Chapter no 59

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

By the third jump out from Sol, everyone was in cryo save Falconi, Hwa-jung, and of course, Kira. Even Itari had entered its dormant state, cocooning itself within the port cargo hold (Falconi had decided there was no longer any reason to keep the Jelly in an airlock).

While they waited in interstellar space for the Wallfish to cool, before setting out on the last leg of their journey, Kira went to the galley and made short work of three reheated meal packs, four glasses of water, and an entire pouch of candied beryl nuts. Eating in zero-g was far from her favorite thing to do, but the xeno’s exertions on Orsted had left her ravenous.

She couldn’t stop thinking about Gregorovich during her meal. The ship mind was still locked out of the Wallfish’s computer system, sitting alone in his tomb-like casing. The fact disturbed her for several reasons, but mainly because she empathized. Kira knew what it was like to be alone in the dark

—her time aboard the Valkyrie had more than acquainted her with that sensation—and she worried what it would do to Gregorovich. Being abandoned, isolated, was a fate she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Not even the nightmares. Death was a far preferable end.

Also … although she was slow to admit it, Gregorovich had become her friend. Or as much of a friend as she and a ship mind were ever likely to be. Their conversations during FTL had been a comfort to Kira, and she didn’t like to see Gregorovich in his current predicament.

Back in Control, she tapped Falconi’s arm to get his attention and said, “Hey. What are you planning on doing about Gregorovich?”

Falconi sighed, and the reflected light of overlays vanished from his eyes. “What can I do? I tried talking with him, but he’s not making a whole

lot of sense.” He rubbed his temples. “Right now my only real option is to throw him into cryo.”

“And then what? Keep him on ice from here on out?”

“Maybe,” said Falconi. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to trust him after this.”

“Could you—”

He stopped her with a look. “Do you know what they do to ship minds who refuse an order, barring extenuating circumstances?”

“Retire them?”

“Exactly.” Falconi jerked his chin. “The minds get yanked from their ships, and their flight credentials get revoked. Just like that. Even in civilian ships. And you know why?”

Kira pursed her lips, already anticipating the answer. “Because they’re too dangerous.”

With a finger twirled around his head, Falconi indicated their surroundings. “Any spaceship, even one as small as the Wallfish, is effectively a flying bomb. Ever think about what happens if someone—let’s say, oh, I don’t know, a deranged ship mind—flies a cargo tug or a cruiser into a planet?”

Kira winced as she remembered the accident on Orlog, one of the moons in her home system. The crater could still be seen with the naked eye. “Nothing good.”

“Nothing good.”

“And with all that, you were still comfortable keeping Gregorovich on board?” She eyed, him curious. “Seems like a hell of a risk.”

“It was. It is. But Gregorovich needed a home, and I thought we could help each other. Until now he’s never made me think he was a danger to us or the Wallfish.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Shit. I don’t know.”

“Could you limit Gregorovich’s access to just comms and sublight navigation?”

“Wouldn’t work. Once a ship mind is in one part of your system, it’s pretty much impossible to keep them out of the rest. They’re too smart, and they’re too integrated with the computers. It’s like trying to grab an eel with your bare hands; sooner or later they wriggle free.”

Kira rubbed her arms, thinking. Not good. Aside from her concern for Gregorovich as a person, she didn’t like the prospect of flying into hostile

territory without him at the helm. “Do you mind if I talk with him?” She motioned toward the ceiling.

“Actually, it’s more like—” Falconi pointed at an angle toward the deck. “But why? I mean, you’re more than welcome to, but I don’t see what good it’s going to do.”

“Maybe not, but I’m worried about him. I might be able to help him calm down. We spent a fair bit of time talking in FTL.”

Falconi shrugged. “You can try, but again, I’m not sure what good it’s going to do. Gregorovich really sounded off.”

“How so?” Kira asked, her concern deepening.

He scratched his chin. “Just … weird. I mean, he’s always been different, but this is more than that. Like there’s something really wrong with him.” Falconi shook his head. “Honestly? It doesn’t matter how calm Gregorovich is or isn’t. I’m not giving control of the Wallfish back to him unless he can convince me this was a one-off event. And I don’t see how he can. Some things can’t be undone.”

She studied him. “We all make mistakes, Salvo.” “And they have consequences.”

“… Yes, and we might need Gregorovich when we get to the Jellies. Morven is all well and good, but she’s only a pseudo-intelligence. If we run into trouble, she won’t be much help.”

“No, she won’t.”

Kira put a hand on his shoulder. “Besides, you said it: Gregorovich is one of you, same as Trig. Are you really going to give up on him that easily?”

Falconi stared at her for a good while, the muscles in his jaw flexing. At last, he relented. “Fine. Talk to him. See if you can knock some sense into that lump of concrete he calls a brain. Go find Hwa-jung. She’ll show you where to go and what to do.”


“Mmh. Just don’t let Gregorovich get access to the mainframe.”

Kira left him then and went looking for Hwa-jung. She found the machine boss in engineering. When told what Kira wanted, Hwa-jung didn’t seem surprised. “This way,” said Hwa-jung, and led her back up toward Control.

The halls of the Wallfish were dark and cold and eerily quiet. Condensation beaded the bulkheads where the chilled air blew, and Kira and Hwa-jung’s shadows stretched before them like tortured souls as they floated through the ship.

One deck below Control, close to the core of the ship, was a locked door Kira had walked by before but never made much note of. It looked like a closet or a server room.

In a way, it was.

Hwa-jung opened the door to reveal a second door a meter within. “Acts like a mini-airlock, in case the rest of the ship gets vented,” she said.


