Chapter no 69

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

Kira watched as the three spaceships drew near: the UMCS Unrelenting Force, the SLV Wallfish, and a battle-scarred Wranaui vessel whose name, when translated, was Swift Currents Beneath Silent Waves.

Each of the ships was massively different in appearance. The Unrelenting Force was long and thick, with numerous hard points along its hull for lasers, missile launchers, and railguns. It was painted a dark, matte grey, which stood in stark contrast to the glittering, silver-laced diamond of its radiators. The Wallfish was far shorter and smaller, stubby even, its hull a familiar brown, scuffed and pitted by years of impacts from micrometeoroids, and with a large hole where the Wranaui had cut into one cargo hold. Like the UMC battleship, the Wallfish had the fins of its radiators deployed, many of which had been broken. Last of all, there was the Wranaui ship, a polished, shell-white orb marred only by a blaster burn smeared across its prow.

The three ships used RCS thrusters to slow themselves as they approached the docking ports Kira had grown for them. In the velvet background, swarms of her drones flew past, busy as bees. Her attention was as much with them as with her visitors, but Kira couldn’t help but feel a strange tilting sensation in her core.

Was that unease? It surprised her. Even with everything she had become, she still wondered what Falconi would think of her.

And not just Falconi. When the airlock to the Wallfish opened, the entire crew came trooping out, including Nielsen—still wearing a bandage around her ribs—and the Entropist, Veera. They brought with them Trig’s cryo tube, mounted on a rolling pallet, which pleased Kira to see.

The Unrelenting Force disgorged Admiral Klein … and with him an entire troop of UMCN Marines in full power armor. Likewise, a group of armed Wranaui accompanied Lphet as the shoal leader left its ship.

Nearscent of concern and curiosity emanated from the graspers. Among them was Itari, and also a single human: Major Tschetter, her expression unreadable as ever.

“This way,” Kira said, and lit a line of emerald lights down the corridor facing them.

Both the humans and the Wranaui followed her lead. She watched from the walls and the floors and the ceiling, for she was all of those and more. Falconi looked uncertain of himself, but she was glad to see that he seemed whole and healthy and that his shoulder injury no longer pained him. Klein showed no emotion, but his eyes darted from side to side, watching for anything unexpected.

Aside from the Marines, all the humans were wearing skinsuits with helmets firmly attached. The Wranaui, as usual, made no concessions to the environment, trusting their current forms to protect them.

As the visitors entered the presence chamber she had created to receive them, Kira shifted her view back to the flesh she had formed for herself, that Klein, Lphet, and Falconi would have an image of her to look at. It seemed the polite thing to do.

The chamber was high and narrow, with an arched ceiling and a double row of columns grown of nnar, the coral-like excrescence she knew of from Qwon (and was fond of because). Walls were framed with spars of polished metal, dark grey and adorned with lines of blue that formed patterns of meaning known only to the Old Ones … and now her. Filling the frames were great curving sections of wood and vines and dark-leafed greenery.

And those were from her that was Kira. Also the flowers that rested in crannies dark and shadowed: drooping flowers, with purple petals and speckled throats. Midnight Constellations, in memory of her home and of Alan—of all that she had once been.

She had repeated the shape of the flowers on the floor, in fractal spirals that coiled without end. And the sight pleased her, gave her a sense of satisfaction.

Among the spirals stood one of the crystals she had made of Ctein: a frozen flame of faceted beauty. Life arrested, yet still reaching and yearning.

A few glowlights hung from the branches of nnar above, ripened fruit pulsing with a soft, golden ambience. In the broken beams of light that

reached the floor, pollen swirled like smoke, heavy and fragrant. A trickle of running water sounded amid the pitted columns, but otherwise the chamber was still and silent, sacred.

Kira made no demands, issued no ultimatums, but Klein spoke a single word to his troops, and the Marines held their position by the arched entryway as the admiral continued forward. Lphet did the same with its guard (including Itari), and human and Wranaui advanced with Major Tschetter and the crew of the Wallfish in tow.

As they neared the far end of the presence chamber, Kira allowed the glowlights to brighten, banishing the shadows before a rising dawn so they might behold her.

The visitors stopped.

