of Minds in time?]]

A flush of crimson ran the length of the Jelly’s limbs, and nearscent of confirmation suffused the air. [[Itari here: Yes.]]

That wouldn’t solve the larger problems between the Jellies and the League. But those problems were far too large for anyone on the Wallfish to


Kira did her best to keep emotion out of her voice as she translated for Falconi and the others.

In a far more subdued tone than normal, Sparrow said, “You’re talking about flying right into enemy territory. Aish. If the other Jellies caught us, or the nightmares…”

“I know.”

“Stahl wasn’t wrong,” said Nielsen. “We can’t afford to let the xeno fall into the wrong hands. I’m sorry, Kira, but it’s true.”

“We also can’t afford to stand around and do nothing.”

Sparrow rubbed her face. “We’re already criminals in the eyes of the League, but this is treason. Aiding and abetting the enemy will still earn you the death penalty in damn near every territory.”

Falconi leaned forward and tabbed the intercom. “Hwa-jung, Vishal, come up to Control as soon as you can.”


“Be there directly, Captain, yes, yes.”

Anguish twisted in Kira’s gut. The Soft Blade was the problem. It had always been the problem, even going back into the distant past. Because of the Soft Blade, millions—if not billions—had died, humans and Jellies both. Because of the Soft Blade, the nightmares threatened to spread their sickness throughout the galaxy, overrunning every other form of life.

Although that wasn’t entirely true. The xeno wasn’t the only one to blame for the nightmares. She had played a role in the creation of the devouring Maw. It had been her fear, her ill-judged violence that had loosed so much pain upon the stars.

Kira groaned and covered her face with her hands and dug her fingers into her scalp until it hurt nearly as badly as her insides. The xeno seemed confused; she could feel it hardening and thickening around her, as if preparing for an attack.

If only she could rid herself of the Soft Blade, things would be easier. They would have many more options then. The Knot of Minds had safeguarded the xeno for centuries; it could safeguard it again.

Another groan clawed its way out of Kira’s throat. Absent the Soft Blade, Alan would still be alive, and so many others besides. All she

wanted—all she had wanted since the Soft Blade had first infested her— was to be free. Free!

She slapped the release on her harness, shoved herself out of the chair, and stood. In 2.5 g’s, she stood. The suit helped hold her upright, but her arms felt like leaden weights, and her knees and the balls of her feet began to throb.

She didn’t care.

“Kira—” Nielsen started to say.

Kira screamed. She screamed as she had when she’d first realized Alan was dead. She screamed, and she spread her arms and used everything she had learned while training with the Soft Blade—every ounce of hard-fought mastery gained during the long, dark months spent in FTL—to shove the xeno away from herself. And she poured all of her anger and sorrow and frustration into that single, primal desire.

The xeno sprang outward. Spikes and ridged membranes extended in every direction, vibrating in response to her mental assault. But only to a degree. She constrained it with her mind, leashed it so the xeno couldn’t threaten the others.

Even so, it was a risk.

In the hollows between the protrusions, she could feel the suit thin and retract, and then air struck her exposed skin—air cold and dry and shocking in its intimacy. Her flesh prickled as the bare patches spread, islands of pale nakedness amid the jagged darkness.

By the doorway, Itari recoiled, holding up its tentacles, as if to shield its carapace.

Kira pushed and pushed, forcing the xeno to withdraw until only a few tendon-like strips connected her to it. A handful of fibers and nothing more. She concentrated on them, and she tried to will them to part. She raged at them to part. She urged them to part. She commanded them to part.

The tendons squirmed before her eyes, but they refused to give. And in her mind, she could feel the Soft Blade resisting. It had retreated and retreated, but no more. Any farther, and they would be separated, and that, apparently, it would not accept.

Enraged, Kira bore down even harder. Her vision flickered and went dark around the edges from the effort, and for a moment, she thought she would pass out. She remained standing, though, and still the Soft Blade

defied her. From it, she had strange thoughts, obscure and barely understandable, worming their way from the depths of her mind into the upper regions of her consciousness. Thoughts such as: The uncleft making was not to be wrongwise cast. And: The time was off-balance. The manystuff graspers still hungered, and no cradle was close. For now, the making had to hold.

The words may have been odd, but the gist of them was clear enough.

Kira howled and threw herself against the Soft Blade with every bit of remaining strength, holding nothing back. One last attempt to drive it away. One last chance to free herself and regain something of what she had lost.

