Chapter no 68

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

She was.

How, where, and what, she could not say … but she was. The lack of knowledge did not bother her. She existed, and existence was its own satisfaction.

Her awareness was a thin, trembling sensation, as if she were stretched over too much area. She felt insubstantial; a haze of recognition drifting across a darkling sea.

And for a time, that was enough.

Then she noticed the membrane of her self beginning to thicken, slowly at first, but with increasing speed. With it came the question that birthed all questions: Why?

As her flesh continued to solidify, her thoughts also grew stronger, more coherent. Still, confusion dominated. What was happening? Was she supposed to know? Where was she? Was where something real or something she had imagined?

The shock of connecting nerves caused her a stab of pain, sharp-edged as the light that shone upon her. For there was light now, from many sources: cold sparks set in black and a great blazing sphere that burned without end.

More shocks followed, and even thought failed before the barrage of pain. Throughout, she continued to increase in size. Gathering. Coalescing into being.

A memory returned to her, and with it, the memory of memories: Sitting in third-year anatomy class, listening to the damn pseudo-intelligence drone on about the internal structure of the pancreas. Looking at the glistening red hair of the undergraduate two rows ahead of him …

What did it mean? Wh—

More memories: Chasing Isthah through rows of tomato plants in the greenhouse behind their hab-dome … then diving past her co-forms toward

the Abyssal Plain, swirling around the overgrown lamp lines with the gasping beaks … arguing with his uncle who didn’t want him to join the UMC, while she sat for entrance exams with the Lapsang Corp. and entered the Nest of Transference before assuming her new form and took the oath of fealty by light of Epsilon Indi on concertina racing forms howsmat double-shot clasp four-point verification nearscent heresy with the swirling exhaust of—

Had she/he/it a mouth, they would have screamed. All sense of identity vanished within the tsunami of images, smells, flavors, and feelings. None of it made sense, and every part of it felt like them, was them.

Fear choked her/him/it, and they flailed, lost.

Among the memories, one set was more lucid and organized than the rest

greenery mixed with love and loneliness and long nights spent working on alien planets—and she/he/it clung to it like a lifeline in a storm. From it, they attempted to construct a sense of self.

It wasn’t easy.

Then, from somewhere in the howling confusion, a single word surfaced, and she/he/it heard it spoken in a voice not their own: “Kira.”

… Kira. The name rang like a struck bell. She wrapped herself in it, using it as armor to defend her core, using it as a way to give her/him/it some sense of internal consistency.

Without that consistency, she was no one. Just a collection of disparate urges devoid of meaning or narrative. So she held to the name with a fierce grip, trying to maintain a semblance of individuality amid the ongoing madness. Who Kira might be wasn’t a question she could answer yet, but if nothing else, the name was a fixed point she could center herself on while she tried to figure out how exactly to define herself.

Time progressed in strange fits and starts. She couldn’t tell if moments were passing or eons. Her flesh continued to expand, as if precipitating out of a cloud of vapor, building, bunching, becoming.

Limbs she felt, and organs too. Blistering heat and, in shadows sharp and stark, brittle cold. Her skin thickened in response, forming armor sufficient to protect even the most delicate of tissues.

Her gaze remained turned inward for most of the time. A chorus of competing voices continued to rage through her mind, each fragment struggling for dominance. Sometimes it seemed her name was actually Carr. Other times Qwon. But always her sense of self returned to Kira. That was the one voice loud enough to hold its own with the others—the one voice soothing enough to calm their frenzied howls and ease their distress.

Larger she grew, and then larger still, until at last there was no more material to add to her flesh. Her size was set, although she could change its arrangement at will. Whatever felt wrong or out of place was hers to move or mold as she wished.

Her mind began to settle, and the shape of things began to make more sense. She remembered something of her life on Weyland, long ago. She remembered working as a xenobiologist, and meeting Alan—dear Alan— and then, later, finding the Seed on Adrasteia. And yet, she also remembered being Carr. Julian Aldus Carr, doctor in the UMCN, son of two not-so-loving parents, and avid collector of carved beryl nuts. Likewise she remembered being the Wranaui Qwon, loyal servant of the Knot of Minds, member of the strike-shoal Hfarr, and ravenous eater of the delicious pfennic. But the memories from both Carr and Qwon were hazy, incomplete

—overridden by the far more vivid recollections of their time spent joined together in hungry fashion as the Maw.

A shiver ran through her flesh. The Maw … With that thought, more information rushed into her mind, full of pain and anger and the torment of unfulfilled expectations.

How was it she and they were still alive?

At long last, she turned her attention to her surroundings.

She hung in the void, seemingly without motion. No debris surrounded her, no gas or dust or other remnants. She was alone.

Her body was dark and crusted, like the surface of an asteroid. The fibers of the Seed bound her together, but she was more than just the fibers; she was flesh too, soft and vulnerable within.

