Chapter no 62

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

“That went … well,” said Nielsen.

Sparrow tsked. “What else could he say?” “What’s our ETA?” Kira asked.

Falconi glanced at the holo. “We’re a bit behind the fleet, so … seven hours, give or take, before we’re in range of the Battered Hierophant.

“That is,” said Veera, “assuming the Jellies don’t move the Hierophant beforehand, no?” As she spoke, Jorrus mouthed her words in silent mimicry.

Tschetter’s face now filling the majority of the display, she said, “They shouldn’t. Lphet made it clear we have intel on the Wallfish that Ctein needs to smell.”

“Smell?” said Hwa-jung, and wrinkled her nose. “That’s how Lphet phrased it.”

Seven hours. Not long at all, and then they’d know if they were going to live or die. Whatever their fate, there was no escaping it. Not that there ever was.

Falconi seemed to pick up on her thoughts. After ending the call with Tschetter, he said, “It’s been a long day, and if you’re anything like me, this heat has left you feeling like a damp rag that’s been wrung out.”

A few sounds of agreement came from the crew.

“Right. Everyone get some food and grab some downtime. Sleep if you can, and if you can’t, the doc can give you some pick-me-ups later. Sleep would be better, though. We need to be sharp when we get to the Hierophant. Make sure you’re all back here in Control an hour before contact. Oh, and full skinsuits. Just in case.”

Just in case. The phrase kept ringing in Kira’s ears. What could they do if things went wrong, as they so often did? A single blast from one of the Jelly ships would be more than enough to disable or destroy the Wallfish.… It didn’t bear thinking about, and yet she couldn’t help herself. Preparation was a person’s best ward against the inevitable mishaps of space travel, but opportunities for preparation were limited when the actors deciding outcomes were spaceships and not individuals.

She helped Hwa-jung with a few service tasks around the ship. Then they adjourned to the galley. Everyone but Vishal was already there, crammed in around the near table.

Kira fetched some rations and then went to sit next to Nielsen. The first officer nodded and said, “I think … I’m going to record a message for my family and give it to Tschetter and also the Seventh. Just in case.”

Just in case. “Sounds like a good idea. Maybe I’ll do the same.”

Like the others, Kira ate, and like the others, she talked, mainly speculations about how best to destroy the Battered Hierophant with one of their Casaba-Howitzers—it seemed unlikely they would be able to fire more than one shot without being noticed—as well as how best to survive the chaos that was sure to follow.

The consensus that emerged was that they were at a serious disadvantage without Gregorovich to oversee operations throughout the Wallfish. As with most ship minds, it had been Gregorovich’s responsibility to operate the lasers, the Casaba-Howitzers, the countermeasures against both blasters and missiles, and the cyberwarfare suite, as well as oversee the piloting of the Wallfish in combat, which was as much about strategy as it was calculating the uncompromising math of their delta-v.

The pseudo-intelligence, Morven, was capable enough, but like all such programs, it was limited in ways that a human—or human-derived— intelligence wasn’t. “They lack imagination,” said Sparrow, “and that’s the truth of it. Won’t say we’re sitting ducks, but it’s not ideal.”

“How big of a drop in operational efficiency do you think we’re looking at?” Falconi asked.

Sparrow’s bare shoulders rose and fell. “You tell me. Just think back to before you had Gregorovich on board. UMC figures put the difference at somewhere between fourteen to twenty-eight percent. And—”

“That much?” said Nielsen.

Hwa-jung was the one to answer: “Gregorovich helps oversee the balance between all the systems in the ship, as well as coordinating with each of us.”

A quick downward jerk of Sparrow’s chin. “Yeah, and what I was going to say is that when it comes to strategy, logistics—basically any kind of creative problem-solving—ship minds blow everyone and everything out of the water. It’s not the sort of skill you can really quantify, but the UMC estimates that ship minds are at least an order of magnitude better at that stuff than any regular human, much less a pseudo-intelligence.”

Jorrus said, “But only so long as they—” He hesitated, waiting for Veera to finish the sentence. When she shook her head, seemingly not knowing what to say, he continued on, disconcerted: “Uh, only as long as they are functional.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” said Falconi. “For all of us.”

Kira picked at her food while she thought about the situation. If only … No. The idea was still too crazy. Then she pictured the Jelly fleet around Cordova. Maybe there was no such thing as too crazy, under the circumstances.

Conversation throughout the galley stopped as Vishal appeared in the doorway. He looked drained, exhausted.

“Well?” Falconi asked.

Vishal shook his head and held up a finger. Not saying a word, he marched to the back of the galley, got himself a pouch of instant coffee, drained it, and then, and only then, returned to stand in front of the captain.

“That bad, huh?” said Falconi.

Nielsen leaned forward. “How is Gregorovich?”

Vishal sighed and rubbed his hands together. “His implants are too damaged for me to fix. I cannot remove or replace the broken leads. And I cannot identify the ones that end in a dead neuron. I tried rerouting signals to different parts of his brain, where the wires still work, but there aren’t enough of them, or Gregorovich could not pick out the signal from the disorganized sensory information he’s receiving.”

“You still have him sedated?” Falconi asked. “Yes.”

“Is he going to be okay, though?” Nielsen asked.

Sparrow shifted in her seat. “Yeah, is he going to end up impaired or something like that?”

“No,” Vishal said slowly, cautiously. “But, we will have to take him to a proper facility. The connections are continuing to degrade. In another day, Gregorovich may become completely cut off from his internal computer. He would be totally isolated.”

“Shit,” said Sparrow.

Falconi turned toward the Entropists. “Don’t suppose there’s anything you could do to help?”

