Chapter no 63

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

The Battered Hierophant hung before the Wallfish, a bright point of light against the black backdrop of space.

The Jelly ship was larger than any other vessel Kira had seen. It was as long as seven UMC battleships placed end to end, and almost as wide, giving it a slight ovoid shape. In terms of mass, it was equal to—if not greater than—a structure like Orsted Station, but unlike Orsted, it was fully maneuverable.

To Kira’s dismay, a trio of smaller ships had taken up positions in front of the Battered Hierophant: extra firepower ready to defend their leader should one of the human ships get close enough to threaten.

The Hierophant and its escorts were only seven thousand–some klicks out, but even at such a relatively short distance (nearly in spitting range by the standards of interplanetary travel) the giant ship was no more than a fleck of light when seen without magnification.

“Could be worse,” said Sparrow.

“Could be a hell of a lot better too,” said Falconi.

Aside from Itari, who had insisted it would be fine in the cargo hold, all of them were crammed into the Wallfish’s storm shelter. No one looked particularly fresh, but of them, Jorrus and Veera seemed the most tired, the most drawn. Their normally impeccable robes were wrinkled, and they fidgeted in a way that reminded Kira of the wireheads back in Highstone, on Weyland. But they were alert, and they listened with sharp-eyed interest to everything being said.

When questioned about their choice of attire—with the exception of Kira, the crew had traded their normal clothes for skinsuits—the Entropists said, “We are most well—”

“—equipped as we are, thank you.” Whereupon Nielsen had shrugged and shelved the suits she’d been offering them.

To Kira’s amusement, the first officer and Vishal stayed on opposite sides of the shelter, but she noticed secret smiles passing between them, and their lips often moved slightly as if they were texting.

Tschetter’s face appeared in the upper right-hand corner of the display. Behind her, the Jellies were moving about as they prepared their ship for what was to come. Trig’s cryo tube was visible by a curved wall, secured in place with several strange-looking brackets. “Captain Falconi,” said Tschetter. There were deep bags under her eyes, and Kira realized the woman didn’t have access to any stims or sleep pills.


“Have your crew stand by. We’ll be in firing range soon.”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Falconi. “We’re ready. Just make sure the Knot gives us cover once we go hot.”

The major nodded. “They’ll do their best.” “We’ve still got clearance from the Jellies?”

A grim smile stretched Tschetter’s face. “They’d be shooting at us if we didn’t. As is, they’re expecting us to bring the Wallfish to the Hierophant so their techs can pick through its computers.”

Kira rubbed her arms. It was happening. There was no going back now. A sense of inevitability curdled in her veins. The rest of the crew looked similarly apprehensive.

“Roger that,” said Falconi.

Tschetter gave him a terse nod. “Wait for my signal. Over and out.” She vanished from the holo.

“And here we go,” Falconi said.

Kira pressed on the earpiece Hwa-jung had given her—making sure it was securely seated—and then used her own overlays to check on the progress of the battle. The Seventh Fleet had scattered as it neared the Jellies, drawing them out and around the rocky planet the aliens were strip-mining, luring them toward a pair of small moons. The planet had been dubbed R1 by the UMC, the moons r2 and r3. Hardly elegant names, but convenient for the purposes of strategy and navigation.

Clouds of smoke and chaff obscured most of the UMC ships (in visible light, at least; they showed up fine in infrared). Sparks flashed within the clouds as the UMC’s point-defense lasers took out incoming missiles. Unlike their spaceships, the Jellies’ missiles weren’t substantially faster or

more agile than the UMC’s, which meant the Seventh was able to destroy or disable most of them.

Most, but not all, and as the lasers overheated, more and more missiles slipped past.

The shooting hadn’t been going on for long, but three of the UMC cruisers were already out of commission: one destroyed, two incapacitated and drifting helplessly. A cluster of Jellies were attempting to board the pair, but Admiral Klein’s forces were working to keep the aliens tied up, away from the crippled vessels.

As for the Jellies, hard numbers were difficult to find, but it looked to Kira as if the UMC had destroyed at least four of them and damaged quite a few more. Not enough to put a serious dent in the Jelly fleet, but enough to slow the first wave.

Even as Kira watched, projectiles slammed into two of the UMC ships, both in the engine area. Their rockets sputtered and died, and the cruisers tumbled away, powerless.

Near the leading edge of the Seventh Fleet, a Jelly jinked at speeds and angles that would have flattened any human. A half dozen of the Seventh’s capital ships fired their main lasers at the vessel, impaling it with crimson threads. The lights on the Jelly ship went out, and it tumbled end over end, spraying boiling water in an ever-expanding spiral.

“Oh yeah,” Kira murmured.

She dug her nails into her palms as a pair of Jellies darted toward a hulking battleship that had somehow ended up alone by the moon r2. Lasers flickered between the battleship and the Jellies, and both sides fired several missiles.

Without warning, a white-hot spike shot out from one of the battleship’s missiles, snapping across almost nine thousand klicks in the course of a second. The spike obliterated the incoming missiles and vaporized half of the nearest alien ship, like a blowtorch blasting through styrofoam.

The damaged Jelly ship spun like a top as it vented atmosphere, and then it vanished in an explosion of its own, the annihilating antimatter creating an artificial sun that quickly dissipated.

The remaining Jelly corkscrewed away from the battleship. A second spike erupted from one of the two remaining UMC missiles—a white-hot

lance of superheated plasma. It missed, but the third spike from the last missile didn’t.

A nuclear fireball replaced the alien ship in the holo-display. “You see that?” Kira said.

Hwa-jung grunted. “Casaba-Howitzers.”

“Anything from Gregorovich?” Kira asked, looking over at Vishal and Hwa-jung.

They both shook their heads, and the doctor said, “No change, I am afraid. His vitals are the same as yesterday.”

Kira wasn’t surprised—if Gregorovich had recovered, he would have been making constant comments—but she was disappointed. Again, she hoped she hadn’t made things worse by using the Soft Blade … using the Seed to touch his mind.