She looked down upon them from where her new body lay embedded within the rootlike structure of the wall, green upon green and threaded throughout with the glossy black fibers of the Seed, the wonderous, life-giving Seed.

“Welcome,” said Kira, and it felt strange to speak with a mouth and tongue. Stranger still to hear the voice that came forth: a voice that was deeper than she remembered and that contained hints and echoes of both Carr and Qwon.

“Oh, Kira,” said Nielsen. “What have you done?” Through her visor, her expression was one of worry.

“You okay?” Falconi asked, brows drawn together in his habitual scowl. Admiral Klein cleared his throat. “Ms. Navárez—”

“Welcome,” said Kira, and smiled. Or at least she tried; she wasn’t sure if she remembered how. “I have asked you here, Admiral Klein, and you, Shoal Leader Lphet, to act as representatives for both humans and Jellies.”

[[Lphet here: I am no longer shoal leader, Idealis.]] And Tschetter translated the Wranaui’s words for the humans listening.

“How then shall I address you, Lphet?” Kira spoke in both English and nearscent, that all might understand.

[[Lphet here: As the great and mighty Lphet.]]

A faint prickle passed along the spines of the station, as a breath of cold wind along Kira’s back. “You have taken the place of Ctein, now that Ctein is dead.” It was not a question.

The tentacles of the Wranaui flushed red and white and rubbed together in a prideful gesture. [[Lphet here: That is correct, Idealis. Every Arm of the Wranaui is now mine to command.]]

Admiral Klein shifted his weight. He seemed to be growing impatient. “What is all this about, Navárez? Why have you brought us here? What are you building and why?”

She laughed slightly, a musical sound similar to the trickle of a mossy creek. “Why? For this that I shall tell you. Humans and Jellies will fight as long as they have no common ground. The nightmares, the Corrupted, provided a shared enemy, but that enemy is now gone.”

[[Lphet here: Are you sure of that, Idealis?]]

She understood what Lphet was really asking: Was the Maw truly gone? Was she/it still a threat? “Yes, I can promise you that. The suit I am bonded with, which you know as the Idealis, and you Admiral Klein know as the Soft Blade, shall not cause such problems again. Also, I have sent a command to the Corrupted outside this system. When it reaches them, they will cease to be a threat to any living creature.”

The admiral looked doubtful. “How so? Do you mean—”

“I mean,” said Kira, her voice echoing above them, “that I have unmade the Corrupted. You no longer need worry about them.”

“You killed them,” said Nielsen in a subdued tone. The others seemed pleased and troubled in equal measure.

Kira bent her neck. “There was no other choice. But the issue remains: humans and Jellies will never stay allies without reason. Well, I have provided the reason. I have made this common ground.”

“This?” said Klein, looking around at the chamber. “This place?”

She smiled again. The expression was easier the second time. “It is a space station, Admiral. Not a ship. Not a weapon. A home. I made it much as the Old Ones—the Vanished—would have. In their tongue, it would be called Mar Íneth. In ours, it is Unity.”

“Unity,” said Klein, appearing to chew on the word.

Kira nodded as best she could. “This is a place for coming together, Admiral. It is a living, breathing thing that will continue to grow and blossom with time. There are rooms fit for humans, and rooms for Jellies. Other creatures will live here also, caretakers that will tend to Unity’s many parts.”

Tschetter spoke then, on her own. “You want us to use this station as an embassy, is that it?”

“More than that,” said Kira, “as a hub for our two races. There will be enough space for millions to live here. Maybe more. All who come be welcome as long as they keep the peace. If the idea still gives you unease, then think of this: I have built Unity with means and methods that not even the Jellies understand. I will allow those who stay here to study the station … and to study me. That alone ought to be incentive enough.”

Admiral Klein seemed troubled. He crossed his arms and sucked on the inside of his cheek for a moment. “And what guarantee do we have that this xeno won’t go rogue again and kill everyone on board?”

A ripple of purple ran the length of Lphet’s tentacles: an offended response. [[Lphet here: The Idealis has already given their promise, two-form. Your concern is unwarranted.]]

“Oh is it?” said Klein. “The millions, if not billions, of people the nightmares killed say otherwise.”

