Chapter no 61

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The Wallfish had emerged from FTL near a brown dwarf: a dark, magenta-colored orb devoid of moons or planets. It dwelled in the void outside Cordova-1420’s heliosphere, a lonely wanderer orbiting the galactic core, spinning round and round in silent eternity.

By the equator of the brown dwarf hung a cluster of twenty-one white dots: the ships of the Knot of Minds, positioned such that the mass of the failed star shielded them from any FTL telescopes aimed at them from Cordova-1420.

The moment the Wallfish had silenced its Markov Drive, Falconi triggered the wake-up procedures for the rest of the crew (with the exception of Gregorovich). It would take the Wallfish four hours to match speed with the Knot of Minds; more than enough time for the crew to defrost and down the food and fluids they would need to be functional.

“We’ll talk when you get here,” Tschetter had said in response to their hail. “It’ll be easier with you in person, Kira, when you can communicate with the Jellies directly.”

After the call, Kira went to the galley to greet the crew as they straggled in. None of them looked particularly good. “Survived another one,” said Sparrow, wiping her face with a towel. “Oh yay.”

Nielsen appeared even worse than Falconi had, although she displayed none of the symptoms of cryo sickness. She had a twitch, and there was a thin tightness to her lips, as if she were in pain. It was, Kira suspected, a return of the first officer’s old affliction.

“Can I get you anything?” Kira asked, sympathetic. “No, but thanks.”

The Entropists joined them also. They came stumbling in, garbed in a replacement set of gradient robes, arms wrapped around each other and a haggard look on their faces. But they seemed calm at least and sane, which

was an improvement. Their time spent in cryo appeared to have dulled the shock of having their hive mind broken. They never moved more than a meter away from each other, though, and they were always touching, as if physical contact were somehow a substitute for the mental connection they’d lost.

Kira helped heat and serve food to the group, doing whatever she could to smooth their recovery from hibernation. As she did, Vishal sat with Nielsen, put an arm around her, and spoke to her in a quiet voice. Whatever he was saying seemed to ease the first officer’s distress; she kept nodding, and some of the strain vanished from her posture.

When they were all seated with food and drink, Falconi stood and said, “There’s something you should know.” And then he briefed them on the situation with Gregorovich.

“How horrible,” said Nielsen. She shivered. “You going to thaw him out?” Sparrow asked.

Falconi shook his head. “Not until we know what’s happening with the Knot of Minds. We might end up just turning around and heading back for the League. If I do have Hwa-jung pull Gregorovich out of cryo, I want you, Doc, to look at him at once.”

“Of course,” said Vishal. “I will do everything I can for him.” “Glad to hear it, Doc.”

Four hours later, with everyone awake, if still somewhat groggy, the Wallfish docked with the Jelly flagship: a large, gleaming orb with a dozen or so gun ports ringing its rounded prow.

Along with the crew, Kira hurried off to the airlock. Only the Entropists stayed behind in the galley, nursing warm drinks while huddled over the holo-display. “We will watch from—”

“—from here,” they said.

Despite Kira’s wariness toward the meeting, she was eager to get it over with so that—one way or another—she would have a sense of what the future would hold. Right then, she didn’t have the slightest idea. If they ended up returning to the League, would she go into hiding? Turn herself over to the UMC? Find a way to fight the Jellies and the nightmares without

ending up stuck in a cell somewhere? Maybe she would head back to Weyland, try to find her family, protect them.… The lack of certainty wasn’t a feeling she liked. Far from it.

She could tell that Falconi was wrestling with a similar disquiet. He’d been unusually taciturn since they’d arrived at the brown dwarf, and when she asked him about it, he shook his head and said, “Just thinking, that’s all. It’ll be nice to have this behind us.”

That it will.

The Wallfish jolted as the two ships connected. The outer airlock rolled open, and on the other side, a membrane retracted to reveal one of the Jellies’ mother-of-pearl-esque doorways. It rotated to reveal the three-meter-long tunnel that led into the Jelly ship.

Waiting inside the Jelly ship was Tschetter and, as Kira quickly identified from the scents wafting her way, the tentacle-adorned shape of Lphet.

“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” said Tschetter. “Permission granted,” said Falconi.

Tschetter and Lphet floated inward and took up positions in the airlock antechamber. [[Lphet here: Greetings, Idealis.]]

“Good to see you again, Major,” said Falconi. “Things were getting pretty hairy back at Bughunt. Wasn’t sure if you were going to make it.” Like the rest of the crew, he was armed, and his hand never strayed far from the grip of his blaster.

“We almost didn’t,” said Tschetter.

Nielsen said, “What happened to the—what was it you called it, Kira— the Seeker?” At the mention of the ancient danger, a shiver ran down Kira’s back. She’d wondered that herself.

A flicker of distaste crossed Tschetter’s face. “It fled Bughunt before we could destroy it.”

“Where is it now?” Kira asked.

A slight shrug on the part of the major. “Wandering among the stars somewhere. I’m sorry; I can’t tell you more than that. We didn’t have time to go chasing after it.”

Kira frowned, wishing otherwise. The thought of a Seeker set loose among the stars, free to pursue whatever cruel agenda it saw fit—free of any oversight of its creators, the Vanished—filled her with dread. But there

was nothing she could do about it, and even if there were, they had more pressing concerns.

“Well, isn’t that the best fucking news,” said Sparrow in a tone that matched Kira’s mood.

Falconi lifted his chin. “Why did we have to meet in person, Major?

What was so important you couldn’t say over the horn?”

