Chapter no 60

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira woke.

At first she couldn’t tell where she was. Blackness surrounded her, a black so profound there was no difference between her eyes closed and her eyes open. Where the emergency lights should have been, only an inky darkness pervaded. The air was warmer than normal for a trip in FTL— moister too—and no breath of wind stirred the womb-like space.

“Morven, raise lights,” she murmured, still groggy from her long inactivity. Her voice sounded curiously muffled in the stilled air.

No lights brightened the space, nor was there any response from the pseudo-intelligence.

Frustrated, Kira tried something else. Light, she told the Soft Blade. She didn’t know if the xeno could help, but she figured it was worth a try.

To her satisfaction, a soft green illumination gave shape to her surroundings. She was still in her cabin, but it in no way resembled the room as it had been upon departing Sol. Ribs of organic black material lined the walls, and fibrous cross-weaves matted the floor and ceiling. The newborn light came from pulsing, fruit-like orbs that hung upon growths of twisted vines that had crawled up along the corners of the room. The vines had leaves, and in them, she saw the shape of the oros fern repeated and elaborated upon in ornate, rococo flourishes. And everything—vines, orbs, ribs, and mats—was covered with tiny, textural patterns, as if an obsessive artist had been determined to decorate every square millimeter with fractal adornment.

Kira looked with a sense of wonder. She had done this. She and the Soft Blade. It was a far better thing than fighting and killing, she thought.

Not only could she see the results of their efforts, she could feel them, like extensions of her body, although there was a difference between the material of the suit itself and the plantlike creations. Those felt more

distant, and she could tell that she couldn’t move or manipulate them the way she could with the actual fibers of the Soft Blade. They were, in a sense, independent of her and the xeno; self-sustaining life-forms that could live on without them, as long as the plants had proper nourishment.

Even disregarding the plants, the Soft Blade had grown during the trip. It had produced far more material than was required to cover her body. What to do with it? She considered having the xeno dispose of the material, as she had with unneeded tendrils on Orsted, but Kira hated to tear down what they had built. Besides, it might be unwise to get rid of the mass when there was a chance—unpleasant to consider but not outside the realm of likelihood—that she might need it in the near future.

Could she leave the extra material in the cabin, though? Only one way to find out.

As she prepared to free herself from the struts holding her in place on the bed, Kira looked down at her body. Her right hand—the one she’d lost at Bughunt—had melted into the mattress, dissolved into a web of snarled lines that ran the length of the bed and into the casing on the walls.

A momentary surge of panic caused the material to ripple and stir and extrude rows of barbed spikes.

No! she thought. The spikes subsided, and Kira took a steadying breath.

First, she concentrated on re-forming her missing hand. The snarled lines twisted and flowed back over the bed, once more giving shape to her wrist, palm, and fingers. Then, Kira willed the Soft Blade to release her from the bed.

With a sticky sound, she broke free. Surprised, Kira realized that she didn’t have any physical connection to the black growths on the walls, though she could still feel them as part of herself. It was the first time she had managed to consciously separate herself from a part of the Soft Blade. Apparently the xeno didn’t mind, not so long as it still covered her body.

It was an encouraging development.

Still somewhat disoriented, she pulled herself along the wall to where the door ought to be. As she approached, some combination of the xeno’s awareness and her own intent caused that section of the gleaming black material to retract with a slight sliding sound.

Beneath was the desired pressure door.

It opened, and Kira was relieved to see the normal brown paneling covering the walls of the hallway outside. Her efforts to constrain the Soft Blade’s growth had been a success; it hadn’t spread to the rest of the ship.

Looking back, she said, “Stay,” same as she would to a pet.

Then she exited into the hallway. The mass of black fibers inside her cabin remained behind.

As an experiment, Kira closed the pressure door. She could still feel the xeno on the other side. And again, it didn’t try to follow her.

She wondered how the different parts of the Soft Blade communicated. Radio? FTL? Something else? How far away could they safely be? Could the signal be jammed? It might be an issue in combat. Something she’d have to watch for.

