Space was white?
Kira ignored the obvious inconsistency. First things first. She willed the Soft Blade to stabilize their flight, and it responded with puffs of gas along her shoulders and hips. Her spin slowed, and within seconds the receding hull of the Battered Hierophant occupied a single location within her vision. A huge chunk had been torn from the side of the Hierophant; whatever had hit the ship had blasted through most of the decks on the aft section.
She could feel the orphaned pieces of the Soft Blade still within the Hierophant, separate from her and yet connected. Afraid of what might happen if she lost them for good, Kira drew on them with her mind. And they began to stir, worming their way through the structure of the ship.
She glanced around. Yup, space was white. She dropped the infrared. Still white. And glowing. But not glowing as brightly as it should have been if she were in the open, in direct line of sight with the nearby sun.
Then her brain clicked, and she got it. She was inside a cloud of smoke meant to defend the Hierophant against incoming lasers. Good for the ship, inconvenient for her. Even with visible light, she could only see about twenty meters in any given direction.
*Kira!* Falconi shouted again. “Still alive. You okay?”
*I’m fine. One of the nightmares just rammed the Hierophant. It—*
*You said it. We’re making our way to the Wallfish. The Jellies seem to be ignoring us at the moment. Their fleet has the rest of the nightmares tied up, but we don’t have a whole lot of time. Tschetter says Ctein is still alive.
You gotta kill that Jelly, and fast.*
“I’m trying. I’m trying.”
Kira swallowed hard, doing her best to tamp down her fear of Ctein. She couldn’t afford the distraction. Besides, there were worse threats approaching. The nightmares. The Maw.
She’d never been so scared. Her hands and feet were ice cold, despite the best efforts of the Soft Blade to keep her warm, and her heart was pounding painfully fast. Didn’t matter. Keep going. Don’t stop moving.
Kira switched back to infrared and used the xeno to hold herself in place while she scanned up, down, and around. Ctein was big as hell, so where the hell was it? The chamber they had been ejected from was visible as a shadowed cavity deep within the bowels of the Hierophant, a husk now empty of its monstrous fruit. Like her, Ctein might have been blown away from the ship, but she had a suspicion the Jelly had attitude jets hidden somewhere in its bulk. If Ctein had flown around the curve of the Hierophant’s hull … the alien would take a long time to find in the swirling cloud. Too long, in fact. The Hierophant had kilometers and kilometers of surface area.
“Gregorovich,” she said, continuing to scan. “You see anything out here?”
*Alas, the Wallfish is still lodged in the Hierophant. My sensors are blocked.*
“Check with Tschetter. Maybe the Knot—”
A bar of smoke-free space, half a meter across, flashed in front of her. It ran straight from the horizon of the Hierophant’s hull, past her chest, and continued on into deep space. A mass of swirling curlicues expanded through the smoke, pressing it outward, and the glow of transferred heat spread through the haze.
Kira swore. At her command, the xeno reversed their course and shoved her toward the damaged ship. They were an easy target, hanging out in the open. She had to get to cover before—
From behind the curve of the Battered Hierophant, an enormous tentacle emerged, twisting and grasping with malevolent intent. In infrared, the tentacle was a tongue of fire, its suckers incandescent craters, its skeletal interior a flexible column of white-hot ingots stacked end to end, bright within the translucent flesh. Cilia lined the last third of the limb, each snakelike structure several meters long and seemingly possessed of its own restless intelligence, for they moved and waved and knotted independent of
their neighbors. A second tentacle joined the first, and then a third and a fourth as the rest of the gigantic Ctein hove into view.
The skin of the Jelly had changed: it was smooth and colorless now, as if coated with pewter paint. Armor of some kind, she supposed. Worse yet, the creature still held the ship-sized railgun with its clawed arm.
Kira shouted into the void as she urged the Soft Blade on even faster. She jetted back among the exposed decks of the Hierophant, but just when she began to relax slightly, Ctein’s multifarious shadow eclipsed her and the monster fired its weapon.
The blast hit her with numbing force and sent her tumbling into a bulkhead.
But she was still alive.
The xeno had poofed out around her, like a giant black balloon, covering her whole body, including her head, though it didn’t block her vision any more than the mask had. She could feel structures within the balloon: complicated matrices of fibers and rods and plastic-like filling—all of which the Soft Blade had manufactured in a mere fraction of a second.