Even though it couldn’t have understood Falconi’s question, the Jelly answered: [[Lphet here: The currents are against us, Idealis. Even now the shoal of your Arm prepares to attack our forces gathered around the neighboring star. The attack will surely fail, but not without great losses on both sides. The empty sea will run with blood, and our shared sorrow will be the Corrupted’s gain. This tide must be turned, Idealis.]] And a scent of earnest supplication suffused the air. Behind her, Itari rubbed its tentacles and turned a fermented yellow.

Tschetter tipped her head toward the Jelly. “Lphet was just telling Kira something of the situation. It’s worse than you might think. If we don’t intervene, the Seventh Fleet will be destroyed and all hope for peace between us and the Jellies lost.”

“The League tried to kill you,” Nielsen pointed out.

The major never faltered. “It was a reasonable choice given the circumstances. I don’t agree with it, but from a tactical standpoint, it made a certain sense. What doesn’t make sense is losing the Seventh. It’s the largest standing fleet in the UMC. Without it, the League is going to be at even more of a disadvantage. Any serious attack and the Jellies or the Corrupted will be able to overrun our forces.”

“So what do you have in mind?” said Kira. “You must have an idea or we wouldn’t be talking right now.”

Tschetter nodded, and the Jelly said: [[Lphet here: You are right, Idealis.

The plan is a desperate leap into the abyss, but it is all that is left to us.]] [[Kira here: You can understand my other words?]]

She tasted nearscent of understanding. [[Lphet here: The machine that your co-form Tschetter wears translates for us.]]

The major was still speaking. “Unfortunately, the Premier’s decision to take out the Knot of Minds has ruined our original plan. At best possible speeds, the Seventh Fleet will reach Cordova-Fourteen-Twenty within the next few hours. Once it does, they’ll come under fire, and it’ll be difficult to

save them. That, and finding a way to establish peace between us and the Jellies is going to be dicey. Very dicey.”

Kira looked at Falconi. “Could we send a message to the Seventh before they reach Cordova? Warn them? Tschetter, you must know a way to contact them on military channels.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Falconi said. “But—”

“Won’t work,” said Tschetter. “We don’t know where exactly the Seventh is. If Klein is smart, and he is, he won’t be bringing the fleet in on a straight shot from Earth. It would be too easy to cross paths with a Jelly ship that way.”

“Can’t you locate them with your FTL sensors?” Kira asked.

Tschetter gave her a rather unpleasant smile. “We’ve tried, but they’re not showing up. No idea why. The other Jellies certainly haven’t found them. The Knot of Minds would have heard.”

Kira remembered something Colonel Stahl had mentioned. “On Orsted Station, the officer who debriefed me mentioned that they had some way to keep the Jellies from detecting the Seventh.”

“Is that so?” said Tschetter with a thoughtful expression. “Before I was captured, I remember there were rumors coming out of the research divisions about experimental techniques for hiding a ship in FTL. It had something to do with generating short-range signals—basically white noise

—that would disrupt any active scanning attempts. Maybe that’s what he meant.” She shook herself. “It doesn’t matter. The point is, we can’t find the Seventh Fleet in FTL, and once they drop back to sublight, the Jellies are going to jam the system. No signal that’s fast enough to reach the Seventh in time will be powerful enough to punch through the interference. Besides, I doubt they would listen to anything we had to say.”

Kira was starting to feel frustrated. “What are we talking about then?

Are you going to fly off and fight alongside the Seventh? Is that it?” “Not quite,” said Tschetter.

Falconi interceded with a raised hand. “Wait a moment. What was your original plan, Tschetter? I’ve never been entirely clear on it. The Jellies outrun and outgun us from here to Alpha Centauri. Why did they need us to help them off their head honchos? Seems like we would just get in the way.”

“I was getting to that,” said Tschetter. She tugged on the fingers of her skinsuit, pulling out wrinkles on the back of her hands. “The plan was—and still is, I might add—for the Knot of Minds to escort one of our ships past the Jelly defense perimeter. The Knot will say they captured the ship while raiding the League and that it has valuable intel on it. Once in, the Knot will ID the target, and we blow up their leadership for them. Simple as that.”

“Oh, just that,” scoffed Sparrow.

Vishal said, “Such an easy task. We could be done by dinner.” He laughed hollowly.

A ripple ran the length of the Jelly’s limbs. [[Lphet here: We wish your help, Idealis.… We wish your help in killing the great and mighty Ctein.]] And a mélange of sickness, pain, and panic clogged Kira’s nostrils, as if the Jelly had become physically ill.

She couldn’t conceal her shock at its words. [[Kira here: Ctein is here?]] [[Lphet here: Indeed, Idealis. For the first time in four ripples and

uncounted cycles, the huge and terrible Ctein has uprooted its many limbs so as to oversee the invasion of your planets and the crushing of the Corrupted. This is our best and only chance of toppling our ancient tyrant.]] “Kira?” said Falconi, an edgy tone in his voice. His hand drifted closer

to the grip of his blaster.

“It’s okay. Just … wait,” she said. Her mind was racing. [[Kira here: Is

this why you wanted the League’s help? To kill the one and only Ctein?]]

Nearscent of affirmation. [[Lphet here: But of course, Idealis. What else might we have wanted?]]

Kira shifted her gaze to Tschetter. “Did you know about this Ctein they’re talking about?”

The major frowned. “They mentioned its name before, yes. I didn’t think it was of any particular significance.”

A disbelieving laugh burst forth from Kira’s throat. “Not of any significance.… Thule.”

Falconi gave her a glance of concern. “What’s wrong?”

