Chapter no 66

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

*Kira,* said Falconi. *What’s going on? We can’t see you on our screens.*

“You made it back to the Wallfish?”

*Barely. Now—*

“I said: I need a Casaba-Howitzer.”

*What for? We have to get the fuck out of here before the nightmares blow us out of the sky. If we head straight for the Markov Limit, we might reach it before—*

“No,” she said quietly. “There’s no way we can outrun the nightmares, and you know it. Now send over the Casaba-Howitzer. I think I figured out how to stop the Maw.”


“Do you trust me?”

There was a moment of weighted hesitation on his end. *I trust you. But I don’t want to see you get killed.*

“We don’t have a lot of options, Salvo.… Get me that bomb. Fast.”

He was silent for a while—long enough that she began to wonder if he would refuse. Then: *Casaba-Howitzer launched. It’s going to take up position half a klick from the dark side of the Hierophant. Can you get to it?


“I think so.”

*’K. If you position yourself with your feet toward the stern, facing away from the Hierophant, the howitzer will be at your seven. Gregorovich is lighting it up with a targeting laser. Should show up nicely in infrared.*

Kira scanned the darkness, and then she saw it: a bright little dot, alone in the void. It looked close enough to touch, though she knew better. Distance was always hard to judge absent any reference points.

“Got it,” she said. “On my way now.” Even as she spoke, the Soft Blade pushed her toward the dormant bomb.

*Great. You mind explaining what exactly you’re planning? Please tell me it’s not what I think it is.*


*Wait?! Come on, Kira, what the—*

“I need to concentrate. Give me a minute.” Falconi grunted and stopped bothering her.

To herself, Kira said, “Faster. Faster!” urging the Soft Blade on with her mind. She knew she had only a short time before the nightmares came to investigate. If she could just reach the Casaba-Howitzer first …

The missile swelled in size ahead of her: a thick cylinder with a bulbous nose and red stenciling along the side. Its main engine was off, but the nozzle still glowed with residual heat.

Her breath escaped with a low huh as the Casaba-Howitzer slammed into her chest. She grabbed it, wrapping her arms around it. The tube was too thick for her fingers to touch on the other side. The impact started her and the missile spinning, but the Seed quickly stabilized them.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kira saw the nightmare ship that had been on approach to the Hierophant was now heading in her direction, and quickly too.

Falconi’s voice broke on her ear: *Kira—*

“I see them.”

*We can—*

“Stay where you are. Don’t interfere.”

Kira thought furiously as she enveloped the Casaba-Howitzer with the suit, sending countless fibers burrowing through its outer casing. With them she felt out the wires and switches and various structures that made up the bomb. And she felt the heat of the stored plutonium, felt the warm bath of its radiation and from it, took sustenance.

Somehow she had to stop the nightmares from stopping her. If she tried to fight them, they would slow her down long enough for more of them to join in. Besides, she remembered how she’d lost herself when she touched the one nightmare during their escape from Bughunt. She couldn’t risk that again. Not until she reached the Maw.

The harsh light of retro-thrusters bathed her as the nightmare ship slowed to a stop relative to her. It was only a few dozen meters away. At that distance, she could see veins throbbing beneath its abraded exterior. Just looking at the vessel made her wince with sympathetic pain.

A thought stirred within her, a thought not of her own making: That which is heard may yet be answered. And she remembered how the suit had responded to the summons when she’d boarded the Jelly ship back at Sigma Draconis. More memories came to her then, and they transported her to another time and another place, in a part of the galaxy far-flung and forgotten, when she had felt the call of her masters and answered as was only right and proper. As was her duty.

Kira knew what to do then.

She gathered her strength, and via the Seed, she sent forth a message to the nightmares and to the Maw that had created them, blasting forth the signal with all the power at her disposal: Stay back! You can have what you want. Let my friends leave, and I will come to you. This I promise.

The ship beside her didn’t respond with voice or action. But neither did it attack, and as Kira began to accelerate away from the Battered Hierophant, the nightmares’ crimson vessel remained behind.

A moment later, she did receive a response: a transmission that contained nothing but a wild, wordless howl, a wounded cry full of pain, anger, and eager hunger. Chills crawled down Kira’s back as she recognized the sound of the Maw.

The Seed allowed her to identify the source of the transmission. Acting against every instinct in her body, she aimed herself toward it and increased her thrust.

*Kira!* said Falconi, his voice sharp. *What did you do?*

“I told the Maw I’m going to join it.”