Another explosion went off in her face, jarring her so hard, it left her dazed. This time she felt the suit counter the incoming projectile with an explosion of its own, diverting the deadly spray of metal to either side, leaving her untouched.
With a hint of astonishment, Kira realized the xeno had constructed some form of reactive armor, similar to what the military used on their vehicles.
She would have laughed if she’d had the chance.
There was no telling how long the Soft Blade could keep her safe, and she had no intention of staying to find out. She couldn’t go head-to-head with Ctein. Not while it was armed. The only way she could fight was to duck and run and wait for the Jelly to run out of ammo. That or find a way to close with it so she could use the Soft Blade to tear it apart.
Stabbing out a hand (it moved but stayed hidden within the balloon), she formed a cable and launched it toward a shelf of half-melted beams several meters above her head. The cable struck and stuck, and she hauled on it with all her strength, slinging herself up and out of the pit blasted into the side of the Hierophant. At the lip of the crater, she released the first line, threw out a second one, caught the hull, and pulled, converting upward
momentum into forward momentum. As she soared over the anchor point for the line, she sent forth another one ahead of her, and then another and another, dragging herself across the hull until she was hidden from the Jelly. The monster followed. The last she saw of it, Ctein was leaping after her,
its limbs rippling with hypnotic grace.
Kira grimaced and tried to pull harder on the latest cable. But she was already at the limits of what her body and the xeno were capable of.
As she flew around the side of the Hierophant, like a tetherball around a pole, Kira had a thought. An idea.
She didn’t stop to consider practicality or likelihood of success; she merely acted and hoped—blindly hoped—that what she was doing would work.
Sending out several more cables, she yanked herself to a stop beside a jagged rent a piece of shrapnel had torn through the hull. She collapsed the balloon around her and converted the material into tentacles of her own. With them, she grabbed sections of upturned hull and sliced them free.
Each chunk was slightly over a meter thick, most of that thickness being thin layers of composite sandwiched with what looked like a metallic foam. Exactly as she’d hoped. As with human ships, the outer hull of the Hierophant had a Whipple shield to protect it against impacts from space debris. If the armor could stop micrometeoroids, then enough layers ought to be able to stop the projectile from a kinetic weapon like the railgun.
As Kira arranged the pieces in front of her, a dark stream of material flowed out from within the tangled ruins of the crevice, crawling toward her with a mind of its own. Alarmed, she recoiled, ready to fight off this new enemy.
Then she recognized the familiar feel of the Soft Blade, the lost parts of the xeno come to rejoin her.
With a sensation like cool water on her skin, the orphaned fibers melted into the main part of the xeno, adding much-needed mass to the organism.
Distracted, Kira only managed to stack four pieces of the hull before the writhing behemoth that was Ctein crested the side of the Hierophant and fired its gun at her.
Her makeshift shield stopped the incoming projectile within the first three layers of the hull. Not so much as a single speck of dust got through to
the skin of her suit. And while the impact was substantial, the Soft Blade braced and buffered her well enough to keep it bearable.
She wondered how much ammo the Jelly was carrying.
Ctein fired again. Ignoring the blow, Kira sent herself forward. The sections of hull wouldn’t last long; she had to take the opportunity while she could.
The giant creature moved toward her faster than its bulk would seem to allow. Puffs of white appeared along the left side of its carapace, and the whole mess of shell and tentacles jerked to the right. The damn thing had thrusters built or grown or attached to its carapace. That made her plan a little more tricky, but she thought she could deal with it. The Jelly might be fast, but there was no way it could move its thousands and thousands of kilos as quickly as the Soft Blade.
“Dodge this,” Kira muttered, willing hundreds of razor-sharp threads across the surface of the Hierophant. The lines lunged and stabbed and scrambled, one atop another and each at a different angle so that it was impossible to predict which was going to strike where.
Before the great and mighty Ctein could move out of range, the tiny tips of her cutting threads tinked and tickled against the nearest of the Jelly’s tentacles. To her dismay, she realized that the thin, grey armor it wore was a nanomaterial not unlike the fibers that made up the Soft Blade. The suit’s anger blazed anew; it recognized the material as yet another piece of technology the graspers had stolen from its makers. Given time, Kira felt sure the xeno could burrow through the weave, but Ctein wasn’t about to give her that time.