“I—” Kira shook her head. Think! “Okay. Hold on.” Again, she addressed the Jelly: [[Kira here: I still do not understand. Why not kill Ctein yourselves? Your ships are better than ours, and you can swim closer to Ctein without arousing alarm. So why have you not already killed Ctein?

Do you want us to be…]] She couldn’t think of the Jelly concept for blame

and instead finished with, [[known for the deed?]]

[[Lphet here: No, Idealis. We need your help because we cannot do it ourselves. After the events of the Sundering, and after Nmarhl’s failed uprising, the wise and clever Ctein saw to it that all Wranaui, even we the Tfeir, were altered so that we will not and could not harm our great Ctein.]]

[[Kira here: Do you mean you are physically incapable of hurting Ctein?]]

[[Lphet here: That is exactly the problem, Idealis. If we try, a sickness stops us from moving. Even just thinking about causing harm to the huge and mighty Ctein causes us immense distress.]]

A deep frown pinched Kira’s brow. So the Jellies had been genetically modified to be slaves? The thought filled her with disgust. To be bound by one’s own genes to bow and scrape was abhorrent. The intentions of the Knot of Minds were making more sense now, but she wasn’t liking the shape of them.

“You need a human ship,” she said, looking at Tschetter.

The major’s expression softened slightly. “And a human to pull the trigger, literally or metaphorically, at some point along the process.”

Fear uncoiled inside Kira. “The Wallfish isn’t a cruiser, and it sure as hell isn’t a battleship. The Jellies would tear us apart. You can’t—”

“Slow down,” said Falconi. “Context, please, Kira. Not all of us can talk smells, you know.” Behind him, the crew was looking nervous. Kira couldn’t blame them.

She ran a hand over her scalp, trying to marshal her thoughts. “Right, right…” Then she told them what Lphet had told her, and when she finished, Tschetter confirmed and explained a few of the points Kira herself was fuzzy on.

Falconi shook his head. “Let me get this straight. You want us to let the Knot of Minds fly us right into the heart of the Jelly fleet. Then you want us to attack the ship carrying this Ctein—”

“The Battered Hierophant,” Tschetter helpfully supplied.

“I don’t give two fucks what it’s called. You want us to attack this ship, whereupon every single Jelly stationed there at Cordova is going to descend upon us with furious hellfire, and we won’t stand a damn chance. Not a single chance.”

Tschetter seemed unsurprised by his reaction. “The Knot of Minds promises they will do everything they can to protect the Wallfish once you launch your Casaba-Howitzers toward the Battered Hierophant. They seem fairly confident of their ability to do so.”

A mocking laugh escaped Falconi. “Bullshit. You know as well as I do it’s impossible to guarantee anything once the shooting starts.”

“If you’re looking for guarantees in life, you’re going to be sorely disappointed,” said Tschetter. She drew herself up, no mean feat in zero-g. “Once Ctein is dead, the Knot of Minds claims—”

“Wait,” said Kira, as an unpleasant thought occurred to her. “What about the Nest of Transference?”

A flicker of confusion appeared on Tschetter’s face. “The what?” “Yeah,” said Falconi. “What?”

Dismayed, Kira said, “Didn’t you read my write-up about the conversation I had with Itari on the way out from Bughunt?”

Falconi opened his mouth and then shook his head. “I—Shit. Guess I missed it. There’s been a lot going on.”

“And Gregorovich didn’t tell you?” “It didn’t come up.”

Tschetter snapped her fingers. “Navárez, fill me in.”

So Kira explained what she knew about the Nest of Transference. “Un-fucking-believable,” said Falconi.

Sparrow popped a stick of gum into her mouth. “So you’re saying the Jellies can resurrect themselves?”

“In a way,” said Kira.

“Lemme get this straight: we shoot ’em, and they pop back out of their birthing pods, fresh as daisies and knowing everything that just happened? Like where and how they got killed?”

“Pretty much.” “Christ-on-a-stick.”

Kira looked back at Tschetter. “They didn’t tell you?”

The major shook her head, appearing displeased with herself. “No. I guess I never asked the right questions, but … it explains a lot.”

Falconi tapped the grip of his blaster in a distracted way. “Shit. If the Jellies can store backups of themselves, how are we supposed to kill this

Ctein? Kill it for good, that is.” He glanced at Kira. “That was your question, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

Nearscent of understanding flooded the air, and Kira remembered that the Jellies had been listening the whole time.

[[Lphet here: Your concern is reasonable, Idealis, but in this case it is unfounded.]]

[[Kira here: How so?]]

[[Lphet here: Because no copy exists of the great and mighty Ctein’s pattern.]]

“How can that be?” Nielsen asked as Kira translated. Kira was wondering that herself.

[[Lphet here: In the cycles since the Sundering, Ctein has indulged the worst excesses of its hunger, and it has grown beyond all normal bounds of Wranaui flesh. This indulgence prevents the proud and cunning Ctein from using the Nest of Transference. The Nest cannot be built large enough to copy Ctein’s pattern. The currents will not hold at that size.]]

Sparrow popped her gum. “So Ctein is a fatass. Got it.”

[[Lphet here: You would do well to be cautious of the strength of Ctein, two-form. It is unique among Wranaui, and none there are among the Arms that can match it. This is why the great and terrible Ctein has grown complacent in its supremacy.]]

Sparrow made a dismissive noise.

[[Kira here: To be clear, if we kill Ctein, that will be the end of it? Ctein will die a true death?]]

A distressed nearscent, and the Jelly flushed a sickly color. [[Lphet here: That is correct, Idealis.]]