[[Lphet here: You do not—]]

Kira rustled the leaves along the walls, and the soft susurration stopped the conversation, made everyone freeze and then look back at her. “I can give you no guarantees, Admiral Klein, but you have seen how I have helped and healed the members of your fleet that I’ve found.”

He cocked his head. “That’s true.”

“Sometimes you just have to trust on faith, Admiral. Sometimes you have to take a chance.”

“It’s a hell of a chance, Navárez.”

Tschetter looked over at him. “Not having a relationship with the Jellies would be worse.”

A sour expression formed on Klein’s face. “That doesn’t mean that here is the right place to set up diplomatic relations, and there’s no way in hell civilians should be allowed anywhere near Cordova. Not until Intelligence has a chance to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Besides, I don’t have the authority to negotiate this sort of an agreement. You’re going to have to deal with the League, Kira, not me, and that’s going to take time. My guess is they’ll want to send someone out here to talk with you face to face. That means at least another month and a half before any of this can be settled.”

She didn’t argue but looked at the Wranaui. [[Kira here: What say you, great and mighty Lphet?]]

A blossom of red and orange passed across the nearby Wranaui. [[Lphet here: The Arms would be honored to accept your offer, Idealis. The opportunity to study a making such as this is one we have not had in this or any other ripple. Tell us how many Wranaui may stay upon this station, and I shall send for them at once.]]

As Tschetter translated, Klein set his jaw. “Is that so?… Fine. The League can sort out the details later, but I’ll be damned if I’m letting the Jellies get the jump on us. However many personnel they post here, I want clearance to bring over just as many of my own people.”

This time, Kira knew better than to smile. “Of course, Admiral. I do have a condition, though.”

His stance stiffened. “And what’s that, Navárez?”

“This goes for everyone who wants to live on or visit Unity: no weapons allowed. If you bring them on board, I will destroy them and expel you.”

[[Lphet here: Of course, Idealis. We will obey your wishes.]]

Klein cocked his head. “What about, say, repair bots? Or service lasers?

In the right hands, even a fork could be a deadly weapon.”

Humans. “Use common sense, Admiral. I’ll allow power armor, as long as it is disarmed. But make no mistake, if anyone starts a fight on this station, human or Jelly, I will put an end to it.” And her voice deepened until it echoed from the walls, as if all of Unity were her throat. In a way, it was.

Even under his spacer’s tan, Klein’s cheeks grew pale. “Point taken. You won’t have any trouble from my crews, Navárez. You have my word.”

[[Lphet here: Nor from the forms loyal to the Arms.]]

Kira allowed them to feel her pleasure then, in the color and brightness of the glowlights, in the happy trill of the water, and in the comforting rustle of the leaves. “Then it is settled.” Satisfied, she shifted her attention to Falconi and the crew of the Wallfish, and she looked at each of them in turn.

Sparrow scratched at her side through her skinsuit. “Shit, Kira, you sure don’t do anything halfway, do you?”


Then Vishal spoke up. “How did you survive, Ms. Kira? We thought for sure the Casaba-Howitzer had killed you.”

At that, Admiral Klein appeared even more uncomfortable. It was he who had authorized the detonation, Kira felt sure. But she didn’t care. Assigning blame wouldn’t do any good at this point, and besides, setting off the Casaba-Howitzer had been the logical choice. The Maw had to be stopped.

Bemused, she said, “I think perhaps it did. For a time, at least.”

A grunt came from Hwa-jung, and with a quick motion of her hand, the machine boss made the sign of the cross. “Are you, you?”

A disjointed memory flashed through Kira’s reconstituted brain: a grey holding cell; a mirrored window; cold grating beneath her knees; a holo flickering to life in front of her, and Major Tschetter standing before her in a grey uniform. And the major saying, “Do you still feel like yourself?”

A small chuckle escaped Kira. “Yes … and no. I’m something more than I was.”

The machine boss’s eyes bored into her, hot as thermal lances. “No. Are you, you, Kira? Here,” she tapped her sternum, “where it matters. Is your soul still the same?”

Kira thought. “My soul? I don’t know how to answer that question, Hwa-jung. But what I want now is the same thing I wanted before: that is, peace, and for life to flourish. Does that mean I’m the same person?… Maybe. Maybe not. Change is not always a bad thing.”

Still, Hwa-jung seemed troubled. “No, it is not. And what you say is good, Kira, but do not forget what it means to be human.”