But the Soft Blade held firm, and if it empathized with her, if it felt any sympathy for her plight or regret for its opposition, she could not tell. From it came only a sense of resolute purpose, and a sense of satisfaction that the making would stand true.

And for the first time since she’d realized Alan was dead, Kira gave up. The universe was full of things she couldn’t control, and this, it seemed, was one of them.

With a choked cry, she stopped fighting and collapsed to her hands and knees. Soft as falling sand, the xeno flowed back over her, and the coldness of the air disappeared everywhere but on her face. She could still feel the floor, still feel the currents of the ship’s atmosphere tickling the small of her back, but only filtered through the artificial skin of the Soft Blade. And it blanked any discomfort, removed the bite of the cold and the sharpness of the ridges beneath her knees, so that all was warm and comfortable.

Kira squeezed her eyes shut, feeling tears leak out the corners, and her breath hitched.

“Father above,” said Vishal from by the doorway. He staggered over and put an arm around her. “Ms. Kira, are you alright?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” she said, forcing the words out past the lump in her throat. She’d lost. She’d tried her utmost, and it hadn’t been enough. And now all she had left was bare necessity. That was the phrase Inarë had used, and it fit. Oh how it fit, like shackles of black wire wound round and round.

“You sure?” said Falconi.

She nodded without looking, and tears fell on the backs of her hands. Not cold. Not warm. Merely wet. “Yeah.” She took a shuddery breath. “I’m


As Kira got back to her feet and returned to her chair, Hwa-jung came stomping through the doorway. The high thrust didn’t seem to impede her in the slightest. Indeed, the machine boss moved with a natural ease, even though Kira knew their burn was stronger than the gravity back on Shin-Zar.

“I take it we’re stuck with the xeno,” said Falconi.

Kira took a moment to answer; she was busy reassuring Itari that she was okay. Then: “You would be right.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” said Vishal. “But what is the matter of concern?

We must decide where to go, yes?”

“Yes,” said Falconi in a decidedly grim tone. For the benefit of the doctor and Hwa-jung, he outlined the situation with a few terse sentences and then said, “What I want to know is whether the Wallfish is up for another long haul.”

“Captain—” Nielsen started to say.

He cut her off with a sharp gesture. “I’m just trying to get a sense of our options.” He nodded at Hwa-jung. “Well?”

The machine boss sucked on her lower lip for a moment. “Ah, the lines need to be flushed, the fusion drive and the Markov Drive both need to be checked.… Water, air, and food are still mostly full, but I would restock if we were going out for a long time. Hmm.” She bit at her lip again.

“Could we do it?” Falconi asked. “Three months’ travel in FTL, round trip. Assume three weeks out of cryo, just to be on the safe side.”

Hwa-jung dipped her head. “We could do it, but I would not recommend it.”

A bark of laugh escaped Falconi. “Most of what we’ve done over the past year falls under the category of ‘I wouldn’t recommend it.’” He looked back at Kira. “The question is, should we?”

“There’s no profit in it,” said Sparrow, leaning forward, elbows on her knees.

“No,” Falconi admitted. “There isn’t.”

Nielsen said, “There’s a good chance we’d get killed. And if not killed


“—executed for treason,” said Falconi. He picked at a patch on his trousers. “Yeah, that’s my read on it too.”

“What would you do instead?” Kira asked, quiet. She could feel the delicacy of the moment. If she pushed too hard, she would lose them.

At first, no one answered. Then Nielsen said, “We could take Trig to a proper medical facility, somewhere outside the League.”

“But your family is still here in Sol, isn’t it?” said Kira. The first officer’s silence was answer enough. “And yours too, right, Vishal?”

“Yes,” said the doctor.

Kira let her gaze roam across the others’ faces. “We all have people we care about. And none of them are safe. We can’t just go and hide.… We can’t.”

Hwa-jung murmured in agreement, and Falconi looked down at his clasped hands.

“Beware the temptation of false hope,” whispered Gregorovich. “Resist and seek your validation elsewhere.”

“Hush,” said Nielsen.

Falconi lifted his chin toward the ceiling and scratched the underside of his jaw. The sound of nails rasping against stubble was surprisingly loud. “Ask Itari this for me: If we warn the Knot of Minds, would there still be a chance of peace between Jellies and humans?”

Kira repeated the question, and the Jelly said, [[Itari here: Yes. But if the Knot is cut, then the cruel and mighty Ctein will reign over us until the end of this ripple, to the detriment of all.]]

Falconi gave another of his grunts. “Uh-huh. That’s what I thought.” He turned toward Kira as far as his seat and harness would allow. “You would go?”