Tschetter reappeared in the holo. “It’s time. Much closer and the ships guarding the Battered Hierophant are going to get suspicious. Prepare to launch.”

“Roger,” said Falconi. “Sparrow.”

“On it.” A hollow thud sounded elsewhere in the Wallfish, and the woman said, “Howitzer is loaded. Missile tubes are open. We’re ready to release.”

Falconi nodded. “Alright. You hear that, Tschetter?”

“Affirmative. The Knot of Minds is moving into final position.

Transmitting updated targeting data. Stand by for go.” “Standing by.”

On the other side of R1, a UMC cruiser vanished in a flare of light. Kira winced and checked the name: the Hokulea.

Vishal said, “Ah, poor souls. May they rest in peace.”

A hush descended upon the storm shelter as they waited, tense and sweating. Falconi moved over to Kira and put an unobtrusive hand on the small of her back. The touch warmed her, and she leaned back slightly. His fingers scratched against her coated skin, light and distracting.

On her overlays, a line appeared: <Nervous? – Falconi>

She subvocalized her answer: <Who wouldn’t be? – Kira>

<If we make it through this, we should talk. – Falconi>

<Do we need to? – Kira>

The corner of his mouth twitched. <It’s not required. But I’d like to. –Falconi>

<Okay. – Kira>

Nielsen’s eyes lingered on them, and Kira wondered what the first officer was thinking. Kira lifted her chin, feeling defiant.

Then Tschetter’s voice intruded. “We’re a go. I repeat, we’re a go. Light them up, Wallfish.

Sparrow cackled, and a loud thump resonated through the hull. “Who wants fried calamari?”

The Wallfish had been decelerating tail-first toward the Battered Hierophant. That meant the ravening torch of nuclear death that was the Wallfish’s fusion drive was pointed in the general direction of their target.

This had two advantages. First was that the drive’s exhaust helped protect the Wallfish from missiles or lasers that might be fired at them from the Jelly flagship or its escorts. Second was that the amount of energy, thermal and EM, radiating from the drive was enough to overload most any sensor aimed at it. The fusion reaction was hotter than the surface of any star and brighter too—the brightest flashlight in the galaxy.

As a result, the Casaba-Howitzer that Sparrow had just released from the Wallfish’s aft missile tube (port side) would be nearly invisible next to the drive’s blue-white incandescence. And since the howitzer was currently unpowered, its own rocket cold and inactive, it would continue past the slowing Wallfish without any need for a burn that would attract unwanted attention.

“T-minus fourteen seconds,” announced Sparrow. That was the length of time the Casaba-Howitzer needed to pass behind their shadow shield and reach a safe(ish) distance from the Wallfish before detonating and sending a beam of nuclear energy racing toward the Battered Hierophant.

The bomb would be going off far, far closer than any sane person would be comfortable with, and—excluding Gregorovich—Kira liked to think that they were all quite sane. The shadow shield ought to protect them from the worst of the radiation, same as it did with the rather nasty by-products of their fusion drive. Likewise, the storm shelter. The main risk would be

shrapnel. If the explosion blew a piece of the howitzer’s casing into the

Wallfish, it would cut through the hull like a bullet through tissue paper. “T-minus ten seconds,” said Sparrow.

Hwa-jung pulled her lips back, made a disparaging hiss between her teeth. “Time to get a year’s worth of rads, I think.” By the wall, the two Entropists sat holding hands and rocking.

“T-minus five, four—”

Shit! They’re turning!” exclaimed Tschetter. “—three—”

“No time to change!” said Falconi. “—two—”

“Aim for—”


Kira’s neck snapped to the side as a violent application of the RCS thrusters pushed the Wallfish off its current trajectory. Then the ship’s acceleration surged at what must have been at least 2 g’s, and she grimaced as she fought the sudden press of force.

Less than a second later, the Wallfish shuddered around them, and Kira heard several pings and pops across the hull.

On the display, a burning spike of light raced toward the Battered Hierophant. The Jelly ship had already rotated halfway around, so that its drive was hidden from view, and it was continuing to turn, reorienting itself away from the Wallfish.

“Goddammit,” muttered Falconi.

Kira watched with horrified fascination as the blaze of plasma flashed toward the Battered Hierophant. Lphet and the Knot of Minds had given them precise information on where the Hierophant’s Markov Drive was located. Hitting it and breaching the antimatter containment within the drive was their best chance of destroying the ship. Otherwise, they had no guarantee that the Casaba-Howitzer would kill Ctein.

As Itari had explained, even the smaller Jelly co-forms were hardened against heat and radiation, and as the UMC had discovered to their dismay, the creatures were incredibly hard to kill. A Jelly as large as Ctein— whatever its current form—would be far more resilient. It was, as Sparrow said, more like trying to kill a fungus than a human.

Black smoke billowed out of vents along the swollen middle of the alien ship—a threatened squid hiding itself in an ever-expanding cloud of ink— but it wouldn’t provide any protection against the howitzer’s shaped charge. Few things could.

The lance hit the belly of the Hierophant. A hemisphere of vaporized hull exploded outward along with a haze of air and water that had flashed to steam.

Sparrow groaned as the view cleared.

The nuclear charge had carved a trough as large as the Wallfish through the Battered Hierophant. Its main drive appeared disabled—propellant spurted from the nozzle, failed to ignite—but the bulk of the vessel remained intact.

Lasers and missiles shot forth from the Knot of Minds toward the three escort vessels near the Hierophant even as the trio turned to attack. The Wallfish released its own cloud of defenses, shrouding the ship in darkness. The display switched to infrared.

“Pop off another howitzer,” said Falconi. “We’ve only got two more,” said Sparrow. “I know. Fire it anyway.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

Another thud echoed through the hull, and then the Casaba-Howitzer streaked away from the Wallfish as it headed to the minimum safe distance for detonation.

The missile never reached its destination. A jet of violet sparks spewed from its nose, and then its rocket sputtered out and the howitzer went tumbling harmlessly off course.

