Chapter no 64

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira stared with horror.

On her overlays, she beheld a vision of terror. A true nightmare, given shape by the sins of her past. The Maw.… It appeared as a grotesque collection of black and red flesh floating in space, raw, skinless, glossy with oozing fluids. The mass was bigger than the Battered Hierophant. Bigger than any space station she had seen. Nearly the size of the two small moons orbiting the planet R1. In form, it was a branching, cancerous mess, too chaotic for anything resembling order, but with a suggestion—an attempt perhaps—at a fractal shape along its fringe.

At the sight of the Maw, Kira felt an instant, visceral disgust, followed by a sickening, almost debilitating fear.

The obscene tumor had emerged from FTL near the orbit of R1, along with the vast swarm of smaller Corruptions. Already the Maw and its forces were moving in to attack human and Jelly alike, making no distinction between the two.

Kira wrapped her arms around herself and dropped into a hunched crouch, feeling ill. There was no way the Seed could overcome something like the Maw. It was too big, too twisted, too angry. Even if she had time to grow the Seed to an equal size, she would lose herself in the body of the xeno. Who she was would cease to be, or else would become such a small part of the Seed as to be totally insignificant.

The thought was more terrifying than death itself. If she were just killed, she would still be who and what she was until the end. But if the Seed consumed her, she would be facing the destruction of her self long before her mind or body ceased existing.

Then the heavy hands of Falconi’s exo were on her, and he was lifting her back onto her feet, speaking to her in soothing tones: *Hey, it’s okay. We haven’t lost yet.*

She shook her head, feeling tears forming underneath the xeno’s mask. “No, I can’t. I can’t. I—”

He shook her hard enough to get her attention. The Soft Blade reacted with a mild ripple of spikes. *Don’t fucking say that. If you give up, we might as well already be dead.*

“You don’t understand.” She made a helpless gesture toward the misbegotten shape hovering in her overlays, even though Falconi couldn’t see it. “That, that—”

*Stop it.* His voice was stern. Stern enough that Kira listened. *Focus on one thing at a time. We need to kill Ctein. Can you do that?*

She nodded, feeling a measure of control returning to her. “Yeah.… I think so.”

*Okay. Then get it together and let’s put down this Jelly. We can worry about the nightmares afterward.*

Kira’s gut still twisted with fear, though she tried to ignore it, tried to act as if she were confident. She banished the feed from her overlays, but in the back of her mind, the image of the Maw remained, as if burned into her retinas.

At Kira’s internal command, the xeno propelled her to the front of the airlock. “Let’s do this,” she said.

Outside the Wallfish, in the alien storage room, shadows spun as the Battered Hierophant spun, and yet because of the alien ship’s gravity field, Kira felt none of the rotation. The shifting light had the brutal, hard-edged starkness peculiar to space, and its movement produced a strobe-like effect that was disorienting.

“Stay close,” she said.

*We’re right behind you,* said Falconi.

Unwilling to waste even a single second, Kira started across the strobing storage room. The cycling shadows made her dizzy, so she focused on the decking between her feet and tried not to think about how they were spinning through space.

As she moved among the rows of translucent globules—each of which was at least four meters in diameter and filled with strange, frozen shapes—

a fist-sized explosion took out a chunk of the one by her head.

There was no sound, but Kira felt a spray of shrapnel ping the hardened surface of the xeno.

*Cover!* Falconi shouted.

Kira made no attempt to hide. Instead, she reached out with the xeno and ripped up the pearl-white decking, tore at the nearby globules and the stem that connected them, and compacted all the material into a shield that protected not only her but also the crew behind her. Same as she’d done on Orsted. Only now she felt confident, self-assured. Compared with before, commanding the Seed was effortless, and she had little fear of losing control. As she willed, so it was.

She switched her vision to infrared and saw a white-hot beam stab out from among the racks of storage units and burn a glowing, pinkie-sized hole into the material directly over her chest. The sight alarmed her until she realized the hole was far too shallow to reach her body.

Ahead of her, two Jellies—a pair of squids—lurked among the globules. They were hurrying away from her on coiled tentacles, a pair of enormous blasters gripped in their pincers and aimed her way.

Oh no you don’t, Kira thought, and sent tendrils racing out from the Soft Blade.

With them, she caught the Jellies, squeezed them, cut them, tore them into a mess of twitching flesh and spurting ichor. Maybe this was going to be easier than they’d thought.…

Over the radio, Kira heard someone gag.

“With me!” she shouted, and headed toward the white shell that would grant them access to the pressurized interior of the Battered Hierophant.

The shell refused to open as she neared, but with three quick slices of the Soft Blade, Kira severed the mechanism that kept the three-part door closed.

A hurricane of wind buffeted her as the wedges of the shell sagged apart. The shield she’d constructed was too large to fit inside, so with some reluctance, she discarded it before allowing the xeno to propel her into the

depths of the alien ship. Itari and the crew followed close behind.

The interior of the Hierophant was unlike the two other Jelly ships Kira had been on. The walls were darker, more somber—colored with an assortment of greys and blues, and decorated with strips of coral-like patterns that in any other circumstance Kira would have loved to study.

She was standing inside a long, empty corridor marked with side passages, additional doorways, and alcoved tunnels leading both up and down. Now that they were again surrounded by air, Kira could hear a piercing whistle from the ruined door behind them, as well as the buzz of Hwa-jung’s drones and a howling klaxon that reminded her of whale sounds, as if the entire ship were bleating with pain, anger, and fear.

The rushing air stank with nearscent of alarm, and with it, a command that all service co-forms were to swim shadow-wise without delay. Whatever that meant.

For the briefest of moments, Kira thought that perhaps they had slipped past the Hierophant’s sensors, and perhaps they wouldn’t have to fight every step of the way.

Then, with an audible snikt, a white membrane slid across the door she’d cut open, stopping the flow of air, and—at the opposite end of the corridor

—a mass of swarming limbs appeared: scores of Jellies, angry, armed, and heading straight for her and the others.

Kira’s heart rate doubled. This was the exact scenario she’d hoped to avoid. But she had the Soft Blade, and it was her arm, her sword, and her shield. The Jellies would be hard-pressed to stop her. Grabbing all sides of the corridor with a starburst of tendrils, she yanked the walls inward, forming a thick plug out of the bulkheads.

As lasers and slug throwers and dull explosions sounded on the other side of the barrier, Sparrow said, *That’s a hell of a welcoming party!*

*Itari!* said Falconi. *Where’s the nearest node?*

Kira translated, and the Jelly crawled up beside her. It tapped the inner part of her makeshift shield. [[Itari here: Forward.]]

“Forward!” she shouted, and started to push her way farther into the corridor, keeping the shield suspended in front of her, using it as a plug to fill the rounded passage. She could feel the impacts against the outside of the shield, both from transferred momentum and from sharp twinges of not-pain that shot through her tendrils. Just enough feedback for the Soft Blade to let her know where the danger was, but not enough to actually hurt.