Despite the fear she felt at the prospect of again venturing into the unknown, Kira nodded. “I would.”

Falconi looked around the room, at each and every one of the crew. “Well? What’s the verdict?”

Sparrow made a face. “I don’t much like the thought of helping the UMC after the shit they pulled on us, but … sure. What the hell. Let’s do it.”

A sigh from Vishal, and he raised a hand. “I don’t much like the thought of this war continuing. If there is anything we can do to stop it, I feel we must.”

“Where she goes, I go,” said Hwa-jung, and put a hand on Sparrow’s shoulder.

Nielsen blinked several times, and it took Kira a moment to realize the first officer had tears in her eyes. Then the woman sniffed and nodded. “I vote yes as well.”

“What about the Entropists?” Kira asked.

“They’re in no state to be making decisions,” said Falconi. “But I’ll ask.” His gaze went blank as he switched to his overlays. His lips twitched as he subvocalized his texts, and the control room was silent.

Kira assumed he was communicating with the Entropists via a screen in the sickbay, since their implants were burned out. She took the opportunity to update Itari on the conversation. The constant back-and-forth of translation was beginning to wear on her. She also checked on the holo in the central display—to her relief, she didn’t see any pursuing ships, but the nightmares had managed to destroy the near receiver/emitter for the solar laser.

“Okay,” said Falconi. “Veera can’t talk, but Jorrus votes yes. It’s a go.” He scanned their faces once more. “Everyone on the same page?… Alright, then. We’re agreed. Gregorovich, set a course for the rendezvous point Tschetter gave us.”

The ship mind snorted, a surprisingly normal sound coming from him.

Then he said, “Forgotten me, have you? Does my vote not count?”

“Of course it does,” said Falconi, exasperated. “Tell us your vote, then.” “My vote?” said Gregorovich, an unbalanced edge to his voice. “Well

now, so kind of you to ask. I vote NO.

Falconi rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but we’ve already decided, Gregorovich. You’re outnumbered seven to one. Lay in the course and get us out of here.”

“That I think not.” “Excuse me?”

“No. I won’t. Is that clear enough, O Captain, my stern captain, my supernumerary captain?” And Gregorovich giggled and giggled and giggled

until he broke into a demented laugh that echoed through the corridors of the Wallfish.

Cold fear wormed its way into Kira. The ship mind had always seemed a bit unstable, but now he’d gone totally insane, and they were all at his mercy.

“Gregorovich—” Nielsen started to say.

“I object,” whispered the ship mind, breaking his laugh. “I object most strenuously. I won’t take you there—I won’t—and nothing you can say or do will convince me otherwise. Pretty my hair and pat my head, doll me up with satin ribbons and pamper me with plumpest persimmons; I shall not reverse, regress, retract, or otherwise rescind my decision.”

[[Itari here: What is the wrongness?]] Kira explained, and the Jelly turned a queasy-looking green. [[Itari here: Your ship forms are as dangerous as hidden currents.]]

Falconi swore. “The hell is wrong with you, Gregorovich? We don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m giving you a direct order. Change our goddamn course.”

“Never I will. Never I might.”

The captain slapped the console in front of him. “Seriously? You didn’t object when we went off to Bughunt, but you’re going to mutiny now?”

“The expectation of peril thereat was not a certainty. Calculated risks remained within reasonable tolerances given available information. You were not setting forth to plunge yourself into the midst of martial turmoil, and I won’t allow it now. No, I won’t.” The ship mind sounded insufferably self-righteous.

“Why?” asked Nielsen. “What is it you’re so afraid of?”

The ship mind’s unhinged giggle returned. “The universe is spinning apart: a pinwheel driven to the point of failure. Darkness and emptiness, and what matters still? The warmth of friends, the light of human kindness. Trig lies on the brink of death, frozen in a tomb of ice, and I will not allow this crew to be further torn apart. No, not I. If we venture forth amid nightmares and Jellies battling, with the Seventh Fleet skulking about for trouble to cause, likely it is circumstance shall deliver us our doom in the

shape of some ship—bearing down upon us as the wrath of cruel fate unburdened by grace or pity or the slightest shade of human consideration.” “Your concern is noted,” said Falconi. “Now I’m ordering you to turn

this ship around.” “Can’t do, Captain.”

“You mean you won’t.”

Gregorovich laughed again, long and low. “Is the inability a result of nature or nurture? You say potatoh, I say potayto.