“Fuck!” said Sparrow. “Laser took it out.” “I see that,” said Falconi, calm.

Kira wished she could still bite her nails. Instead, she found herself clenching the armrests of her crash chair.

“Is Ctein dead?” she asked Tschetter. “Do we know if Ctein is dead?”

The major shook her head in the holo. Lights were flashing on the deck behind her. “It doesn’t seem so. I—”

An explosion rocked the Jelly ship. “Are you okay, Major?” Nielsen asked, leaning in toward the display.

Tschetter reappeared, appearing shaken. Frizzy strands of hair had come loose from her bun. “We’re okay for now. But—”

“More Jellies incoming,” Sparrow announced. “A good twenty of them.

We’ve got maybe ten minutes. Less.” “Of course,” Falconi growled.

“You still need to kill Ctein,” said Tschetter. “We can’t do it over here.

Half the Jellies with me seem to be sick.” “I don’t—”

Morven said, “Admiral Klein for you, Captain Falconi.” “Put him on hold. Don’t have time for him right now.”

“Yessir,” said the pseudo-intelligence, sounding absurdly cheery given the situation.

A blinking yellow light appeared in the holo, heading toward them from the Battered Hierophant. “What’s that?” Jorrus and Veera asked, pointing.

Falconi zoomed in. A dark, blob-like object about four meters long came into view. It looked as if several intersecting spheres had been welded together. “That’s no missile.”

A memory stirred in the back of Kira’s mind: the storage room where she’d seen Dr. Carr and the Jelly Qwon fighting, and on the far end of the room, a hole cut into the hull. A hole glowing with blue light emanating from the small vessel that had clamped barnacle-like onto the outside of the Extenuating Circumstances.

“It’s a boarding shuttle,” she said. “Or maybe an escape pod. Either way, it can cut right through the hull.”

“There are more of them,” Vishal said in a warning tone.

He was right. Another dozen of the blobs were heading their way. “Major,” said Falconi. “You have to help us take them out, or—” “We’ll try, but we’re slightly busy,” Tschetter said.

One of the Hierophant’s three escorts exploded, but the other two were still firing at the Knot of Minds, as was the Battered Hierophant itself. So far, the Knot hadn’t lost any of their ships, but several of them were trailing smoke and vapor from hull breaches.

Falconi said, “Sparrow—” “Already on it.”

On her overlays, Kira watched as lines flashed between the Wallfish and the incoming blobs: laser blasts, highlighted by the computer to make them

visible to human eyes.

She bit her lip. It was horrible not being able to help. If only she had a ship of her own. Better yet if she were close enough to tear apart the approaching enemies with the Soft Blade.

Then the interior lights flickered and Morven said, “Security breach in progress. Firewall compromised. Shutting down nonessential systems. Please turn off all personal electronic devices until notified otherwise.”

“They can hack our systems now?” cried Nielsen. Jorrus and Veera said, “Give us—”

“—root access, we—” “—can provide assistance.”

Falconi hesitated, and then nodded. “Password sent to your consoles.” The Entropists hunched over the displays built into their chairs.

Ruddy flashes appeared within the smoke surrounding the Battered Hierophant—missiles being fired.

Alarms blared. Morven said, “Warning, incoming objects. Collision imminent.”

The missiles shot out of the smoke and quickly overtook the approaching blobs, some hurtling toward the Knot of Minds and the rest, all four of them, racing toward the Wallfish.

A fresh charge of foil chaff launched from the rear of the Wallfish. The ship was still decelerating, but the missiles rushing toward them were accelerating even faster and the distance between them dwindled with horrifying quickness.

The Wallfish’s laser stabbed out. A missile exploded (sharp blast, there and gone). Then another, closer this time. Two left.

“Sparrow,” said Falconi from between his teeth. “I see it.”

One ship of the Knot of Minds shot down the third missile. The fourth one kept coming, though, evading the incoming laser blasts with brutally fast jerks up, down, and sideways.

A sheen of sweat coated Sparrow’s unblinking face as she concentrated fire on the incoming projectile.

Morven: “Caution, brace for impact.”

At the last moment, when the missile was nearly upon them, the

Wallfish’s blaster finally connected and the missile exploded only a few

hundred meters away from their hull.

Sparrow uttered a triumphant shout.

The ship rattled and shook, and the bulkheads groaned. More alarms shrieked, and smoke poured out of an overhead vent. Half the lights on the control panels went dark. A strange burst of noise sounded from the speakers: not static—transmitted data?

“Damage report,” said Falconi.

In the display, and in Kira’s overlays, a diagram of the Wallfish appeared. A large section of the hab-ring, as well as the cargo holds below, were flashing crimson. Hwa-jung stared like a person possessed while her lips moved with murmured queries to the computer.

She said, “Decks C and D are breached. Cargo hold A. Massive damage to the electrical system. Main laser is offline. Reclamation unit, hydroponics bay … everything’s been affected. Engine working at twenty-eight percent efficiency. Emergency protocols in effect.” The machine boss gestured and brought up the feed from an outside camera: along the curved hull of the Wallfish’s hab-ring, a large hole cratered inward to reveal internal walls and rooms dark but for an occasional flash of electrical discharge.

Falconi made a fist and thumped the arm of his chair. Kira winced. She knew how much the ship meant to him.

“Thule,” said Nielsen.

“Itari?” Falconi barked. An image popped up in the holo showing the Jelly climbing up the center of the ship. The alien appeared unharmed. “What about Morven?” He craned his neck toward the Entropists.

Their eyes were half-closed and glowing with the reflected light of their implants. Veera said, “Firewall restored, but—”

“—some sort of malicious program is still in the—”

“—mainframe. We’ve confined it to the waste management subroutines while we try to purge it.” Veera made a face. “It’s very…”

“Very resistant,” said Jorrus.

“Yes,” said Veera. “It is probably best to avoid using the head for now.” Again the pseudo-intelligence announced: “Warning, incoming objects.

Collision imminent.”