When Kira finished translating, Tschetter said, “Going back to what I was saying … Once Ctein is dead, the Knot of Minds will be able to assume control over the ships at Cordova. You wouldn’t have to worry about anyone blowing up your precious ship then, Captain.”

A grunt from Falconi. “I’m more worried about us getting blown up.”

Irritation pinched Tschetter’s face. “Don’t be dense. You wouldn’t have to be on the Wallfish. Your pseudo-intelligence could fly it in. The Jellies can give you room on their ships, and after Ctein is dead, they can transport the lot of you back to the League.”

Hwa-jung cleared her throat. “Gregorovich.”

“Yeah,” said Falconi. “There’s that.” He returned his gaze to Tschetter. “If you didn’t realize, we’ve got a ship mind on board.”

The major’s eyes widened. “What?”

“Long story. But he’s here, he’s big, and we’d have to disassemble half of B-deck in order to remove him from the ship. It would take at least two days’ work in dock.”

A crack appeared in Tschetter’s self-control. “That’s … not ideal.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, the corners of her eyes wrinkled as if she were fighting off a headache. “Would Gregorovich agree to pilot the Wallfish alone?” She looked toward the ceiling. “Ship mind, you must have an opinion on all this.”

“He can’t hear you,” Falconi said shortly. “Also a long story.”

“Back up a moment,” said Sparrow. “If taking out the Battered Hierophant is the objective, why not just tell the Seventh? Admiral Klein is a hard-ass, but he’s not stupid.”

Tschetter made a sharp motion with her chin. “The Jellies won’t let the Seventh get anywhere near the Hierophant. Even if they could, the Hierophant will just fly Ctein out of the system, and there isn’t a ship in the League that can keep up with the Jellies’ drives.” It was true, and they all knew it. “In any case, I think you might be overly optimistic about Admiral Klein’s willingness to listen to anything I have to say at this point.”

[[Lphet here: Because of our compulsion, the Wranaui will protect the great and mighty Ctein with every last bit of our strength. Believe me on this, Idealis, for it is true. Even if it costs us all our lives, so it would be.]]

At the word compulsion, a shiver wormed its way down Kira’s back. If what the Jellies felt was in any way similar to the yearning ache that had driven the Soft Blade to respond to the ancient summons of the Vanished … she could understand why deposing Ctein was so difficult for them.

“We need to talk about this among ourselves,” Kira said to Tschetter. She glanced at Falconi for confirmation, and he indicated agreement with a tilt of his head.

“Of course.”

Along with the rest of the crew, Kira retreated into the hall outside the airlock antechamber. Itari stayed behind.

As the pressure door clicked shut, Falconi said, “Gregorovich is in no shape to be piloting the Wallfish. Even if he were, there’s no way I’d send him off on a suicide mission.”

“Would it be, though? Really?” said Nielsen.

Falconi snorted. “You can’t tell me you think this crazy plan is a good idea.”

The first officer smoothed back a lock of hair that had sprung free of her bun. She still looked as if she was wrestling with a certain amount of pain, but her eyes and voice were clear. “I’m just saying that space is big. If the Wallfish could kill this Ctein, it would take the Jellies time to react. Time that the Knot of Minds could use to keep them from attacking the ship.”

To Sparrow, Falconi said, “And here I thought you were supposed to be the tactical one.” Back to Nielsen, then: “We’re talking about the biggest, baddest Jelly of them all. The king or queen or whatever of the squids. They probably have escorts all around the Battered Hierophant. As soon as the Wallfish opens fire—”

“Boom,” said Hwa-jung.

“Exactly,” said Falconi. “Space is big, but the Jellies are fast and their weapons have a hell of a long range.”

Kira said, “We don’t know what the situation will be at Cordova. We just don’t. The Battered Hierophant might be surrounded by half the Jelly fleet, or it might be all by itself. There’s no way to tell ahead of time.”

“Assume the worst,” said Sparrow.

“Okay, so it’s surrounded. What do you think the odds are the Seventh Fleet can take out the Hierophant?” When no one answered her, Kira looked at each of the crew, studying their faces. She’d already made her decision: the humans and Jellies had to join forces if either of their species were to have any hope of surviving the all-consuming Maw.

Vishal said, “There are two questions that are important here, I think.” “What would those be?” Falconi asked, respectful.

The doctor rubbed the pads of his long, round-tipped fingers together. “Question one: Can we afford to lose the Seventh Fleet? Answer: I think not. Question two: What is peace between us and the Jellies worth? Answer: Nothing is more valuable in all the universe right now. Yes, that is how I see it.”

“You surprise me, Doc,” Falconi said quietly. Kira could see the gears of his brain turning at a furious speed behind his shrouded eyes.

Vishal nodded. “It is good to be unpredictable at times.”

“Somehow I don’t think we’d be paid anything for peace,” said Sparrow. With one red-painted nail, she scratched at her nose. “The only wages to be earned out there are paid in blood.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of also,” said Falconi. And Kira believed him. He was afraid. Any sensible person would be. She was afraid, and the Soft Blade gave her far more protection than anyone else on the ship.

Nielsen had been staring at the deck while they talked, her face turned inward. Now, she said in a low tone, “We should help. We have to.”

“And why is that?” Falconi asked. His tone wasn’t mocking; it was a serious question.

“Do tell us, Ms. Audrey,” Vishal said kindly. He was, Kira noted, using her first name now.

Nielsen pressed her lips together, as if fighting back her emotions. “We have a moral obligation.”

Falconi’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. “A moral obligation? Those are some awfully high-minded words.” A hint of his usual sharp-edged style began to creep back in.