As the behemoth swung its weapon toward her again, Kira allowed the thicket of threads to swarm from one tentacle to the next until she saw and felt the railgun within her thousandfold grasp. She ripped it from the fingers at the end of the Jelly’s bony arm, and threw the railgun away, threw it into the depths of empty space, where it might drift unclaimed for a million years or more.
For just an instant, Kira thought she had the advantage. Then, with one of its unencumbered tentacles, Ctein reached behind itself and retrieved a large white tube that must have been attached to the backside of its carapace. The tube was at least six meters long, and as the Jelly turned it toward her, Kira saw a dark iris at the end.
She half yelled as she tried to move out of the way, but this time, she was the one who was too slow.
The opening of the tube flared white, and a spear of solid flame jabbed toward her. It burned through the suit’s fibers like so much dry tinder; they melted and evaporated, and from them she felt a wave of not-pain great enough to frighten her.
Now Kira was trying to escape. She shoved Ctein away, but it clung to her even as it forced the ravening fire closer and closer. The creature was fearsomely strong—strong enough to hold its own against the Soft Blade.
But the Blade was also Soft; she allowed it to relax and bend before Ctein’s attacks, to run like water and slip through even the tightest of grips. The Jelly’s suckers couldn’t hold her; however they worked, the suit knew how to defeat them.
With a wriggle and a yelp, Kira succeeded in both pushing and pulling herself free.
She fell away from Ctein with a sense of having barely escaped with her life.
The creature gave her no chance to regroup. It leaped after her, and she fled along the length of the Hierophant, toward the distant prow. A pursuit surrounded by silence, mediated only by the pounding of her heart and the rasp of her breathing, and accomplished with the terrible grace that was the natural effect of weightlessness.
The size of Ctein seemed unreal. It felt as if she were being chased by a monster the size of a mountain. Possible names for it flashed through her mind: Kraken. Cthulhu. Jörmungandr. Tiamat. But none of them captured the sheer horror of the beast behind her. A crawling nest of lambent serpents, eager to rend flesh from flesh.
She glanced over her shoulder, and she belatedly realized what the tube actually was. A rocket engine, complete with a fuel supply. The Jelly was actually using a rocket as a weapon.
Ctein had planned for her. For the Idealis. And Kira hadn’t planned at all. She hadn’t realized the true extent of the threat the ancient creature posed.
At any other time, the absurdity of using a rocket engine as a weapon would have dumbfounded her. Now, it was just another factor she included
in the calculations running in her mind: speeds, distances, angles, forces, and possible reactions and behaviors. Calculations of survival.
Then it occurred to her: along with the heat it produced, the rocket also produced a fair amount of thrust. That was what rockets did. Which meant Ctein had to hold on to something when using it or the rocket would send the Jelly flying away in the opposite direction. Admittedly, Ctein also had its maneuvering thrusters, but she didn’t think they were as strong as the rocket.
“Ha!” she said.
As if in reply, her earpiece crackled and a man said, *This is Lieutenant Dunroth. Do you copy?*
“Who the hell are you?”
*Admiral Klein’s aide. We have a missile inbound to your location from the Unrelenting Force. Can you lead the Jelly back toward the stern of the Hierophant?*
“You going to blow us both up?”
*That’s a negative, Ms. Navárez. It’s a targeted munition. You shouldn’t be in too much danger. But we need to get a clear line of sight.*
“Roger. On my way.”
Then Tschetter’s voice popped in the channel: *Navárez. Make sure you put enough distance between you and Ctein. Remember, there’s no such thing as friendly fire.*
Kira jabbed the suit toward the hull and stopped herself. Then she threw herself up and back over the approaching Jelly in what would have normally been a stomach-churning somersault but that now felt like a graceful dive. Ctein reached toward her with three of its tentacles, straining its limbs to their fullest extent, but they fell short by a few scant meters. As she’d hoped, the creature continued to cling to the Hierophant, where it could still use its oversized blowtorch.
The Soft Blade arrested her flight and steered her back down to the surface of the battleship. Kira noticed that it moved her faster, more efficiently than before, and she remembered dreams of the suit swooping and soaring through space with the agility of an unmanned drone, something that could only be possible if the organism was able to
manufacture thrusters of its own. Actual proper thrusters, capable of sustained output.