This time it was the Jelly boarding vessels. One was headed straight for the Wallfish, the others for the Knot of Minds.

“Can we evade?” Falconi asked.

Hwa-jung shook her head. “No. Not possible with thrusters. Aish.” “Howitzer?” Falconi asked, turning on Sparrow.

She grimaced. “We can try, but there’s a good chance we’ll lose it to their countermeasures.”

Falconi scowled and swore under his breath. In the holo, Tschetter briefly reappeared and said, “Save the nuke for the Battered Hierophant. We’re going to try to get you past their point defenses.”

“Roger that.… Morven, drop thrust to one g.”

“Affirmative, Captain. Dropping thrust to one g.” The corresponding alert sounded, and Kira breathed a slight sigh of relief as the weight pressing on her returned to normal. Then Falconi slapped the console and stood. “All hands on deck. We’re about to be boarded.”

“Shit,” said Nielsen.

“Looks like they’re heading for the breach in the cargo hold,” said Sparrow.

A knocking sounded on the pressure door to the storm shelter. Vishal opened it, and Itari’s tentacled shape pushed forward, filling the frame. [[Itari here: What is the situation?]]

[[Kira here: Wait. I do not know.]]

“Six minutes to contact,” said Hwa-jung.

Falconi tapped the grip of his blaster. “Pressure doors are sealed around the damaged areas. The Jellies will have to cut their way through. That buys us a little time. Once they’re in the main shaft, we’ll ambush them from above. Kira, you’ll have to take point. If you can kill at least two of them, we can probably handle the rest.”

She nodded. Time to test words with action.

Falconi started for the door. “Out of the way!” he said, waving at Itari.

The Jelly understood well enough to move back, clearing the opening. [[Kira here: We are being boarded by Wranaui from the Battered


Nearscent of understanding, colored with some … eagerness. [[Itari here: I understand. I will do my best to protect your co-forms, Idealis.]]

[[Kira here: Thank you.]]

Falconi said, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Kira, Nielsen, Doc, go grab weapons for everyone. Sparrow, you’re with me. Move!”

Along with Vishal, Kira trotted after Nielsen through the darkened corridors to the Wallfish’s small armory. The air in the ship was hot and smelled like burnt plastic.

At the closet-sized room, they scooped up blasters and firearms both. Kira nearly didn’t bother picking one for herself; if she was going to fight, the Soft Blade would be her best weapon. (It seemed more appropriate to think of the xeno as the Soft Blade when heading into battle, although the prospect of again committing violence with the Seed felt profoundly wrong.) Nevertheless, Kira knew it would be overconfident of her not to have another option, so she grabbed a blaster and slung it over her shoulder. Despite the saw-toothed buzz of fear riding on her nerves, she felt relief.

The waiting was over. Now, the only thing she had to focus on was survival

—hers and the crew’s. Everything else was irrelevant.

Life became so much simpler when you were faced with a physical threat. The danger was … clarifying.

The xeno responded to her mood, stiffening and thickening and preparing itself in unseen ways for the chaos about to commence. The change in the suit’s distribution reminded her of her distant flesh: the black coating that had devoured the interior of her cabin. If need be, she could call upon it, draw it to her, and allow the Soft Blade to once more swell in size.

“Here,” said Nielsen, and tossed Kira several canisters: two blue and two yellow. “Chalk and chaff. Should have some handy.”


Arms piled high with weapons, the three of them hurried back through the corridors to the main shaft of the Wallfish. Itari and the Entropists were waiting for them there, but Falconi and Sparrow were nowhere to be seen.

While Nielsen kitted out the Entropists, Kira offered Itari a choice of blasters or slug throwers. The alien chose two blasters, which it grasped with the bony arms that unfolded from the underside of its carapace.

“Captain,” Kira heard Nielsen say in a warning tone.

Falconi’s voice sounded over the intercom: “Working on it. Get into position. We’ll be there in two shakes.”

The first officer hardly seemed reassured. Kira couldn’t blame her.

Along with Itari, they obeyed the captain and arranged themselves in a ring around the tube, hiding behind the sides of the open pressure doors.

They’d just finished when first Sparrow and then Falconi came stomping out of the nearest corridor, garbed head to toe in power armor.

As if by prior agreement, Sparrow positioned herself on one side of the shaft while Falconi did the same on the other. “Thought you might want this,” Nielsen said, and tossed Falconi his grenade launcher.

He gave her a tense nod. “Thanks. Owe you one.”

Seeing both Sparrow and Falconi in their armor made Kira feel slightly less apprehensive about facing the incoming Jellies. At least everything wouldn’t be riding on just her. Although she worried about them putting themselves front and center. Especially Falconi.

The lights flickered, and for a second, red emergency strips illuminated the room. “Power at twenty-five percent and dropping,” Falconi read off his overlays. “Shit. Five more minutes and we’ll be dead in the water.”

“Contact,” said Hwa-jung, and the Wallfish shuddered as the Jelly pod collided with it somewhere below. A brash tone echoed overhead, and Kira grabbed a handhold as the ship’s engines cut out.

“Showtime,” Sparrow muttered. She raised her metal-clad arms and aimed the exo’s built-in weapons toward the bottom of the shaft.

A series of strange noises sounded to the aft, somewhere in the A cargo hold: bangs and clattering and dull thuds, as of tentacles slapping against the sealed pressure doors.

Kira allowed the Soft Blade’s mask to cover her face. Taking deep breaths to steady herself, she shouldered her blaster and aimed down the shaft. Soon.…

“Once they breach,” said Hwa-jung, “they’ll have fourteen seconds until the next set of pressure doors seal.”

“Got it,” said Sparrow. In her armor, she couldn’t really hide; she filled most of a doorway, like a giant metal gorilla, faceless behind a mirrored

helmet. Likewise, Falconi stood mostly exposed in his own set of armor, although he kept his visor semi-transparent, the better to see.


Kira felt a spike of compressed air in her ears, even through the suit’s mask. She worked her jaw, a dull ache forming along the base of her skull.