“Forgetting is very much what I don’t want to do,” said Kira. At that, the machine boss seemed, if not happy, at least satisfied.

Then Kira shifted her gaze to Veera. The Entropist stood with her forearms clasped across her chest, hands tucked into the voluminous sleeves of her gradient robes. The woman had bruised circles under her eyes, and her cheeks were gaunt, as if from a great sickness.

“My condolences, Questant Veera, for the loss of your partner. We … understand.”

The Entropist pressed her lips together, nodded, and bowed low. “Thank you, Prisoner Kira. Your concern is comforting.”

Kira inclined her head in return. “Prisoner no more, Questant.”

Surprise widened the Entropist’s features. “What? That isn’t … How do you mean?”

But Kira did not answer. Instead, she looked again at Falconi. “Salvo.” “Kira,” he replied, somber.

“You brought Trig.” “Of course.”

“Do you trust us, Salvo?”

He hesitated and then nodded. “I wouldn’t have brought the kid if I didn’t.”

That warmed the center of Kira’s being. Again she smiled. It was fast becoming her favorite expression. “Then trust me once more.”

From the fractal floor, she sent a thicket of tendrils—green this time, not black—sprouting up around Trig’s cryo tube. Sparrow and Hwa-jung cursed and jumped away from the tube, while at the back of the chamber, the ranks of armored Marines stiffened and lifted their weapons.

“Put those down!” Klein barked. “At ease!”

Kira’s smile never wavered as the tendrils twined around Trig’s tube, encasing it in a twisting, squirming embrace—burying it beneath the mass of greenery.

“Kira,” said Nielsen, in a soft tone. Not warning, not angry, but concerned.

“Trust me,” she said. By means of the vines that were her limbs, she reached into the cryo tube and ran a thousand different threads into Trig’s damaged flesh, seeking the source of his injuries. There. A collection of burned cells, torn muscles, bruised and damaged tendons, ruptured blood vessels, and severed nerves—the insults to his body were as easy for her to feel as the internal structure of the station.

How could she have ever found this hard? The thought seemed inconceivable.

Then she poured the needed energy into Trig’s frozen form, guided the Seed as it worked to repair his wounds. When all seemed right, she removed the respirator from his mouth and disconnected the tubes from his arms, separating him from the machine that had kept him in suspended animation for over half a year.

Slowly, carefully, she warmed his body, treating it as gently as a mother hen would a newly laid egg. She felt the heat of his metabolism increase like a kindling fire rising to full flame until, at last, he took his first, unsupported breath.

She released him then. The vines retracted into the floor to reveal Trig’s pale form curled in a fetal shape, bare except for a pair of grey thermal shorts of the sort worn under skinsuits. He gasped, like a drowning man coming to the surface, and hacked up a gob of spit. It melted away, as if it had never existed.

“Trig!” exclaimed Nielsen, and she and Vishal bent over the kid.

Sparrow, Hwa-jung, and Falconi crowded in close, watching. “Wh—Where am I?” Trig said. His voice was weak, hoarse. “That is somewhat hard to explain,” said Vishal.

Falconi shrugged off his vest and draped it over the kid’s shoulders. “Here, this’ll help keep you warm.”

“Huh? Why are you all wearing skinsuits? Where am I?” Then Sparrow moved out of the way, and Trig saw Kira, suspended as she was in the wall. His mouth dropped open. “That … you, Kira?”

“Welcome back,” she said, and her voice blossomed with warmth. “We weren’t sure you were going to make it.”

Trig looked around the pillared chamber. His eyes showed white. “Is all this yours?”

“It is.”

The kid tried to get to his feet, but his knees buckled and he would have fallen if Hwa-jung hadn’t caught him by the arm. “Careful,” she rumbled.

“I … I…” Trig shook his head. Then he looked at Falconi with a plaintive expression. “Are we still at Bughunt?”

“No,” said Falconi. “That we aren’t. Let’s get you back to the Wallfish and have the doc check you out, and then you can rest up and we’ll fill you in on everything you’ve missed.”

“It’s been exciting,” Sparrow said in a dry tone.