* … And it believed you?*

“Enough to let me through.”

Tschetter spoke then. Kira hadn’t even realized the major was listening in: *Navárez, we can’t allow the Corrupted to get their claws on the Idealis. Turn around.*

“They already have the Idealis,” said Kira. “Or part of it, at least.” She blinked and felt tears wicked away by the mask covering her face. “Salvo, you can explain. We have to keep the nightmares, the Corrupted, from spreading. If I can stop the Maw, that should give us a fighting chance. All of us. Humans and Jellies.”

*Gah,* said Falconi. *This can’t be your only option. There has to be a better alternative.*

Nielsen joined the conversation as well, and Kira was glad to hear her once more: *Kira, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself just to save the rest of us.*

She laughed lightly. “Yeah. Tell me about it.”

*There’s no talking you out of this, is there?* said Falconi. She could almost see him scowling in frustration.

“If you have any other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.”

*Pull some crazy-awesome stunt out of your ass and kill the rest of the nightmares.*

“My ass may be amazing, but it’s not that amazing.”

*Could have fooled me.*

“Ha. Don’t you get it? This is my crazy-awesome stunt. I’m breaking the pattern; I’m resetting the equation. Otherwise, things aren’t going to end too well for any of us. It’s not your fault; you couldn’t have stopped this. No one could have. I think it became inevitable the moment I touched the suit, back on Adra.”

*Predestination? There’s a grim thought.… Are you sure about this?*

“They’re not shooting at you right now, are they?”


“Then yeah, I’m sure.”

Falconi sighed, and Kira heard the weariness in his voice. She pictured him back in the control room of the Wallfish, floating next to the holo-display, his armor smeared with blood and ichor. She felt a pang. Right then, leaving him and the rest of the Wallfish’s crew was more painful than leaving her family. Falconi and the others were present and immediate; her family seemed distant and abstract—dim specters she had already made her farewells to long ago.

*Kira … * said Falconi, and she could hear the grief building in his voice.

“This is the way it has to be. Get the Wallfish out of here while you still can. The nightmares shouldn’t bother you. Go on, hurry.”

A long pause, and she could almost hear Falconi arguing with Nielsen and Tschetter. Finally, with stiff reluctance he said, *Roger that.*

“Also, I need to know how to detonate this howitzer.”

The pause that followed was even longer. Then: *Gregorovich says there’s an access panel on the side. Should be a keypad inside. Activation code is delta-seven-epsilon-gamma-gamma—* She concentrated on memorizing the string of commands as he rattled them off. *You’ll have ten seconds to get clear once you hit Enter.*

But she wouldn’t be getting clear, and Falconi knew that as well as she did. She would sure as hell try, but Kira didn’t have any illusions about the Seed’s ability to outrun a nuclear explosion.

She concentrated on melding the Seed with the missile, weaving one through the other until it was hard to tell where the organism ended and the Casaba-Howitzer began. So thoroughly did she infiltrate the bomb, she could feel every part of it, down to the micro-welds in the bell of the rocket and the imperfections in the coffin that held the plutonium. She took care with her work, and when she finished, she felt satisfied that even the Maw would be hard-pressed to separate the Seed from the nuke.

She looked for the Maw then. It was still too far away to see, but she could feel its presence, like a storm building on the horizon, clouds heavy with a torrent ready to burst forth.

The distance between them was shrinking rapidly, but not rapidly enough for Kira’s taste. She didn’t want to give the Maw a chance to change its mind—or what was left of it. The Seed was already pushing her along as fast as it seemed capable of, but she wasn’t carrying any propellant with her, so the thrust was limited.

What else could she do?

The answer, when it came to her, gave her a grim smile.

She focused on the image she’d created—the image and the idea—and did her best to hold them in her mind while she impressed them on the Seed.

The xeno grasped her intent almost immediately, and it responded with gratifying speed.

Four black ribs, curved and delicate, sprouted from the crown of the Casaba-Howitzer and extended outward, forming a great X. The ribs stretched as they grew, growing thinner and thinner until they narrowed to invisibility. She could feel them like fingers spread wide, their tips thirty, forty meters apart, and the distance still increasing.

Starting at the base of each rib, a mirrored membrane began to form, thin as a soap bubble and smoother than a pool of still water. The membrane flowed up and out, joining each rib to its neighbors until it reached the farthest point of the arcing tips. She could see herself in the reflection: a low black lump clinging to the side of the Casaba-Howitzer, faceless and anonymous against the pale expanse of the galaxy.