But for the present, Kira was content to leave the growths in her cabin. If she needed them, a single thought would be enough to summon the rest of the xeno to her side. Hopefully without damaging the Wallfish.

She smirked. Falconi wouldn’t be too pleased when he found out about her cabin. Hwa-jung too, and Gregorovich, if the ship mind ever returned to his normal self.

Kira assumed they had arrived, but the Wallfish still seemed quieter than it should. She tried pulling up her overlays, but as with each of the last two FTL trips, the Soft Blade had absorbed her contacts. She wasn’t sure at what point exactly, but it must have happened sometime during her dreaming hibernation. Frustrated, she muttered, “When are you going to learn?”

Kira was about to head to the storm shelter, to check on the crew, when the intercom crackled and Falconi’s voice emanated from a speaker by her head: “Kira, come see me in Control once you’re up.” He sounded rough, real rough, as if he’d just been puking.

Kira swung by the galley to get herself a pouch of heated chell before heading toward the front of the ship.

As the pressure door to Control swung open with a squeal of protest, Falconi glanced up from the holo-display. His skin was an unpleasant grey, the whites of his eyes were tinged yellow, and he was shivering and chattering as if it were nearly freezing. All the classic signs of cryo sickness.

“Thule,” said Kira, kicking herself over to him. “Here, you need this more than me.” She shoved the packet of chell into his hands.

“Thanks,” said Falconi from between gritted teeth. “Bad reaction, huh?”

He ducked his head. “Yeah. It’s been getting worse the last few jumps. I don’t think my body likes the chemicals we’ve been using. Have to talk with…” He shivered so hard his teeth clattered. “… have to talk with the doc about it.”

“How are you going to get back?” Kira asked. Going to one of the emergency stations along the wall, she fetched a thermal blanket and brought it to him.

Falconi didn’t resist as she wrapped it around his shoulders. “I’ll survive,” he said with a certain amount of grim humor.

“I’m sure you will,” she said dryly. Then she glanced around the empty room. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Didn’t see any reason to wake them up if they just had to go back into cryo.” Falconi tightened the blanket around himself. “No reason to make them go through this any more times than necessary.”

Kira pulled herself into the seat next to him and strapped herself in. “Have you sent the warning yet?”

He shook his head. “Waiting for Itari. I gave the Jelly a buzz on the intercom. Should be up here before too long.” Falconi gave her a sideways glance. “How about you? All good?”

“All good. But, there’s something you should know.…” Then Kira told him about what she and the Soft Blade had done.

Falconi made an exasperated sound. “Did you really have to start disassembling my ship?”

“Yeah, we did,” she said. “Sorry. It was just a little bit.”

He grunted. “Great. Do we have to worry about it wrecking the rest of the Wallfish?”

“No,” said Kira. “Not unless something happens to me, but even then I don’t think it would do anything to the ship.”

Falconi cocked his head. “So what would the Soft Blade do if you die?” “I … I’m not sure. I’d guess it would return to its dormant state, the way

it was on Adrasteia. That or it would try to bond with someone else.”

“Mmm. Well, that’s not alarming in the slightest.” Falconi took another sip of chell and then gave it back to her. The grey in his cheeks was beginning to fade, replaced by a more healthy color.

As he had predicted, Itari arrived in Control soon after, pieces of its hibernation cocoon still clinging to its many limbs. Kira was impressed to see that the Jelly had regrown most of the tentacle it had cut off during their escape from Orsted (although the replacement was still shorter and thinner than the rest of its siblings).

[[Itari here: How moves the water?]]

She answered as was right and proper: [[Kira here: The water is still.… We are ready to send farscent warning to the Knot of Minds.]]

[[Itari here: Then let us not waste the rightness of time.]]

Transmitting the signal turned out to be more of a hassle than Kira expected. She had to teach Itari how the Wallfish’s FTL comms worked, and the Jelly had to explain—with great difficulty and much backtracking— how to broadcast and encode the message in such a way that the Knot of Minds would not only notice but understand the warning. Lacking the Jelly machine that converted their scents to signals, Kira had to translate Itari’s words—if words was even the right term—into English, in the hope that the Knot would bother translating.