The second door rolled open. Past it was a small, hot room busy with whirring fans and walled with banks of Christmas-light indicators: each bright point marking a switch or toggle or dial. In the center of the room lay the neural sarcophagus, huge and heavy. A metal edifice twice the width and breadth of Kira’s bed and standing as high as her mid-chest, it had an imposing presence, as if designed to warn off any who came near—as if to say, “Meddle not, lest you regret it.” The fittings were dark, nearly black, and there was a holo-screen along one side, as well as rows of green bars marking the levels of different gasses and liquids.

Although Kira had seen the sarcophagi in games and videos, she’d never been close to one in person. The device, she knew, was hooked into the Wallfish’s plumbing and power, but were it to be separated, it was perfectly capable of keeping Gregorovich alive for months or even years, depending on how efficient the internal power source was. It was both artificial skull and artificial body, and built so securely it could survive reentry at speeds and pressures that would shred most ships. The durability of the cases was legendary. Plenty of times a sarcophagus (and the mind inside) was the only intact part left after the destruction of its parent ship.

It was strange to know that there was a brain hidden within the slab of metal and sapphire. And not an ordinary brain, either. It would be larger— much larger—and more spread out: wrinkled butterfly wings of grey matter surrounding the walnut-shaped core that was the original seat of Gregorovich’s consciousness, now grown to immense proportions. Picturing it made Kira uneasy, and in an irrational bit of imagining, she couldn’t help but feel as if the armored case was alive as well. Alive and

watching her, though she knew Hwa-jung had disabled all of Gregorovich’s sensors.

The machine boss fished a pair of wired headphones out of her pocket and gave them to her. “Plug in here. Keep the headphones over your ears while you talk. If he can broadcast sound, he could hack into the system.”

“Really?” said Kira, doubtful.

“Really. Any sort of input would be enough.”

Kira found the jack on the side of the sarcophagus, plugged in, and, not knowing what to expect, said, “Hello?”

The machine boss grunted. “Here.” She flipped a switch next to the jack. A raging howl filled Kira’s ears. She flinched and scrabbled to lower the volume. The howl trailed off into a torrent of uneven muttering—words without end and hardly a break between them, stream-of-consciousness blathering giving voice to every thought racing through Gregorovich’s mind. There were layers to the muttering: a cloned crowd yammering to itself, for no one tongue could keep pace with the relentless, lightning-fast

processes of his consciousness.

I’ll wait outside, mouthed Hwa-jung, and she departed.

“… Hello?” said Kira, wondering what she had gotten herself into.

The muttering never stopped, but it receded, and a single voice—the voice she knew—spoke forth: “Hello?! Hello, my pretty, my darling, my ragtime gal. Have you come to gloat, Ms. Navárez? To point and prod and laugh at my misfortune? To—”

“What? No, of course not.”

A laugh echoed in her ears, a shrieking, broken-glass laugh that made the skin on the back of her neck prickle. There was an odd tone to Gregorovich’s synthesized voice, a distorted waver that made it hard to understand his vowels, and the volume kept swinging soft to loud and there were irregular breaks to the sound, like a radio broadcast cutting in and out. “Then what? To assuage your conscience? This is your doing, O Angst-Ridden Meatsack; your choice; your responsibility. A prison here of your making, and all around a—”

“You were the one who tried to hijack the Wallfish, not me,” said Kira. If she didn’t interrupt, she had a feeling the ship mind would never stop. “I didn’t come here to argue, though.”

“Ahahaha! Then what? But I repeat myself. You are so slow, too slow; your mind like mud, your tongue like tarnished lead, your—”

“My mind is fine,” she snapped. “I just think before I speak, unlike you.” “Oh, ho! The true colors show; pirates starboard; skull and crossbones and ready to stab a friend in need, ohahaha, when upon rocky reefs a shuttered lighthouse stands and the keeper drowns alone, ‘Malcolm,

Malcolm, Malcolm,’ he cries, and the millipede screams in lonely sympathy.”

Kira’s alarm rocketed. Falconi was right. Something was wrong with the ship mind, and it went far beyond his disagreement over their decision to help the Knot of Minds. Gently now. “No,” she said. “I came to see how you were doing before we leave.”

Gregorovich cackled. “Your guilt is as clear as transparent aluminum, yes it is. Yes, yes. How am I doing?…” There was a welcome pause in his verbal vomit, and even the background muttering fell off, and then his tone grew more measured—an unexpected return of something resembling normalcy. “The impermanence of nature long ago drove me as mad as a March hare, or haven’t you noticed?”

“I was trying to be polite and not mention it.”

“Truly, your tact and consideration are without peer.”

That was more like it. Kira half smiled. His semblance of sanity was a fragile thing, though, and she wondered how far she dared push. “Are you going to be okay?”

A snortling giggle escaped Gregorovich, but he quickly suppressed it. “Me? Oh I’ll be fiiiine, sure I will. Right as rain, twice as comfy. I’ll sit here, all by my lonesome, and devote myself to good thoughts and the hope of future deeds, yes I will, I will, I will.”

So that’s a no then. Kira licked her lips. “Why did you do it? You knew Falconi wouldn’t just let you take over. So why do it?”

The background chorus swelled louder. “How to explain? Should I explain? What point now, when actions are spent, and consequences at hand? Hee-hee. But this: I sat through darkness once before, lost my crew and lost my ship. I would not, could not endure it again, no indeed. Give me sweet oblivion first—death that ancient end. A far preferable fate to exile along the cold cliffs where souls wander and wither in isolation, each one a Boltzmann paradox, each one a torment of bad dreams. What is mind, no

matter, what is matter, no mind and isolation the cruelest reduction of April and—”

A staticky burst interrupted him, and his voice faded from hearing, but Kira had already tuned him out. He was babbling again. She thought she understood what he’d been saying, but that wasn’t what concerned her. A few hours of isolation shouldn’t have unbalanced Gregorovich this much. There had to be another cause. What could affect a ship mind so strongly? Kira realized she didn’t have much of an idea.