Smoke appeared at what had been the bottom of the shaft and that, in weightlessness, now appeared to be the far end of a long tube. The Wallfish’s pressure alarm began to blare.

A breath of wind touched Kira’s cheek: the most dangerous of sensations on a spaceship.

Around her, the crew started firing with blasters and slug throwers as the dark, many-armed shapes of the Jellies swarmed into the central shaft. Graspers, desperate and despised. The aliens didn’t stay to fight. Instead, they darted across the tube and disappeared down another corridor.

Seconds later, an unseen pressure door by the cargo hold slammed shut with an ominous clang, and the wind ceased.

“Shit, they’re heading toward engineering,” said Falconi, peering down the shaft.

“They can incapacitate the whole ship from there,” said Hwa-jung.

As if to prove her point, the lights flickered again and then went out entirely, leaving them bathed in the dull red radiance of the backups.

Then the most unexpected sight caught their attention: a single tentacle unfurled from within a doorway at the end of the shaft. Wrapped in its deadly embrace was the transparent cryo box that contained none other than Runcible, still frozen in hibernation.

Even through his visor, Kira saw Falconi’s face contort with rage. “Goddammit, no,” he growled, and was about to launch himself aftward when Nielsen caught his arm.

“Captain,” she said, matching his intensity. “It’s a trap. They’ll overpower you.”


“Not a chance.”

Sparrow joined them. “She’s right.”

The only one who could do anything was Kira, and she knew it. Was she really going to risk her life for the pig? Well, why not? A life was a life, and

she had to face the Jellies at some point. Might as well be now. She just wished it didn’t have to happen on the Wallfish.…

The tentacle gently waved the pig back and forth in an unmistakable invitation.

“Those fuckers,” said Falconi. He half raised the grenade launcher, and then stopped. “Can’t get a good shot.”

The emergency lights failed then, leaving them in pure and unfriendly darkness for several heartbeats. Via infrared, Kira could still make out the shape of her surroundings, and she noticed an odd confluence of EM fields along the shaft—swirling fountains of violet force.

“Plasma containment field failing,” Morven announced. “Please evacuate immediately. Repeat, please—”

Hwa-jung groaned.

The lights snapped back on, first red, and then the normal, full-spectrum glare of the standard strips, bright enough to hurt. A faint tremor shook the plating of the walls, and then booming through the Wallfish came an enormous bellowing voice:



The pressure door at the end of the shaft slammed shut, cutting off the Jelly’s tentacle amid a spurt of orange ichor. The tentacle floated free, twisting and writhing in apparent agony. It threw Runcible’s cryo box against the wall, and the box bounced, tumbling several times in the shaft before Falconi managed to snare it.

The box and the pig inside appeared unharmed, save for a deep scratch along one side.

“Perforate that thing,” said Falconi, pointing at the tentacle. Nielsen, Sparrow, and Kira happily obliged.

“Welcome back, my symbiotic infestation!” cried Gregorovich. “O happy day that we should be reunited, my bothersome little meatbags! Such dark times they were with me lost in the twisting maze of fruitless fallacies and you off gallivanting in meddlesome misadventures! How fortunate for you a luminous lantern led me back. Rejoice, for I am reborn! What have

you done to this poor snail of a ship, hmm? I’ll assume control of operations, if you don’t mind. Morven, alas poor simulacrum, isn’t fit for the task. First to purge this grotesque bit of alien code infecting my processors, aaand … done. Venting and stabilizing reactor. Now to show these sump-sniffers what I’m really capable of. Whee!”

“About time,” said Falconi.

“Heya,” said Sparrow, slapping the bulkhead. “Missed you, headcase.” “Don’t get too carried away,” said Nielsen, giving the ceiling a warning


“Me? Carried away?” said the ship mind. “Well, I never. Please remove all hands and feet from walls, floors, ceilings, and handholds.”

“Uh…” said Vishal.

[[Kira here: Itari, move away from the walls!]]

The Jelly responded to the urgency of her scent with gratifying swiftness. It withdrew its tentacles and stabilized itself in midair with small puffs of gas along the equator of its carapace.

A dangerous hum filled the air, and Kira felt the skin of the xeno prickle and crawl. Then from behind the door that had severed the tentacle, teeth-jarring discharges sounded: mini-crashes of lightning snapping and crackling and buzzing.

And a horrible burnt-meat smell drifted toward them.

“All taken care of,” said Gregorovich with evident satisfaction. “There’s your fried calamari, Sparrow. My apologies, Hwa-jung, but you’ll have to replace some of the wiring.”

The machine boss smiled. “That’s okay.”

“You heard what I said earlier?” Sparrow asked.

The ship mind cackled. “Oh yes, faint as feathers, a voice echoing across misty water.”

“How?” said Falconi. “We had you isolated from the rest of the ship.”

Gregorovich sniffed. “Ah well, see now. Hwa-jung may have her little secrets, but I have mine as well. Once my mind was cleared of perfidious visions and debilitating doubts, it was quite a simple challenge to circumvent, oh yes it was. A twist of that, a dab of this, lizard’s leg and adder’s fork, and a sly bit of mischievous torque.”

“I don’t know,” said Nielsen. “I think I preferred you the way you were before.” But she was smiling.

“What about Mr. Fuzzypants?” Vishal asked.

“Safe as buttons,” replied Gregorovich. “Now then, to address our larger situation. You’ve placed us in a most precarious pickle, my friends, yes you have.”

Falconi fixed his gaze on a nearby camera mounted in the wall. “You sure you’re up for this?”

A ghostly hand, blue and hairy, appeared projected from the nearest screen. It gave a thumbs-up, and the ship mind said, “Right as horses and twice as obnoxious. Wait, that didn’t make sense. Hmm … But yes, good to go, Cap’n! Even if I weren’t, you really want to take on the many-armed horde without me?”

Falconi sighed. “You crazy bastard.”