She also noticed that she still hadn’t run out of air. Good. As long as the suit could keep providing her with oxygen, she could keep fighting.
She pulled herself along the Hierophant, propelling herself faster and faster until she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop herself before the shadow shield. And yet, she could feel Ctein closing in on her, like a rising wave, vast, uncaring, unstoppable.
Lt. Dunroth’s clipped voice sounded: *Five seconds to target. Clear the area. Repeat, clear the area.*
Ahead of her, Kira saw a meteor arcing toward the Hierophant, a shining star bright enough to be visible through the whole thickness of the smoke.
Time seemed to slow, and her breath caught, and she found herself wishing that she were anywhere but there. The worst thing was, she couldn’t change the situation. The missile would either kill her—or it wouldn’t; the outcome was out of her control.
When the missile was only a second from impact (and still over a hundred meters away), Kira grabbed the hull and pulled herself flat against it, forming the suit into a hard shell.
As she did, the missile vanished with a disappointingly small blip of light, and a sphere of smoke-free space expanded from the spot where it had been.
Dammit. Kira had seen enough point-defense lasers in action to know what had happened. A blaster mounted somewhere along the Hierophant had shot down the missile.
She yanked herself free of the hull and threw herself sideways moments before Ctein would have crashed into her.
Nearscent of derision engulfed her. [[Ctein here: Pathetic.]]
*Sorry, Navárez,* said Lt. Dunroth. *Doesn’t look like we can get a missile past the Hierophant’s lasers. We’re looping around r2, and then we’ll be taking another pass. Admiral Klein says you better either kill that son-of-a-bitch or find a way off the Hierophant, because we’ll be hitting it with three more Casaba-Howitzers on the way back.*
Ctein swung one of its tentacles at her, and Kira jetted out of the way just as the massive trunk of muscle and sinew swept past. Then again, like a hummingbird dodging swipes from an angry octopus.
The swirling smoke thickened and then cleared as the Hierophant emerged from the haze. For the first time since the explosion had torn her out of the ship, the true darkness of space was visible, and the hull and everything she saw acquired an almost painfully lucid sharpness. At the periphery of her vision, she was aware of distant sparks and flashes (evidence of the battle still ongoing between the Seventh, the Jellies, and the incoming nightmares).
Kira switched back to the visible spectrum. No need for infrared now that the smoke was gone.
She hung before the twining monster, a toy, a tiny plaything suspended before a hungry predator. It lunged; she dodged. She darted forward; it ignited the rocket engine for a second, and the scorching heat drove her back. They were at a stalemate, both of them vying for the slightest advantage—and neither of them finding it.
A spurt of nearscent struck her, ejected from some hidden gland along the Jelly’s body:
[[Ctein here: You do not understand the flesh you are joined with, two-form. You are unworthy, unsignificant, doomed to failure.]]
She responded in kind, directing her own nearscent toward the knotted mass of the creature. [[Kira here: You have already failed, grasper. The Corrupted—]]
[[Ctein here: When I am joined with the Idealis, as I should have been before Nmarhl’s treachery, the Corrupted will fall before me like silt into the abyss. None shall hold against me. This ripple may have been disrupted, but the next will be a triumph for the Wranaui, and all will bend beneath the force of our shoals.]]
[[Kira here: You will never have the Idealis!]]
[[Ctein here: I will, two-form. And I will enjoy cracking open your shell and eating your meat from within.]]
Kira yelled and tried darting behind the Jelly to snatch the rocket from its grasp, but the alien matched her movements, twisting so that its weapon always faced her.
It was a frantic, ugly dance, but a dance all the same, and despite its ugliness, filled with moments of grace and daring. Ctein was too big and strong for the Soft Blade to restrain (at least not at the suit’s current size). So Kira did her best to avoid its grasp. And in turn, the alien did everything
it could to avoid the touch of the Soft Blade. It seemed to know that if it let her hold it for too long, she would be able to pierce its armor.
Kira advanced; the Jelly retreated. It advanced; she retreated. Twice she caught hold of a tentacle only to have Ctein strike her so hard, she was forced to let go or risk being bludgeoned into unconsciousness. The blows were powerful enough to break off pieces of the suit: small shafts and rods that liquified into amorphous blobs before rejoining her.