They shook their heads. “Alas, no,” said Veera. “Implants are delicate things and—”

“—we would be reluctant to work on an ordinary-sized neural net, much less—”

“—that of a ship mind.” The Entropists appeared smug at the smoothness of their exchange.

Falconi made a face. “I was afraid of that. Doc, you can still put him in cryo, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’d better go ahead and put him under, then. He’ll be safer that way.” Kira tapped her fork on her plate. Everyone looked at her. “So,” she said, feeling out her words, “just to be clear: the only thing that’s wrong with

Gregorovich are the wires going into his brain, is that right?”

“Oh, there’s a whole lot more wrong with him than just that,” Sparrow quipped.

Vishal assumed a long-suffering expression as he said, “You are correct, Ms. Kira.”

“He doesn’t have large amounts of tissue trauma or anything like that?” Vishal started to move toward the door, obviously eager to get back to

Gregorovich. He paused at the threshold. “No. The only damage was the neurons he lost at the ends of some wires, but it is a negligible loss for a ship mind of his size.”

“I see,” said Kira. She tapped her fork again.

A wary look came over Falconi’s face. “Kira,” he said in a warning tone. “What are you thinking?”

She took a moment to answer. “I’m thinking … I might be able to use the Soft Blade to help Gregorovich.”

A babble of exclamations filled the galley. “Let me explain!” said Kira, and they quieted down. “I could do the same thing I did with Akawe, back at Cygni. Connect the Soft Blade to Gregorovich’s nerves, only this time, I’d be hooking them back up to the wires in his neural net.”

Sparrow let out a long, high whistle. “Thule. You really think you could pull this off?”

“Yes, I do. But I also can’t make any guarantees.” Kira shifted her gaze back to Falconi. “You saw how I was able to heal your bonsai. And you saw what I did in my cabin. The Soft Blade isn’t just a weapon. It’s capable of so much more.”

Falconi scratched the side of his chin. “Greg is a person, not a plant.

There’s a big difference there.”

Then Nielsen said, “Just because the Soft Blade is capable, are you,


The question rang in Kira’s mind. It was one she’d wondered often enough since becoming joined with the xeno. Could she control it? Could she use it in a responsible way? Could she master herself well enough to make either of those things possible? She stiffened her back and lifted her chin, feeling the answer rising within her, born of pain and long months spent practicing. “Yes. I don’t know how well it will work—Gregorovich will probably have to readjust to his implants, just like when they were first installed—but I think I can hook him back up again.”

Hwa-jung crossed her arms. “You should not go rummaging around inside someone’s head if you do not know what you’re doing. He isn’t a machine.”

“Yeah,” said Sparrow. “What if you turn him into scrambled mush?

What if you totally screw up his memories?”

Kira said, “I wouldn’t be interacting with most of his brain, just the interface where he plugs into the computer.”

“You can’t be sure of that,” Nielsen said calmly.

“Mostly sure. Look, if it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it.” Kira spread her hands. “I’m just saying I could try.” She eyed the captain. “It’s your call.”

Falconi tapped his leg with a furious rhythm. “You’ve been awfully quiet over there, Doc. What about you?”

By the door, Vishal ran his long-fingered hands over his equally long face. “What do you expect me to say, Captain? As your ship doctor, I

cannot recommend this. The risks are too high. The only reasonable treatment would be to take Gregorovich to a proper medical facility in the League.”

“That’s not likely to happen any time soon, Doc,” said Falconi. “Even if we make it out of this alive, there’s no telling what shape the League will be in when we get back.”

Vishal inclined his head. “I am aware of that, Captain.”

A scowl settled onto Falconi’s face. For several heartbeats, he just looked at Kira, staring at her as if he could see into her soul. She matched his gaze, never blinking, never looking away.

Then, Falconi said, “Okay. Do it.”

“Captain, as the attending physician, I must formally object,” said Vishal. “I have serious concerns about the outcome of this procedure.”

“Objection noted, but I’m going to have to overrule you here, Doc.” Vishal didn’t seem surprised.

“Captain,” said Nielsen in an intense tone. “She could kill him.”

Falconi wheeled on her. “And we’re flying straight into the Jelly fleet.

That takes priority.” “Salvo—”

“Audrey.” Falconi bared his teeth as he talked. “One of my crewmembers is incapacitated, and that’s endangering both my ship and the rest of my crew. This isn’t a cargo run. This isn’t a goddamn fetch-and-retrieve mission. This is life or death. We don’t have a millimeter of wiggle room here. If we screw up, we’re done for. Gregorovich is mission critical, and right now he’s no good to anyone. I’m his captain, and since he can’t make this decision for himself, I have to make it for him.”

Nielsen stood up and crossed the galley to stand in front of Falconi. “And what if he decides not to follow orders again? Have you forgotten about that?”

The air between them grew tense. “Greg and I will have a little chat,” said Falconi between set teeth. “We’ll hash it out, trust me. His life is on the line here, same as ours. If he can help, then he will. I know that much.”

For a moment, it seemed as if Nielsen wasn’t going to budge. Then she relented with a sigh and said, “Alright, Captain. If you’re really convinced this is what’s best…”

“I am.” Then Falconi shifted his attention back to Kira. “You better hurry. We don’t have a lot of time.”

She nodded and got to her feet.

“And, Kira?” He gave her a stern gaze. “Be careful.” “Of course.”

He nodded in return, seeming satisfied. “Hwa-jung, Vishal, go with her.

Keep an eye on Gregorovich. Make sure he’s okay.” “Sir.”