Kira lifted her right hand and waved at herself. The sight of her mirrored counterpart amused her. The situation was so outlandish she laughed at the absurdity of it. How could she not? Humor was the only appropriate response to having attached herself to a nuclear bomb and grown a set of solar sails.

The sails continued to expand. They massed almost nothing, but in appearance, they dwarfed her. She was a tiny cocoon suspended in the center of silvery wings, a potential surrounded by actuality. A seed unplanted and drifting on the wind.

She turned, slowly, carefully, ponderously, and the sails caught the light of the sun, and the light reflected with blinding radiance. She could feel the pressure of the photons striking the membrane, urging her onward, away from the sun, away from the ships and planets, toward the dark, red blot that was the Maw. The solar wind didn’t provide much thrust, but it was some, and Kira felt satisfied that she’d done all she could to quicken her flight.

*Whoa,* said Falconi. *I didn’t know you could do that.*

“Neither did I.”

*It’s beautiful.*

“Can you give me an ETA for the Maw?”

*Fourteen minutes. It’s coming in hot. You know, this thing is enormous,

Kira. Bigger than the Hierophant.“I know.”

In the silence that followed, she could sense his frustration—could feel him struggling to hold back and not say what he really wanted to. “It’s okay,” she finally said.

He growled. *No, it’s not, but there’s nothing we can do about it.… Hold on, Admiral Klein wants to talk with you. Here—*

There was a click, and loud as life, Kira heard the admiral’s voice in her earpiece: *Tschetter explained what you’re trying to do. She also explained about the Maw. You’re a brave woman, Navárez. Doesn’t look like any of our ships can get through to the Maw, so you’re our best option right now. If you can pull this off, we might actually have a chance of beating the nightmares.*

“That’s the idea.”

*Good woman. I’m sending four cruisers your way, but they won’t get there until after you make contact with the Maw. If you succeed, they’ll help mop up whatever remains, as well as provide aid and assistance, if needed.*

If needed. It probably wouldn’t be, though.

“Admiral Klein, if you don’t mind, I have a favor to ask.”

*Name it.*

“If any of the Seventh make it back, can you see to it that charges are dropped against the crew of the Wallfish?”

*I can’t guarantee anything, Navárez, but I’ll put in a good word for them on our packet ship going out. Based off what you’ve done here at Cordova, I think their unlicensed departure from Orsted Station can be overlooked.”

“Thank you.”

An explosion sounded over the line, and Klein said, *Have to go. Good luck, Navárez. Over and out.*

“Roger that.”

Then Kira’s earpiece fell silent, and for the next while no one spoke to her. Part of her was tempted to ask for Falconi or Gregorovich, but she refrained. As much as she would have liked to talk with them—with anyone

—she needed to concentrate.

The fourteen minutes passed with disconcerting speed. Behind her, Kira watched as flashes continued to mark the ongoing fight between the nightmares and the humans and Jellies. The defending fleets were clustered

around R1’s two moons, using the rocky planetoids for cover as they tried without success to fend off the masses of crimson ships.

The Maw came into view well before the end of the fourteen minutes: first as a dull red star moving against the velvet backdrop of space. Then swelling into a knotted, dendrical tumor that writhed along the edges with a forest of arms, legs, and tentacles that was so dense, it appeared like cilia. Many of the individual limbs were larger than the whole of Ctein. They stretched for dozens, sometimes hundreds of meters—great trunks of misshapen meat that should have crushed themselves under their own mass. And buried among them, like a festering sore gaping wide, was the mouth of the Maw: a jagged slit of skin pulled tight around a ridged beak, which, when parted, revealed row after row of crooked teeth—bone-white and uncomfortably human—leading into a pulsing, gagging redness.

The Maw was more like an island of flesh floating through space than it was an actual vessel. A mountain of pain and misplaced growth packed full of quivering rage.

Kira shrank within herself as she stared at the abomination her actions had given birth to. Why had she ever thought she could kill the Maw? Compared to it, even the Casaba-Howitzer seemed paltry, insufficient.

But there was no turning back now. Her course was set; she and the Maw were going to collide, and nothing in the whole wide universe was going to change that.

She felt incredibly small and frightened. Here was her doom, and there was no escaping it. “Fuck,” she whispered, and shivered so hard her legs cramped.

Then, loud enough for the earpiece to pick up, she said, “Wish me luck.” After a few seconds of light-delay, Sparrow said, *Go kick its ass,


*Fighting!* said Hwa-jung.