Kira passed the first door and was almost to the second when a shout sounded, and she turned to see a Jelly hurtling out of the now-open door behind them, tentacles spread wide like a cuttlefish about to engulf its prey. Accompanying the Jelly was a pair of white, orb-shaped drones with glinting lenses.…

The alien slammed into Sparrow’s power armor, knocking her into the wall. Then several things happened at once, nearly too fast to follow: Itari slung several of its own tentacles around the attacking Jelly and attempted to pull it off Sparrow. The three of them stumbled into the near wall. A burst of laser fire from Sparrow’s exo stitched a line of holes across the enemy’s carapace, and Falconi moved forward to help, only for the alien to knock him to the deck with a single blow.

Nielsen jumped forward to shield the captain. The Jelly caught her on the backswing, and hit her square in the chest. She crumpled to the deck.

Hwa-jung’s drones fired their welding lasers, and the two white orbs fell from the air amid a jet of sparks. Then the machine boss herself was standing in front of Nielsen and Falconi, and the thickly built woman grabbed the tentacle that threatened them, hugged it to her chest, and squeezed.

Bones snapped inside the wriggling, sucker-covered arm.

Vishal was shooting his slug thrower: a rapid bam! bam! bam! that Kira felt in her bones. She hesitated, paralyzed. If she used the Soft Blade to attack the Jelly, there was a good chance she’d hurt or kill Itari at the same time.

Her concern was unwarranted. Itari yanked the other Jelly and threw it back down the corridor, past the Entropists and away from Sparrow.

That was all the opening Kira needed. She sent forth a cluster of black needles that pierced the Jelly and held it in place, unable to escape. The creature flopped and twisted and shuddered and then grew still. A pool of orange ichor oozed out from under its carapace.

*Ms. Audrey!* said Vishal, and hurried to the first officer’s side.

*Close off that doorway before any more get through!* said Falconi, scrambling back to his feet. His heavy exo clanked against the deck, leaving

dull, lead-colored smears on the white material.

Kira used the Soft Blade to tear and bend chunks of the wall until the portal was impassable. It had been stupid of her not to block off the entrance as they’d gone by.

As a final precaution, she ripped up a large piece of the curved deck to serve as a blast shield in the corridor behind them. Then she turned her attention back to the group.

Vishal was hunched next to Nielsen, running a chip-lab over her while keeping a hand pressed against her side. *How bad is it, Doc?* Falconi asked.

*Two broken ribs, I am afraid,* Vishal said.

*Dammit,* said Falconi, keeping his launcher trained on the hallway.

*You shouldn’t have done that, Audrey. I’m the one in armor.*

Nielsen coughed. Flecks of blood spattered the inside of her faceplate.

*Sorry, Salvo. Next time I’ll let the Jelly smash you to pulp.*

*You do that,* he said savagely.

*We gotta keep moving,* said Sparrow, joining them. Her exo was scratched and dented, but the damage appeared superficial. Ahead of them, the dull thunder of weapons fire continued to reverberate as the Jellies worked to shoot their way through the plug Kira had constructed in the corridor.

Nielsen tried to stand. She winced and dropped down with a cry Kira heard even through the first officer’s helmet.

*Shit,* said Falconi. *We’ll have to carry her. Sparrow—*

The blond-haired woman shook her head. *She’ll just get in the way. Send her back. We’re still close enough. It’s a straight shot from here to the Wallfish.*

The Entropists moved in closer. *We can escort her to the ship, if you want, Captain, and then—*

*—hurry back.*

*Fuck,* said Falconi, scowling. *Fine. Do it. Gregorovich will show you where the armory is. Grab some mining charges while you’re at it. We’ll use them to block off these side passages.*

Veera and Jorrus dipped their heads. *As you say—*

*—it shall be done.*

Kira was impressed that the Entropists were working together so well even with their hive mind broken. They almost seemed as if they were still sharing thoughts.

Despite Nielsen’s grimace of pain, Jorrus and Veera picked her up, stepped around the blast shield Kira had erected, and trotted back along the corridor.

*Go,* said Falconi, turning back to Kira. *Let’s find one of these nodes before the Jellies pick off the rest of us.*

Kira nodded and started to push forward again, making sure to wall off each of the shell doors she encountered.

The attack had shaken her confidence. For all its power, the Soft Blade didn’t make her omnipotent. Far from it. A single Jelly had gotten past their defenses, and now they were down three people. Just as she’d feared. And there was no guarantee the Entropists would be able to rejoin them. What would happen if someone else got hurt? Returning to the Wallfish wouldn’t be an option much longer, not unless she was there to protect them.

Of all of them, she was the only one who could do anything substantial to keep the Jellies at bay. And if she could, then she should. The only real limit on what she could do with the Soft Blade was her imagination, so why was she holding back?

At the thought, Kira began to extend the Soft Blade backwards, forming a latticed cage around their group that would, hopefully, ward off any more attacks. She also added to the shield in front of her, incorporating pieces of the wall and deck, reinforcing the material of the Soft Blade to make what she hoped was an impenetrable barrier.

She couldn’t see through the shield, of course, not with her eyes, but she could sense what lay ahead via the tendrils of the xeno: the shape of the corridor, the swirls of air—often superheated from lasers—and the ongoing impacts of the Jellies’ hostile fire.

They hurried past door after door, and every time Kira asked if they were still heading in the right direction, Itari said, [[Forward.]]

The size of the Hierophant continued to astound Kira. She felt as if she were inside a space station or an underground base rather than a ship. There was a solidness to the Hierophant, a sense of mass that she had never experienced on a mobile vessel, not even the Extenuating Circumstances.

Over their shared line, she heard Falconi say, *Pretty good shooting back there, Doc.*

*Thank you, yes.*

thud on the other side of a shell door that she’d just barricaded made Kira and the others flinch. The pieces of the shell twitched as they struggled to open, and the door bulged outward as something pushed from the other side. But the strips of bulkhead Kira had secured over the shell held, and whatever was trying to enter the corridor failed.

She drove forward until she felt a wall blocking her way and the passage split into two different directions. Kira allowed the Soft Blade to divide and spread outward until it sealed off both passages. The barrage of incoming fire—physical and energy attacks both—continued, although the majority of it came from the left-hand branch.

As the Soft Blade flowed into place, it exposed the surface of the bulkhead that had stopped their forward drive.

A panel set within the wall glittered as if with a field of stars: pinpoints of shifting light of all different colors.

[[Itari here: The Reticulum!]] The Jelly crawled forward, nearscent of relief and determination emanating from its limbs. [[Itari here: Keep watch for me, Idealis.]] Then the Jelly pressed a tentacle against the illuminated panel. To Kira’s astonishment, the tentacle melded with the wall, sinking inward until it was nearly hidden.

*Is that it?* Falconi asked, settling next to her.

“Yes.” But Kira’s attention was elsewhere; the impacts hammering against the xeno’s barriers were growing stronger. She hurried to reinforce them by ripping additional material from the walls, but she could tell she wouldn’t be able to hold off the Jellies much longer.

A sharp pang of not-pain shot through the tendrils extended into the left-hand passage; the xeno’s way of letting her know it had been damaged. She gasped, and Vishal said, *What is it, Ms. Kira?*

“I…” Another pang, stronger than before. Kira winced, her eyes watering, and shook her head. A spike of blue-hot flame was cutting through the outer layers of her shield—a blazing, sunlike heat that melted and withered her second flesh. The Soft Blade could protect her from many things, but even it would fail beneath the bite of a thermal lance. The Jellies had remembered their old lessons on how to fight the Idealis.