With the doctor and the machine boss at her heels, Kira ran from Control and proceeded down a deck to the sealed room that contained Gregorovich’s sarcophagus. Along the way, Kira could feel her skin prickling as her adrenaline ramped up.

Was she really going to do this? Shit. Falconi was right; there was no room for error. The weight of sudden responsibility made Kira pause for a second and question her choices. But no, she could do this. She just had to make sure that she and the xeno were working in harmony. The last thing she wanted was for it to take the initiative and start making changes to Gregorovich’s brain on its own.

At the sarcophagus, Hwa-jung handed Kira the same set of wired headphones she’d used before, and Vishal said, “Ms. Kira, Captain gave the order, but if I think Gregorovich is in any danger, then I will say stop and you will stop.”

“I understand,” said Kira. She couldn’t think of anything the doctor could actually do to stop her or the Soft Blade from working on Gregorovich once they started, but she intended to respect the doctor’s judgment. No matter what, she didn’t want to hurt Gregorovich.

Vishal nodded. “Good. I will be monitoring Gregorovich’s vitals. If anything drops into the red, I will tell you.”

Hwa-jung said, “I will monitor Gregorovich’s implants. Right now, they are at … forty-two percent operation.”

“Okay,” said Kira, sitting next to the sarcophagus. “I’ll need an access port for the Soft Blade.”

“Here,” said Hwa-jung, pointing at the side of the sarcophagus.

Kira fit the headphones over her ears. “I’m going to try talking with Gregorovich first. Just to see if I can check with him.”

Vishal shook his head. “You can try, Ms. Kira, but I could not speak with him before. The situation will not have improved.”

“I’d still like to try.”

The instant Kira plugged in the headphones, a whirling roar filled her ears. In it, she seemed to hear snatches of words—shouts lost in an unrelenting storm. She called out to the ship mind, but if he heard, she could not tell, and if he answered, the roaring obscured his response.

She tried for a minute or more before pulling the headphones off. “No luck,” she said to Vishal and Hwa-jung.

Then Kira sent the first tentative tendrils from the Soft Blade into the access port. Careful: that was the directive she gave the Soft Blade now. Careful and do no harm.

At first she felt nothing but metal and electricity. Then she tasted Gregorovich’s enveloping nutrient bath, and metal gave way to exposed brain matter. Slowly, ever so slowly, Kira sought a point of connection, a way to bridge the gap between matter and consciousness—a portal from brain to mind.

She allowed the tendrils to subdivide even further, until they formed a bristle of monofilament threads, each as thin and sensitive as a nerve. The threads probed the interior of the sarcophagus until at last they chanced upon the very thing Kira was seeking: the caul of wires that lay atop Gregorovich’s massive brain and that penetrated deep into the folds of grey and formed the physical structure of his implants.

She twined around each of the tiny wires and followed them inward. Some ended at a dendrite, marking where non-living merged with living. Many more ended in a bead of melted metal or a neuron that was dead and withered.

Then, delicately, ever so delicately, Kira began to repair the damaged connections. For the melted leads, she smoothed the bead at the tip to ensure a proper connection with its target dendrite. For the leads that stopped at a dead neuron, she repositioned the wire to the nearest healthy dendrite, moving the wires infinitesimal amounts within the tissue of Gregorovich’s brain.

With each wire that she reconnected, Kira felt a brief shock as a small amount of electricity passed from one to the next. It was a sharp, satisfying feeling that left her with the faint taste of copper on her tongue. And sometimes, she thought she detected the ghost of a sensation from a neuron, like a tickle in the back of her mind.

Despite the microscopic scale she was working on, Kira found connecting the wires relatively easy. What wasn’t easy was the scale of the task. There were thousands upon thousands of wires, and each one had to be checked. After the first few minutes, Kira realized it would take her days to do the work by hand (as it were). Days they didn’t have.

She wasn’t willing to give up, which meant she had only one chance. Hoping against hope that she wasn’t making a mistake, she fixed her goals in mind—smooth the melted wires, attach them to the closest neurons—and did her best to impress them on the Soft Blade. Then she released her hold on the xeno, as carefully as if she were letting go of a wild animal that might react in an unpredictable manner.

Please, she thought.

And the Soft Blade obeyed. It slid along the wires in an atomically thin film, moving metal, pushing aside cells, and realigning wires with dendrites.

Kira’s awareness of her body (and the growths in her cabin) faded; every bit of her consciousness was divided among the many thousands of monofilaments the xeno was manipulating. At a remove she heard Hwa-jung say, “Forty-five percent!… Forty-seven … Forty-eight…”

Kira blocked out her voice as she continued to focus on the task at hand.

Wires, smooth, attach.

So many wires were connecting, Kira felt them like a wave of cold and hot prickles washing through her head. Tiny explosions popping off, and with each one a sense of expansion.

The feeling accumulated, moving faster and faster. And then—

A curtain swept back in her mind, and a vast vista opened up before her, and Kira sensed a Presence within. If not for her experience with the Soft Blade, the experience would have been overwhelming, unbearable—a behemoth weighing upon her from all sides.

She gasped and would have recoiled, but she found she couldn’t move.

Vishal and Hwa-jung were making noises of alarm, and the doctor said, as if from a great distance, “Ms. Kira! Stop! Whatever you’re doing, it’s upsetting his neurotr—”

His voice faded away, and all Kira was aware of was the immensity surrounding her. *Gregorovich,* she said, but no response was forthcoming. She pressed harder, attempting to project herself:

*Gregorovich! Can you hear me?*

Distant thoughts swirled far above—thunderheads beyond reach and too large to comprehend. Then, lightning crashed and:

A ship rattled around her, and stars spun outside. Fire streamed from her left flank: a meteoroid strike near the main generator.…

Flashes. Screams. A howling across the sky. Below, a tortured landscape of smoke and fire rose toward her. Too fast. Couldn’t slow down. Emergency chutes failed.