If she could just close the distance between her and Ctein, if she could just wrap the Soft Blade around the alien’s carapace and press herself flat against it, she knew she could kill it. Yet for all her efforts, Kira couldn’t get past the Jelly’s defenses.
The old and cunning Ctein seemed to realize it had the advantage— seemed to realize that it could cause her more pain than she could cause it
—because it started to chase her along the Hierophant, firing its rocket torch, swinging its tentacles in a random rhythm, forcing her back and leaving great furrows in the hull from its failed strikes. And Kira had no choice but to retreat. Meter after meter she surrendered, desperate to keep her distance, for if the behemoth succeeded in catching her between hull and tentacle, the impact would turn her brain into mush, no matter how well the Soft Blade was able to protect her.
Her breath came in ragged gasps, and even under the suit, Kira could feel herself sweating, her body slick with a film of exertion that the Soft Blade quickly absorbed.
It couldn’t continue. She couldn’t continue. At some point she’d slip and make a mistake, and Ctein would kill her. Running wouldn’t help; there was nowhere but emptiness to flee to, and she couldn’t leave her friends. Nor the UMC; whatever their faults, they were fighting for the survival of humanity, same as she.
She zipped past Ctein’s latest attack. How long could she keep going? It felt as if she’d been fighting for days and days. When had the Wallfish crashed into the Hierophant? She couldn’t remember.
She stabbed at the Jelly’s carapace for the umpteenth time. And for the umpteenth time, the suit’s atomically sharp spikes skittered across the alien’s shell.
Kira grunted with strain as she hooked a nearby antenna and pulled herself away from the Jelly, just barely escaping its retaliatory attack. It
followed up with another lash of its tentacles, and she hurried toward the prow of the battleship, trying to avoid it, trying to remain free.
Then Ctein surprised her by jumping toward her, abandoning its grip on the Hierophant.
“Gah!” The Soft Blade responded by pushing her backwards and maneuvering her around the wide width of the battleship. White puffs emanated from the Jelly’s thrusters as it followed. It succeeded in matching her trajectory and then started to gain on her, rocket extended like a giant accusatory finger.
Kira scanned the hull of the Hierophant, looking for something, anything that she could use. A jagged uplift of damaged hull caught her eye. If she headed toward it, she could use it to slingshot herself behind the Jelly and maybe—
*Kira! Get out of the way!* said Falconi.
Distracted, she twisted awkwardly, tumbling as the Soft Blade sent her flying toward the Hierophant. A tentacle curved toward her, and some distance away, she saw Falconi’s armor-clad torso pop over the edge of the hole in the flagship’s hull. With one arm, he lifted his grenade launcher, a flash illuminated the barrel, and—
Ctein’s rocket engine exploded in a lopsided plume of burning fuel, spraying liquid fire in every direction.
Kira flinched as it splashed against her. The fuel didn’t hurt, but old instincts were hard to ignore.
The explosion knocked the Jelly back, but amazingly, it managed to keep hold of the Hierophant with the tip of one tentacle. Much to her disappointment, it appeared unhurt.
Nearscent of a vast and terrible anger washed through the nearby space.
The creature pulled itself back against the battleship and then swung one of its tentacles at Falconi. He ducked beneath the rim of the hole, and Kira saw him vanish through a door an instant before the tentacle slammed down, crushing the exposed walls and girders.
*All yours, kiddo,* Falconi said.
“Thanks. Owe you one.” Kira stopped several meters from the Hierophant and turned to face Ctein head-on. No weapons now. Only tentacles and tendrils and their two minds pitted one against the other. She prepared herself to embrace the monstrous Jelly once more, to wrestle with
it until one or both of them were dead. Despite the many advantages of the Soft Blade, Kira felt no surety that she could win. All Ctein had to do was slam her against the hull of the Hierophant, and that would be the end of her.
But she wasn’t about to give up. Not now. Not after everything they’d been through. Not with everything that was at stake.
“Alright, you big ugly,” she muttered, gathering her strength. “Let’s get this over with.”
Then Kira saw it: the smallest of tears in the armored skin of one tentacle
—the same tentacle, she guessed, that had been holding the rocket. Falconi’s attack had done some damage after all. The tear appeared like a thin crack in the surface of cooling lava, open to reveal the heated flesh within.