Perhaps, if she steered the conversation toward calmer waters, she could get him into a better mindset and find out what the underlying problem was. Perhaps.

“Gregorovich … Gregorovich, can you hear me? If you’re there, answer me. What’s going on?”

After a moment, the ship mind answered with a tiny, far-off voice: “Kira … I don’t feel so good. I don’t … Everything is wrong ways round.”

She pressed the headphones tighter against her ears, trying to hear better. “Can you tell me what’s causing it?”

A faint laugh, growing louder. “Oh, are we in sharing and confessing mode now? Hmm? Is that it?” Another of his unsettling cackles. “Did I ever tell you why I decided to become a ship mind, O Inquisitive One?”

Kira hated to change the topic, but she didn’t want to upset him. As long as Gregorovich was willing to talk, she was willing to listen. “No, you didn’t,” she said.

The ship mind snorted. “Why, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, thatswhyisasisssss. Ah, the untempered idiocy of youth.… My body was slightly the worse for wear, you see (you don’t, but you do, oh yes). Several limbs were missing, and certain important organs too, and what I’m told was a spec-tacular amount of blood and fecal matter was smeared across the road. Black ribbon against black stone, red, red, red, and the sky a faded patch of pain. The only viable options were to be installed in a construct while a new body was grown for me or to transition into a ship mind. And I, in my arrogance and my ignorance, I decided to dare the unknown.”

“Even though you knew it was irreversible? Didn’t that bother you?” Kira regretted the questions as soon as she asked them; she didn’t want to unbalance him further. To her relief, Gregorovich took them well.

“I wasn’t so smart then as I am now. Oh, no, no, no. The only things I thought I would miss were hot splashes, sweet soft and savory and seductive spoonfuls and the pleasures of carnal company close held, deep felt, yes, and in both cases I reasoned, yes I reasoned, that VR would provide more-than-adequate substitute. Bits and bytes, bobs of binary, shadows of ideals melting starving on electrons, starving, starving … Were I wrong was I wrong? wrong wrong wrong, I could always avail myself of a construct to indulge in sensual delights as appealed to my fancy.”

Kira’s curiosity was sparked. “But why?” she said, in as soothing a voice as she could manage. “Why become a mind at all?”

Gregorovich laughed, and there was arrogance in his voice. “For the sheer thrill of it, of course. To become more than I was before and to bestride the stars as a colossus unbound by the confines of petty flesh.”

“It couldn’t have been an easy change, though,” said Kira. “One moment your life is going one way, and then just like that, an accident sends you in a completely different direction.” She was thinking more of herself than him.

“Who said it was an accident?” She blinked. “I assumed—”

“The truth of it doesn’t matter, no it doesn’t. I had already considered volunteering to become a ship mind. Precipitous disassembly merely hastened a perilous decision. Change comes more naturally to some people than others. Monotony is boring, and besides, as the ancients loved to point out, expectations of what could be or what should be are the most common sources of our discontent. Expectations lead to disappointment, and disappointment leads to anger and resentment. And yes, I’m aware of the irony, delicious irony, but self-knowledge is no protection against folly, my Simpering Symbiotic. ’Tis flawed armor at best.” The more Gregorovich spoke, the calmer and saner he seemed.

Keep him talking. “If you could do it over again, would you still make the same choice?”

“With regard to becoming a ship mind, yes. Other choices, not so much.

Fingers and toes and Mongolian bows.”

Kira frowned. A slip from him there. “Is there anything you miss from before? I was going to say ‘from when you had a body,’ but I suppose the Wallfish is your body.”

A hollow sigh echoed in her ears. “Freedom. That is what I miss.


“What do you mean?”

“All of known space is—or was—at my disposal. I can outrace light itself. I can dive into the atmosphere of a gas giant and bask in the aurora of Eidolon, and I have. But as you said, O Perceptive Little Vexation, the Wallfish is my body, and it shall remain my body until such a time (if such a time ever arrives) as I am removed. When we dock, you are free to walk away from the Wallfish and go where you will. But not I. Through cameras and sensors I can participate from a distance, but still I remain bound to the Wallfish, and the same would be true even if I had a construct I could remotely pilot. That much I miss, the freedom to move without restriction, to relocate myself of my own accord, sans fuss or hassle.… I have heard there is a ship mind on Stewart’s World who built himself a mech body ten meters high and who now spends his time wandering the uninhabited parts of the planet, painting landscapes of the mountains with a brush as tall as a person. I would like to have a body such as that someday. I would like it very much, although the probability of it seems low at the present.”

Gregorovich continued: “Could I advise myself in the past, prior to my transition, I would tell myself to make the most of what I had while I had it. Too often we don’t appreciate the value of something until it has slipped our grasp.”

“Sometimes that’s the only way we learn,” said Kira. She paused, struck by her own words.

“So it seems. The benighted tragedy of our species.”

“And yet, ignoring the future and/or wallowing in regret can be equally harmful.”