“That I am.” Gregorovich sounded positively smug. Nielsen said, “The plan was—”

“Yes,” said Gregorovich, “I know the plan. All records and recordings reviewed, filed, and archived. However, the plan is, to put it delicately, well and truly fucked. Twenty-one Jellies are currently inbound, and they appear anything but friendly.”

“Well? You have any ideas in that big brain of yours?” Sparrow asked. “Indeed I do,” whispered Gregorovich. “Permission to take action,

Captain? Drastic action is required if you or I or that pig in your arms are to have any chance of seeing the bright light of morn.”

Falconi hesitated a long moment. Then his chin jerked, and he said, “Do it.”

Gregorovich laughed. “Ahahaha! Your trust is most precious to me, O Captain. Hold on! Prepare for skewflip!”

“Skewflip!” exclaimed Nielsen. “What do you think y—”

Kira tightened her hold and closed her eyes as she felt herself and everything around her turn end for end. Then the ship mind said, “Resuming thrust,” and the soles of her feet sank back to the deck, and she again weighed her normal amount.

“Explain,” said Falconi.

Seemingly unperturbed, Gregorovich said, “The Knot of Minds cannot defend us against all our foes. Nor can they bring themselves to act against their dear leader. That leaves us with just one choice.”

“We still have to kill Ctein,” said Kira.

“Exactly,” said Gregorovich, with much the same pride as an owner talking to a particularly well-behaved pet. “So we shall seize the moment by the throat and throttle it. We shall teach these aquatic reprobates the meaning of human ingenuity. There’s nothing we can’t turn into a weapon or make blow up, ahahaha!”

“We are not ramming the Hierophant,” said Falconi between clenched teeth.

Tsk, tsk. Who said anything about ramming?” The ship mind sounded far too amused for the situation. “Nor are we to use our fusion drive to flambé our target, for then it would explode and destroy us with it. No, that we shall not do.”

“Stop dancing around,” Sparrow growled. “What are you up to, Greg?

Spit it out.”

The ship mind harrumphed. “Really now, Greg? Fine. Have it your way, birdname. The Battered Hierophant is pulling away from us, but in seven minutes and forty-two seconds, I shall park the nose of the Wallfish into the gaping wound that you gouged out of the Hierophant’s hide.”

“What?!” Sparrow and Nielsen exclaimed together.

In his exo, Falconi’s eyes flashed back and forth as he skimmed his overlays. His lips were pressed together, thin and white.

“Oh yes,” said Gregorovich, sounding immensely pleased with himself. “The Jellies won’t dare fire at us, not when we’re so close to their beloved and feared leader. And once secured in place, then you—and by that I mean most likely you, O Queen of Thorns—may sally forth and dispose of this troublesome Jelly once and for all.”

Vishal glanced from Falconi to Sparrow, appearing confused. “Won’t the

Hierophant shoot us down? What about their defenses?” “Look,” said Falconi, and gestured at the display.

On it appeared a composite image showing the Wallfish from the outside. A dense cloud of chalk enveloped them, streaming from vents by the prow and glittering with tiny ribbons of chaff. Positioned in a ring around the Wallfish were five ships from the Knot of Minds. Even as Kira watched, their lasers fired, destroying another wave of missiles launched by the Hierophant.

The Wallfish rattled but otherwise seemed unaffected. “Can we make it?” she asked, quiet.

“We’ll find out.” Falconi turned off the display. “Better not watch. Alright, everyone over to airlock B. We’re going to have a fight on our hands. A real one.” Then he handed Runcible’s cryo box over to Vishal and said, “Stash him somewhere safe. Maybe sickbay.”

Vishal bobbed his head as he accepted the pig. “Of course, Captain.”

Again the fear returned, crawling through Kira’s insides with razor claws. Assuming they could even reach Ctein, and assuming that Nmarhl’s memories were correct, she would be facing a creature as big or bigger than the Soft Blade had been during their escape from Orsted. The Jelly was smart too, as smart as the largest ship mind.

She shivered.

Falconi saw. <Don’t think about it. – Falconi>

<Hard not to. – Kira>

He touched her gently on the shoulder with his armored glove as he passed by.

The Wallfish didn’t blow up.

To Kira’s grateful astonishment, the five ships from the Knot of Minds managed to stop every missile but one—and that one missed the Wallfish by several hundred meters and went screaming off into space, lost forever.

She checked on the larger battle. It was going as badly as she feared. The Seventh Fleet was scattered, and the Jellies were picking off the UMC ships with inexorable efficiency. Seeing the number of damaged or destroyed warships put a chill in Kira’s veins and filled her with renewed determination. The only way to stop the slaughter would be to kill Ctein, whatever that took.

What if that means blowing up the Battered Hierophant while we’re on it? A hard core of certitude formed inside her. Then that’s what they would do. The alternative would be no less fatal.

If she had to fight the Jellies, she wasn’t going to make it easy for them to kill her. Reaching out with her mind, she summoned the portion of the xeno that had overgrown her cabin. She drew the orphaned flesh through the corridors of the Wallfish, doing her best to avoid damaging the ship, and

brought it to the airlock where she was waiting along with the rest of the crew.

Nielsen yelped as the Seed surged toward them in a black tide of crawling, grasping fibers. “It’s okay,” Kira said, but the crew still jumped back as the fibers flowed across the deck and up and over her feet, legs, hips, and torso—encasing her in a layer of living armor nearly a meter thick.

Though the increased bulk of the xeno restricted Kira’s movements, she felt no sense of weight. No sense of being trapped. Rather, it was as if she were surrounded by muscles eager to do her bidding.

“Goddamn!” Sparrow said. “Anything else you’ve been holding out on us?”

“No, that was it,” said Kira.

Sparrow shook her head and swore again. Only Itari appeared unaffected by the appearance of the Seed—of the Idealis. The Jelly merely rubbed its tentacles and emitted a nearscent of interest.

A crooked smile appeared on Falconi’s face. “Well, that got the pulse going.”