“Yessir. Rest sounds pretty darn nice right now. Feels like I got worked over by a couple of guys with hammers. I—” The kid’s words cut off as he saw Lphet and, by the back of the chamber, the rest of the Wranaui. He yelped and attempted to scramble backwards, but Hwa-jung grabbed him by the arm again, held him in place. “J-j-jellies! Comeon, we gotta—”

“We know,” said Nielsen in a soothing voice. “It’s okay. Trig, stop, look at me. It’s okay. Take a breath, calm down. We’re all friends here.”

The kid hesitated, glancing between them as if uncertain what to believe. Then Sparrow gave him a light punch on the shoulder. “As I said, it’s been


“That’s one way to put it,” muttered Falconi. “Nielsen’s right, though. We’re all friends here.” His gaze darted toward Kira for an instant before returning to the kid.

Trig relaxed then and stopped pulling against Hwa-jung. “Yessir. Sorry sir.”

“Perfectly understandable,” said Falconi, and patted him on the back. Then Kira shifted her attention back to her other guests. “Admiral Klein,

great and mighty Lphet, you have seen what I can do. If you have any other crew members who are wounded—wounded beyond your ability to heal— bring them here, and I will do for them what I did for Trig.”

[[Lphet here: Your generosity is without equal, Idealis, but those of the Wranaui who are hurt beyond repair will transfer to new forms rather than suffer with an injury.]]

“As you wish.”

A deep furrow appeared between Klein’s eyebrows. “That’s a damn kind offer, Navárez, but biocontainment protocol doesn’t allow for—”

“Biocontainment protocol,” said Kira in a gentle voice, “has already been well and truly broken. Wouldn’t you agree, Admiral?”

His scowl deepened. “You may have a point, but the League would court-martial me if I violated quarantine like that.”

“You must have run tests on the men and women I already healed.” “Of course.”


“Nothing,” growled Klein. “The techs can’t find a damned thing wrong with them.”

“So there you go.”

He shook his head. “No, we don’t. The Extenuating Circumstances couldn’t find anything wrong with you either before the xeno came out of you. So forgive me if I’m somewhat less than blasé about the situation, Navárez.”

She smiled, but this time less out of pleasure than a desire to appear unthreatening. “The League holds no sway here, Admiral, nor shall it. I am claiming this system for myself, for Unity, and neither the League nor the Jellies shall dictate laws here. While you are under my protection, you are a

free man, Admiral—free to make whatever choices your conscience dictates.”

“A free man.” He snorted and shook his head. “You have some gall, Navárez.”

“Maybe. I made my offer not out of consideration for you, Admiral, but for your crews. If you have men or women who are suffering, whom you can’t heal, I can help. That is all. The decision is yours.”

Then she looked past him, at the Wranaui near the back of the chamber. “Itari, it is good to see you unharmed. I am grateful for the help you provided on the Battered Hierophant.

A ripple of bright colors passed across the Wranaui’s tentacles. [[Itari here: It pleases this one to have been of use.]]

Kira returned her gaze to the forefront. “Great and mighty Lphet, without Itari’s service during recent events, we might never have defeated Ctein. As a favor to me, I ask that you grant Itari hatching rights, as well as a choice of whatever form it wishes to have.”

Nearscent of agreement reached her. [[Lphet here: Your request is reasonable, Idealis. It will be done.]]

And Itari turned blue and purple. [[Itari here: Thank you, Idealis.]]

Kira responded with pleasant nearscent of her own. Then she shifted her attention to the rest of her guests. “I have said what needed saying. Now, I must return to my work. Leave me, and I shall send for you when I am ready to talk again.”

Admiral Klein gave a sharp nod, turned on his heel, and marched toward the back of the chamber. Lphet paused to make a sign of courtesy with its tentacles—a wriggle and a flash of color that Kira recognized from Qwon’s memories—and followed suit. Last of all, the crew of the Wallfish departed also, but not before Falconi gave her one more look and said, “Are you going to be okay, Kira?”

She gazed down at him with fondness, and the whole chamber seemed to bend toward him. “I’m going to be fine, Salvo. Absolutely fine. All is well.” And she meant it with her entire being.

“Alright then,” he said. But he did not appear convinced.