“They’re giving me some … difficulty.” [[Kira here: Hurry if you can, Itari.]]

A wave of colors raced across the Jelly’s skin. Then Itari pulled its tentacle away from the wall. Strands of mucus dripped from the suckers on the alien’s arm. [[Itari here: Ctein is four nsarro ahead of us, and fourteen decks down.]]

[[Kira here: How far is a nsarro?]]

[[Itari here: The distance one can swim in seven pulses.]]

From the Seed’s memories, Kira had a feeling that a pulse wasn’t very long, although she couldn’t put an exact time to it.

An explosion shook the deck underneath them. *Kira,* said Falconi, sounding nervous. Hwa-jung’s drones hovered over his shoulders, bright searchlights glowing beneath their manipulators.

“Everyone hold on!” said Kira. “We’re going down. Fourteen decks.”

She sent black rods shooting back and forth across the latticework cage she’d created, placing them between the people she was protecting. Once Falconi and the others had a secure grip on the beams, Kira dug into the deck with the xeno, letting her thousands of tiny, finger-like fibers rip through the flooring, rip through the pipes and circuitry and strange, pulsing organs that separated one level of the ship from another.

It was a risky thing to do; if she hit a pressurized line, the explosion could kill them all. The Soft Blade knew the danger, though, and she felt confident it would avoid any lethal pieces of equipment.

Within seconds, she’d torn open a hole big enough to encompass their group. Beneath them, blue shadows shifted amid a shimmer of rising motes, bright as embers.

Then Kira released the Seed’s hold upon the walls and the shield, and dropped herself and her charges into the blue dusk.

A whirl of motes blinded Kira for a moment.

They cleared, and she saw a long, low room, scalloped with shallow beds awash with water. The walls were nearly black, and the floor too. Oval orbs the size of a person’s head glowed with soft radiance above altar-like niches set in regular intervals along the bulkheads.

Within the sloshing water, dark shapes skittered, small and insectile. They fled before the harsh searchlights Hwa-jung’s drones cast over them, seeking safety in shadows.

Hatching pools, was Kira’s first thought, but she couldn’t imagine why the Jellies would bother with such a thing on a spaceship of all places. They had other technology for reproduction. The Nest of Transference, for one.

Clear slabs several centimeters thick slammed shut over the pools, sealing them off, and without so much as a whiff of warning from the Hierophant’s nearscent, all sense of weight vanished.

*Ah, shit!* said Falconi. He flailed for a moment and then used the thrusters in his exo to steady himself. Behind him, the others clung to the rods Kira had created out of the Seed.

Normally the shift to zero-g would have upset Kira’s stomach. But this time it didn’t. Her stomach felt the same as before, not dropping or clutching as if she were about to fall to her death. Instead, she felt a new sense of freedom. For the first time, weightlessness was enjoyable (or would have been if not for the circumstances). It was like flying, as if in a dream. Or nightmare.

Zero-g had given Kira trouble her whole life. The only reason she could imagine for that to change now was the Soft Blade. Whatever the case, she was grateful for the relief.

[[Itari here: Without gravity, the shoals of Ctein will be free to swim at us from every direction, Idealis.]]

“Right,” Kira growled, more to herself than anyone else. She again reached out with the xeno and ripped another hole in the decking. With the material she removed, she built a small, dense shield under their feet; for all she knew, a battalion of Jellies might be waiting for them below.

Then with grasping tendrils, she pulled herself and the others through to the next floor.

This time they found themselves in a vast and vaulting space, still blue, but adorned with streaks of red and orange no wider than her thumb. A confluence of hexagonal pillars rose like a tree from floor to ceiling, and around the trunk, tangled nests hung softly swaying from cables that shone as pewter. Throughout, a nearscent of intense concentration pervaded.

Whatever the purpose of the room, Kira didn’t recognize it. Yet, she couldn’t help but pause for the briefest of moments to appreciate the

grandeur, the baroque beauty, the sheer alienness of the room.

She resumed digging and tore a hole through the third deck, allowing them access to a smallish corridor with only a few doors along its way. Ten-some meters ahead of them, the passageway ended at a circular opening that led to yet another shadowed room.

Just as she started ripping up the next floor, now-familiar nearscent intruded: [[Itari here: This way, Idealis.]] And the Jelly darted around her and scuttled off toward the opening.

Kira swore, repositioned the shield, and hurried after, dragging the crew with her. She felt like a sailing ship with sailors hanging off the rigging, ready to repel hostile boarders.

As they passed through the circular doorway, Kira felt the walls open up. She wished to see what was in front of her, and the Seed answered her wishes. Her vision wavered, and then her view switched from the inside of the shield to that of the surrounding room, as if the xeno had grown eyes on the surface of the shield.

For all she knew, it had.

With her now unobstructed view, Kira saw that the room was some sort of feeding area. That much she recognized from the Soft Blade’s memories. There were troughs along the walls, and alcoves too, and tubes and vats and transparent containers full of floating creatures waiting to be eaten. In one the pfennic that tasted like copper. In another the nwor with its many legs, soft and savory and such a delight to hunt.…

Amid the alcoves were several more doors, clamped shut. Itari didn’t select any of them. Instead, the Jelly jetted toward a patch on the floor, tentacles streaming behind it. [[Itari here: This way.]]

The alien tapped several small circular ridges on the floor, and a disk-shaped cover slid open with an audible thunk to reveal a glowing red tube a meter across.

[[Itari here: Swim this way.]] And the Jelly dove into the narrow shaft, disappearing from view.

“Shit,” said Kira. She wished the alien had let her retake the lead. “Everyone off. We won’t fit otherwise.”

The crew let go of the ribs and spars she’d made, and she began to reshape the Seed in order to enter the drop tube.

Before she could finish, a bolt of not-pain shot through her side. Then another on the shield, this one from a different angle, and detonations sounded as weapons fired. Kira flinched; the whole suit flinched, pulling back her quickly eroding barrier with it.

The doors between the alcoves disgorged a swarm of buzzing orbs. Drones. Dozens of them, armed with blasters, slug throwers, and cutters. As they converged on her, their mandibles sparked with electricity, and their manipulators snipped and snacked like scissors eager to cut her flesh.

Boom! The blast from Falconi’s grenade launcher hit her with concussive force. A flash of lightning appeared on the far side of the room, and chunks of Jelly machinery bounced against the wall. The rest of the crew were firing also, lasers and slug throwers alike.

One of Hwa-jung’s drones exploded.

Kira stabbed with a thicket of jabbing thorns: one for each of the buzzing orbs. But fast as the Soft Blade was, the orbs were faster. They dodged, jetting at odd, unpredictable angles that her eye couldn’t follow. Flesh was no match for the speed or precision of a machine, not even the flesh of her symbiont.

Over the comms, someone shouted in pain.

Kira shouted herself, wishing she could shove the drones away. “Yah!” And the Soft Blade sent a burst of electricity coursing across its outer surface, including her shield. Five of the alien drones sparked and fell away, their manipulators curling into tiny fists. The electricity was welcome, if unexpected. But it wasn’t enough to stop the onslaught.

The drones seemed to be concentrating most of their fire on her. Kira doubted they could kill her, but the crew was another matter. She couldn’t destroy the drones fast enough to protect Falconi or the others.