“Indeed. The important thing is to try and, by trying, to improve ourselves. Otherwise we might as well have never come down from the trees. But no point in maudlin navel-gazing when the navel is adrift, spinning and wildling and time all out of joint. I have a memoir to write, databases to purge, subroutines to rearrange, chyrons to design, enoptromancy to master, squares upon squares a wave or indivisible scintilla tell me tell me tell me—”

He seemed stuck in a mental rut, the phrase tell me, tell me repeating in her ears at different volumes. Kira frowned, frustrated. They’d been doing

so well, but he couldn’t seem to maintain mental focus. “Gregorovich…” Then, more sharply than she intended, “Gregorovich!”

A welcome pause in his logorrhea, and then almost too faint to hear, “Kira,

something isn’t right. Not right at allllll.”

“Can you—”

The chorus of howling voices roared back to full strength, making her wince and dial back the volume on her headphones.

Amid the torrent of noise, she heard Gregorovich say, sounding almost too calm, too cultured: “Fair winds on your upcoming sleep, my Conciliatory Confessor. May it relieve some of your fermenting spleen. When next we cross paths, I will be sure to thank you most properly. Yes. Quite. And remember to avoid those pesky expectations.”

“Thanks. I’ll try,” she said, trying to humor him. “The queen of infinite space, eh? But you haven’t—”

A cackle from the cacophony. “We are all kings and queens of our own dementia. The only question is how we rule. Now go; leave me to my method, atoms to count, TEQs to loop, causality to question, all in a matrix of indecision, round and round and reality bending like photons past deformation of spacetime mass what superluminal transgressions torment tangential tablelands taken topsy-turvy by ahahaha.”

Kira pulled off the headphones and stared at the deck. A frown furrowed her brow.

Moving carefully in the zero-g, she went back out to find Hwa-jung waiting for her. “How is that one?” the machine boss asked.

Kira handed over the headphones. “Not good. He’s…” She struggled to find a way to describe Gregorovich’s behavior. “He’s really off. Something’s wrong, Hwa-jung. Really, really wrong. He can’t stop talking, and a lot of the time, he can’t seem to string together a coherent sentence.”

Now the machine boss was frowning as well. “Aish,” she muttered. “I wish Vishal were still awake. Machines are what I work with, not squishy brains.”

“Could it be something mechanical?” Kira asked. “Could something have happened to Gregorovich when we were on Orsted? Or when you

disconnected him from the mainframe?”

Hwa-jung glowered at her. “That was a circuit breaker. It would not have caused any problems.” But she continued to scowl as she tucked the headphones into a pocket. “Stay here,” she said abruptly. “There is something I will check.”

The machine boss turned and kicked herself down the hall and around the corridor.

Kira waited as patiently as she could. She couldn’t stop thinking about her conversation with Gregorovich. She shivered and hugged herself, although she wasn’t cold. If Gregorovich was as bad as he seemed … keeping him in cryo really might be their only choice. An unbalanced ship mind was a thing of nightmares.

There were, she thought, many different types of nightmares in the galaxy. Some small, some large, but the worst of all were the ones you lived with.

Kira wanted to tell Falconi about Gregorovich, but she forced herself to wait on Hwa-jung.

Nearly half an hour passed before the machine boss reappeared. She had grease on her hands, new scorch marks on her rumpled sleeves, and a troubled expression that did nothing to ease Kira’s worries.

“Did you find something?” Kira asked.

Hwa-jung held up a small black object: a rectangular box the size of two fingers side by side. “This,” she said with a tone of disgust. “Bah! It was clamped to the circuits leading into Gregorovich’s sarcophagus.” She shook her head. “Stupid. I knew something was off when the lights glitched like that in Control when I pulled the breaker.”

“What is it?” Kira asked, moving closer.

“Impedance block,” said Hwa-jung. “It stops signals from traveling through a line. The UMC must have installed it to help keep Gregorovich from escaping. None of my checks showed it when we came back on the Wallfish.” She shook her head again. “When I pulled the breaker, it caused a surge in the box, and the surge ran into Gregorovich.”

Kira swallowed. “What does that mean?”

Hwa-jung sighed and looked away for a moment. “The surge, it burned the little wires going into Gregorovich. The leads are not connecting properly to his neurons, and the ones that are, aish! They are firing wrong.”

“Is he in pain?”

A shrug from the machine boss. “I don’t know. But the computer says many of the broken leads are in his visual cortex and the area of language processing, so Gregorovich, he may be seeing and hearing things that are not there. Ahhh.” She shook the small box. “Vishal will have to help with this. I can’t fix Gregorovich.”

A sense of helplessness unmoored Kira. “So we have to wait.” It wasn’t a question.

Hwa-jung nodded. “The best thing we can do is put Gregorovich into cryo. Vishal will look at him when we arrive, but I do not think he can fix him either.”

“Do you want me to tell Falconi? I’m going to see him.”

“Yes, tell him. I want to get Gregorovich frozen. Sooner is better. I will go into cryo after.”

“Okay, will do.” Then Kira put a hand on Hwa-jung’s shoulder. “And thank you. At least now we know.”

The machine boss grunted. “What help is knowing, though? Ah, what a mess. What a mess.”

They parted, the machine boss pulling herself into the ship mind’s holding room while Kira returned to Control. Falconi wasn’t there, nor was he in the ship’s now-defunct hydroponics bay.

Slightly puzzled, Kira sought out the captain’s cabin. It didn’t seem like him to be in his room at a time like this, but …

“Come in,” he said when she knocked on the door.

The pressure door creaked as Kira pushed her way in. Falconi was sitting at the desk, strapped into his chair to keep from floating away. In one hand, he held a drinking pouch that he was sipping from.

Then she noticed the bonsaied olive tree pushed to the back of the desk. The leaves were tattered, most of the branches broken, the trunk tilted against the side of the pot, and the dirt around the roots looked as if it had been overturned: small clumps floated loose under the lid of clear plastic that covered the top of the pot and surrounded the trunk.