The eyes she had now grown allowed her to see the bands of magnetic force throughout the system. Visible also was the shimmery haze of the

solar wind. The sun that illuminated all was a dim blue-white that reminded her of … she didn’t know, but it felt familiar, nostalgic—though the nostalgia came not from her/Carr/Qwon but from the Seed itself.

She extended her gaze.

Scores of glittering ships populated the system. Some she seemed to recognize. Others were unfamiliar but of a familiar type: vessels belonging to graspers or else to two-forms … or else to the misplaced flesh of the Maw—which was her. She was responsible. And she saw how the flesh of her flesh had resumed attacking the other ships, spreading pain, death, and destruction throughout the system.

She did not understand the situation, not fully, but she knew that this was wrong. So she called to her wayward children, summoning them to her side that she might end the conflict.

Some obeyed. They flew toward her with great banners of flame streaming from their engines, and when they arrived, she clasped them close and healed their hurts, calmed their minds, returned their flesh to whence it came. For she was their mother, and it was her duty to care for them.

Some rebelled. Those she sent parts of herself racing after, and so caught them and chastised them and carried them back to where she hung waiting. None escaped. She did not hate her children for misbehaving. No, rather she felt sorrow for them and sang to them as she eased their fears, their angers, and their many pains. Their agony was so great, she would have wept if she could.

As she corralled her unruly offspring, some of the graspers and the two-forms shot at her sendings with lasers, missiles, and solid projectiles. That would have incurred the wrath of the Maw, but not of her. The attacks bothered her little, for she knew the graspers and the two-forms did not understand. She had no fear of them. Their weapons could not harm what she had become.

Many of the beings’ ships followed as she drew in the leavings of her flesh. They formed a grid in front of her, at what they must have thought was a safe distance. It was not, but she kept that knowledge to herself.

Hundreds of signals emanated from the ships, aimed toward her. The electromagnetic beams were dazzling cones of prismatic energy flashing in

her vision, and the sounds and information they carried were like the buzzing of so many mosquitoes.

The display was distracting, and it made thinking harder than it already was. Annoyed, she spoke a single word, using means that every species would understand:


After that, the signals ceased, leaving her in blessed silence. Satisfied, Kira again turned her focus inward. There was much she still didn’t understand, much that she still needed to make sense of.

Piece by piece, she worked to assemble a coherent picture of recent events. Again she lived the visit to Bughunt. Again the escape from Orsted Station and then the long trip to Cordova and the battle that followed.

The Casaba-Howitzer had exploded. That much she felt sure of. And somehow—somehow—the Seed had salvaged something of her consciousness, and that of Carr and Qwon, from amid the nuclear inferno.

She was … Kira Navárez. But she was also so much more. She was part Carr, part Qwon, and also part the Seed.

For a lock seemed to have opened in her mind, and she realized there was a storehouse of knowledge she now had access to—knowledge from the Seed. Knowledge from the time of the Vanished. Only, that wasn’t what they had called themselves. Rather, they thought of themselves as … the Old Ones. Those who had come before.

In the process of saving her, she and the xeno had finally become fully integrated. But there was more to it, and this too she now understood: there were layers to the Seed’s abilities, and most of them remained walled off, inaccessible until the xeno reached a certain size (which she had now far exceeded).

So she who had once been just Kira and was now far more, far greater, hung there in the blackness of space, and she thought, and studied, and contemplated the branching possibilities that lay before her. The path had grown tangled as a thicket, but she knew that the Seed’s guiding principle would help guide her, for it was her own principle as well: life was sacred. Every part of their moral code rested upon that fundamental principle. Life

was sacred, and it was her duty to protect it and, where reasonable, disseminate it.

While she pondered, she noticed how the ships in the system arrayed themselves: human on one axis, Wranaui on another, and as much as they kept their weapons aimed at her, they kept an equal amount aimed at each other: two fleets facing off, with her in the middle. The cease-fire was an uneasy one. Even with the death of the great and mighty Ctein, it would take little to reignite the flames of war. The two species had had nothing but the Maw to bind them together and both were, at heart, ruthless, bloodthirsty, and expansionist. That much she knew from her life as Kira, and also from her life as Shoal Leader Nmarhl.

Then too, she felt responsible for the war. Her that was Carr and Qwon. Her that had been the Maw and its offspring. Her that now floated in orbit around the Cordovan star.

And she knew that more of her unfortunate offspring moved among the stars, spreading terror, pain, and death among the humans and Wranaui. And her that was Kira felt fear for her family. Nor was that all: she remembered the planet the Maw had infested, an entire sphere of living things, transformed into service of the misguided flesh. Machines there were too, and ships also, and all sorts of dangerous devices.

The thought distressed her.

She wanted … peace, in all its forms. She wanted to give the gift of life, that both humans and Wranaui might stand together and breathe air that smelled of green and good and not metal and misery.

She knew then what she needed to do.

“Watch, and do not interfere,” she said to the waiting fleets.