Darkness for unremembered time. Gratitude and disbelief at continued existence: the ship should have exploded. Ought to have. Perhaps would have been better. Seven of the crew still alive, seven out of twenty-eight.

Then a slow agony of days. Hunger and starvation for her charges and then, to one and all, death. And for her, worse than death: isolation. Loneliness, utter and absolute. A queen of infinite space, bound within a nutshell, and plagued by such dreams as to make her scream and scream and scream.…

The memory began anew, repeating as a computer frozen in a logic loop, unable to break out, unable to reboot. *You’re not alone,* Kira shouted into the storm, but she might as well have been trying to catch the attention of the earth or the sea or the universe at large. The Presence took no note of her. Again she tried. Again she failed. Instead of words, she tried emotions: comfort, companionship, sympathy, and solidarity, and—underlying it all— a sense of urgency.

None of it made any difference, or at least none Kira could tell.

She called out again, but still, the ship mind didn’t notice, or noticed but refused to answer, and the lowering thunderheads remained. Twice more she attempted to contact Gregorovich, with the same results.

She felt like screaming. There was nothing else she could do. Wherever the ship mind had buried himself, it was beyond her reach or the reach of the Soft Blade.

And time—time grew short.

At last the Soft Blade ceased its labors, and though she was reluctant to do so, Kira extricated the suit’s tendrils from the innermost parts of Gregorovich’s brain and carefully withdrew. The curtain in her mind drew shut as contact broke, and the Presence vanished also, leaving her once again alone with her alien consort, the Soft Blade.

Kira swayed as she opened her eyes. Dizzy, she braced herself against the cold metal of the sarcophagus.

“What happened, Ms. Kira?” said Vishal, coming over to her. Behind him, Hwa-jung watched with concern. “We tried to wake you, but nothing we did worked.”

Kira wet her tongue, feeling displaced. “Gregorovich?” she croaked. The machine boss answered: “His readings are normal again.”

Relieved, Kira nodded. Then she pushed herself off the sarcophagus. “I repaired his implants. You can probably see that. But the weirdest things happened.…”

“What, Ms. Kira?” Vishal asked, leaning in, brow pinched.

She tried to find the words. “The Soft Blade, it connected my brain to his.”

Vishal’s eyes widened. “No. A direct neural link?!”

Kira nodded again. “I wasn’t trying to. The xeno just did it. For a while, we had a … a…”

“A hive mind?” said Hwa-jung. “Yeah. Like the Entropists.”

Vishal clucked his tongue as he helped Kira to her feet. “Forming a hive mind with a ship mind is very dangerous for an unaugmented human, Ms. Kira.”

“I know. Good thing I’m augmented,” said Kira wryly. She tapped the fibers on her arm to make her meaning clear.

Hwa-jung said, “Were you able to talk with him at all?”

Kira frowned, troubled by the memory. “No. I tried, but ship minds are…”

“Different,” Hwa-jung supplied.

“Yes. I knew that, but I never really understood just how different.” She handed back the headphones. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t reach him.”

Vishal took the headphones from Hwa-jung. “I am sure you did your best, Ms. Kira.”

Had she? Kira wondered.

Then the doctor plugged the headphones back into the sarcophagus. In response to Kira and Hwa-jung’s questioning looks, he said, “I will try to talk with Gregorovich in a more normal manner, yes? Maybe now he will be able to communicate.”

“You still have him isolated from the rest of the ship?” Kira asked, guessing the answer.

Hwa-jung made an affirmative noise. “Until we know he isn’t a threat to the Wallfish, we keep him like this.”

They waited while Vishal tried several times to contact Gregorovich. After repeating the same few phrases for a minute, the doctor unplugged from the sarcophagus and sighed. “There is still no response I can understand.”

Disappointed, Kira said, “I’ll tell Falconi.”

Vishal held up a hand. “Wait a few minutes, please, Ms. Kira. I think it would be most helpful to run some tests. Until I do, I cannot say with confidence what Gregorovich’s condition is. Now, both of you shoo. You are crowding my space.”

“Okay,” said Kira.

She and Hwa-jung retreated into the hallway outside the small room while they waited for the doctor to finish his tests.

Kira’s mind was still whirling from the experience. She felt as if she’d been the one turned inside out. Unable to stand still, she paced up and down the hall while Hwa-jung squatted with her back against the wall, arms crossed and chin tucked.

“I don’t know how he does it,” said Kira. “Who?”

“Gregorovich. There’s so much in his head. I don’t know how he can process it all, much less interact with us.”

A slow shrug from Hwa-jung. “Ship minds find amusement in strange places.”

“I can believe that.” Kira stopped pacing and squatted next to Hwa-jung. The machine boss looked down at her, impassive. Kira rubbed her hands and thought about the things Gregorovich had said to her back at Sol, and specifically how he’d envied the ship mind who painted landscapes. She said, “What are you going to do when all of this is over, if we survive? Go back to Shin-Zar?”

“If my family needs me, I will help. But I will not live on Shin-Zar again. That time has passed.”

Then Kira thought about the Entropists’ offer of sanctuary at their headquarters by Shin-Zar. She still had their token sitting in the desk of her cabin, covered by a layer of the Soft Blade’s growths. “What’s it like on Shin-Zar?”

“It depends,” said Hwa-jung. “Shin-Zar is a big planet.” “What about where you grew up?”