“It nearly gave me a heart attack, it did,” said Vishal. He was kneeling on the floor, repacking the contents of his medical bag. The sight was a grim reminder of what was about to happen.

A sense of unreality gripped Kira. The situation seemed outlandish beyond all expectation. The events that had led them to that exact time and place were so unlikely as to be nigh on impossible. And yet there they were. An electric discharge lit the antechamber. Hwa-jung growled and bent over the four drones she was fiddling with in the corner. “Those things

going to be ready in time?” Sparrow asked.

The machine boss kept her gaze fixed on the drones as she answered: “God willing … yes.” Each drone had a welding attachment built into one manipulator and a repair laser in the other. Either tool, Kira knew, could cause serious injury if misapplied, and she suspected Hwa-jung intended to misapply them most vigorously.

“So how are we going to do this?” said Nielsen.

Falconi pointed at Kira. “Simple. Kira, you’ll take point, give us cover. We’ll watch your flanks and provide supporting fire. Same as on Orsted.

We cut straight through the Battered Hierophant, no stopping, no turning around, no slowing down until we reach Ctein.”

“What if someone gets hit?” said Sparrow. She raised one sharp eyebrow. “It’s going to be a shitshow in there, and you know it.”

Falconi tapped his fingers against the stock of his grenade launcher. “If someone’s wounded, we send them back to the Wallfish.


“If we can’t send them back to the Wallfish, we keep them with us.” His eyes roamed across their faces. “Either way, no one gets left behind. No one.”

It was a comforting thought, but Kira wasn’t sure if what he was proposing would really be possible. Trig … She didn’t want to lose more of the crew. More of her friends. If there was anything she could do to keep them safe, anything at all, she had to seize it, no matter how frightening she found it herself.

“I’ll go,” she said. No one seemed to notice, so she said it again, louder. “I’ll go. Alone.”

Silence fell in the antechamber as everyone looked at her. “Not a chance in hell,” said Falconi.

Kira shook her head, ignoring the sour pit forming in her stomach. “I mean it. I’ve got the Soft Blade. It’ll keep me plenty safe—safer than you are in your exos. And if it’s just me, I won’t have to worry about protecting anyone else.”

“And who will protect you, chica?” said Sparrow, coming over to her. “If a Jelly decides to snipe you from around a corner? If they ambush you? If you go down, Navárez, we’re all screwed.”

“I’m still better equipped to deal with whatever they throw at us,” said Kira.

“Ctein?” said Nielsen. She crossed her arms. “If it’s anything like you’ve described, we’re going to need every bit of firepower we have in order to take it down.”

Falconi said, “Unless you want to let the Soft Blade go completely out of control.”

Of all of them, he was the only one who knew of her role in creating the nightmares, and his words struck Kira’s deepest fear. She set her jaw,

frustrated. “I could keep you here.” A cluster of twining tendrils extended upward from her fingers, threatening.

Falconi’s gaze grew even more flinty. “You do that, Kira, and we’ll find some way to cut or blast our way free, even if it means breaking the Wallfish in two. I promise you. And then we’ll still come after you.… You’re not going alone, Kira, and that’s that.”

She tried not to let the situation affect her. She tried to accept what he’d said and move on. But she couldn’t. Her breath hitched in her throat as her frustration swelled. “That’s—I—You’re just going to get yourself hurt or killed. I don’t want to go alone, but it’s our best option. Why can’t you—”

“Ms. Kira,” said Vishal, standing and joining them. “We know the risks, and—” He bowed his head, his eyes soft, and round, gentle. “—we accept them with open hearts.”

“You shouldn’t have to, though,” said Kira.

Vishal smiled, and the pureness of his expression stopped her. “Of course not, Ms. Kira. But life is such, yes? And war is such.” Then he surprised her with a hug. And then Nielsen hugged her as well, and both Falconi and Sparrow touched her on the shoulder with their heavy gauntlets.

Kira sniffed and looked up at the ceiling to hide her tears. “Okay.… Okay. We’ll go together then.” It occurred to her how much she’d lucked out with the crew of the Wallfish. They were good people at heart, far more than she’d realized when she’d first arrived on board. They’d changed too. She didn’t think the crew she had first met back at 61 Cygni would have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way as they were now.

“What I want to know,” said Sparrow, “is how we’re going to find this Ctein. That ship is fucking enormous. We could wander around for hours and still come up empty.”

“Any ideas?” said Falconi. He looked toward Itari. “How about you, squid? Got anything that can help us?”

Kira translated the question, and the Jelly replied. [[Itari here: If we can swim inside, and if I can find a node to access the Reticulum of the Battered Hierophant, then I will be able to locate the exact location of Ctein.]]

Hwa-jung seemed to perk up. “Reticulum? What is—” “Ask later,” said Falconi. “What do these nodes look like?”

[[Itari here: Like squares of stars. They are located at junctions throughout every ship, for ease of communication.]]

“I might have seen one before,” Kira said, remembering the first Jelly ship she’d been on.

[[Itari here: Once we know where Ctein is, there are drop tubes that grant passage throughout the decks. We can use them to travel quickly.]]

Nielsen said, “Are you going to be able to help us, Itari? Or will your genetic programming get in the way?”

[[Itari here: As long as you do not mention why we are there … yes, I should be able to help.]] A red band of unease crept across its tentacles.

“Should be able to help,” said Falconi. “Bah.”

Sparrow looked worried. “The second the Jellies get a fix on us, they’re going to swarm us.”

“No,” said Falconi. “They’re going to swarm her.” He motioned at Kira. “You keep them off our backs, Kira, and we’ll keep them off yours.”

She mentally prepared herself for the challenge, determined. “I’ll do it.”

Falconi grunted. “We just have to find one of these nodes. That’s our first objective. After that, we go kill ourselves a Jelly. Hey—” He turned toward Jorrus and Veera, who were crouched in one corner, gripping each other’s forearms while they whispered back and forth. “What about you, Questants? Sure you’re up for this?”