The state of the tree caught her by surprise. She knew how much he cared for the plant.

“So? How’d it go?” Falconi asked.

Kira braced herself against the wall before delving into her report.

As she talked, Falconi’s expression grew darker and darker. “Goddammit,” he said. “Fucking UMC. They had to go and make things worse. Every fucking time…” He drew a hand across his face and stared at an imaginary point somewhere beyond the hull of the ship. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him so angry or tired. “Should have trusted my gut earlier. He really is broken.”

He’s not broken,”said Kira. “There’s nothing wrong with Gregorovich per se. It’s the equipment he’s hooked up to.”

Falconi snorted. “Semantics. He’s not working. That makes him broken. And I can’t do anything about it either. That’s the worst part. The one time Greg actually needs help and…” He shook his head.

“He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?”

A crinkle of foil as Falconi took a sip from his drinking pouch. He avoided her gaze. “If you asked the rest of the crew, I think you’d find that Gregorovich spent a lot of time talking with each of us. He didn’t always say much in groups, but whenever we needed him, he was there. And he’s gotten us out of some real tight spots.”

Kira planted her feet on the deck and allowed the Soft Blade to anchor her there. “Hwa-jung said Vishal might not be able to heal him.”

“Yeah,” said Falconi, letting out his breath. “Working on ship-mind implants is tricky stuff. And our medibot isn’t rated for it either.… Thule. Greg wasn’t even this bad when we found him.”

“What will you do if we get into a fight with the Jellies?”

“Run like hell if it’s at all an option,” said Falconi. “The Wallfish isn’t a warship.” He pointed a finger at her. “And none of this changes what Gregorovich did. It wasn’t some impedance block that caused him to mutiny.”

“… No. I suppose not.”

Falconi shook his head. “Damn fool of a ship mind. He was so scared of losing us, he went and jumped off a cliff, and now look where he’s at … where we’re at.”

“I guess it goes to show that you can still make mistakes, even with a brain as big as his.”

“Mmh. That’s assuming Gregorovich is wrong. He could be right, you know.”

Kira cocked her head. “If you really believe that, why are we going to warn the Knot of Minds?”

“Because I think it’s worth the risk.”

She thought it best to change the subject then. Motioning toward the olive tree, she said, “What happened?”

Falconi’s lip curled with a snarl. “Again, the UMC, that’s what. They ripped it out of its stasis box looking for—for whatever. Took me this long to clean the place up.”

“Will the tree recover?” It wasn’t a variety of plant Kira had experience with.

“Doubt it.” Falconi stroked a branch, but only for a moment, as if afraid to cause further damage. “The poor thing was out of the dirt for most of a day, temperature was down, no water, stripped leaves…” He held out the pouch. “Want a drink?”

She took the pouch and put her lips to the straw. The harsh burn of some sort of rotgut hit her mouth, and she nearly coughed.

“Good stuff, eh?” Falconi said, seeing her reaction.

“Yeah,” said Kira, and coughed. She took another slug and then handed the pouch back.

He tapped the silvered plastic. “Probably not the best idea before cryo, but what the hell, eh?”

“What the hell indeed.”

Falconi took a sip of his own and then let out a long sigh and let his head drift back so he was looking at what would be the ceiling when under thrust. “Crazy times, Kira. Crazy times. Shit, of all the ships we had to pick up, we had to pick up yours.”

“Sorry. It’s not what I wanted either.”

He pushed the pouch across to her. She watched it drift through the air and then snared it. Another mouthful of rotgut and another burning streak pouring down her throat. “It’s not your fault,” he said.

“Actually, I kinda think it is,” she said, quiet.

“No.” He caught the pouch as she lobbed it over. “We still would have ended up having to deal with this war, even if we didn’t rescue you.”

“Yes, but—”

“But nothing. You think the Jellies were going to leave us alone forever?

You finding the suit on Adrasteia was just an excuse for them to invade.”

Kira considered that for a moment. “Maybe. What about the nightmares, though?”

“Yeah, well…” Falconi shook his head. He already seemed to be feeling the drink. “That’s just the sort of bullshit that always happens. You can prepare and prepare, but it’s the stuff you don’t anticipate that always throws you for a loop. And it always happens. You’re going about your day, and bam! An asteroid comes out of the blue, ruins your life. How are you supposed to live in a universe like that?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Kira answered anyway: “By taking reasonable precautions and not letting the possibility drive you crazy.”

“Like Gregorovich.”

“Like Gregorovich,” she agreed. “We all have to play the odds, Salvo. It’s the nature of life. The only alternative is to cash out early, and that’s just giving up.”

“Mmm.” He peered at her from under his brows, as he so often did, his ice-blue eyes hooded and ghostly pale in the dim light of ship-night. “It looked like the Soft Blade was getting away from you back on Orsted.”

Kira shifted, uncomfortable. “Maybe a bit.” “Anything I should be worried about?”

For an uncomfortably long time, she didn’t answer. Then: “Maybe.” Contracting her hamstrings, she pulled herself down to the deck and secured herself in a sitting position. “The more I let go of the xeno, the more it wants to eat and eat and eat.”

Falconi’s gaze sharpened. “To what end?”

“I don’t know. None of its memories have shown it reproducing, but—” “But maybe it’s keeping that hidden from you.”

She tipped a finger in his direction. He offered her the pouch again, and she accepted. “Letting me drink this is kind of a waste of good alcohol. No way for me to get drunk, not with the Soft Blade interfering.”

“Don’t worry about it.… You think the xeno is some sort of doomsday nanoweapon?”