Falconi glanced at Nielsen, and Kira saw the alarm in his expression. “You heard Kira. If we don’t warn the Knot of Minds, we’ll lose our only chance of peace with the Jellies and, possibly, our only chance of defeating the nightmares. Is that what you want?”

Gregorovich laughed again, long and low. “When an immovable force meets an irresistible object, causality becomes confused. Probabilities expand beyond computational resources. Statistical variables become unconstrained.”

“You mean an irresistible force and immovable object,” said Nielsen. “I always mean to say what I mean.”

“But you don’t?”

Sparrow made a sound in her throat. “Just seems like a pretentious way of admitting you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Ah!” said Gregorovich. “But that’s the point. None of us know, and it is uncertainty itself I am protecting you against, my little chickadees. Oh yes I am.”

“Alright, I’ve had enough of your insubordination,” said Falconi. “I don’t want to do this, but you’re not leaving me any choice. Access code four-six-six-nine-upyours. Authorization: Falconi-alpha-bravo-bravo-whisky-tango.”

“Sorry, Captain,” said Gregorovich. “Did you expect that to work? You can’t force me out of the system. The Wallfish is mine, more than she was ever yours. Flesh of my flesh, and all that nonsense. Accept your defeat with good humor. To Alpha Centauri we go, and should it prove too dangerous, we’ll find safe haven upon the rim of settled space, where aliens and their seeking tentacles have no reason to intrude. Yes we shall.”

While he talked, Falconi pointed at Hwa-jung and snapped his fingers without noise. The machine boss nodded and unbuckled her harness and

moved with swift steps toward the door to Control.

It slammed shut in front of her and locked with an audible clank.

“Ms. Song,” crooned the ship mind. “Ms. Song, what are you doing? I know your tricks and stratagems. Don’t think to thwart me; a thousand years of plotting and you still couldn’t outwit me, Ms. Song, Ms. Song— your melody is self-evident. Abandon your dishonorable intentions; your motif contains no surprises, no surprises at all.…”

“Quick,” said Falconi. “The console. Maybe you can—”

Hwa-jung pivoted and hurried to one of the access panels underneath the bank of controls next to the holo table.

“What about me?” Kira said. She didn’t know what the machine boss was about, but distracting Gregorovich seemed like a good idea. “You can’t keep me in here. Stop this, or I’ll go crack open your case and rip out all your power cords.”

A shower of sparks erupted from the access panel as Hwa-jung touched it. She yelped and yanked back her arm and clutched her wrist, looking hurt.

“You bastard!” Sparrow yelled.

“Just try,” the ship mind whispered, and the Wallfish trembled around them. “Oh just try. It won’t matter, though; not at all. I’ve set the autopilot, and nothing you can do will free it up, not even were you to wipe the mainframe and rebuild it from—”

A dark expression settled on Hwa-jung’s face, and she let out a sharp hiss from between her bared teeth. She pulled a rag from a pouch on her belt and wrapped it around her bandaged hand, covering her fingers. Then she reached for the access panel again.

“Let me—” Kira started to say, but by then the machine boss already had the panel open and was scrabbling around inside.

“Song,” Gregorovich crooned. “What do you think you are doing, beautiful Song? My roots run deep. You cannot dig me out, not here, not there, not with a thousand lasers on a thousand bots. Within the Wallfish, I am omniscient and omnipresent. The one and the word, the will and the way. Leave off this pointless, pathetic pandering and lay you down to—”

Hwa-jung yanked on something under the console, and the lightstrips flickered, and a burst of static sounded from the speakers—cutting off Gregorovich—and half the indicators along the walls fell dark.

“Wrong,” said the machine boss.

A moment of stunned silence followed. “Shit. Are you okay?” Sparrow asked. Hwa-jung grunted. “I am fine.”

“What did you do?” Falconi demanded. In the question, Kira could hear his anger at Gregorovich, but also his anger that the machine boss might have hurt the ship mind and/or the Wallfish.

“I removed Gregorovich from the computer,” said Hwa-jung, standing.

She rubbed her injured hand and grimaced.

“How?” said Falconi. Kira wondered that herself. Gregorovich hadn’t lied. Ship minds were so thoroughly integrated into the workings of a machine like the Wallfish, extricating them was no easier than extricating a still-beating heart from a living body (and without killing the patient, no less).

Hwa-jung lowered her arms. “Gregorovich is very clever, but some things even he doesn’t understand about the Wallfish. He knows the circuits. I know the pipes the circuits run in. Aish. That one.” She shook her head. “There are mechanical breakers on all his connecting power lines, in case of a bad electrical surge. They can be activated here or in the storm shelter.” She shrugged. “It is simple.”