*You can do this,* said Nielsen.

*I’m praying for you, Ms. Kira,* said Vishal.

*Be a most troublesome thorn in its side, O Aggravating Meatsack,* said Gregorovich.

*Just because it’s big doesn’t mean you can’t kill it,* said Falconi. *Hit the right spot and it’s lights out.… We’re all rooting for you, Kira. Good luck.*

“Thanks,” said Kira, and she meant it with every atom of her being.

What Falconi had said was true, and it had been Kira’s plan from the beginning. If she just blasted off a piece of the Maw, it would do nothing to stop the creature. Like the Seed, it could regenerate, seemingly without end. No, the only sure way to stop the Maw would be to destroy its ruling intelligence—the unholy union of Carr’s wounded body and that of the Jelly Qwon. In a misguided attempt to heal them, the xeno had mashed their two brains together, stitching them into a malformed whole. If she could get to that whole—get to that lump of tormented grey matter—Kira thought she’d have a good chance of righting her wrong and ending the Maw.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. It surely wouldn’t.

“Thule guide me,” she whispered, collapsing the solar sails so the Seed formed a small, hard shell around her and the missile.

The hellish fleshscape of the Maw loomed before her. Kira had no idea where exactly the brain she sought would be located, but she guessed it would be near the center of the overgrown meat. She might be wrong, but she couldn’t think of a better place to strike. It was a gamble she’d have to take.

Several of the largest tentacles lifted from the body of the Maw and reached toward her with what seemed like ponderous slowness but in actuality, given their size, was terrifying speed.


Kira willed herself into a course correction, altering her trajectory into a sideways slew that dropped her between the tentacles. Thousands of smaller limbs waved beneath her, grasping in a futile attempt to catch hold of her.

If they did, Kira knew they would tear her apart, despite the best efforts of the Seed to keep her safe.

A cloud of nearscent wafted over her, and she nearly vomited as she smelled death and decay and a cruel, eager desire to feast upon her flesh.

Anger spiked within her. There was no fucking way she was going to let this overgrown malignancy have its way and eat her. Not without giving it a severe case of indigestion.

Ahead of her, black tendrils began to sprout like hair from the surface of the Maw, similar to the tendrils from the Seed. Only these were thick as tree trunks and tipped with razor-sharp tines.

Left! Kira thought, and with a burst of thrusters, the xeno wrenched her down and to the side, away from the lashing tendrils.

She was nearing the center of the Maw. Just a few more seconds …

Next to her, the giant black beak surged upward out of the forest of thrashing limbs and the hills of oozing meat, biting, clacking, and—she felt sure—roaring its silent frustration. Clouds of frozen spittle spewed from within the open mouth.

Kira yelped, and the Seed provided her with one last burst of speed as she bored straight toward the heaving, bleeding, pustulent surface of the Maw. “Chew on this!” she muttered from between clenched teeth.

But in the last moment before she struck, her thought was more prayer than defiance: Please. Please let her plan work. Please could she atone for her sin and stop the Maw. Please could her life have not been in vain. Please might her friends survive.


The instant Seed touched Maw, a raging howl filled Kira’s mind. It was louder than any hurricane, louder than any rocket engine—loud enough that it gave her pains throughout her skull.

The force of the collision was greater than any emergency burn she’d experienced. Her vision flashed red, and her joints cried out as the bones pressed hard against one another, squeezing fluids, tendons, and cartilage.

How deep the impact carried her and the Casaba-Howitzer, Kira didn’t know, but she knew it wasn’t deep enough. She needed to be near the hidden core of the Maw before detonating the missile.

She didn’t wait to be attacked; she struck outward then, letting loose with the Seed more than she’d ever done before. The Maw was angry. Well, so was she, and Kira gave full vent to her anger, letting every drop of fear, frustration, and grief fuel her attack.

The xeno responded in kind, slashing and cutting like a whirling buzz saw as it burrowed through the surrounding flesh. Gouts of hot blood bathed them, and the howl in Kira’s mind acquired a double edge of pain and panic.

Then the flesh tightened, pressing inward with inexorable strength. Kira fought back, and had the Maw been made of tissue alone, she might have succeeded. But it wasn’t. The cancerous growth was shot through with the same substance that comprised the Seed: a web of black, diamond-hard fibers that moved and spread with ruthless intent, cutting, dragging, constricting.