“To the League. To humanity in general.” Nielsen pointed back at the airlock. “To the Jellies.”

Sparrow made an incredulous noise. “Those fuckers?”

“Even them. I don’t care if they’re aliens. No one should be forced to live a certain way just because someone messed with your DNA before you were born. No one.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re under any obligation to get ourselves killed for them.”

“No,” said Nielsen, “but it doesn’t mean we should ignore them either.” Falconi picked at the butt of his gun. “Let’s be clear. Sparrow’s right:

we’re under no obligations. None of us are. We don’t have to do anything Tschetter or the Knot of Minds says.”

“No obligations but those dictated by the bounds of common decency,” said Vishal. He stared at his feet, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded far away. “I like to sleep at night and not have bad dreams, Captain.”

“I like to be able to sleep, and it helps to be alive for that,” Falconi retorted. He sighed, and Kira saw a shift in his expression, as if he’d reached a decision of his own. “Hwa-jung, thaw out Gregorovich. We can’t have this conversation without him.”

The machine boss opened her mouth as if to object and then closed it with an audible slap of her lips and grunted. Her gaze zoned out as she focused on her overlays.

“Captain,” said Kira. “You spoke with Gregorovich before we left. You know what he’s like. What’s the point?”

“He’s part of the crew,” said Falconi. “And he wasn’t completely out of it. You said so yourself. He could still follow what you were saying. Even if he’s half out of his mind, we still have to try. His life is on the line too. Besides, we’d try if it were any one of us down in sickbay.”

He wasn’t wrong. “Alright. How long will it take to wake him up?” Kira asked.

“Ten, fifteen minutes,” said Falconi. He went to the pressure door, opened it, and said to Tschetter and the Jellies waiting on the other side, “We’re going to be about a quarter hour. Have to get our ship mind out of cryo.”

The delay obviously displeased Tschetter, but she just said, “Do what you have to. We’ll be waiting.”

Falconi gave her a loose salute and pulled the door closed.

The next ten minutes passed in silent anticipation. Kira could see the others thinking hard about everything Tschetter and Lphet had told them. So was she, for that matter. If Falconi agreed with the plan—regardless of what Gregorovich said—there was more than a small chance that they would end up stuck on one of the Jelly vessels without a ship of their own and at the mercy of the travel decisions of the Knot of Minds. It wasn’t an appealing prospect. But then, neither was the destruction of the Seventh Fleet, a continuation of the human–Jelly war, and the nightmares overrunning both their races.

When almost fifteen minutes had elapsed, Falconi said, “Hwa-jung?

What’s going on?”

The machine boss’s voice sounded over the intercom: “He is awake, but I’m not getting anything from him.”

“Have you explained the situation?”

Aish. Of course. I showed that one the recording of our conversation with Tschetter and the Jellies.”

“And he still hasn’t answered?” “No.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

A brief pause before she answered. “I don’t know, Captain.”

“Dammit. I’m on my way.” Falconi unstuck his boots from the deck, kicked himself over to the nearest handhold, and hurried off toward the storm shelter.

In his absence, an awkward silence filled the corridor. “Well this is fun,” said Sparrow.

Nielsen smiled, but with a hint of sorrow. “I can’t say this is how I imagined spending my retirement.”

“You and me both, ma’am.”

It wasn’t long before Falconi came hurrying back along the corridor, a troubled expression on his face. “Well?” Kira asked, even though the answer seemed obvious.

The captain shook his head as he planted his feet back on the deck and allowed the gecko pads to fix him in place. “Nothing I could make sense of. He’s gotten worse. Vishal, you’ll have to look at him as soon as we’re done here. In the meantime, we need to decide. One way or another. Right here, right now.”

None of them seemed willing to say what Kira felt sure they were all thinking. Finally, she took the initiative and—with false confidence—said, “I vote yes.”

“Yes what exactly?” said Sparrow.

“That we help Tschetter and the Knot of Minds. That we try to kill their leader, Ctein.” There. She’d said it, and the words hung in the air like an unwelcome smell.

Then the low rumble of Hwa-jung’s voice sounded: “What about Gregorovich? Are we supposed to abandon him on the Wallfish?”

“I would not like that,” said Vishal.

Falconi shook his head, and Kira’s heart sank. “No. I’m captain of this ship. There’s no way I’m sending Gregorovich—or any of you for that matter—off on a mission like this all alone. I’d have to be twelve days dead before I’d let that happen.”

“Then—” Kira said.

“It’s my ship,” he repeated. A strange gleam appeared in his cold blue eyes: a look that Kira had seen on plenty of men’s faces over the years. Usually right before they did something dangerous. “I’ll go with Gregorovich. It’s the only way.”

“Salvo—” Nielsen started to say.

“You’re not going to talk me out of it, Audrey, so don’t even try.” Sparrow made a face, her delicate features wrinkling. “Ah, shitballs.…

When I enlisted in the UMCN, I swore to protect the League against all threats, domestic and foreign. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back into the service, but, well, I guess I meant those words when I said them, and I think I still mean them, even if the UMC is a bunch of self-righteous assholes.”

“You’re not going,” said Falconi. “None of you are.”

“Sorry, Captain. If it’s our choice not to go, then it’s also our choice to go. You’re not the only one who gets to make a grand gesture. Besides, you’ll need someone to watch your back.”

Then Hwa-jung put a hand on Sparrow’s round shoulder. “Where she goes, I go. Besides, if the ship breaks, who will fix it?”

“Count me in also, Salvo,” said Nielsen.

Falconi looked at each of them, and Kira was surprised by the anguish in his expression. “We don’t need all of you to run the ship. You’re damn fools if you want to come. The Wallfish gets blown up, it’ll just be a waste of your lives.”