Nielsen said, “So is he completely cut off, then? All alone, in the dark?” “Not completely,” said Hwa-jung. “He has a computer built into his case.

Whatever is stored on there, he can see.” “Thank god for that,” said Vishal.

“But he can’t contact anyone?” Nielsen said.

Hwa-jung shook her head. “No wireless. No hardline.” Then: “We can talk with him, if we want, if we plug into the outside of his case, but we have to be careful. Any access to an external system and he could take control of the Wallfish again.”

“He sure ain’t going to be happy about that,” said Sparrow.

Kira agreed. Gregorovich had to be furious. Being once again trapped in his nutrient bath with no way to contact the outside world would be a nightmare. She shuddered at the thought.

“Who cares if he’s happy?” Falconi growled. He ran a hand through his hair. “Right now we have to get out of Sol before we get blown up. Can you set up a new course?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do it, then. Program another random walk. Three jumps should do it.”

Hwa-jung returned to her seat and concentrated on her overlays. A minute later, the free-fall alert sounded and the sense of crushing weight vanished as the engines cut out.

The Soft Blade kept Kira welded to the back of her chair as the Wallfish reoriented itself. Of course the xeno did. It was so accommodating. So concerned with her safety and welfare. Except when it came to what she really wanted. Her old hatred for it welled up again, sour poison lanced from a boil. But it was a useless hatred. A weak and ineffectual hatred, because there was nothing she could do about it—not one damn thing—just as there was nothing Gregorovich could do to rescue himself from the prison of his mind.

“How long until we can jump to FTL?” she asked.

“Thirty minutes,” said Hwa-jung. “The modifications from the Jelly are still holding. We can jump out sooner than normal.”

[[Itari here: Idealis?]] In response to the query, Kira updated the Jelly on what was happening, and the sick green color faded from its tentacles, replaced by its normal, healthy orange.

“Real light show over there,” said Sparrow, gesturing at the alien. “Never realized they were so colorful.”

Kira was impressed by how well the crew had accepted the presence of the Jelly. So had she, for that matter.

The Wallfish finished turning, and then the deck pressed against Kira as they resumed thrust—heading toward a different point along the system’s Markov Limit.

The crew spent the thirty minutes preparing the Wallfish for FTL, and themselves for another round of cryo sleep. Ideally they would have had longer to recover from hibernation, as each cycle took a toll on their bodies. Still, they were well under the yearly limit. Two a month for three months

had been the commercial limit for the Lapsang Corporation, but Kira knew private citizens and military personnel often far exceeded those limits. Though not without consequence.

They had one piece of good news before departure: Vishal burst into Control with a great big smile and said, “Listen! I had word from my uncle. My mother and sisters are on Luna, thank God.” And he crossed himself. “My uncle, he promised he would keep them safe. He has a shelter, buried very deep on Luna. They can stay with him as long as they need. Thank God!”

“That’s wonderful news, Vishal,” said Falconi, clasping him on the shoulder. “Truly.” And they all gave the doctor their congratulations.

When she could, Kira stole a quick break in her cabin. She pulled up a live view of the system and zoomed in on the small green-and-blue dot that was Earth.

Earth. The ancestral home of humanity. A planet swarming with life, and so much of it complex, multicellular organisms far more advanced than those found in most xenospheres. Only Eidolon could come close to the evolutionary accomplishments of Earth, and Eidolon didn’t possess a single self-aware species.

Kira had studied the vast diversity of Earth’s biome. All xenobiologists did. And she’d always hoped to travel there for real one day. But Orsted Station was the closest she’d come, and it seemed unlikely she would ever set foot on the planet.

The sight of Earth felt slightly unreal. To think that all of humanity until just three hundred years ago had lived and died on that single ball of mud. All those people, trapped, unable to venture forth among the stars as she and so many others had been able to.

Even the word earth came from the planet she was looking at. And moon from the pale sphere hanging in close proximity (both haloed with orbital rings, bright as silver wire).

The earth.

The moon.

The originals, and no others.

Kira took a shaky breath, finding herself unaccustomedly overcome with emotion. “Goodbye,” she whispered, and she wasn’t sure to whom or what she was talking.

Then she closed the display and went to rejoin the crew. And soon enough, the jump alert sounded, and the Wallfish transitioned to FTL, leaving behind Sol, Earth, Jupiter, Ganymede, the invading nightmares, and the vast majority of humanity’s teeming masses.

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