First the most painful part. She drew upon what had been the hidden knowledge of the Seed and transmitted a powerful signal from the system. Not a cry, not a plea, but a command. A killing command, directed at the makings of the Maw. Upon reception, it would unknit the cells of the Corrupted, disassemble their bodies, and reduce them to the organic compounds that comprised them. What the Seed had made, it could unmake.

A cleansing was necessary, and she could think of no faster way to stop the violence and suffering. The task had fallen to her, and she would not shy from the work, however sorrowful.

With that done, she formed agents of her flesh and sent them forth to the damaged ships that floated abandoned around the planet the Wranaui had been mining. Other parts of herself she dispatched to the bands of asteroids, with the goal of extracting the materials she needed.

While the drones pursued their function, she set to work upon the main body of her flesh, restructuring it to fit her intention. Around her core, she formed an armored sphere that served to protect what remained of her original body. From that, she extruded polished black panels designed to absorb every ray of sunlight that struck them. Power. She needed power if she were to accomplish her goal. The Seed had plenty of its own, but not enough for what she had in mind.

What mind? No mind … She laughed to herself, a quiet song in space.

Drawing upon the Seed’s banks of encoded knowledge, she began to build the needed machines, constructing them from the atomic level up. With energy gathered from the panels, she sparked a burning sun inside herself: a fusion reactor large enough to drive the biggest UMC battleship. With energy from the artificial star, she started to manufacture antimatter— far more than the inefficient techniques of the humans or the Wranaui allowed for. The Old Ones had mastered the means of antimatter production before either species had even come into being. And with antimatter as fuel, she built a modified torque engine that allowed her to twist the fabric of the universe and siphon energy directly from FTL space. Which was, as she had come to understand, how the Seed powered itself.

As her agents took possession of the damaged ships, they sometimes found wounded humans or Wranaui forgotten upon the vessels. The wounded often attacked, but she ignored their attacks and tended to their injuries, despite any protestations, before sending the abandoned crew off to their kind in escape pods taken from the ships or that she made herself.

When the drones returned with ships and stones in tow, Kira devoured the materials they contained—much as the Maw would have—and added them to the structures taking shape around her.

The watching fleets grew nervous at this, and several of the vessels flashed her with powerful signals in an attempt to talk with her.

“Wait,” she said. And they did, although both humans and Wranaui retreated even farther, leaving a wide berth of space around her.

With energy and mass to spare, Kira put all her efforts into construction. The endeavor was not purely mechanical; along with beams and braces and metal girders, she allowed the Seed to create special chambers that it filled with an organic soup—heated bioreactors that began to produce the living materials needed for the finished product: woods stronger than any steel; seeds and buds and eggs and more besides; vines that crawled and clung and could transmit electricity as efficiently as copper cable; fungal superconductors; and a whole ecosystem of flora and fauna drawn from the Seed’s vast experience, and which it and Kira believed would work in a harmonious whole.

She moved quickly, but her efforts took time. Days passed, and still the fleets sat waiting and watching, and still she built.

From her central core grew four enormous struts that extended forward, backward, left, and right, so that they made a cross with arms of equal length. She extended the cross, meter after meter, until each strut was three and a half kilometers long and thick enough to fly a cruiser through. Then she set the Seed to joining the tips of the cross with a great equatorial ring, and from the end of each strut, a rib began to grow both up and down and curving inward, as if hugging the surface of an invisible orb.

The Seed was so large by then that Kira could hardly imagine being confined to a body the size of a human or a Wranaui. Her consciousness encompassed the whole of the structure, and she was aware of every part of it at every moment. It was, she imagined, much how a ship mind must feel. The substance of her self expanded to match the demands of the sensory input, and with that expansion came a breadth of thought she had never before experienced.

Construction was yet ongoing, but she was no longer willing to wait. Time had grown short indeed. Besides, all who watched could see what she had set out to make: a space station greater in size than any that human or Wranaui had built. Parts of it were metallic grey, but most of it was green and red, reflecting the organic material that made up the bulk of the station. It was a living thing, as much as any person, and Kira knew it would continue to grow and evolve for decades, if not centuries to come.

But, like all gardens, it needed tending.

She put her attention into several chambers close to her core, sealed them from the vacuum, filled them with air hospitable to both humans and

Wranaui, gave them gravity suitable for either species, and finished them in a style that seemed fitting. To that end, she combined elements of design from the Wranaui, the Old Ones, and the part of her that was Kira, from each choosing what was most to her liking.

At her command, a pair of agents brought her the hardened core of what had once been Ctein. The great and mighty Ctein. The Wranaui would not care what happened to it—they were indifferent to bodies—but she did. She took the blackened remnants and again remade the substance of its flesh by converting the leaden pillars into seven shards of gleaming crystal, blue-white and dazzling to behold. Each crystal she set within a different chamber, there to serve as a warning, a remembrance, and a symbol of renewal.

Then finally she broke her silence. “Admiral Klein, Shoal Leader Lphet, I wish to speak to you. Come. Meet me here. Falconi, you also, and … bring Trig with you.”

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