“No,” said Nielsen quietly. “It won’t be, because we’ll be with friends, helping to do something that matters.”

Vishal bobbed his head. “You could not keep me away, Captain. Not even if I were twelve days dead.”

Falconi didn’t seem to appreciate his own words being thrown back at him. “And you?” he asked Kira.

She already had her answer ready: “Of course. I’m better, ah, suited to handle it if things go wrong.”

“They always do,” Falconi said darkly. “It’s just a question of how. You realize that if our Markov Drive is breached, not even the Soft Blade will be able to protect you.”

“I know,” Kira said. She’d already accepted the risk. Freaking out about it now wasn’t going to help. “What about the Entropists?”

“If they want to go with Tschetter, no skin off our backs. Otherwise they can tag along and enjoy the ride.”

“And what about Trig?” said Nielsen. “We should—”

“—get him off the Wallfish,” said Falconi. “Yeah, good idea. If nothing else, maybe Tschetter can get him back to the League. Anyone have any objections? No? Okay.” Falconi took a deep breath and then laughed and shook his head. “Shit. I guess we’re really doing this. Everyone sure? Last chance.”

Murmurs of agreement sounded from all of them. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s go kill this Jelly.”

After further discussion, it was agreed by both parties that Itari would stay on the Wallfish for the time being, both as a gesture of good faith on Lphet’s part and also to help should any problems arise with the alterations Itari had made to their Markov Drive. Likewise, the Entropists both decided to remain on the Wallfish.

As they said, “How could we refuse—” “—to help at such a crucial moment—” “—in history?”

Kira wasn’t sure how much help the two could really provide with their hive mind broken, but it was a nice sentiment.

Hwa-jung and Sparrow went to the storm shelter and brought Trig’s cryo tube to the airlock. As they passed the tube over to the major, Falconi said, “Anything happens to him, I’m holding you responsible.”

“I’ll protect him like he was my own son,” said Tschetter.

Mollified, Falconi gave the tube a pat on the ice-covered viewplate. The rest of the crew came by to pay their respects—and Kira also—and then Tschetter maneuvered the tube through the mother-of-pearl tunnel and into the Jelly ship beyond.

The instant the Knot of Minds flagship separated from the airlock, Falconi turned and said, “Time to prep. Nielsen, with me in Control. Hwa-jung, engineering. Sparrow, crack open the armory and get everything ready. Just in case.”

“Yessir.” “Roger that.”

“Can we make it to Cordova with all of us awake?” Kira asked.

Falconi grunted. “It’s going to get as hot as Satan’s own asshole in here, but yeah, should be possible.”

“Better than having to go back into cryo,” quipped Sparrow on her way out.

“You said it,” said Falconi.

Kira had thought Falconi was exaggerating when he described the impending heat. To her dismay, he wasn’t. The Wallfish was half a day of FTL from Cordova-1420, and with everyone—including Gregorovich—out of cryo, all the ship’s systems running, and no way to dump the thermal energy they were pumping out, the inside of the Wallfish quickly became a hothouse.

The Soft Blade protected Kira from the worst of it, but she could feel her cheeks and forehead burning: a hot stinging that continued to build. Rivulets of sweat dripped into her eyes, annoying her to the point that she used the xeno to make a protective shelf above her brows.

“That,” said Sparrow, pointing at her with rude directness, “looks fucking weird, Kira.”

“Hey, it works,” she said, dabbing her cheeks with a damp cloth.

Half a day was a vanishingly short trip by any measure of stellar or interstellar travel. However, it was a long time to be stuck in a sweltering box of metal where each breath felt suffocating and the walls were unpleasantly warm and no matter what action they took, it only made the situation worse. And it was longer still when waiting to arrive at a location where there was a better than average chance of being vaporized by a laser or missile.

At Kira’s request, Vishal had given her yet another set of contacts before going to examine Gregorovich. She’d taken them and sequestered herself in her cabin. Keeping themselves spread out within the Wallfish helped disperse the heat, so as to avoid overloading the life-support systems in any one room.

“This is not good for the Wallfish,” Hwa-jung had said.

“I know,” Falconi replied. “But she can survive it for a few hours.”

Kira did her best to distract herself from the reality of their situation by reading and playing games. But she kept thinking about Gregorovich—the more time passed without word from Vishal, the more concerned she became—and fears about Cordova continued to intrude: the presence of the great and mighty Ctein, waiting there like a great fat toad, bloated with its arrogant self-confidence, secure in its cruel strength. The likely response of Admiral Klein to the arrival of the Wallfish and the Knot of Minds in the system. The uncertain outcome of their whole precarious venture …

No obvious answers presented themselves, but Kira kept chewing over her worries as she read. The situation was so far from anything familiar, the only beacon she had to guide her was her own sense of self. Although, her self had been somewhat tenuous lately, what with the Soft Blade stretching her out the way it did.

Again she felt the substance of the dark shell that coated the inside of her cabin, flesh of her flesh and yet … not. It was a strange sensation.

She shook herself, forced her attention back onto the overlays.…

Nearly four hours had passed before the intercom clicked on and Falconi said, “Listen up, everyone. Vishal just gave me an update.”

In her cabin, Kira perked up, eager to hear.

“Long and the short of it is, Greg is in pretty bad shape. The surge from the impedance block caused damage throughout his neural net. Not only did it burn out a good chunk of the leads, but the connection between the computer and Greg’s brain is continuing to degrade as the neurons that got shocked are dying off.”