Where the two xenos touched, they wrestled with fierce contention. At first neither seemed to gain the advantage, so closely matched were they in ability, but then—to Kira’s alarm—she noticed her second skin starting to dissolve into the attacking threads. Alarm turned to horror as she realized the xenos wanted to merge. To the Seed, there was no difference in kind between the part of itself bound to her and the part of itself bound to the Maw. They were two halves of the same organism, and they were seeking to again become whole.

Kira screamed with frustration as the outer surface of the Seed continued to melt into the Maw, and with it, any sense of control. Then a shock hit her body and she convulsed, feeling as if a thousand sparking wires had touched her. Blood filled her mouth, hot and copper-tasting.

A flood of sensory information coursed through her nerves, and for a moment, Kira lost all awareness of where she was.

She could feel the Maw, same as she could feel her own body. Flesh piled upon flesh, and most of it throbbing with the agony of exposed nerves, as well as the torment of limbs, muscles, and organs assembled all out of order. Human and Jelly parts had been grafted one onto the other with no care taken for proper structure or function. Ichor oozed through veins made for blood, and blood gushed through spongelike tissues intended for thicker secretions; bones scraped against tendons, cartilage, and other bones; tentacles pressed against misplaced intestines; and everything quivered with the physical equivalent of a scream.

Without the fibers of the xeno laced throughout the Maw—supporting and sustaining it—the entire abomination would have died within minutes, if not seconds.

Accompanying the pain was a grinding hunger—a primal yearning to eat and grow and spread without end, as if the protective safeguards built into the Seed had broken and fallen away, leaving behind only the desire to expand. There was also a certain sadistic glee to the Maw’s emotions, and

that didn’t surprise Kira. Selfishness was more fundamental than kindness. But what she didn’t expect was the wandering, childlike confusion that accompanied it. The intelligence born of Carr and Qwon’s joined minds seemed unable to comprehend its circumstances. All it knew was its suffering, its hate, and its desire to multiply until it had blanketed every centimeter of every planet and asteroid in the universe—until its offspring clotted the space around every star in the sky, and each ray of light was sucked up by the life, the life, the LIFE, it had seeded from its misbegotten loins.

This it so desired. And this it needed.

Kira shouted into the darkness as she strained against the Maw, strained against it with mind, body, and Seed. She pitted her own rage and hate against the monster, ravaging the flesh around her with the full force of her desperate desire, fighting like an animal trapped in the clamping jaw of its predator.

Her attempts accomplished nothing. Before the Maw, her anger was a candle compared to a volcano. Her hate was a scream lost in a battering tempest.

The incomprehensible might of the Maw confined her. Constrained her. Blinded her. Every effort it countered. Every strength it matched and overmatched. The Seed was melting around her, dissipating atom by atom as it joined with the Maw. And the harder she fought, the faster the xeno slipped away.

As the Maw neared bare skin—her actual skin, not that of the Seed— Kira realized she had run out of time. If she didn’t act, and now, everything she had done would have been for nothing.

In a frenzy of fresh panic, she felt for the controls of the Casaba-Howitzer with what was left of the Seed. There. The buttons were hard and square under the touch of the xeno’s tendrils.

Kira began to punch in the activation code.

And then … She lost the tendrils. They went slack and flowed like water into encroaching darkness. Flesh rejoining flesh, and with it her only hope of salvation.

She had failed. Totally and utterly. And she had handed their greatest enemy what might have been humanity’s only chance of victory.

Kira’s anger burned even brighter, but it was a futile, hopeless anger. Then the last few molecules of the xeno sublimed, and the substance of the Maw collapsed in on her, hot, bloody, and grasping.

Kira screamed.

The fibers of the Maw were tearing her apart. Skin, muscles, organs, bones, all of it. Her body was being ripped away, shredded like an empty suit of clothes.

The Seed still permeated her, and it finally began to resist the Maw with serious intent, attempting to protect her while also melding with its long-lost flesh. They were contradictory urges, though, and even if the Seed had been solely focused on her defense, there was too little of it left to fend off the might of the Maw.

The helplessness that Kira felt was complete. So, too, was her sense of defeat. The all-consuming agony—both her own and the Maw’s—paled in comparison. She could have borne any imaginable pain if the cause were justified, but in defeat, the offense to her flesh was a thousandfold worse.