“It has the capability, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what it was made for either.” Kira struggled to find the right words. “The suit doesn’t feel malevolent. Does that make sense? It doesn’t feel angry or sadistic.”

Falconi raised an eyebrow. “A machine wouldn’t.”

“No, but it does feel some things. It’s hard to explain, but I don’t think it’s entirely a machine either.” She tried to think of another way to explain. “When I was holding the shield around the maglev, there were all these tiny little tendrils going out into the walls. I could feel them, and it didn’t seem like the Soft Blade wanted to destroy. It felt like it wanted to build.”

“But build what?” Falconi said in a soft voice.

“… Anything or everything. Your guess is as good as mine.” A somber silence stilled the conversation. “Ah, I forgot to tell you, Hwa-jung said she was going into cryo as soon as she put Gregorovich under.”

“Just you and me, then,” Falconi said, and raised the pouch as if in a toast.

Kira smiled slightly. “Yes. And Morven.” “Pshaw. She doesn’t count.”

As if to punctuate his words, the FTL alert interrupted, and then—with a distant whine—the Wallfish activated its Markov Drive and departed from normal space.

“And there we go,” said Falconi. He shook his head as if he were having trouble accepting it.

Kira found herself looking at the ruined bonsai again. “How old is the tree?” she asked.

“Would you believe, almost three hundred years?” “No!”

“For real. It’s from Earth, back before the turn of the millennium. Got it off a guy as part of payment for a transport job. He didn’t realize how valuable it was.”

“Three hundred years…” The number was hard to comprehend. The tree was older than the entire history of humans living in space. It predated the Mars and Venus colonies, predated every hab-ring and manned research station outside low-Earth orbit.

“Yeah.” A brooding expression settled on Falconi’s face. “Those jackbooted thugs had to tear it up. Couldn’t just scan the place.”

“Mmm.” Kira was still thinking about how the Soft Blade had felt on Orsted—that and whatever purpose it had been built or born for. She couldn’t forget the sensation of the countless threadlike tendrils insinuating themselves through the fascia of the station, touching, tearing, building, understanding.

The Soft Blade was more than just a weapon. Of that she was sure. And from that certainty came an idea that gave Kira pause. She didn’t know if it would work, but she wanted it to so she could feel less bad about herself and the xeno. So she would have a solid reason for viewing the Soft Blade as something other than an instrument of destruction.

“Do you mind if I try something?” she asked, extending a hand toward the ruined tree.

“What?” Falconi asked, wary.

“I’m not sure, but … let me try. Please.”

He fiddled with the edge of the packet as he considered. “Alright. Fine.

But nothing too crazy. The Wallfish has enough holes in her hull already.” “Give me some credit at least.”

Kira released herself from the floor and crawled across the wall to the desk. There, she pulled the pot close and laid her hands on the trunk. The bark was rough against her palms, and it smelled fresh and green, sea air wafting over cut grass.

Falconi said, “Are you just going to hang there, or—” “Shh.”

Concentrating, Kira sent the Soft Blade burrowing into the tree, with but one thought, one directive guiding it: heal. Bark creaked and split, and tiny black threads swarmed across the surface of the tree. Kira felt the plant’s internal structures, the layers of bark (inner and outer), the rings, the hard core of heartwood, every narrow branch, and the sprouting base of every fragile, silver-backed leaf.

“Hey,” said Falconi, getting to his feet.

“Wait,” said Kira, hoping the suit could do what she was asking of it. Across the olive tree, broken branches returned to their rightful place,

lifting and straightening until standing to proud effect. The cut-grass smell intensified as sap wept from along the trunk. Crumpled leaves flattened and the holes in them closed up and, where missing, new blades budded and burst forth—silver daggers bright with new life.

At last the changes slowed and stopped, and Kira felt satisfied the damage to the tree was repaired. The Soft Blade could have continued—it wanted to continue—but then the directive would have shifted from heal to grow, and that seemed to her greedy, foolish. An unwise tempting of fate.

So she recalled the suit.

“There,” she said, and lifted her hands. The tree stood whole and healthy, as before. An aura of energy seemed to emanate from it: life newly born and burnished to a high sheen.

Kira felt overcome with a sense of wonder at what the xeno was capable of. At what she was capable of. She’d managed to heal a living thing—to reshape flesh (of a sort) and to give comfort instead of pain, to create instead of destroy. Unbidden, a laugh escaped her. A weight seemed to lift from her shoulders, as if the thrust had dropped to half a g or less.

This was a gift: a precious ability pregnant with potential. With it she could have done so much on Weyland, in the gardens of the colony. With it she could have helped her father with his Midnight Constellations, or on Adrasteia, she could have helped the spread of green across the moon’s rocky crust.

Life, and all that meant. Triumph and gratitude filled her eyes with tears, and she smiled through them, happy.

A similar wonder gentled Falconi’s expression. “How did you learn to do that?” He touched a leaf with the tip of a finger, as if unable to believe.

“I stopped being so afraid.”

“Thank you,” he said, and never had Kira heard him sound so earnest. “You’re … you’re welcome.”

Then Falconi leaned forward, put his hands on either side of her face, and—before Kira quite knew what was happening—kissed her.

He tasted different than Alan. Saltier, and she could feel the sharp tips of his stubble scraping against the skin around her lips.

Shocked, Kira froze, uncertain of how to react. The Soft Blade formed rows of dull spikes across her arms and chest, but like her, they remained held in position, neither advancing nor retracting.

Falconi broke the kiss, and Kira struggled to regain herself. Her heart was racing, and the temperature in the cabin seemed to have shot up. “What was that?” she said. Her voice rasped more than she liked.