After several hours of work, the warning went out, and Falconi said, “There, it’s done.”

“Now we wait,” said Kira.

It would take half a day for the warning to reach the proposed rendezvous spot—which itself was within a few days’ travel of Cordova-1420, the system where the Jellies were building their fleet—and half a day to receive any answer back. “Any chance that the UMC’s hunters might intercept the signal?” Kira asked.

“Eh,” said Falconi. “There’s a chance, but it’s literally astronomical.”


For the rest of the day, Kira helped Falconi run diagnostics throughout the

Wallfish as he checked on the systems necessary for the smooth functioning

of the ship. Air duct filters needed to be cleaned, water lines flushed, the fusion drive test fired, computers restarted, and outside sensors replaced, along with all the many little and not-so-little tasks that made survival in space possible.

Falconi didn’t ask for help, but Kira had never been one to sit around when work needed doing. Besides, she could tell he was still suffering from the aftereffects of cryo. She’d only had one bad reaction herself, during her second trip out for the Lapsang Corporation. An error in the cryo tube had resulted in her receiving a slightly higher dose of one of the sedatives. Even that small difference had been enough to keep her in the bathroom, puking her guts out, the whole time she’d been on mission. That had been fun.

So she had sympathy for Falconi’s distress, although in his case, it seemed worse than just an adverse reaction to some sedative. He appeared genuinely ill. Cryo sickness would fade in time—that she knew—but he might not have very long to recover before they would have to start back for the League. And that worried Kira.

Aside from the usual maintenance required, the Wallfish was in generally good shape. The most serious repair that required their attention was a faulty pressure seal in the port cargo hold, but even that was easily dealt with.

Throughout it all, Kira could still feel the contents of her cabin—the black armor the Soft Blade had built upon the walls. She even took Falconi to see what she and the xeno had built. He poked his head in long enough to glance around and then backed out. “Nope,” he said. “No offense, Kira, but nope.

“None taken,” she said with a grin. She still hadn’t forgotten about their kiss, but she didn’t see a reason to bring it up now. In any case, Falconi wasn’t in any shape for that sort of a conversation.

Following a quiet evening, she and Falconi retired to their respective cabins (and Itari to the cargo hold) for the night. The black casing that now covered Kira’s room made it feel heavy, ominous. But safe too—there was that—and the vines and flowers helped mitigate the heaviness. She worried about the air vents being blocked, but then she realized the Soft Blade would surely see to it that she had enough oxygen to keep from suffocating.

“I’m back,” she whispered, running a hand along the ridged wall.

The wall shivered slightly, like skin crinkling in the cold. And Kira smiled a small smile, feeling an unexpected sense of pride. The room was hers and hers alone, and although it was mostly the work of the Soft Blade, the growth was still a part of her, birthed from her mind, if not her flesh.

And she remembered the dream she’d had during her long sleep. “You were trying to protect me, weren’t you?” she said, somewhat louder than before.

The greenish lights in the room seemed to pulse in response, but so faintly that it was hard to be sure. Feeling more comfortable, she moved to the bed and secured herself to sleep.

Late next morning, over twenty-four hours after they had emerged from FTL, Kira and Falconi gathered in the galley to wait for the possible reply from the Knot of Minds. Itari joined them, taking up a position atop one of the two tables. The Jelly held itself in place with the small grasping arms that unfolded from its carapace.

Falconi was lost in his overlays, and Kira was watching a vid—one of the newscasts the Wallfish had picked up before leaving Sol—on the holo-display built into the table. The vid wasn’t very interesting, so after a few minutes, she turned it off and fell to studying the Jelly across the room.

The dusky, autumn colors of Itari’s tentacles were solid now, unshifting, though that would change were its emotions to rise. Kira found it interesting that the Jellies not only had emotions, but that they weren’t entirely alien to her. Perhaps, she thought, they were easier for her to understand because of the Soft Blade’s time spent joined with the graspers.