So she did the only other thing she could: in her mind, she imagined a hollow sphere encasing her and the crew.

The Soft Blade obeyed, creating a perfectly round bubble around them.

*What the hell?!* Sparrow exclaimed. The barrels of her blasters were glowing red-hot.

The bubble was thin, though. Too thin. Already Kira could feel a dozen or more hotspots forming on the surface as the drones outside fired at it. Unlike before, she couldn’t see out, couldn’t pinpoint the location of the

orbs in order to destroy them. Half a meter above her head, a jet of sparks punched through the black membrane.

A fist-sized chunk of the sphere flew free, and for an instant, a blinding, crucible-like light flooded the interior. Then the Soft Blade flowed over the hole, covering it again.

Kira didn’t know what to do. In desperation, she prepared to separate herself from the bubble and launch herself forth to draw the fire away from the crew. Maybe then she could clear out the orbs. It would be a near-suicidal action, though. The Jellies couldn’t be far behind their machines.… “Stay here,” she started to say to Falconi, and then a sonic blast hit them.

A keening shriek that made Kira’s teeth vibrate so hard she feared they would crack before the shrilling, throbbing, rending assault.

The spikes of heat vanished outside the bubble, as did the barrage of laser pulses and projectiles. Bewildered, Kira opened a portal to look out (making sure her head was protected behind a thick layer of her second flesh).

Throughout the room, the orbs spun and darted in random directions. They seemed dazed by the noise; their weapons fired in intermittent bursts at the walls, floor, and ceiling, and their manipulators waved, weak and aimless.

Over the tubes and troughs, Kira saw the two Entropists flying toward her, their robes folded with origami precision. In their hands glimmered light, and in front of them rode a shimmering shockwave of compressed air. From it emanated the horrible shriek. Lasers struck the shockwave, and she saw how it refracted the blasts of energy away from the Entropists. Slugs had no more success; they exploded with sparks of molten metal a meter and a half from Jorrus and Veera.

Kira didn’t understand, but she didn’t stop to figure it out. She broke her shape and swung at the nearest drone and caught the middle of its bone-like casing. Without hesitation, she tore the machine apart.

*Kira!* Falconi shouted. *Can’t shoot! Get out of the—*

She increased the size of the bubble opening.

Hwa-jung’s service drones flew up around her, forming a mechanical halo that flashed with the harsh glare of arc welders—darting and dashing at any of the orbs that came close. Several times they saved her from taking a bolt that might have distracted her.

*Some help for you,* the machine boss said.

The next few seconds were a blur of electrical discharges, jabbing spikes from the Soft Blade, and laser blasts. Sparrow and Falconi fired over her shoulders, and together, they accounted for almost as many drones as Kira.

The Entropists proved themselves surprisingly capable in the skirmish, despite the fact that they wore no armor. Their robes were more than robes, and they seemed to have blasters of some sort concealed upon them. Kira wasn’t sure. But they were able to fight (and more importantly kill) their enemies, and for that, she was grateful.

When the last of the orbs was disabled, Kira paused to catch her breath. Even with the Soft Blade working to provide her with air, it was difficult to get enough. And with the mask over her face and the increased mass of the xeno surrounding her, she felt so hot it was making her light-headed.

She collapsed the obsidian-black bubble and turned to look at the crew, dreading what she might see.

Hwa-jung was pressing a hand against the left side of her hip. Blood and medifoam oozed between her fingers. Her moon-shaped face was set in a hard expression, nostrils flared, lips pressed white. Vishal was already floating next to her, unsealing a field dressing taken from his medical case. The doctor looked like he’d been hit also; a white dot of medifoam adorned one of his shoulders. Sparrow appeared unscathed, but a laser blast had fused the left elbow joint on Falconi’s exo, freezing it in a half-bent position.

“Is your arm okay?” Kira asked.

He grimaced. *Yeah. Just can’t move it.*

Sparrow jetted over to Hwa-jung, the anguish on her face nearly equal to that of the machine boss. The smaller woman touched Hwa-jung on the shoulder, but she didn’t do anything to interfere with Vishal’s treatment.

*I’m fine,* Hwa-jung growled. *Don’t stop for me.*

Kira bit her lip as she watched. She felt so helpless. And she felt as if she’d failed. If only she’d used the Soft Blade better, she could have kept everyone safe.

In response to her unasked question, Falconi said, *There’s no going back. Not now. Only way out is through.*

Before she could reply, a Jelly popped up out of the disk-shaped hole in the deck. She nearly stabbed it before she scented the creature and realized it was Itari.

[[Itari here: Idealis?]]

[[Kira here: We’re coming.]]

A cloud of nearscent wafted toward her then, not from Itari, but from the now-open doors where the gleaming bone-white orbs had emerged. More Jellies incoming, and they most definitely weren’t happy.

“We gotta go,” said Kira. “Everyone into the drop tube. I’ll bring up the rear.”

Itari darted back through the hole in the deck, and then Falconi followed, and Jorrus and Veera and Sparrow too.

“Hurry it up, Doc!” Kira shouted.

Vishal didn’t reply, but closed up his medical case with practiced speed. Then he kicked himself over to the hole and pulled himself through. Hwa-jung did the same a second later, her blaster trailing behind her via its shoulder strap.

“About time,” Kira muttered.

She compressed the Soft Blade around her sides, discarded some of the extra material she’d picked up moving through the ship, and flew headfirst into the drop tube.

Kill Ctein.

The thought pounded in Kira’s skull as she hurtled through the crimson shaft. She was moving fast, real fast—like the maglev on Orsted Station.

Transparent panels flashed past at regular intervals. Through them Kira glimpsed a series of rooms: one full of swaying greenery—a forest of seaweed with a backdrop of stars—one with a coil of metal wrapped around a flame, another humming with unidentifiable machinery, and still more filled with things and shapes she didn’t recognize.

She counted the decks as they went by.… Four. Five. Six. Seven. Now they were making real progress. Only four more until they reached the level

where the great and mighty Ctein lay waiting.

Three more, and—

A detonation slammed Kira into the side of the tube. The curved surface gave way, and she found herself tumbling sideways, along with Itari and the crew, through a long, wide room lined with racks of metal pods.

Crap, crap, crap.

Kira popped the canister of chalk and chaff she’d been carrying at her waist. A white cloud exploded around her and the crew, thinning as it expanded toward the walls. Hopefully it would protect them long enough for her to control the situation.

She had to act fast. Speed was the only way they were going to survive. Sinking tendrils into the floor, Kira stopped herself with a painful jerk.

Through the chalk, she saw a lobster-like creature with a flared tail scuttling along the far wall, heading toward a small, dark opening less than a meter across.

Stop it.

At her thought, the Soft Blade shed much of its accumulated mass while launching her after the Jelly. Using the thinnest of threads, Kira pulled herself along the deck, arcing through the cloud.

The lobster twitched and attempted to dodge.

Too slow. She stabbed the Jelly with one of the xeno’s triangular blades, and she allowed the blade to bristle outward, impaling the alien as a shrike might impale its prey upon a tangle of brambles.

Kira scanned the room. All clear. Sparrow and Falconi had a few more scorch marks on their armor but appeared otherwise unscathed. They were holding position by the ruined drop tube along with the Entropists.