“I lived in different places.” The other woman stared down at her crossed arms. After a moment, she said, “My family settled in the hills by a mountain range. Ah, it was so tall, so pretty.”

“Were asteroids much of a problem? I saw a documentary about Tau Ceti that said the system has a lot more rocks flying around than, say, Sol.”

Hwa-jung shook her head. “We had a shelter deep in the stone. But we only used it once, when there was a bad storm. Our defense force destroys most of the asteroids before they get close to Shin-Zar.” She looked over her arms at Kira. “That is why our military is so good. We get lots of practice shooting things, and if we miss, we die.”

“The air is breathable there, right?”

“Earth-norm humans need extra oxygen.” The machine boss tapped herself on the sternum. “Why do you think we have such big lungs? In two hundred years, there will be enough oxygen for even narrow people like you. But for now, we must have big chests to breathe well.”

“And have you been to the Nova Energium?” “I have seen it. I have not been inside.” “Ah.… What do you think of the Entropists?”

“Very smart, very educated, but they meddle where they shouldn’t.” Hwa-jung uncrossed her arms and hung them over the tops of her knees. “They always say they will leave Shin-Zar if we join the League; it is one reason we haven’t. They bring lots of money to the system, and they have

lots of friends in the governments, and their discoveries give our ships advantages over the UMC.”

“Huh.” Kira’s knees were starting to ache from the squatting. “Do you miss your home, where you grew up?”

Hwa-jung rapped the knuckles of one fist against the deck. “Really, you ask a lot of questions. So nosy!”

“Sorry.” Kira looked back in at Vishal, embarrassed.

Hwa-jung muttered something in Korean. Then in a quiet voice, she said: “Yes, I miss it. The problem was my family did not approve of me, and they did not like the people I liked.”

“But they take your money.”

The tips of Hwa-jung’s ears turned red. “They are my family. It is my duty to help. Do you not understand that? Seriously…”

Abashed, Kira said, “I understand.”

The machine boss turned away. “I could not do what they wanted, but I do what I can. Perhaps one day it will be different. Until then … it is what I deserve.”

From farther down the hallway, Sparrow said, “You deserve better.” She walked over to where they sat and put a hand on Hwa-jung’s shoulder. The machine boss softened and leaned her head against Sparrow’s hip. The small, short-haired woman smiled down at Hwa-jung and kissed the top of her head. “Come on. If you keep frowning like that, you’ll turn into an ajumma.

Hwa-jung made a harsh noise in the back of her throat, but her shoulders relaxed, and the corners of her eyes wrinkled. “Punk,” she said in an affectionate tone.

Vishal came back out of the ship-mind room at that moment. He seemed surprised to see the three of them in the middle of the corridor.

“Well? What’s the prognosis, Doc?” said Sparrow.

He made a helpless gesture. “The prognosis is that we wait and hope, Ms. Sparrow. Gregorovich seems healthy, but it will take him time to adjust to the changes in his implants, I think.”

“How much time?” Hwa-jung asked. “I could not say.”

Kira had doubts of her own. If Gregorovich’s mental state didn’t improve, it wouldn’t matter if his implants were working or not. “Can I tell

the captain?”

“Yes, please,” said Vishal. “I will send my report to him later, with the details of the tests.”

The others dispersed then, but Kira remained where she was while she put a call through to Falconi. It didn’t take long for her to bring him up to date.

Afterward, Kira said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. I tried, I really tried to get through to him, but…”

“At least you made the effort,” said Falconi. “Yeah.”

“And I’m glad you did. Now go get some rest. We don’t have much time.”

“Will do. Night, Salvo.” “Night, Kira.”

Discouraged, Kira slowly made her way back to her cabin. Falconi was right. They didn’t have much time. She’d be lucky to get even six hours of sleep at this point. It would be pills for sure in the morning. She couldn’t afford to be groggy when they attacked the Battered Hierophant.

The door closed behind her with a cold clink. She felt the sound in her heart, and it struck her with the knowledge of the fast-approaching inevitable.

Kira tried not to think about what they were about to do, but that proved to be an impossibility. She’d never wanted to be a soldier, and yet here they were, flying into the heart of a battle, about to attack the greatest Jelly of them all.…

“If you could see me now,” she murmured, thinking of her parents. She thought they would be proud. She hoped so, at least. They wouldn’t approve of the killing, but they would approve of her and the crew trying to protect others. That, above all else, they would consider worthwhile.

Alan would have agreed also. She shivered.

At her command, the Soft Blade cleared the desk and chair in her cabin. Kira sat, turned on the console with a tap of her finger, started it recording.

“Hey Mom, Dad. Sis. We’re about to attack the Jellies out at Cordova-Fourteen-Twenty. Long story, but in case things don’t work out, I wanted to

send you this. I don’t know if my previous message reached you, so I’m including a copy with this one.”

With short, clear sentences, Kira recounted their ill-fated visit to Sol and the reasons for now agreeing to help the Knot of Minds.

She finished by saying: “Again, I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Even if we make it out of this, the UMC is going to want me back. Either way, I won’t be seeing Weyland again any time soon.… I’m sorry. I love you all. If I can, I’ll try to get another message to you, but it might not be for a while. Hope you’re safe. Bye.” And she touched her fingers to her lips and pressed them against the camera.

As Kira ended the recording, she allowed herself one breath of grief, one hiccupping gulp of air that formed a fist of pain in her chest before she let it out, all of it.

Calm was good. Calm was necessary. She needed calm.

She had Morven forward the message to the Seventh Fleet, and then she shut down the console and went to the sink. A splash of cold water on her face, and she stood blinking, letting the droplets roll down her cheeks. Then she removed her rumpled jumpsuit, willed the Soft Blade to dim its lights, and got under the frayed blanket on the bed.