Graspers … Even in the small moments the xeno was inside her mind, it shaded her thoughts with meanings from another era. Once that had bothered Kira. Now she acknowledged and accepted the fact without judgment. She was the one who would decide the worth of things, not the xeno, no matter how strongly she felt its inherited memories.

A continuous cloud of scents emanated from the Jelly. At the moment, they were subdued—just a general I am here, like a low hum in the background—interspersed with an occasional spike of interest-driven odor, spicy and somewhat unpleasant.

Kira wondered what the Jelly was doing, whether it had implants of its own or if it was just thinking and remembering.

[[Kira here: Tell me of your shoal, Itari.]]

[[Itari here: What shoal do you mean, Idealis? My hatching? My co-forms? My Arm? There are many kinds of shoals. Does not the Idealis tell you of these things?]]

The Jelly’s question was close enough to her own ruminations, it gave her pause. [[Kira here: Yes, but as through muddy water. Tell me, where were you hatched? How were you raised?]]

[[Itari here: I was hatched in a clutching pool near the shore of High Lfarr. It was a warm place with much light and much food. When I was grown to my third-form, I was given to this current form, which is how I have served ever since.]]

[[Kira here: Did you have no choice as to your form?]]

Scent of puzzlement from the Jelly. [[Itari: Why would I have a choice?

What choice is there?]]

[[Kira here: I mean … what did you wish to do?]]

The puzzlement deepened. [[Itari here: Why would that matter? This form was how best I could serve my Arm. What else would there be to do?]]

[[Kira here: Do you not have any desires of your own?]]

[[Itari here: Of course. To serve my Arm and the Wranaui as a whole.]] [[Kira here: But you have your own ideas of how best to do that, yes?

You do not agree with all Wranaui about the course of this … ripple.]]

A gentle flush crept down the Jelly’s limbs. [[Itari here: There are many solutions to the same problem, but the goal itself does not shift.]]

She decided to try a different tack. [[Kira here: If you did not have to serve, what would you do? If the Arms did not exist and there were no one to tell you how to spend your time?]]

[[Itari here: Then it would fall to me to rebuild our race. I would shift forms and spawn hatchlings every moment of the day until our strength was returned.]]

Kira released a small hiss of frustration, loud enough that Falconi noticed. “You talking with that thing?” he asked, nodding toward Itari.

“Yeah, but not really getting anywhere.” “I’m sure it feels the same about you.”

Kira grunted. He wasn’t wrong. She was trying to communicate with an alien species. Just talking to a human from another city, much less another planet, could be nigh on impossible. Why should it be any easier with an alien? She felt like she had to try, though. If they were going to be dealing with the Jellies on a regular basis in the future, then she wanted to have some sense of what was important to them (outside of the memories from the Soft Blade).

[[Kira here: Answer me this: What do you do when there is nothing that needs doing? You cannot work all the time. No creature can.]]

[[Itari here: I rest. I contemplate my future actions. I honor the acts of the Vanished. If I have the chance, I swim.]]

[[Kira here: Do you play?]]

[[Itari here: Play is for first- and second-forms.]]

There was a curious lack of imagination to the Jellies that Kira found odd. How had they managed to build an interstellar civilization when they didn’t seem driven to dream the way humans so often were? The technology they had scavenged from the Vanished couldn’t have helped that much. Or had it?… She warned herself against making human-centric judgments. After all, the Jelly the Soft Blade had been joined with—Shoal Leader Nmarhl—had shown plenty of initiative during its time. Perhaps she was failing to understand a linguistic or cultural difference between her and Itari.

[[Kira here: What do the Wranaui want, Itari?]]

[[Itari here: To live, to eat, to spread to all friendly waters. In that, we are the same as you, two-form.]]

[[Kira here: And what are the Wranaui? What is the heart of your nature?]]

[[Itari here: We are what we are.]]

[[Kira here: The Idealis calls you graspers. Why would it think that?]]

The Jelly’s tentacles rubbed over themselves. [[Itari here: Because we have taken up the sacred pieces the Vanished left behind. Because what we can hold, we hold tight. Because each Arm must do as it sees fit.]]