Coils of electricity arced from the twisted decking in front of the tube, blocking the way. Even as Kira watched, Hwa-jung scooted close and reached into the hellish, blue-white glare with a tool from her belt.

An instant later, the discharges vanished.

Then Kira saw Vishal floating near the back wall. The doctor was locked in a rigid, plank-like pose, arms stiff by his sides. His skinsuit had entered

safety mode, freezing him in position for his own protection. The reason was obvious: a line of medifoam oozed from a burn across his chest.

Kira started toward him, intending to snag the doctor from the air and secure him with the Soft Blade. As she did, a skittering shadow in the corner of her vision seized her attention.

She twisted, pulse spiking.

A coiled, millipede-like creature raced across the upper deck, heading toward Jorrus, who had his back turned. Hundreds of black legs accordioned along the millipede’s segmented length. Pincers hung open before a mouth filled with a row of grasping mandibles that dripped with slime.

Kira and Veera both saw the millipede, but Jorrus didn’t. Veera shouted, and Jorrus looked at her, obviously not understanding.

Kira was already stabbing with the Soft Blade, but she was too far away. The millipede jumped onto Jorrus. Its pincers closed around his head,

and its legs snapped shut around his body. The Entropist managed a single strangled yelp before the razor-sharp pincers sliced through his skull and neck, separating his head from his body and releasing a spray of arterial blood.

The millipede shoved Jorrus aside and sprang toward Hwa-jung’s unprotected back.

Kira yelled, still unable to reach the alien.…

The roar of jets sounded as Sparrow initiated an emergency burn of her armor’s thrusters and hurtled past. She tackled the millipede even as it latched onto Hwa-jung, and the three of them tumbled sideways through the air.

Lasers flashed between their clenched bodies. Fans of ichor flew from the alien’s segmented carapace. Then blood fouled the air also, and there was a screech of protesting metal from Sparrow’s exo.

Over the comms came the sound of desperate panting.

Kira followed with all her speed. She reached the three struggling figures just as Sparrow kicked the millipede away, sent it flying toward the far wall

—the alien wriggling and writhing the whole way.


Falconi’s grenade launcher bucked, and the millipede exploded in pieces of orange flesh.

“How bad—?” Kira started to ask as she closed with Sparrow and Hwa-jung. She saw the answer even as she spoke. Medifoam was spraying from a nasty-looking crack in the armor encasing Sparrow’s left leg—the knee was locked straight, stiff as a rod.

Hwa-jung was in no better shape. The millipede had given her a deep bite on the right side of her upper back. Her skinsuit had already stopped the bleeding, but the machine boss’s arm hung limp and useless, and her whole torso appeared lopsided.

Behind them, Veera was screaming. The woman floated next to Jorrus’s body, cradling him in her arms, clinging to him as if he were the only solid thing on an endless ocean.

The contortions of Veera’s face were too painful for Kira to watch: she had to look away. This isn’t working. The thought came to her with cold clarity.

*What can I do?* Falconi said, jetting over to Hwa-jung.

*Just keep watch,* Sparrow said, her voice tight with pain as she worked on Hwa-jung, applying an emergency bandage to the machine boss’s upper back.

*Agh!* said Hwa-jung.

Kira did more than just keep watch. She snared Vishal from where he drifted rigid and helpless on the other side of the room, and she pulled him in close. The doctor rolled his eyes at her, appearing scared and frustrated at his inability to move. Sweat beaded his face, as if he had a high fever. Then too she caught Veera and Jorrus (and Jorrus’s separated head) in her grasp and gently brought them over. Veera didn’t object, only clung to Jorrus that much tighter and buried her visor in his bloodstained robes.

Itari joined their small knot of bodies, the alien’s tentacles trailing behind it, like flags in a stiff wind.

With everyone close at hand, Kira began to rip up the deck, intending to build a protective dome around them. It wouldn’t be long before more Jellies descended upon them, and Hwa-jung, Vishal, and Veera were in no condition to fight.

As she drove the Soft Blade into the plating, she felt a strange reluctance from the xeno, a reluctance that Kira didn’t understand and didn’t have the time to decipher, so she ignored the feeling and—

She flinched as Itari wrapped a tentacle around her. The creature’s suckers gripped the Soft Blade in a futile attempt to hold it in place. For an instant, she had to fight the instinct to send a burst of spines through the Jelly.

[[Kira here: What are—]]

[[Itari here: Idealis, no. Stop. It is not safe.]]

She froze, and the xeno froze with her. [[Kira here: Explain.]] Falconi eyed them through his visor. *What’s going on, Kira?* “Trying to figure that out.”

[[Itari here: There is a power tube in this floor. See?]] And it pointed with one of its bony arms at a line of markings that ran across the middle of the deck. [[Long current and swift. Very dangerous to break. The explosion would kill us.]]

Kira withdrew the Soft Blade at once. She should have paid more attention to the xeno. The mistake could have cost them all. [[Kira here: Is the deck above us safe?]]

[[Itari here: Safe to attack with your second flesh? Yes.]]

With that assurance, Kira ripped apart the ceiling and used it to build a thick dome around them. As she worked, she said to Falconi, “Power conduit in the floor. I’ll have to cut through somewhere else.” Then she pointed at the doctor and the machine boss and said, “We can’t bring them with us.”

*Well we sure as hell can’t leave them,* Falconi said, angry.

She gave him a look to match his own, but she never slowed her construction, tendrils assembling the dome seemingly of their own accord. “Do you want to get them killed? I can’t keep them safe. It’s too much. And we can’t send them back. What do you want me to do?”

A moment of troubled silence followed. *Can you fix them up, the way you did with my bonsai? You got into Gregorovich’s brain, right? How hard would it be to heal some bones and muscle?*

She shook her head. “Hard. Very hard. I could try, but not here, not now. Too easy to make mistakes, and I wouldn’t be able to deal with the Jellies at the same time.”

Falconi grimaced. *Yeah, but if we leave them, the Jellies—*

“Will focus on me. Hwa-jung, Vishal, Veera—they should be okay for a little while on their own. I don’t know about Sparrow, though. Her—”

*I can still fight,* Sparrow said, brusque. *Don’t worry about me.* She gave the field dressing on Hwa-jung’s back a final press and then hugged the machine boss’s head and jetted over to where Kira hung suspended amid dozens of dark spines, each one connected to the shell she was assembling.

“You should stay. You should all stay,” said Kira. “I—”

*We’re not leaving you,* said Falconi. *End of discussion.*

Hwa-jung planted her boots on the deck, locking them in place, and hoisted her blaster with her uninjured arm. *Do not worry about us, Kira.

We will survive.*

[[Itari here: We must hurry. The great and mighty Ctein will be preparing for us.]]

“Shit.… Fine. You three outside the dome. Now.” Kira was in the middle of translating for Itari when the Hierophant jolted a meter to starboard and all the lights flickered. Alarmed, she glanced around. Nothing else seemed to have changed.

*Gregorovich!* said Falconi. He tapped the side of his helmet. *Come in, Gregorovich!* He shook his head. *Dammit. No signal. We gotta move.* And move they did. Kira extracted herself from within the dome and, with a few seconds of frantic work, sealed it up and reinforced it from the outside. The Jellies would still be able to cut their way in, but it would take time, and she felt confident of what she’d said earlier: they were more

concerned with her—with the Idealis—than anyone else.