A commotion of concerned and overlapping voices on the line. “Is he going to die?” Sparrow asked with characteristic bluntness.

“Not unless we all get blown up tomorrow,” said Falconi. “Vishal isn’t sure if this is going to cause permanent problems for Greg or if he’s just going to lose a few extra brain cells. No way to tell at the moment, and the doc can’t exactly wheel Greg into sickbay for a scan. He did say that Greg is probably enduring extreme sensory distortion. Aka, hallucinations. So Vishal is keeping him under sedation, and he’s going to keep working on him.”

“Aish,” said Hwa-jung. The machine boss sounded unusually emotional. “This is my fault. I should not have thrown the breaker without checking the line first.”

Falconi snorted. “No, it’s not your fault, Song. You couldn’t have known the block was there, and Greg wasn’t giving us any choices, the stubborn bastard. This is the UMC’s fault and no one else’s. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”


“Alright. I’ll let everyone know if there are any changes.” And the intercom clicked off.

In the dark of her cabin, lit only by the green glow of the fruit-like orbs hanging from the vines the Soft Blade had grown, Kira hugged herself. So Gregorovich had made a mistake in not wanting to come to Cordova. He’d still been trying to do the right thing. He didn’t deserve what was happening now, and she hated to think of him trapped alone in the madness of his mind, not knowing what was real, perhaps even thinking that his fellow crewmates had abandoned him. It was terrible to imagine.

If only … If only she could help.

Kira looked down at the arm the Soft Blade had made for her. Even if she couldn’t, maybe the xeno could. But no, that was crazy. There was a universe of difference between an arm (or a tree) and a brain, and a mistake with Gregorovich could cause even worse problems.

She put the thought from her mind.

With the tweaks Itari had made to their Markov Drive, the Wallfish was able to dive into Cordova’s gravity well nearly as deeply as the Jellies.

They dropped out of FTL close to a pitted moon in orbit around a minor gas giant, the location of which the Knot of Minds had given them beforehand. The instant the Markov Drive shut off, Kira, the Entropists, and the crew (except for Vishal) abandoned their self-imposed exile and headed in a group toward Control.

As they piled into the room, Kira scanned the feed from outside the Wallfish. The moon obscured part of the view, but she could see the Knot of Minds surrounding them, the purple gas giant looming nearby, and several hours coreward, the cluster of dots that marked the location of the Seventh Fleet.

There were a lot of UMC ships—a lot—but it was what Kira spotted deeper in the system that made her gasp and Hwa-jung mutter, “Shi-bal.” Without seeming to notice, the machine boss put a hand on the back of Sparrow’s shoulder and rubbed, as if to comfort her. Sparrow never blinked. A swarm of Jelly ships surrounded a small rocky planet next to the orange, K-type star. And not just ships: stationary construction yards; vast, glittering fields of solar collectors; satellites of every shape and size; defense lasers the size of UMCN corvettes; two beanstalks and four orbital rings for quickly and easily transporting materials from the scarred surface

of the planet.

The Jellies were strip-mining the rocky orb. They had removed a massive amount of material from the crust, enough so that the scars were visible even from space—a crazy patchwork of rectangular excavations cast into sharp relief by shadows along their edges.

Not all the Jelly ships were meant for fighting, but even so, those that were outnumbered the Seventh Fleet at least two to one. The biggest of them all—the one Kira assumed was the Battered Hierophant—lay alongside the shipyards, a bloated whale wallowing in the gravity well of the planet. Like every other Jelly ship, it was pearl white, ringed with weapon ports, and as was evident by even its small thruster adjustments, far more maneuverable than any human vessel. Several ships hung nearby, but they appeared to be more maintenance vessels than honor guard.

“Thule,” said Nielsen. “Why doesn’t the Seventh Fleet turn around?

They don’t stand a chance.”

“Physics,” Falconi said grimly. “By the time they decelerate, they’re going to be in range of the Jellies.”

Then Sparrow said, “Besides, if they try to run, it’ll be easy for the Jellies to catch them. You don’t want to fight a larger force out in interstellar space. There’s no tactical advantages. At least here they have planets, moons, stuff they can use to maneuver around while engaging with the Jellies.”

“Still…” said Nielsen.

“Extending radiators,” Morven announced.

“About time,” said Sparrow. Like the others, she was covered with a slick of sweat.

As Falconi slid into his seat, Tschetter appeared in the main holo-display. Behind her was a blue-lit room filled with coral-like structures and Jellies that were crawling across the curved bulkheads. “Any problems with the Wallfish, Captain?”

“All green here.”

The major seemed satisfied. “Lphet says we’re cleared to pass through the Jellies’ defenses. Tagging the Battered Hierophant for you now.”

“Looks like we lucked out,” said Kira, gesturing at the flagship. “It doesn’t seem to be overly protected.”

“No, just by all the blasters, railguns, and missiles it’s carrying,” said Sparrow.

Tschetter shook her head. “We won’t know for sure what the situation is until we’re closer. The Jellies will move their ships in response to the Seventh. You can see they’re already shifting positions. We’ll just have to hope they don’t decide to surround the Hierophant.

“Fingers crossed,” said Falconi. “Toes too,” said Sparrow.

The major looked off-camera for a moment. “We’re ready. Start your burn on our mark.… Mark.”

The thrust alert sounded, and Kira let out a sigh of relief as a sensation of weight settled over her. Outside, she knew the Knot of Minds was keeping pace with the Wallfish, the Jelly ships arranged in a box-like formation around them. That was the plan, in any case.

Falconi said, “Stay on the line. I’m going to contact the Seventh.” “Roger that.”