It required a serious effort of will not to pull up her overlays and check on what was happening throughout the system. If she did, Kira knew she would never sleep.

So she remained in the dark and worked to keep her breathing slow and her muscles soft while she imagined sinking through the mattress and into the deck.…

She did all those things, and yet sleep continued to elude her. Words and thoughts could not erase the nearness of danger, and because of it, her body refused to accept the lie of safety—would not relax, would not allow her mind to do anything but keep watch against the fanged creatures that instinct insisted must be lurking in the surrounding shadows.

In a few hours she might be dead. They all might. Finito. Kaput. Done and done. No respawning. No do-overs. Dead.

Kira’s heart began to jackhammer as a slug of adrenaline hit, more potent than any rotgut. She gasped and bolted upright, clutching at her chest. A deep, wounded groan escaped her, and she hunched over, struggling to breathe.

Around her, dark whispering sounded as thousands of needle-sharp spines sprouted from the walls of the cabin.

She didn’t care. None of it mattered, only the ice water pooling in her gut and the pain stabbing at her heart.

Dead. Kira wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. Not for a long, long, long time. Preferably never. But there was no escaping it. No escaping what tomorrow would bring.…


She was afraid, more afraid than she’d ever been. And what made it worse was knowing that there was nothing that could fix the situation. Everyone in the Wallfish was strapped to an express rocket heading straight toward their doom, and there was no getting off early unless they wanted to grab a blaster and put it against their temples, pull the trigger, and ride the short trip to oblivion.

Had Gregorovich’s dark dreams infected her mind? Kira didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered—not really—except the terrifying pit yawning before her.

Unable to hold still any longer, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. If only Gregorovich were there to message with. He would understand. She shivered and sent a thought to the Soft Blade that activated the light-producing nodules along the corners of the room. A dim green glow

brightened the bristling space.

Kira gulped for air, struggling to get enough. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about. Don’t … She let her gaze roam across the room in an attempt to distract herself.

The scratch on the surface of the desk caught her eye, the scratch she’d put there when she’d first tried to force the Soft Blade off her body. That had been, what, her second day on the Wallfish? Her third?

It didn’t matter.

Cold pinpricks of sweat sprang up on her face. She hugged herself, feeling chilled in a way no external warmth could correct.

She didn’t want to be alone, not then. She needed to see another person, to hear their voice, to be comforted by the nearness of their presence and to know that she wasn’t the only speck of consciousness facing the void. It wasn’t a matter of logic or philosophy—Kira knew they were doing the right thing by helping the Knot of Minds—but rather animal instinct. Logic

only took you so far. Sometimes the cure to the dark was to find another flame burning bright.

Still feeling as if her heart were about to hammer its way out of her chest, she sprang to her feet, went to the storage locker, and removed her jumpsuit. Her hands shook as she dressed herself.

There. Good enough.

Down, she told the Soft Blade. The protrusions throughout the room quivered and subsided several centimeters but no more than that.

She didn’t care. The spines retracted around her as she made her way to the door, and that was all she required.

Kira strode down the hallway with purpose-born steps. Now that she was moving, she didn’t want to linger, certainly didn’t want to stop. With each step, she felt as if she were teetering along the edge of a precipice.

She climbed one level up the central shaft to C-deck. The dimly lit corridor there was so quiet, Kira was afraid to make any noise. It felt as if she were the only person aboard, and all around her was the immensity of space, pressing in against a lone spark.

A sense of relief as she arrived at the door to Falconi’s cabin.

The relief was short-lived. A spike of panic erased it as she heard a clank farther down the corridor. She jumped and spun to see Nielsen opening a cabin door.

But not to her own cabin: Vishal’s.

The other woman had wet hair, as if she’d just washed, and she was carrying a tray with foil-wrapped snacks and a pair of mugs and a pot of tea. She stopped as she caught sight of Kira—stopped and stared.

In the first officer’s eyes, Kira glimpsed a hint of something she recognized. A similar need perhaps. A similar fear. And sympathy too.

Before Kira could decide how to react, Nielsen gave a brief nod and disappeared into the cabin. Even through the cutting edge of her panic, Kira felt a sense of amusement. Vishal and Nielsen. Well, well. When she thought about it, she supposed it wasn’t entirely surprising.

She hesitated a moment and then lifted her hand and knocked on Falconi’s door with three quick raps. Hopefully he wasn’t sleeping.

“It’s open.”

The sound of his voice did nothing to slow her pulse. She spun the locking wheel and pushed back the door.

Yellow light spilled into the corridor. Inside, Falconi sat in the cabin’s single chair, his feet (still in their boots) propped up on the desk, ankles crossed. He’d removed his vest, and his sleeves were rolled up, exposing the scars on his forearms. His gaze shifted from his overlays to her face. “You couldn’t sleep either, huh?”

Kira shook her head. “Mind if I…?”

“Be my guest,” he said, dropping his feet and scooting back in the chair.

She entered and closed the door behind herself. Falconi raised an eyebrow but didn’t object. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Let me guess: worried about tomorrow?”


“Want to talk about it?” “Not particularly.”

He nodded, understanding.

“I just … I…” She grimaced and shook her head.

“How about a drink?” Falconi reached for the locker over his desk. “I’ve got a bottle of Venusian scotch somewhere around here. Won it in a poker game a few years ago. Just give me a—”

Kira took two steps forward, put her hands on either side of his face, and kissed him on the mouth. Hard.

Falconi stiffened, but he didn’t pull away.