Hwa-jung and Sparrow kept their eyes locked on each other until the last piece of plating slapped into place, cutting off their view. Then Sparrow set her shoulders and turned away with such a hard, killing expression on her knifelike face that, for the first time since meeting her, Kira actually feared her.

*Get us to Ctein,* Sparrow growled.

“This way,” Kira said. Keeping a half meter of decking piled in front of her, she hurried toward the door Itari had pointed out. Sparrow, Falconi, and Itari followed alongside.

The portal slid open. Through it was a room filled with rows of what looked like giant pillbugs stabled in narrow metal enclosures.

Kira hesitated. Another trap?

“Let me go first,” she said, and repeated herself for Itari. Falconi nodded, and he and the two others, human and alien, dropped back, giving her space.

Kira took a breath and moved forward.

As she passed through the doorway, a thunderous blast blinded her, and a steel belt seemed to cinch tight around her waist, slicing through skin, muscle, and bone.

She wasn’t dead.

That was Kira’s first thought. And it puzzled her. She ought to be dead if the Jellies had mined the doorway. Her waist didn’t hurt, not really. She just felt pressure and an uncomfortable pinching sensation, along with a copious amount of not-pain.

The blast had started her spinning. She tried to move and found that only her neck and arms responded. As a volley of laser blasts and slugs slammed into her back, she risked a glance toward her feet.

She wished she hadn’t.

The explosion had burned through the half meter of the xeno’s material swaddling her waist. Tattered lengths of grey-white intestines spooled out of the holes, along with sprays of shockingly bright blood. As momentum turned her hips, she glimpsed the white of bone through the gore, and she thought she recognized a vertebra.

The xeno was already pulling her guts back inside and sealing over the wounds, but Kira knew the injuries were enough to kill her. The Seed’s memories had been more than clear; it was entirely possible for the suit’s host to die.

As she spun, a bolt of molten metal punched through her shield, like the spear of a god.

And then another, closer to her vulnerable core. Incandescent drops sprayed her legs; they bounced off the hardened surface of the suit, cooling to ashen black.

Kira felt no pain, but her vision was blurry, and everything seemed distant and insubstantial. She couldn’t fight; she could barely think.

She glimpsed an assortment of Jellies jetting toward her: tentacles, claws, graspers reaching toward her. There was no time to evade, no time to escape—

Then Falconi, Sparrow, and Itari were next to her, firing their weapons. Boom! went his grenade launcher. Brrt! went her guns. Bzzt! went its lasers. At first Kira thought she was saved. But there were too many Jellies.

They split into groups, drove Sparrow and Falconi back toward the walls, behind the metal enclosures, forced Itari toward a curved corner.

No! Kira thought as the three of them disappeared behind a wall of twisting bodies.

The Jellies mobbed her then. The big ones and the small ones, those with legs, those with claws, and those with appendages she didn’t even recognize. Heat as hot as a star began to cut its way through her protective skin.

She tried stabbing outward. The blades killed some of the aliens, but the others evaded her, or the blasts of heat stopped her, and the suit recoiled in not-pain.

She kept trying, though the heat was making her light-headed. She tried to reach around the torches, tried to find the microscopic flaws in the Jellies’ armor. And all the while, an almost stupefying sense of disgust surrounded her: the whole crowd of Jellies projecting their hatred and revulsion toward her. [[No-form, wrongflesh!]] they shouted as they stabbed and tore and burned their way toward her flesh. The sheer bulk of them made it difficult to move, even with the full strength of the Soft Blade brought to bear.

So Kira did the only thing she could; she let go. She willingly surrendered control to the Seed and told it to do what was needed. It had to, because she couldn’t. Another few seconds and she would lose consciousness—

The shield and the walls and the squirming things faded and lost color. The room tilted around her. There were flashes and jolts and muted sounds. But none of it meant anything, a winter’s display, abstract and uninteresting.

She felt the Seed expanding, gorging itself upon the Battered Hierophant

as never before, springing forth with new life, sprouting and twining and

spreading with a multitude of squirming black vines. And Kira was conscious of her increase in size as an expansion of her mental space. What made her her was stretched over an ever larger area, drawn thin by the neural demands of the suit.

The vines reached through the barrier she’d built, extending until they found what lay behind each spot of not-pain. Feeling. Tasting. Understanding. And when she touched chitin and oddly gelatinous muscles, she grasped and held and then wrenched, twisting and tearing until whatever wriggling thing she held wriggled no more.

Slowly the sounds grew louder and color leached back into the universe. First red, so she saw the blood splattered across the walls. Then blue, so she noticed the pressure alerts flashing near the ceiling. Then yellow and green, which drew her attention to the ichor mixed with blood.

Her head cleared even as the air did; the smoke, chalk, and chaff streamed toward three holes in the bulkheads, the largest the size of her fist. A nano-thin layer of the xeno’s black fibers covered a large portion of the chamber, and she—she floated in the center of the room, suspended there by dozens of spars and lines that radiated from her to the walls. Drifting among the narrow stables where the now-dead pillbugs floated were the remains of dozens of Jellies. A cloud of ichor and viscera surrounded them, a horrible storm front of fluids and mangled body parts, littered with crumpled pieces of equipment. Even as she watched, the

escaping air pulled a crab against one of the holes, sealing it shut.

She had done this. Her. A deep ache formed in Kira’s heart. Never had she aspired to hurt, to kill. Life was too precious for that. And yet circumstances had forced her to violence, forced her to become a weapon. The Seed also.

Falconi’s voice crackled in her ears. *Kira! Can you hear me? Let us go!*

“Huh?” She looked and saw that the Soft Blade had extended backwards out of the room and used a mat of fibers to glue Falconi, Sparrow, and Itari to the walls on either side of the scorched entrance. Relief flooded Kira.

They were alive. The Jellies hadn’t killed them. The Seed hadn’t killed them. She hadn’t killed them.

With a conscious effort, she retracted the fibers and freed Falconi and the others. She could control any one part of the Seed by concentrating, but as soon as her attention drifted, the part would begin to move and act as the xeno deemed fit. The flood of so much sensory information combined with the shock of her injury left her dazed, light-headed.

*Good god,* said Falconi as he jetted through a patch of viscera on his way to her.

*Don’t think god had anything to do with this,* said Sparrow.

Stopping next to her, Falconi gave Kira a concerned look through his visor. *You okay?*

“Yeah, I just … I—” She didn’t want to, but she looked down at herself again.

Her waist appeared normal. Shapeless and thick as a barrel, because of the suit, but showing no sign of injury. It felt normal too. She took a breath, tried flexing her abs. The muscles worked, but they seemed off, mis-strung piano wires that sounded oddly when struck.

*Can you keep going?* Sparrow asked. She kept her weapons trained on the far doorway.

“Think so.” Kira knew she’d have to let Vishal look her over if they made it off the Hierophant. The main problem wasn’t her muscles (those could be fixed), it was infection. Her intestines had been perforated. Unless the Seed could tell the difference between good and bad bacteria, or good bacteria in a bad place, she was going to end up with sepsis, and fast.