With her visitors departed, Kira returned to the work of building out the station. Lphet’s promised Wranaui soon arrived, and she guided them to their watery quarters. Directly afterward, Klein sent over a contingent of UMC researchers. Those too she provided housing within the frame of her expanding body, and she offered them fruit grown of Mar Íneth. But while the researchers accepted the fruit, they did not taste of it, and they kept their skinsuits on at all times, which she knew was no small discomfort. No matter. It was not her place to force them to trust. The Wranaui were less concerned for their safety and gladly partook of her hospitality, either because of their history with the Seed and its kin or because of their disregard for individual bodies. Kira wasn’t sure which.

Along with the Wranaui came Tschetter. When Kira asked the woman why she had not rejoined the UMC, she said, “After all the time I spent with the Jellies, UMCI would never allow me to have my old job back. As far as they’re concerned, I’ve been irrevocably compromised.”

“So what will you do?” Kira asked.

The once-major gestured at the station around her. “Work as a liaison between humans and Jellies, try to avoid another war. Lphet has chosen me to serve as a translator and facilitator with the UMC and the League, and Admiral Klein has agreed to the same.” She shrugged. “I think I might be able to do some good here. Ambassador Tschetter; it has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

Kira did. And it heartened her to see the hope Tschetter had in her new work, as well as the woman’s optimism for their shared future.

Outside the station, ships continued to gather: human, Wranaui, and those Kira had built to bring her supplies from throughout Cordova. They clustered around her like bees around a flower full of nectar, and she felt a sense of pride when she looked at them.

A signal beam flashed toward her from the Wallfish. Out of curiosity, she answered, and the familiar sound of Gregorovich’s voice filled her hidden ears:

*Greetings, O Meatsack. Now you are as I am. How do you like being bounded in this particular nutshell?*

“I have transcended the nutshell, ship mind.”

*Oh-ho! A bold claim, that.*

“It is true,” she said. Then: “How do you manage to keep track of everything that is yourself? There’s so … much.”

His answer was surprisingly sober: *It takes time, O Queen of Thorns. Time and work. Do not make any hasty judgments until you are sure of yourself. After I transitioned, it took a year and a half before I knew who the new me was.* He giggled, ruining his serious air. *Not that I ever really know who I am. Who does, hmm? We change as circumstances change, like wisps blown on the wind.*

She thought on that for a time. “Thank you, Gregorovich.”

*Of course, station mind. Whenever you need to talk, call, and I will listen.*

Kira took his advice seriously. Even as she labored on Unity, she redoubled her efforts to sort through the mess of memories strewn throughout her reconstituted brain, struggling to pin down and identify which ones belonged to which parts of herself. Struggling to figure out who exactly she was. She paid particular attention to the memories of the Maw, and it was while studying them that she made a discovery that filled her with cold dread.

Oh no.

For she remembered. Before coming to Cordova-1420, the Maw had taken precautions against its possible defeat (unlikely as that seemed). It had, in the darkest depths of interstellar space, formed seven avatars from its flesh and the flesh of the Seed—seven living, thinking, self-directed copies of itself. And the Maw had sent off its virulent, wrath-filled clones with no knowledge of where they might ultimately go.

Kira thought of the killing command she had broadcast before. Surely that would … But then, from the Seed, she felt an unshakable conviction that the command would not stop the Maw’s avatars, for they were the Seed

—twisted and broken as the Maw had been, but still of the same underlying substance. Unlike the Corrupted, she could not unmake the Maw’s poisonous spawn with a single line, just as she could not have unmade the Maw. The Seed did not possess such power over itself. The Old Ones had not seen fit to give their creations that ability, preferring to keep it for themselves in the shape of the Staff of Blue.

But the staff was broken, and Kira knew that even if she had the pieces, she could not repair it. The knowledge was not in her, and that too was the

Old Ones’ doing.

They had, she decided, been overconfident in their supremacy.

Her dread deepened as she pondered the situation. The Maw’s offspring would spread their evil wherever they went, blanketing planets with Corrupted, converting or overwriting any existing life. The seven represented an existential threat to every other being in the galaxy.… Their legacy would be one of misery—the exact opposite of everything the Seed was supposed to embody.

The thought haunted her.

With a sense of regret, Kira realized her afterlife was not to be as she’d imagined. The Maw was her responsibility, and so too were the seven deadly darts it had let loose among the stars.

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