Hope blossomed within her. Small as it was, the crack was an opportunity, and in an instant, Kira imagined how she could use it to kill Ctein. Doing so would be risky, terribly risky, but she wouldn’t get any better chance.
Her lips twitched with an approximation of a smile. The solution wasn’t to stay away—it was to embrace Ctein, regardless of the cost, and join herself to it in much the same way she was joined to the Seed. The solution was in the melding of their bodies, not in the separation.
Kira willed herself forward, and the suit responded with a hard kick from whatever thrusters it had constructed on her back. It drove her toward Ctein at over a g of acceleration, causing her to bare her teeth and laugh into the void.
The Jelly raised its tentacles, not to block her but to catch her in a cradle of grasping flesh. She corkscrewed around two of the tentacles and then latched onto the one with the tear.
At that point Ctein seemed to realize what she was doing, and it went mad.
The universe spun around Kira as the Jelly slammed its limb against the Hierophant. She managed to harden the suit an instant before they struck, but her vision still went black for a moment, and she felt slow and disoriented.
The tentacle started to rise again. If she didn’t act fast, it would beat her to a pulp; that she knew, sure as entropy. And though she hated the thought
of dying, she hated the thought of letting Ctein win even more.
She could feel the tear underneath her belly, a small patch of softness on the otherwise hard surface of the tentacle. So she stabbed, she jabbed, and she twisted as she drove the suit’s fibers into the wound. The tentacle convulsed, and then it whipped from side to side in a frantic attempt to shake her loose. But there was no getting rid of her. Not now.
The flesh of Ctein was hot against her blades, and globules of ichor spurted forth and coated her skin with a thick slime. Kira extended her reach within the creature, extended and extended until she found the bones at the center of the tentacle. Then she grabbed the bones and spread the flesh, forcing the tear to split and widen, and she poured the Soft Blade into the body of the alien.
The tentacle coiled around her, dark and moist and clutching. Claustrophobia clogged her throat, and though the suit continued to provide her with air, Kira felt as if she were on the verge of suffocating.
Ahead of her, sparks flashed, and with a shock, she realized Ctein was using its other arms to cut off the limb she clung to.
Determined not to lose the advantage, she urged the Soft Blade onward and outward, willing it to do what was needed.
The xeno blossomed into a thousand delicate lines as it burrowed into Ctein. But the threads didn’t cut, as Kira expected. They didn’t slash or tear or maim. Rather, they were soft and supple, and what they touched, they … remade. Nerves and muscles, tendons and bone: all of it was food for the xeno.
Ctein thrashed and writhed. Oh how it thrashed! It beat at her through its own flesh; it gripped and wrung its own limb, seeking to crush her, and a thunder filled her ears.
But the might of the great and terrible Ctein was no match for the persistence of the Soft Blade. The fractal fibers of the organism bent and wove and devoured as it converted the flesh of Ctein. It tore apart the creature’s cells, desiccated and compressed them into something hard and unyielding. The resulting shape was angular, all flat planes and straight lines and sharp edges of atomic precision. A dull, dead object devoid of movement, unable to hurt or harm.
Twenty meters or more, and then her feelers were inside the carapace, and muscle gave way to organs and machines.
From the Soft Blade came a sense of anger over old sorrows, and without meaning to, she found herself crying out: [[Kira here: For Nmarhl!]]
The xeno increased again, doubling and redoubling until it filled the roomy shell, converting each cubic centimeter into brutal perfection.
Ctein shuddered once more—shuddered and then was still.
Kira switched to infrared for a moment and saw the glow from the fusion reactor fading.
The Soft Blade wasn’t finished; it continued to build until it consumed its way through the skin and carapace of the Jelly. Around her, stone-like veins appeared along the tentacle Kira clung to. They spread, expanding across the whole of Ctein.
Uncertain of what the xeno was doing, Kira withdrew the Soft Blade, and with a sense of relief, kicked herself free of the gigantic corpse.
As they drifted apart, she looked back on it.
Where Ctein had been now hung a bristling, dull-black asterisk: an enormous collection of basalt-like pillars, faceted and chisel-tipped. A lifeless lump of restructured carbon. In places, a familiar circuit-board pattern covered the surface.… With a shock, Kira recognized the similarity between the floating pillars and the formation she’d found on Adrasteia. That too, she realized, had once been a living thing. Once, long ago.