“Sorry,” said Falconi, seeming somewhat abashed. It was an attitude she wasn’t used to seeing from him. “Guess I got carried away.”

“Uh-huh.” She licked her lips without meaning to and then berated herself for it. Dammit.

A sly grin crossed his face. “I don’t normally make a habit of hitting on crew or passengers. Unprofessional. Bad for business.”

Kira’s heart was pounding even harder. “That so.”

“Yes it is.…” He drained the last of the rotgut from the pouch. “Still friends?”

“Are we friends?” Kira said in a challenging tone. She cocked her head.

Falconi regarded her for a moment, as if debating. “Anyone I’d trust to watch my back in a firefight is a friend of mine. As far as I’m concerned, yeah, we’re friends. Unless you feel differently.”

“No,” said Kira, pausing just as long as he had. “We’re friends.”

A sharp gleam reappeared in his eyes. “Well, I’m glad to have that cleared up. Again, my apologies. The drink got the better of me. You have my word it won’t happen again.”

“That’s … Fine. Good.”

“I’d better put this into stasis,” he said, reaching for the bonsai. “And then I should get myself into cryo before we heat up the Wallfish too much. And you, what are you going to do?”

“The usual,” she said. “I think I’m just going to hole up in my cabin this time, if that’s okay.”

He nodded. “See you starside, Kira.” “You too, Salvo.”

Back in her cabin, Kira washed her face with a damp towel and then hung floating in front of the sink while she looked at herself in the mirror. Even though she hadn’t initiated the kiss, she still felt guilty about it. She’d never even looked at another man—not in that way—while she and Alan were together. Falconi’s sudden forwardness had more than caught her by surprise; it had forced her to consider what she was going to do in the future, if she had a future.

The worst thing was, the kiss had felt good.

Alan … Alan had been dead for over nine months. Not for her, not with all the time she’d spent in hibernation, but for the rest of the universe, that was the reality. It was a hard truth to swallow.

Did she even like Falconi? Kira had to think about that one for a while. In the end she decided she did. He was attractive in a rather solid, dark, hairy way. But that didn’t mean anything in and of itself. She was in no

shape to be getting in a relationship with anyone, much less the captain of the ship. That way always led to trouble.

It was selfish, but Kira was glad Gregorovich hadn’t been around to see the awkwardness. He would have made endless fun of her and Falconi in his own weird way.

Perhaps it would be best to talk with Falconi again, make it very clear that nothing else was going to happen between them. Hell, he was just lucky that the Soft Blade hadn’t overreacted out of a misplaced urge to protect her.… He’d been either very brave or very foolish.

“You did well,” she whispered, looking down at the Soft Blade. And Kira thought, just for an instant, that she felt a sense of pride from the xeno. But it was a fleeting thing that might as well have been a figment of her imagination.

“Morven,” she said. “Is Falconi still out of cryo?”

“No, Ms. Navárez,” said the pseudo-intelligence. “He just received his first round of injections. He is no longer able to communicate.”

Kira made a dissatisfied sound. Fine. It probably wasn’t necessary to talk to him again, but if it were, she could always do so when they reached their destination.

The idea wasn’t to fly all the way to the rendezvous point Tschetter’s Jellies had proposed. Rather, the Wallfish would drop out of FTL some distance away but still close enough to send a warning in time to keep the Knot of Minds from being ambushed and, in doing so, perhaps forestall an even greater catastrophe than the current war between humans and Jellies. Then, the requirements of honor and duty satisfied, they could head back to settled space.

However, Kira had a suspicion that Itari would want to rejoin its compatriots, which would necessitate a meeting of some kind.

“That’s what we are,” she muttered as she pulled herself over to the bed, “a glorified shuttle service.” It reminded her of something her grandfather

—on her father’s side—had been prone to saying, which was that “… the meaning of life, Kira, is moving things from point to point b. That’s it. That’s all we really do.”

“But what about when we talk?” she had said, not entirely understanding.

“That’s just moving an idea from in here,” and he tapped her on the forehead, “out into the real world.”

Kira had never forgotten. She’d also never forgotten that he’d described everything outside her head as the real world. Ever since, she continued to wonder if that was true or not. How much reality did the contents of one’s mind actually possess?… When she dreamed, were the dreams mere shadows or was there a truth to them?

She thought Gregorovich might have something to say on the matter.

As Kira made a web of struts from the Soft Blade to hold herself upon the mattress, she kept thinking about the bonsai tree. The memory made her smile. Life. She’d spent so long on spaceships and space stations and cold, rocky asteroids, she’d almost forgotten the joy that came from growing things.

She recalled each and every one of the sensations she’d felt from the Soft Blade during the healing process. And she compared them to the similar sensations from Orsted. There was something in them worth investigating, she thought. As they traveled through FTL, she would continue to work on her control of the xeno—always that—and on improving the ease of communication between her and the organism so that it could better carry out her wishes without her having to worry about micromanaging it so much. But more than any of that, Kira wanted to explore the urge she’d felt from the Soft Blade—only in fleeting snatches before, now more strongly—the urge to build and create.

It stirred her interest, and for the first time, it was something Kira wanted

to do with the xeno.

So she set her weekly alarm, as she had done during each trip since 61 Cygni, and then she once again began to work with the Soft Blade.

It was a curious experience. Kira was determined to keep the xeno from damaging the Wallfish, as it had Orsted, but at the same time, she wanted to experiment. In certain controlled ways, she wanted to remove all restrictions and let the Soft Blade do what it so obviously wanted.