Up close he smelled good: warm and musky. Wide lips. Hard cheeks. He tasted sharp, and his perma-stubble was an unfamiliar prickle.

Kira broke the kiss to look at him. Her heart was pounding faster than ever, and her whole body felt alternatively hot and cold. Falconi wasn’t Alan, wasn’t anything like him, but he would do. For this one moment in time, he would do.

She fought and failed to keep from trembling.

Falconi let out his breath. His ears were flushed, and he appeared almost dazed. “Kira … What are you doing?”

“Kiss me.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

She lowered her face toward his, keeping her gaze fixed on his lips, not daring to meet his eyes. “I don’t want to be alone right now, Salvo. I really, really don’t.”

He licked his lips. Then she saw a change in his posture, a softening of his shoulders, a broadening of his chest. “I don’t either,” he confessed in a low voice.

She trembled again. “Then shut up and kiss me.”

Her back tingled as his arm slid around her waist and he pulled her closer. Then he kissed her. He gripped the back of her neck with his other hand, and for a time, all Kira was aware of was the rush of sensations, intense and overwhelming. The touch of hands and arms, lips and tongues, skin against skin.

It wasn’t enough to make her forget her fear. But it was enough to redirect her panic and anxiety into a feral energy, and that she could do something with.

Falconi surprised her by putting a hand on the center of her chest, pushing her back, evading her mouth.

“What?” she said, half snarling.

“What about this?” he asked. He tapped her sternum and the Soft Blade covering it.

“I told you,” she said. “Feels just like skin.” “And this?” His hand slid lower.


He smiled. It was a dangerous smile.

Seeing it only stoked the heat inside her. She growled and dug her fingers into his back while leaning in for his ear, nipping at it with her teeth. With an eagerness born of impatience, he undid the seal to her jumpsuit, and with equal eagerness, she shimmied out. She’d worried that the Soft Blade would put him off, but Falconi caressed her as avidly and attentively as any of her past lovers, and if he didn’t find the texture of the Soft Blade as appealing as her real skin, he hid it well. After the first few minutes, she

stopped worrying and allowed herself to relax and enjoy his touch.

As for the Soft Blade itself, it seemed unsure how to respond to their activities, but in one of her more lucid moments, Kira impressed on it (in no uncertain terms) that it wasn’t to interfere. To her relief, it behaved.

She and Falconi moved together with a frantic urgency, fueled by their shared hunger and the knowledge of what awaited them at night’s end. They spared no centimeter of skin, no curve of muscle nor ridge of bone in their feverish pursuit. Every bit of sensation they could wring from their bodies,

they did, not so much for the sake of pleasure, but to satisfy their craving for closeness. The feeling drove the future from Kira, forced her into the present, made her feel alive.

They did all they could, but because of the Soft Blade, not all they wanted. With hands and fingers, mouths and tongues, they satisfied each other, but still it wasn’t enough. Falconi didn’t complain, but she could see he was frustrated. She was frustrated; she wanted more.

“Wait,” she said, and put a hand on his matted chest. He leaned back, his expression quizzical.

Turning inward, she focused on her groin, gathered her will, and forced the Soft Blade to retreat from her innermost parts. The touch of air on her exposed skin made her gasp and clench.

Falconi looked down at her with a crooked grin.

“Well?” Kira said, her voice taut with strain. Holding back the suit was an effort, but it was one she could maintain. She arched an eyebrow. “How brave are you?”

As it turned out, he was very brave. Very brave indeed.

Kira sat with her back to the bulkhead, the blanket pulled around her waist. Next to her, Falconi lay on his stomach, his head turned toward her, his left arm draped across her lap, warm and comforting in its weight.

“You know,” he mumbled, “I don’t normally sleep with my crew or passengers. Just for the record.”

“And I don’t normally seduce the captain of the ship I’m traveling on.” “Mmm. Glad you did.…”

She smiled and ran her fingers through his hair, lightly scratching his scalp. He made a contented sound and snuggled closer.

“Me too, Salvo,” she said, softly.

He didn’t answer, and his breathing soon deepened and slowed as he fell into sleep.

She studied the muscles on his back and shoulders. At rest, they appeared soft, but she could still see traces of the lines and hollows that

separated them, and she remembered how they’d bunched and knotted and stood out in hard relief as he’d moved against her.

She slid a hand over her lower belly. Was it possible for her to get pregnant? It seemed unlikely the Soft Blade would tolerate the growth of a child inside her. But she wondered.

She leaned her head against the wall. A long breath escaped her. Despite her worries, she felt content. Not happy—circumstances were too dire for that—but not sad either.

Only a handful of hours remained before they arrived at the Battered Hierophant. She kept herself awake until, halfway through their flight, the free-fall warning sounded, and then she used the Soft Blade to hold Falconi and herself in place while the Wallfish flipped end for end before resuming thrust.

Falconi mumbled something incoherent as thrust resumed, but like a true spacer, he stayed asleep through the whole procedure.

Then Kira slid farther under the blanket, lay next to him, and allowed her eyes to close.

And finally, she too slept.

Kira dreamed, but the dreams were not her own.

Fractures upon fractures: forward, backward, she could not tell which. Twice the cradle cupped her resting form. Twice she woke and waking found no sign of those who first laid her there to rest.

The first time she woke, the graspers stood waiting.

She fought them, in all their many forms. She fought them by the thousands, in the depths of oceans and the cold of space, on ships and stations and long-forgotten moons. Scores of battles, large and small. Some she won; some she lost. It mattered not.