Kira stared at the remains of Ctein with a sense of bitter accomplishment. She had done that. She and the Seed. After centuries of rule, the great and mighty Ctein was well and truly dead. Dead and done. And they were responsible.
All that knowledge lost. All those years of memories, lost. All those hopes and dreams and plans, lost and reduced to a lump of stone drifting through space.
Kira felt a curious sadness. Then she shivered and loosed a bark of laughter. She didn’t know what she felt; so much adrenaline was rushing through her system, she might as well have been high. But she did know she’d won. She and the Seed had won.
Multiple people were clamoring in her ears, too many to follow. Then Tschetter’s voice broke through the din. *You did it, Kira! You did it! The Jellies have broken off! Lphet and the Knot of Minds are taking control of their fleet. You did it!*
Good. Maybe now there was hope for the future. Kira wiped a smear of gore off her face and scanned the hull of the Battered Hierophant, reorienting herself. “Gregorovich, where are—”
A shadow fell across her, cutting off the light from the nearby star. With it came an icy chill that settled deep into her bones. Kira looked toward the obstruction, and her sense of triumph evaporated.
Four meat-red ships sailed overhead, their tortured hulls glistening like raw flesh. Nightmares.
Dread spiked Kira’s pulse, and she jetted past the rocky corpse of Ctein and back toward the Hierophant, desperate for cover. More nightmares were approaching: dozens of them, burning in as fast as the missile from the Unrelenting Force. Their silhouettes appeared as blots against the field of stars—shadows nearly lost against the blackness of the void. And behind them, too far to see, she knew the clotted mass of the Maw was fast incoming, moving toward them with insatiable intent.
Kira glanced about, hoping against hope she might see some form of salvation.
Between her feet was the planet the Jellies had been mining, R1—about the size of an airlock door, rust-red and marbled with clouds—and some distance from the orb, the moons r2 and r3, pirouetting around their parent. Behind them she saw the sparks and flashes that marked the larger battle as the UMC and the Jellies joined forces against the nightmares. Each flare of light was a stab to her heart, for Kira knew they marked the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of sentient beings. And nightmares too, for whatever that was worth.
At the distances involved, she couldn’t tell who was winning. Only the explosions were visible, not the individual ships. But in her gut Kira knew the battle wasn’t going well for either the Seventh Fleet or the Jellies. There were too many nightmares, and the Maw itself still had to be dealt with.
The four nightmare ships that had passed overhead slowed atop spears of nuclear fire, blue-white and brighter than the sun. They turned and nosed in toward the Hierophant until they made contact, several hundred meters aft of Kira’s position.
A deep tremor ran through the hull.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, dreading what was about to happen. There was no helping it; the only thing she could do now was fight and hope the crew of the Wallfish could escape. Fight and fight, until either the nightmares gave up or the Maw came to devour her. And devour her it would, if given the chance.
Kira took a deep breath. She already felt half-dead. Her body was in one piece, thanks to the Soft Blade, but whole and sound were two different concepts, and right then, sound wasn’t how she’d describe herself.
At her command, the xeno started to rip a hole back into the Hierophant.
*Whoa! Hold on to your hats!* said Falconi. *Couple of the Jellies and one of the UMC cruisers are taking a run at the Maw.*
A prickle ran down Kira’s neck. She swiveled toward the quadrant of the sky that she knew held the monstrosity. She held her breath, waiting.
Farther down the Hierophant, small explosions bellied out of the hull.
Breaching charges, or something of that nature. “What’s happening?” she asked.
A moment passed before Falconi replied. *The Maw just farted out a cloud. Looks like lasers won’t get through very easily. Wait … They’re trying to hit it with missiles. Bunch of ’em.* A tense silence followed. Then, with audible disappointment, he said, *Missiles are a no-go. The Maw picked them off like flies. Shit. A couple dozen nightmares are heading back to the Maw. If the Jellies or the UMC are going to take it out, they don’t have long.… Ah shit! Shit!* And among the stars, Kira saw a flare of light, like a miniature supernova.