She started with the handhold by the side of her bed. It was a nonessential part of the ship; if the xeno destroyed it, Hwa-jung could easily print a replacement, although Falconi might not be too pleased about it.…

Go, she whispered in her mind.

From her palm, soft fibrils extended, black and seeking. They fused with the composite grip, and again, Kira felt the delicious, addictive sensation of making something. What, she didn’t know, but there was a satisfaction to the feeling that reminded her of the joy she so often found in solving a difficult problem.

She let out a sigh, her breath a pale wraith twining in the chilled air. When the fibers from the Soft Blade had completely covered the grip,

and when she felt from it a sense of completion and—more—a desire to move past the hold and extend deeper into the hull, she stopped it and withdrew the xeno, curious to see what it had wrought.

She saw, but she didn’t understand.

There, where the curved, cylindrical handhold had been, she saw … something. A length of patterned material that reminded Kira of a cellular structure or an intricate sculpture, one covered with a repeating pattern of subdivided triangles. The surface was slightly metallic and had a greenish iridescence to it, and there were small round nodules of palest chartreuse nestled within the triangles.

She touched the transformed grip. It was warm.

Kira traced the pattern on the surface, overcome by a sense of wonder. Whatever the Soft Blade had made, she thought it was beautiful, and she had a sense from it that the material was somehow alive. Or had the potential for life.

Kira wanted to do more. But she knew, this—this—she had be careful with, even more than the deadly stabbing spikes that the xeno was so fond of. Life was the most dangerous thing there was.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder if she could guide or control the Soft Blade’s creative output. The Maw could, so why not her? Careful now. There was a reason biowarfare was banned by every member of the League (and Shin-Zar also). But she wasn’t trying to create a weapon. Nor servants to fight for her as the Maw had done.

Like this, she thought, grasping the rail alongside her bed and picturing the coiled shapes of an oros fern: her favorite plant from Eidolon.

At first the xeno failed to respond. Then, just as she’d started to give up, it flowed from her hand and across the railing. As if by magic, the delicate stems of oros ferns sprouted from the railing. They were imperfect replicas,

both in shape and substance, but recognizable, and as Kira withdrew the Soft Blade, she caught a whiff of fragrance from the fronds.

The plants weren’t just sculptures. They were actual living things: organic and precious because of it.

Kira let out a small gasp, shocked despite herself. She touched each of the ferns, and tears blurred her vision. She blinked them back and half laughed, half cried. If only her parents could have seen this.… If only Alan could have.…

Kira knew it would be reckless to try anything more ambitious at the moment. She was content with what she’d achieved. What they’d achieved.

And for all the uncertainty the future held, she felt a spark of hope that had long been absent. The Soft Blade wasn’t just a force for destruction. She didn’t know how, but a certainty grew within her that the xeno might be able to stop the Maw, if only she could figure out how to harness its abilities.

A sense of lightness filled Kira’s body (and it wasn’t the zero-g). She smiled, and the smile stayed as she prepared for the long sleep ahead. Perchance to dream, she thought, and she laughed longer and louder than she would around other people. At least while sober.

Still pondering, she closed her eyes and willed the Soft Blade to relax, to rest, to protect her against the cold and the dark. And soon it was—far sooner than ever before—awareness faded and the soft wings of slumber wrapped around her.

Once each week, Kira woke and trained with the Soft Blade. This time, she stayed in her cabin for the duration of the trip; she didn’t need to lift weights or otherwise stress her body in order to work with the xeno. Not anymore.

Once each week, and on each occasion she allowed the Soft Blade to spread farther across the interior of her cabin and to build and grow more. Sometimes she contributed, but for the most part, Kira gave the xeno the space to do what it wanted, and she watched with increasing wonder. Some limits she set—the display on her desk was not to be touched—but everything else in the cabin was there for the xeno to use.

Once each week and no more. And when not training, she floated still and quiet, hibernating in the sleep that was akin to death, where all was cold and grey, and sounds filtered in as if from a great distance.

In that dusty neverwhere, a dream came to her:

She saw herself—her actual self, shorn of the suit and naked as the day she was born—standing in blackest darkness. At first the void was empty save for her, and a stillness surrounded her, as if she existed in a time before time itself.

Then in front of her flowered a profusion of blue lines: fractal tracery that coiled and scrolled like vines as it spread. The lines formed a dome of intersecting shapes with her at the center, a shell of endlessly repeating curves and spikes—a universe of detail in each point of space.

And she knew, somehow she knew, that she was seeing the Soft Blade as it truly was. She reached out and touched one of the lines. An electric chill poured through her, and in that instant, she beheld a thousand stars born and died, each with their own planets, species, and civilizations.

If she could have gasped, she would have.

She took her hand away from the line and stepped back. Wonder overcame her, and she felt small and humbled. The fractal lines continued to shift and turn with a sound like sliding silk, but they grew no closer, no brighter. She sat and watched, and from the glowing matrix above, a sense of watchful protectiveness emanated.

Yet she felt no comfort. For outside the tracery, she could sense—as if with ancient instinct—a looming menace. Hunger without end spreading cancer-like in the surrounding blackness, and with it, a twisting of nature that resulted in the straightness of right angles. Without the Soft Blade, she would have been exposed, vulnerable, helpless before the menace.

Fear overtook her, and she huddled down, feeling as if the fractal dome were a candle flickering in the void, threatened on all sides by a hostile wind. She was, she knew, the focus of the menace—she and the Soft Blade alike—and the weight of its malignant craving was so great, so all-encompassing, so cruel and alien, that she felt helpless before it. Insignificant. Barren of hope.

Thus she stayed, alone and scared, with a sense of imminent doom so strong that any change—even death itself—would have been a welcome relief.

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