It was wrong. All of it wrong. Alan’s death and those of her other teammates, the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances and the creation of the Maw, the thousands upon thousands of sentient beings—human, Jelly, and nightmare alike—who had died in the ten and a half months of fighting. All that pain and suffering, and for what? Wrong. Worst of all, the pattern of the Seed would end up so twisted and perverted that its legacy—and by extension hers—would be one of death, destruction, and suffering.

Anger turned to sorrow. There was little of her left now; Kira didn’t know how much longer she would retain consciousness. A few seconds. Maybe less.

Her mind flashed to Falconi and their night together. The salted taste of his skin. The feel of his body pressed against her own. His warmth inside her. Those moments had been the last normal, intimate experience she would share with another person.

She saw the muscles of his back flexing beneath her hands, and behind him, sitting on the console desk, the gnarled bonsai tree—the only bit of living green left on the Wallfish. It hadn’t been there, though, had it?…

Green. The sight reminded her of the gardens of Weyland, so full of life, fragrant, fragile, precious beyond description.

Then, at the very end, Kira surrendered. She accepted her defeat and abandoned her anger. There was no longer any point in fighting. Besides, she understood the Maw’s pain and the reasons for its rage. They were, at their heart, not so different from her own.

If she could have wept, she would have. And in her extremis, at the very limits of her existence, a flush of warmth suffused Kira, calming, cleansing

—transformative in its redemptive purity.

I forgive you, she said. And instead of rejecting the Maw, she embraced it, opening herself and welcoming it into her.

A shift.…

Where the fibers of the Maw touched her—disassembling her flesh with ruthless intent—there was a pause in motion. A cessation of activity. And then Kira felt the strangest thing: instead of the Seed flowing into the Maw, now the Maw began to flow into the Seed, joining with it, becoming it.

Kira accepted the influx of material, drawing it to herself like a child to her bosom. Her pain subsided, along with that of the tissue she had gained hold over. As her reach spread, her sense of self expanded, and with it came a breadth of newfound awareness, like a vista opening up before her.

The Maw’s anger doubled and redoubled. The abomination was aware of the change, and its fury knew no bounds. It struck at her with all the might and power contained within its malformed body: smashing her, squeezing her, twisting her, cutting her. But as the Maw’s fractal fibers closed around her, they relaxed into the Seed and fell under Kira’s sway.

The howl that emanated from the Maw’s tortured mind was apocalyptic in its strength, a nova of pure, unconstrained wrath exploding from within its center. The creature convulsed as if with a seizure, but all its maddening could not slow or stop Kira’s progress.

For she was not fighting the nightmare, not anymore; she was allowing it to be what it was, and she was acknowledging its existence and her role in creating it. And through that, she healed the Maw’s agonized flesh.

As her reach grew, Kira felt herself stretching thinner and thinner, fading into the accumulating mass of the Seed. This time, she didn’t hold back. Letting go was the only way she could counter the Maw, so let go she did, once and for all.

A singular clarity consumed Kira’s consciousness. She could not have said who she was nor how she came to be, but she could feel everything. The press of the Maw’s flesh, the sheen of the stars shining upon them, the layers of nearscent wafting about, and enveloping it all, bands of violet radiation that pulsed as if alive.

The mind of the Maw thrashed and struggled with ever-increasing frenzy as the Seed closed in on it, deep within the folds of bloody meat. The greater part of the mountain of flesh belonged to her now, and she devoted as much energy to soothing its many hurts as she did to locating and isolating its brain.

She could feel the nearness of Carr and Qwon’s corrupted consciousness. It was incoherent with frustration, and she knew that—given the chance— the cojoined insanity would spring forth anew and continue to spread suffering throughout the galaxy.

Neither she nor the Seed could allow that to happen.

There. Shards of bone, and a softer flesh between, unlike any other, a dense web of nerves emanating from the grey interior. There. Even at a remove, the force of the thoughts within was enough to make her (and the Seed) quail. She wished she could join herself with the mound of tissue, as she had with Gregorovich, and heal it, but the mind of the Maw was still too strong for her. She would risk losing control of the Seed again.

No. The only solution was a cutting blow.

She stiffened a blade of fibers, drew it back and—

A signal struck her from near one of the planets around the dim, blue-white star. It was a burst of electromagnetic waves, but she heard it as clearly as any voice: a shrill stutter-stop packed with layers of encrypted information.

Deep within her, a jolt of electricity coursed through the circuits of the Casaba-Howitzer. Then a piece of machinery shifted inside the missile with a heavy thud. And with dreadful certainty she knew:


There was no time to escape. No time whatsoever.


In the darkness, light blossomed.

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