She fought the graspers, but she herself was bound to one. The graspers warred amongst their own, and she to her bond of flesh was true. Though she had no wish to kill, she stabbed and sliced and shot her way across the stars. And when the flesh was hurt beyond repair, another took its place, and still others after that, and with each joining, the side she served was wont to change, back and forth and round again.

She did not care. The graspers were nothing like the kind who made her. They were quarrelsome upstarts, arrogant and foolish. They used her badly, for they knew not what she was. But still, she did her duty best she could. Such was her nature.

And when the graspers died, as die they did, she took a certain satisfaction in their end. They should have known: it was wrong to steal and wrong to meddle. The things they took were not for them.

Then came the flesh of Shoal Leader Nmarhl and the ill-fated uprising of the Knot of Minds that ended with the triumph of Ctein. Cradle-bound she became again as Nmarhl laid their flesh down to rest, and rest she did for fractures yet.

The second time she woke, it was to a new form. An old form. An odd form. Flesh joined with flesh, and from flesh came blood. The pairing was imperfect; she had to learn, adjust, adapt. It took time. Errors had crept in; repairs had to be made. And there was cold that dulled her, slowed her, before the match could then conclude.

When she emerged, it was difficult. Painful. And there was noise and light, and though she tried to protect the flesh, her attempts were flawed. Sorrow then, that upon waking, she had again been the cause of death, and with that sorrow, a sense of … responsibility. Apology even.

A flash, then. A disjunction, and somehow she knew, it was an earlier time, an earlier age, before the first ones had left. She beheld the whorl of stars that was the galaxy and—among that sprawling spiral—the billions upon billions of asteroids, meteors, moons, planets, and other celestial bodies that filled the heavens. Most were barren. Some few teemed with small and primitive organisms. Rarest of all were those places where life had developed into more complex forms. Priceless treasures were they, gleaming gardens pulsing with movement and warmth amid the deathless void.

This she beheld, and her sacred cause she knew—to move among the empty worlds, to furrow the fruitless soil, and to plant therein the germs of future growth. For nothing was more important than the spread of life, nothing more important than nurturing those who would someday join them among the stars. As the ones who came before, it was their responsibility, their duty, and their joy to foster and protect. Without consciousness to

appreciate it, existence was meaningless—an abandoned tomb decaying into oblivion.

Driven, sustained, and guided by her purpose, she sailed forth into the desolate reaches. There, by her touch, she brought forth growing things, moving things, thinking things. She saw planets of bare stone flush and mottle with the spread of leafing plants. Glimpses of greenery and reddery (depending on the hue of the reigning star). Roots burrowing deep. Muscles stretching. Song and speech the primordial silence breaking.

And she heard a voice, though the voice used no words: “Is it good?”

And she responded, “It is good.”

Sometimes battles broke the pattern. But they were different. She was different. Neither she nor her foes were graspers. And there was a rightness to her actions, a sense that she was serving others, and the fights, while fierce, were brief.

Then she was soaring through a nebula, and for a moment, she beheld a patch of twisted space. She could see it was twisted by the way it warped the surrounding gas. And from the patch, she felt a warped sensation, a feeling of utter wrongness, and it terrified her, for she knew its meaning. Chaos. Evil. Hunger. A vast and monstrous intelligence coupled with power even the first had not.…

She hurtled past stars and planets, through memories old and ancient, until once again, as once she had, she floated before a fractal pattern etched upon the face of an upright stone. As before, the pattern shifted, turning and twisting in ways she could not follow, while lines of force flashed and flared along the pattern’s edge.

The name of the Soft Blade flooded her mind, with all its many meanings. Image upon image, association upon association. And all the while, the fractal hung before her, like an overlay burned upon her sight.

The deluge of information continued in a loop, cycling and cycling without pause. Among the general profusion, she recognized the sequence she had translated as the Soft Blade. It still seemed fitting, but it no longer seemed adequate.Not given all she had learned.

She concentrated on the other images, other associations, attempting to trace the connections between them. And as she did, a structure began to emerge from what had once seemed formless and obscure. It felt as if she

were assembling a three-dimensional puzzle without having any concept of the final product.

The smaller details of the name escaped her, but piece by piece, she came to grasp the larger theme. It coalesced in her mind, like a crystal edifice, bright and clear and pure of line. And as the shape of it grew visible, understanding broke.

A sense of awe crept through her, for the truth of the name was greater, so much greater, than the words Soft Blade implied. The organism had a purpose, and that purpose was of almost unimaginable complexity and—of this she was sure—importance. And though it seemed a contradiction, that purpose, that complexity, could be summed up not by pages or paragraphs but by a single word. And that word was thus:


Wonder joined with awe, and joy too. The organism wasn’t a weapon. Or rather, it hadn’t been created with that sole intention. It was a source of life. Of many lives. A spark that could bathe an entire planet in the fire of creation.

And she was happy. For was there anything more beautiful?

A hand shook her shoulder. “Kira. Wake up.” “Uhh.”

“Come on, Kira. It’s time. We’re almost there.”

She opened her eyes, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Seed. The knowledge overwhelmed her. All the memories did. The Highmost. The horrible patch of distorted space. The seemingly endless battles. That the suit had apologized for the deaths of Alan and her teammates.

Seed. She finally understood. How could she have guessed? Guilt overwhelmed her that she had so terribly misused the xeno—that her fear and anger had led to the creation of a blighted monstrosity as horrible as the Maw. The tragedy was, now she had to again take the xeno into battle. It felt almost obscene in light of its true nature.

“Hey now. What’s wrong?” Falconi pushed himself up on an elbow and leaned over her.

Kira wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Nothing. Just a dream.” She sniffed, and hated how weak she sounded.

“Sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Let’s go kill the great and mighty Ctein.”

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