Well, maybe the xeno could. She had more faith in it than she used to. She’d just have to hope for the best, and if she was lucky, she wouldn’t pass out from shock.

Kira retracted some of the suit, freeing her arms. She tapped Falconi’s breastplate. “You have any antibiotics in there?”

He held up a hand, and a small needle popped out of the index finger of his exo. At her command, the Soft Blade exposed a patch of skin on her shoulder; the touch of the air was hot.

The needle stung as it broke her skin, and the antibiotics burned as they forced their way into her delt. Apparently the Soft Blade didn’t consider the injection important enough to block the pain.

“Ouch,” Kira said.

Falconi’s lips twitched in an approximation of a smile. *That’s enough to keep an elephant on its feet. Should work for you.*

“Thanks.” The suit covered her shoulder again. She arched her back and flexed her abs once more. This time she concentrated on how they ought to feel, instead of how they did. A hiss escaped her as the mis-strung fibers popped into a new position with a twang that sent a zing to the tips of her fingers and the core of her bones.

Sparrow shook her head in her helmet. *Thule! What you did, I’ve never seen anything like it, chica.*

Nearscent of reverence. [[Itari here: Idealis.]]

Kira grunted. Now that the Jellies knew how to hurt her, she was going to have to be smarter. A lot smarter. No more charging in headfirst. She’d nearly gotten herself killed, and if she had, the Jellies would have taken out Falconi, Sparrow, and Itari. The thought terrified Kira in a way she hadn’t felt since her time on Adrasteia.

[[Itari here: We should not stay here, Idealis. We are close to Ctein, and more of Ctein’s guard will be approaching.]]

[[Kira here: I know. Down again—]]

A flicker caught Kira’s attention as the shell in front of them pulsed, spitting out something. Before Kira could see what it was, and before she could pull her shield between them and the object, Falconi fired his emergency jets—putting himself in front of her—and she heard two loud bangs.

A shower of sparks and shrapnel knocked Falconi end over end.

With Falconi no longer blocking her view, Kira saw one of the Jellies’ drones flitting away from the doorway, trailing a comet-tail of protective smoke. Enraged, she sent a jumble of fibers streaking across the floor and the ceiling until they bracketed the drone. Then she stabbed, and the drone whined as a half-dozen spines impaled it from either side.

She took a shaky breath. If not for Falconi, the shots might have taken her head off.…

Sparrow caught the back of Falconi’s armor and pulled him close. The captain’s right arm was smashed all to hell; it reminded Kira of a nut cracked to expose the meat within. She found it hard to look at. A sudden determination came over her: she wasn’t going to lose anyone else. Not again.

Falconi was panting but still calm; his implants were blocking most of the pain, she guessed. White foam sprayed out of the broken edges of the armor, stopping the bleeding and setting his arm in an instant cast.

*Shit,* he said.

“Can you move?” Kira asked. Another tremor shook the Hierophant.

She ignored it.

Falconi’s exo twitched as he checked. *I can still use my left arm, but jets are out.*

“Dammit.” That made four wounded and one dead. Kira glanced between him, Sparrow, and Itari. “Back. Hurry. You have to go back with the others.”

Behind his visor, Falconi set his teeth and shook his head. *No chance in hell. We’re not leaving you alone.*

“Hey.” Kira grabbed him and pressed her forehead against his helmet. His blue eyes were only centimeters away, separated by the curved dome of clearest sapphire. “I have the Soft Blade. You’re just going to get yourself killed if you stay.” Her other thought remained unspoken: with only herself to worry about, she could let loose with the Soft Blade without fear of hurting or killing them.

A handful of breaths, and then Falconi relented. *Fuck. Alright. Sparrow, you too. All of us.*

The woman shook her head. *I’m not letting Kira—*

*That’s an order!*

*Fuck!* But Sparrow started to jet back toward the room they’d just left.

Falconi followed close behind, along with Itari.

“Hurry!” said Kira, shooing them forward. “Go, go, go!”

With her urging them on, they quickly returned to the dome she’d assembled. It was the work of seconds for Kira to peel open a Jelly-sized hole in the shell. Inside, Hwa-jung had a blaster trained on the opening.

*You watch yourself,* Falconi said as he prepared to enter.

Kira hugged him as best she could through the armor. “Don’t keep the scars from this, yeah? Promise me that.”

* … You’re going to make it, Kira.*

“Of course I am.”

*Enough,* said Sparrow. *You gotta move, and now!* [[Itari here: Idealis—]]

[[Kira here: Three down and forward: I know. That’s where Ctein is. Just make sure my co-forms stay safe.]]

A hesitation, and then: [[Itari here: I promise.]]

Then Kira sealed them into the dome. And as they vanished from view, Falconi sent her one last message:

*You can do this. Don’t forget who you are.*

Kira pressed her lips together. If only it were that easy. Letting the xeno run rampant would be the safest, easiest way to kill Ctein, but she would risk losing herself and, possibly, creating another Maw. And that was a risk she wasn’t willing to take.

Somehow she had to retain control over the xeno, whatever the cost. Still, she could do more with it than she had, which would require entrusting the Seed with a certain amount of autonomy.

That scared her. Terrified her even. But it was the balancing act that was needed—a high-wire act she couldn’t afford to slip and fall from even once. She rushed back to the room where the pillbugs had been. The air was so thick with gore, it was difficult to see. She pulled the xeno in close around her, compacting it into a dense cylinder of material. Then she sent forth tendrils and grabbed the deck and bored her way through it into a transport


She was alone now. She and the Seed, and a ship of angry Jellies surrounding them, and the great and mighty Ctein ahead.

The corner of Kira’s mouth twitched. If through some miracle they survived—if the human race survived—there were going to be some interesting xenobiology courses taught about her experiences. She just wished she’d be there to see them.

She’d cut her way halfway through the floor of the shaft when the Hierophant tilted like an unhinged seesaw. The walls rattled, and Kira heard an alarming number of pops and hisses. The lights went out, only to be replaced by emergency backups, dim and red. A half-dozen fingers of high-pressure vapor erupted from the walls, marking the locations of ruptured pressure lines.

Up and down the length of the shaft, Kira saw jagged holes in the paneling—holes that hadn’t been there before. Some were no bigger than a fingernail; others were the size of her head.

The receiver in her ear crackled. * … copy. I repeat, meatbag, do you read me?*

“Gregorovich?!” she said, hardly believing.

*Indeed. You need to hurry, meatbag. The nightmares are closing in. One of them just took out a Jelly ship. The Hierophant got hit by the debris. It seems to have disrupted their jamming.*

“One of our Jellies?”

*Fortunately, no.*

She resumed digging into the floor below her. “The others are hunkered down one deck back. Any chance you can help them return to the Wallfish?”

*We are already in close consultation,* said Gregorovich. *Options are being discussed, plans being outlined, contingencies being considered.*

Kira grunted as she tore loose a support beam. A slug ricocheted off her side from farther down the transport shaft; she ignored it. “’K. Let me know if they get off the ship.”

*Affirmative. Give ’em hell, Varunastra.*

“Roger that,” she said from between gritted teeth. “Giving ’em hell.”