“Morven, get the Seventh Fleet on the line. Tightbeam transmission only. Tell them Kira Navárez is with us and we need to talk with Admiral Klein.”

“One moment please,” said the pseudo-intelligence. “At least the shooting hasn’t started,” said Sparrow. “Wouldn’t want to miss the party,” said Falconi.

They didn’t have to wait long for an answer: the comms blinked with an incoming, and Morven said, “Sir, the UMCS Unrelenting Force is hailing us.”

“Put it on-screen,” said Falconi.

Next to Tschetter’s face appeared a live stream of what Kira recognized as a battleship command center. Front and center sat Admiral Klein, stiff-backed, square-jawed, with sloping shoulders, buzzed hair, and four rows of service ribbons pinned to his left breast. Like all career UMCN personnel, he had a deep spacer’s tan, although his was deeper than most, so deep that she guessed he never entirely lost it.

“Falconi! Navárez! What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing here?” The admiral’s accent was impossible for Kira to place, although she guessed it was from somewhere on Earth.

“Don’t you get it, sir?” said Falconi. “We’re the cavalry.” And he grinned in a cocky way that made Kira both proud and want to slap him.

The admiral’s face reddened. “Cavalry?! Son, last I heard, you were locked up on Orsted Station. Somehow I doubt the League just let you go, and they sure as shit wouldn’t send you out here in that pile of rust you call a ship.”

Falconi looked rather offended by his description of the Wallfish. Kira was more interested in the fact that the UMC hadn’t managed to tell the Seventh about their escape. The fleet must have been running silent, she thought. Or things back at Sol got really bad after we left.

The admiral wasn’t done: “On top of that, I’m guessing the Jelly ships with you means you warned off the Knot of Minds, which means my hunter-seekers are out wandering around buttfuck nowhere when they could be helping here.” The admiral poked a finger out of the holo, causing Kira to flinch. “And that would be treason, Captain. Same for you, Navárez. Same for all of you.”

Around the holo, Kira and the crew exchanged glances. “We’re not traitors,” Sparrow said in an injured tone. “Sir.”

“We’re here to help you,” said Kira, quieter. “If you want to have any chance of surviving this battle, much less winning the war, you need to hear

us out.”

“That so.” Klein seemed spectacularly unconvinced. “Yessir. Please.”

The admiral’s gaze shifted to a point beside the holo, and Kira had a distinct impression that someone was speaking to him off-camera. Then his attention snapped back to them, hard-eyed and uncompromising. “You’ve got one chance to convince me not to classify you as an enemy combatant, Navárez. Make it count.”

Kira took him at his word. She spoke clearly, quickly, and as straightforwardly as she could. And yet, she made no attempt to hide her underlying desperation. That also was important.

To his credit, the admiral listened without interruption. By the time she’d finished, a dark frown had settled on his face. “That’s a hell of a story, Navárez. You really expect me to believe it?”

Tschetter was the one to answer. “Sir, you don’t have to believe us. We just need—”

“Who’s this we and us, Major?” said Klein. “Last I checked, you’re still a uniformed member of the United Military Command. You don’t answer to the Jellies. You answer to your nearest superior officer, and right now, that’s me.

In the holo, Tschetter stiffened. “Sir, yessir. I’m aware of that, sir. I’m just trying to answer your question.” It was strange for Kira to see her treating someone else as a figure of authority.

Klein crossed his arms. “Go on.”

“Sir. As I was saying, we don’t need you to believe us. We’re not asking for your help, and we’re not asking you to ignore orders. All we’d like is for you to hold your fire as we come through the system. And if we kill Ctein, then don’t attack the Knot of Minds right after. Give them a chance to take command of the Jellies and call off their forces. Admiral, we could end the war between our species in a single blow. That’s worth some risk.”

“Do you really think you can kill this Ctein?” Klein asked.

Falconi nodded. “I’d say we have a pretty good chance. Wouldn’t be trying otherwise.”

The admiral grunted. “My orders were to eliminate the Knot of Minds, the Jelly fleet, and the Jellies’ current leadership, with both the fleet and the leadership being the primary objectives.” He peered at them from beneath

his bristling eyebrows. “If you manage to kill Ctein, and if the Knot manages to get control over the rest of the Jellies … Well, then I suppose the Knot would become the new leadership of the Jellies. They wouldn’t be the Knot anymore. That would also serve to neutralize the threat of the Jellies’ fleet.… It’s a bit of a stretch, but I think I could sell it to the Premier.”

Kira felt a slight easing of tension among the others. “Thank you, sir,” said Tschetter. “You won’t regret it.”

Klein made a noncommittal noise. “Truth is, going after the Knot of Minds was always a strategic fuckup, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so.… If you pull this off, a lot of good men and women are going to owe you their lives.”

His gaze sharpened. “As for you, Major: if we make it through this, you’re to report to the Seventh without delay. That’s an order. Taking out the head of the Jellies would go a long way toward smoothing your return, but either way Intelligence is going to want a thorough debriefing. You know how it is. After that, we’ll figure out what the hell to do with you.”

“Yes, sir,” said the major. “Understood.” To Kira’s eye, she didn’t seem too pleased with the prospect.

“Good.” Klein’s attention returned to the command center around him, and he said, “I have to go. We’ll be engaging the Jellies in just under seven hours. They’re going to give us all we can handle and then some, but we can try to draw their forces away from the Battered Hierophant. The rest will be up to you. Let our ship mind, Aletheia, know if there are any changes to the plan. Good luck and fly safe.” Then he surprised Kira by saluting. “Navárez. Captain Falconi.”

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