[[Kira here: The Vanished were on your homeworld, were they not?]] [[Itari here: Yes. We found their works on the land and deep in the

Abyssal Plain.]]

[[Kira here: So there is solid land on your planet?]]

[[Itari here: Some, but less than most.]]

[[Kira here: What level of technology did the Wranaui have before finding the works of the Vanished?]]

[[Itari here: We had learned how to smelt metal by the heated vents in our oceans, but there was much that was beyond us by reason of our life under the water. It was only by the grace of the Vanished that we were able to expand beyond the vergeal depths.]]

[[Kira here: I see.]]

She continued to question the Jelly, trying to suss out what she could of its species and civilization, but too many areas of confusion remained for her to make much progress. The more she talked with Itari, the more Kira realized just how different their two kinds really were—and the differences went far beyond the already vast physical disparities.

It was nearing midnight ship time, and Falconi was picking up in the galley in preparation for retiring, when a tone sounded and Morven said, “Captain, incoming transmission.”

An electric tingle crawled down Kira’s spine. Now maybe they would have a sense of what was going to happen—of where to go and what to do.

“On screen,” said Falconi, terse. He wiped his hands with a towel and pushed himself over to where Kira sat floating at the table.

The built-in holo sprang to life, and an image of Tschetter—clad in the same skinsuit as before—appeared from the shoulders up. Kira was relieved to see the major had survived the battle at Bughunt.

Tschetter said, “Captain Falconi, Navárez, your message is received and acknowledged. Thank you. We would have been in a shit-ton of trouble otherwise—not that the current situation is much better. Given the change in circumstances, it’s imperative that we meet and talk.” As Kira had expected. “Let me repeat: it’s imperative that we meet. Long-distance won’t suffice. It’s not secure, and we can’t have a proper conversation this way. Lphet has proposed the following coordinates, which I’ve done my best to convert into standard notation. For the sake of everyone’s safety, don’t respond to this message. We will travel to the specified location and wait exactly forty-two hours after you receive this. If the Wallfish doesn’t arrive

by then, Lphet says it will assume that you—and this specifically means you, Kira—are no longer willing to assist in this endeavor, and the Knot of Minds will plan accordingly.” A note of appeal entered Tschetter’s voice, even though her expression remained as stern as ever. “I can’t emphasize enough just how important this is, Kira. Please, you have to come. And you as well, Falconi. Humanity needs all the allies it can find at the moment.… Tschetter over and out.”

“They don’t know we’re traveling under the name Finger Pig, do they,” said Kira, gesturing at the holo. The realization had just occurred to her.

“No,” said Falconi. “Good point. We’ll shift our transponder back.

Would suck to get blown up over a case of mistaken identity.” “So we’re going?” Kira asked.

“One second. Let me check the coordinates. Update our wriggly little friend here while I do.”

Itari, Kira saw, was rather restless. Its tentacles were red and blue, and they wormed across the table where the Jelly had been floating, gripping and regripping the grating with what in a human would have been nervous energy.

After Kira filled it in, the Jelly said, [[Itari here: We will meet with the Knot, yes? Yes?]]

The repetition reminded her of Vishal, and Kira smiled without meaning to. [[Kira here: Yes, I think so.]]

“Okay,” said Falconi. “Looks like they want to meet closer to Cordova-Fourteen-Twenty. Assuming we get out of here quick-like, we can make it to the spot in about twenty-eight hours.”

“In FTL?” said Kira. “Of course.”

“Just checking.… That’s cutting it awfully close, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “They’re only twelve hours away by signal, so not really.” “Do you need to go back into cryo?”

“Nah, but I’m going to leave the rest of the crew under, and we’ll have to keep the ship as cold as possible. You’ll tell Itari that, yes?”

She did. And then they set about departing the empty patch of interstellar space the Wallfish was currently racing through—although with no close point of reference, they seemed to be sitting perfectly still.

Once the ship was properly chilled, the Markov Drive wound back up, the familiar whine sounded, and they entered FTL.