More slugs, laser blasts, and projectiles began to slam into her as a seething pool of Jellies gathered at the end of the shaft. The sides of the Soft Blade were thick enough that Kira paid them no mind. She’d cannibalized enough of her immediate surroundings to make her effectively immune to small-arms fire. The Jellies would have to bring in something a lot bigger if they wanted to hurt her.

The thought gave her a measure of satisfaction.

Down through the floor of the shaft, down through a room that glowed dull red and was filled with transparent tubing sloshing with water and large

enough for the Jellies to swim through, and then down through the floor of the room and into the final deck. Finally. Kira bared her teeth. Ctein was close now: just a short way ahead of her.

The level she’d arrived on was dark purple, and there were patterned lines on the walls that reminded her of the designs from Nidus. Echoes of the Vanished, repurposed by the graspers who neither knew nor cared for the significance of the artifacts they’d found.

The disgust Kira felt was not her own; it came from the Seed, a disapproval strong enough to make her wish to deface the walls, to cleanse them of their arrogant, ignorant, garbled reproductions.

She flew forward, clearing doors with slashes too fast to see, killing Jellies with jabs and twists, letting nothing stop or slow her. She might have gotten lost, but ahead of her a thick bank of nearscent swelled, and she recognized it as Ctein’s: a scent of hate and wrath and impatience and … satisfaction?

Before Kira could make sense of it, she came upon a circular door that stood a full ten meters high. Unlike every other door she’d seen on the Jelly ships, it was made not of shell but of metal and composite and ceramics and other materials she didn’t recognize. It was white, and banded with concentric circles of gold, copper, and what might have been platinum.

Seven stationary guns were mounted around the frame of the door. And hanging on the walls by the guns were at least a hundred Jellies of all different sizes and shapes.

Kira never hesitated. She dove straight toward them while letting the Soft Blade yank up the bulkhead in front of her, sending black needles jabbing toward the guns, and throwing a thousand different threads through the air—each one seeking flesh.

The mounted weapons exploded in a roll of deafening thunder. The room seemed to grow quiet around Kira as the xeno dulled the sound. A dozen or more projectiles slammed into her, some of them breaking or puncturing parts of the suit, with accompanying lashes of not-pain.

It was a valiant effort on the part of the defending Jellies. But Kira had learned too much, and she had grown too confident. Their efforts were nowhere near enough to stop her. A half second later, she felt the tips of the needles tickle the mounted guns, and then she was stabbing through them, destroying the machinery.

The muscles, bones, and carapaces of the Jellies posed no more of a challenge. For a handful of frenzied seconds, she felt their flesh—felt her blades piercing their insides, soft and giving and quivering with trauma. It was intimate and obscene, and although it sickened her, she never stopped, never slowed.

Kira withdrew the Soft Blade then. The area before the circular door was a cloud of misted ichor and mangled bodies: a massacre all her own doing.

A sense of uncleanliness filled her. Shame too, and a quick, sharp yearning for forgiveness. Kira had never been religious, but she felt as if she had sinned, same as when she’d inadvertently created the Maw.

What else was she supposed to do, though? Allow the graspers to kill her?

She didn’t have time to think about it. Propelling herself forward, she grasped the door with tendrils extended in every direction. Then, with a shout and a heave, she tore apart the massive structure and threw the parts aside so they crashed into walls and dented bulkheads.

Pungent nearscent assaulted Kira, stronger than any she’d smelled before. She gagged and blinked, eyes watering behind the suit’s mask.

Before her was a huge, spherical room. An island of crusted rock rose from what would have been the floor when the Battered Hierophant was under thrust. Surrounding the island—enveloping it, encasing it, subsuming it—was a vast orb of water, midnight blue and flexing like a great, mirrored soap bubble. And there, in the center of the orb, mounted atop the crusted island, was the great and mighty Ctein.

The creature looked like a nightmare, in both senses of the word. A tangle of tentacles—each mottled grey and red—sprouted from a heavy, corpulent body studded with random growths of orange carapace. Hundreds, no … thousands of blue-rimmed eyes lay within the upper half of Ctein’s folded flesh, and they rolled toward her with a collective glare powerful enough to make Kira quail.

Great and mighty indeed, Ctein was enormous. Bigger than a house. Bigger than a blue whale. Bigger even than the Wallfish, and more massive too, as it was solid through and through. The size of the monster was

difficult for Kira to comprehend. She’d never seen a creature so huge except in movies or games. It was far larger than she remembered from her dreams, the result, no doubt, of Ctein’s ceaseless gluttony through the centuries since.

There was more. With the expanded vision the Soft Blade granted her, Kira saw what seemed to be a miniature sun burning inside the heart of Ctein’s shapeless mass—a steady-state explosion desperate to escape its hardened shell. A gleaming pearl of destruction.

She flipped to visible light and then back to infrared. In visible light, nothing unusual appeared; Ctein’s body was the same dark grey-red that she remembered from ages past. But in infrared, it burned, it glowed, it shimmied and shined. It glistered.

In short, it looked as if the Jelly had a goddamn fusion reactor embedded within itself.

Kira felt tiny, insignificant, and severely outmatched. Her courage nearly failed. Despite everything the Soft Blade had done, she had difficulty imagining it could equal the might of Ctein. The creature was no dumb animal either. It was cunning as any ship mind, and its intelligence had allowed it to dominate the Jellies for centuries.

Knowing that filled Kira with doubt, and the doubt caused her to hesitate.

Rooted on the floor around Ctein’s rocky perch was a goodly portion of the Abyssal Conclave—barnacle-like shells mottled with greens and oranges and with the many-jointed arms of their occupants waving in the currents. Waving and wailing in a hellish din that, to Kira’s human ears, sounded like a chorus of tortured souls. To the grasper in her, to Nmarhl, it sounded like home, and memories of the Plaintive Verge flooded her mind.

Then the overwhelming stench of nearscent changed from satisfaction to amusement. And from the nightmare creature emanated a single, apocalyptic statement:

[[Ctein here: I see you.]]

At that moment, Kira knew her hesitation had been a mistake. She called upon the Soft Blade, coiling it like a great spring as she prepared to strike and end Ctein.

But she was too slow. Far too slow.

A clawed arm unfolded from along the Jelly’s equator, and it plucked a dark slab of something from the top of its carapace. And it aimed the slab at her—

Shit. The object was a massive railgun, a weapon large enough to be mounted on the prow of a cruiser, powerful enough to punch a hole through an entire UMC battleship. She was dead. No time to run, no place to hide. She just wished—

Two things happened, one after the other, so quickly that Kira barely had time to register the sequence of events: the suit shifted around her, expanding outward, and


The deck rippled underneath her, and there was a sound so loud, all went silent. Across the chamber, a bubble of sparkling green flame erupted from the side of the curving wall, and a pressure wave raced through the orb of water, crushing the Abyssal Conclave and uprooting the great and mighty Ctein from its ancient throne. The creature’s tentacles thrashed, but to no avail.

The bulkhead to Kira’s right vanished, and she heard the scream of escaping air. Before she could react, the wall of frothing water slammed into her.

It hit with the force of a raging tsunami. The impact tore off all of her tendrils and feelers—tore the main part of the suit away from the rest of its mass and sent her and it tumbling into the glowing whiteness of outer space.

*Kira!* Falconi shouted.

You'll Also Like