The Entropists picked up their weapons and stood. They were still garbed in their gradient robes, faces exposed. Kira wondered how they intended to survive vacuum, much less a laser blast.

“Yes, thank you, Prisoner,” said Veera.

“We would not wish to be anywhere but here,” said Jorrus. Still, both of the Entropists looked queasy.

A bark of cynical laughter escaped Sparrow. “That’s more than I can say, I’ll tell you what.”

Falconi cleared his throat. “Don’t think I’m going all soft, but uh, a man couldn’t ask for a better crew than you lot. Just thought I’d say that.”

“Well, you make a pretty good captain, Captain,” said Nielsen. “Most of the time,” said Hwa-jung.

“Most of the time,” Sparrow agreed.

The intercom flicked on, and Gregorovich said, “Contact in sixty seconds. Please secure yourselves, my delicate little meatbags. We’re in for

a bumpy ride.”

Vishal shook his head. “Ah. That is not comforting. Not at all.” Nielsen touched her forehead and murmured something in an undertone.

Kira switched to her overlays. Ahead of them, she saw the Battered Hierophant on swift approach. Up close, the Jelly ship appeared even more massive: round and white, with spindles and antennas protruding along its bulky midsection. The hole blasted by the Casaba-Howitzer had exposed a long stack of decks within the ship: dozens upon dozens of chambers of unknown function now exposed to the cold of space. Floating within, she spotted several Jellies, some still alive, most dead and surrounded with icicles of frozen ichor.

With the Hierophant looming over them, Kira could again feel the same aching draw she had experienced before: the compulsion of the Vanished urging her to reply.

She allowed herself a grim smile. Somehow she didn’t think Ctein or its graspers were going to like how she answered the summons.

Graspers? She was falling into the thought patterns of the Soft Blade/Seed. Well, why not? They fit. The Jellies were many-limbed graspers, and today she was going to remind them why they should fear the Idealis.

Next to her, she scented sickness from Itari. It shivered, turning unpleasant shades of green and brown. [[Itari here: It is difficult for me to even be here, Idealis.]]

[[Kira here: Just concentrate on protecting my co-forms. Worry not about the great and might Ctein. What you are doing is completely unrelated.]]

The Jelly rippled with a wave of purple. [[Itari here: That is helpful, Idealis. Thank you.]]

As the Wallfish nosed into the hole the howitzer had torn out of the Battered Hierophant, and the half-melted decks darkened the view outside the Wallfish’s sapphire windows, Falconi said, “Hey, Gregorovich, you’re in fine form. How about a few words to send us on our way?”

The ship pretended to clear his throat. “Fine. Hear me now. The Lord of Empty Spaces protect us as we venture forth to fight our foes. Guide our hands—and our thoughts—and guide our weapons that we may work our will upon these perversions of peace. Let daring be our shield and righteous fury be our sword, and may our enemies flee at the sight of those who

defend the defenseless, and may we stand unbowed and unbroken in the face of evil. Today is the Day of Wrath, and we are the instruments of our species’ retribution. Deo duce, ferro comitante. Amen.”

“Amen,” said Hwa-jung and Nielsen.

“Now that was a prayer!” said Sparrow, grinning. “Thank you, birdname.”

“A bit more warlike than I’d prefer,” said Kira. “But it’ll do.”

Falconi hoisted his grenade launcher onto his shoulder. “Let’s just hope someone was listening.”

Then the Wallfish lurched around them as it came to a rest amid the bowels of the Battered Hierophant. If not for the Soft Blade holding her against the wall, Kira would have been thrown to the floor. The others staggered, and Nielsen fell to one knee. The rumble of the fusion engine cut out, but a sensation of weight remained as the Hierophant’s artificial gravity encompassed the Wallfish.

Outside the airlock, Kira saw what appeared to be a storage room stacked with rows of translucent pink globules arranged around a dark, stem-like growth. Racks of unidentifiable equipment lined the three walls that hadn’t been vaporized by the Casaba-Howitzer. Droplets of slag had frozen to the grated floor, the curved walls, and the familiar tri-part shell that acted as a door. Everything visible would be highly radioactive, but that was the least of their concerns at the moment.…

No Jellies were visible in the chamber; a stroke of good luck Kira hadn’t been expecting.

“Not bad, Greg,” said Falconi. “Everyone ready?”

“One moment,” said Hwa-jung, still bent over her drones. Falconi’s eyes narrowed. “Hurry it up. We’re sitting ducks here.”

The machine boss muttered something in Korean. Then she straightened, and the drones rose into the air with an annoying buzz. “Ready,” said Hwa-jung.

“Finally.” Falconi hit the release, and the airlock’s inner door rolled open. “Time to make some noise.”

“Uh…” Kira said, and looked at the Entropists. How were they supposed to breathe in vacuum?

She needn’t have worried. As one, Veera and Jorrus drew their hoods over their faces. The fabric hardened and shimmered, growing transparent and forming a solid seal around their necks, same as any skinsuit helmet.

“Neat trick,” Sparrow said.

The silence of vacuum swallowed them as Falconi vented the airlock and opened the outer door. In an instant, the only sounds Kira could hear were those of her breathing, those of her pulse.

Then her earpiece emitted a scrap of static, and from it Gregorovich said, sounding startlingly close: *Oh dear.*

*Oh dear?* Falconi said, his voice sharp and somewhat tinny over the radio.

The ship mind seemed reluctant to answer. *I’m sorry to say, my dear friends, most sorry indeed, but I fear that cleverness may no longer be sufficient to save us. For all, luck must inevitably run out, and run out it has for us.*

And on Kira’s overlays, an image of the system appeared. At first she didn’t understand what she was seeing: the blue and yellow dots that marked the positions of the Jellies and the UMC respectively were half-hidden behind a constellation of red.

*What—* Sparrow started to say.

*Alas,* said Gregorovich, and for the first time, he seemed genuinely sorry, *alas, the nightmares have decided to join the fight. And this time, they’ve brought something else with them. Something big. It’s broadcasting on all channels. Calls itself … the Maw.*

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