The twenty-eight hours passed in cold, quiet, and dark. Kira and Falconi spent most of their time apart, in their cabins, keeping as still as they reasonably could, to avoid producing extra heat. Likewise, Itari retreated to the port cargo hold, and there the alien held itself in watchful stillness.

A few times Kira met with Falconi in the galley for meals. They talked in hushed tones, and the meetings felt to Kira like the slow, late-night conversations she’d had with friends in school while growing up.

When they finished eating, they played games of Scratch Seven. Round after round, and sometimes Falconi won and sometimes Kira. Unlike before, they didn’t bet questions but rather tokens they folded out of wrappers from their meal packs.

During the last game, Kira broke the silence and said, “Salvo … why did you buy the Wallfish?”


“I mean, why did you want to leave your home? Why this?”

His blue eyes gazed at her over the tops of his cards. “Why did you become a xenobiologist? Why leave Weyland?”

“Because I wanted to explore, to see the universe.” She shook her head, rueful. “Sure got more than I bargained for.… But somehow I think that’s not why you left Farrugia’s Landing.”

He turned over one of the shared cards stuck to the deck. A six of clubs. Added to her own hand, that gave her … four sevens in total. “Sometimes it’s not possible to stay home, even if you want to.”

“Did you want to?”

A slight shrug underneath his thermal blanket. “The situation wasn’t great. I didn’t have much of a choice. You remember the uprising there?”


“The company was screwing folks over on their benefits in all sorts of ways. Disability. Worker’s comp. You name it. Things finally reached a boiling point and … everyone had to take sides.”

A slow realization dawned on her. “You were a claims adjuster, right?”

Salvo nodded, but with some reluctance. “That’s how I really came to understand how people were getting swindled. Once the protests started, I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. You have to understand, these were people I grew up with. Friends. Family.”

“And after?”

“After…” He put his cards down and rubbed at both temples with the tips of his index fingers. “After, I couldn’t bear to stay. Words had been said and actions had been done that couldn’t be forgiven. So I buckled down, saved my money for a few years, and then bought the Wallfish.

“To escape?” she asked.

“No, to be free,” he said. “I’d rather struggle and fail on my own than be coddled as a slave.”

The conviction in his voice was so strong, it made the back of Kira’s neck prickle. She liked it. “So you do have principles,” she said in a softly mocking tone.

Salvo chuckled. “Careful now. Don’t tell anyone or you’ll give them a bad impression.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” She put down her cards. “Hold on. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Salvo watched with a questioning look as she left the galley. Hurrying, Kira returned to her cabin, fetched her concertina from under a blanket of the Soft Blade’s living tissue, and then headed back.

When he saw the concertina, Salvo groaned. “What now? Are you going to make me listen to a polka?”

“Hush,” said Kira, using the brusque response to conceal her nervousness. “I don’t know if I remember all the fingering, but…”

Then she played him “Saman-Sahari,” one of the first pieces she had ever learned. It was a long, slow song with what she thought was a beautiful melody. As the languid music filled the air, it reminded her of the greenhouses on Weyland, of their fragrant scents and the buzz of pollinating insects. It reminded her of family and home and much that was now lost.

Tears filled Kira’s eyes in spite of herself. When she finished, she stayed where she was for a long while, staring down at the concertina.

“Kira.” She looked up to see Falconi gazing at her with an earnest expression, his eyes gleaming with tears of his own. “That was lovely,” he said, and put his hand on hers.

She nodded and sniffed and laughed a little. “Thanks. I was afraid I was going to make a mess of it.”

“Not at all.”

“Well then.…” She cleared her throat, and then with some reluctance, freed her hand. “I suppose we should call it a night. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.”

“Yes, I suppose we should.” “… Goodnight, Salvo.”

“Goodnight, Kira. And thank you again for the song.” “Of course.”

Kira was climbing along the Wallfish’s central shaft, after checking on Itari in the hold, when the jump alert sounded and she felt a subtle but noticeable shift in the ship’s position. She checked the time: 1501 GTS.

From overhead, Falconi’s voice sounded. “We’re there. And we’re not alone.”

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