*The Maw has some sort of crazy powerful laser, particle-beam combo. It just blew up two of the Jelly ships. Punched right through their chalk and chaff. Looks like the cruiser is going to try—*
Three more streaks of light pulsed and then faded against the velvet backdrop, vanishingly small for all their destructive potential.
In a flat voice, Falconi said, *Another no-go. The cruiser got off two howitzers. Should have been direct hits, but the Maw shot the incoming streams, blasted them apart with its beam weapon. It deflected nuclear explosions with goddamn counter shots!*
“How are we going to take it out?” Kira asked, struggling with a hopeless feeling. The hull of the Hierophant vibrated beneath her.
*I don’t think we can,* said Falconi. *There’s no way to get enough ships close enough to overwhelm its—*
As he talked, a cluster of flashes appeared in the upper-right part of her vision, close to the hazy orange dot that was r2.
Kira clenched her fists, driving her nails into her palms. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. “Gregorovich. What was that?”
*Oh. You saw, huh?* he said in a dull tone. “Yeah. What was it?”
The words were the ones she’d dreaded, and they struck her like hammer blows. “How many?”
*Two hundred and twenty-four.*
“Godda—” Kira’s voice gave out, and she closed her eyes, unable to bear the weight of existence. Then she set her jaw and steeled herself to face unpleasant reality.
Without consciously meaning to, she let go of the Battered Hierophant and hung floating above the hull while she thought. She had to think; she didn’t feel as if she could act until she’d come to some sort of understanding of what was happening.
In her ear, Falconi said, *Kira, what are you doing? You gotta get back here, before—*
His voice faded into the background as she ignored him. She took a breath. And then another one.
There was no way they could win now. It was one thing to fight knowing that while she might die it was also possible they could drive off their enemies. It was an altogether different thing to know that she would die and that victory was impossible.
She resisted the urge to scream. After all they’d done, all they’d lost and sacrificed, it felt wrong to lose now. It felt unfair in the deepest possible sense, as if the two hundred and twenty-four nightmares that had just arrived were an affront to nature itself.
One more breath, this one longer and slower than before.
Kira thought of the greenhouses on Weyland—the fragrance of the loam and flowers, the lazy drift of dust in the sunbeams, the taste of the warm summer tomatoes—and of her family also. Then too of Alan and the future they’d planned, the future that she’d long since had to accept would never happen.
The memories left her with a bittersweet ache. All things came to an end, and it seemed her own end was swiftly approaching.
Her eyes filled with tears. She sniffed and looked at the stars, at the glowing band of the Milky Way that spanned the boundless sphere of the heavens. The universe was so beautiful it hurt. So very, very beautiful. And yet, at the same time, so full of ugliness. Some born of the inexorable demands of entropy; some born of the cruelty that seemed innate to all sentient beings. And none of it made any sense. It was all glorious, horrible nonsense, fit to inspire both despair and numinosity.
The perfect example: even as she looked at the galaxy and marveled in its radiance, another of the nightmare ships sailed into view, a torpedo-shaped growth of crimson carnality. From it she could feel a distant tug, an affinity drawing flesh to flesh, like a wire pulling at her navel—pulling at her very essence.
A new sensation broke upon Kira: determination. And with it, sorrow. For she understood: she had a choice where, before, she didn’t. She could allow events to continue unchecked, or she could wrench them out of joint and force them into a new pattern.
It was no choice at all.
Eat the path. That was what she would do. She would eat the path and bypass bare necessity. It wasn’t what she wanted, but her wants were no longer important. By her act, she could help not just the Seventh, but her friends, her family, and her entire species.
It was no choice at all.
If she and the crew of the Wallfish weren’t going to survive, she could at least try to stop the Maw from spreading. Nothing else really mattered now. Left unchecked, the corrupted Seed would spread across the whole of the galaxy in the blink of a cosmic eye, and there was little that the Jellies or the humans could do to stop it.
There was a certain beauty to her choice as well: a symmetry that appealed to Kira. With one clean slash, she could resolve the whole problem of her existence, a problem that had been troubling not just her, but all of settled space since she’d stumbled upon that hidden chamber on Adrasteia. The Seed had taught her its true purpose, and now she understood her own purpose as well, and the two halves of her being were of accord.
“Gregorovich,” she said, and the sound of her voice was shocking in the silence of the void. “Do you still have that Casaba-Howitzer left?”