To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 3: “Extenuating Circumstances”

Kira Navárez dreamed of life on new worlds.

Now she’s awakened a nightmare.

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human.

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, a brand new epic novel from New York Times bestselling author Christopher Paolini, out September 15, 2020 from Tor Books.

New chapters on Tor.com every Monday.

 

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
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Chapter 3

***

Extenuating Circumstances

1.

To start with, there was the awareness of awareness.

Then an awareness of pressure, soft and comforting.

Later still, an awareness of sounds: a faint chirp that repeated, a distant rumble, the whir of recycled air.

Last of all came an awareness of self, rising from within the depths of blackness. It was a slow process; the murk was thick and heavy, like a blanket of silt, and it stifled her thoughts, weighing them down and burying them in the deepness. The natural buoyancy of her consciousness prevailed, though, and in time, she woke.

 

2.

Kira opened her eyes.

She was lying on an exam table in sickbay, at HQ. Above her, a pair of lightstrips striped the bracketed ceiling, blue-white and harsh. The air was cool and dry and smelled of familiar solvents.

I’m alive.

Why was that surprising? And how had she ended up in sickbay? Weren’t they supposed to be leaving for the Fidanza?

She swallowed, and the foul taste of hibernation fluids caused her to gag. Her stomach turned as she recognized the taste. Cryo? She’d been in fucking cryo? Why? For how long?

What the hell had happened?!

Panic spiked her pulse, and Kira bolted upright, clawing at the blanket that covered her. “Gaaah!” She was wearing a thin medical gown, tied at the sides.

The walls swam around her with cryo-induced vertigo. She pitched forward and fell off the table onto the white decking, heaving as her body tried to expel the poison inside of her. Nothing came up except drool and bile.

“Kira!”

She felt hands turning her over, and then Alan appeared above her, cradling her with gentle arms. “Kira,” he said again, his face pinched with concern. “Shhh. It’s okay. I’ve got you now. Everything’s okay.”

He looked nearly as bad as Kira felt. His cheeks were hollow, and there were lines around his eyes she didn’t remember from that morning. Morning? “How long?” she croaked.

Alan winced. “Almost four weeks.”

“No.” Dread sank into her. “Four weeks?” Unable to believe it, Kira checked her overlays: 1402 GST, Monday, August 16, 2257.

Stunned, she read the date twice more. Alan was right. The last day she recalled, the day they’d been supposed to depart Adra, was the twenty-first of July. Four weeks!

Feeling lost, she searched Alan’s face, hoping for answers. “Why?”

He stroked her hair. “What do you remember?”

Kira struggled to answer. “I—” Mendoza had told her to check on the downed drone, and then… and then… falling, pain, glowing lines, and darkness, darkness all around.

“Ahhh!” She scrabbled backwards and clutched at her neck, heart pounding. It felt as if something were blocking her throat, suffocating her.

“Relax,” said Alan, keeping a hand on her shoulder. “Relax. You’re safe now. Breathe.”

A clutch of agonized seconds, and then her throat loosened and she sucked in a breath, desperate for air. Kira shuddered and grabbed Alan and held him as tight as she could. She’d never been prone to panic attacks, not even during finals for her IPD, but the feeling of being suffocated had been so real

His voice muffled by her hair, Alan said, “It’s my fault. I should never have asked you to check out those rocks. I’m so sorry, babe.”

“No, don’t apologize,” she said, pulling back enough to look at his face. “Someone had to do it. Besides, I found alien ruins. How amazing is that?”

“Pretty amazing,” he admitted with a reluctant smile.

“See? Now, what—”

Footsteps sounded outside sickbay, and Fizel walked in. He was slim and dark and kept a short, faded haircut that never seemed to grow out. Today he was wearing his clinician’s jacket, and his cuffs were rolled back, as if he’d been giving an exam.

On seeing Kira, he leaned back out the doorway and shouted, “She’s up!” Then he sauntered past the three patient beds set along the wall, picked up a chip-lab off the small counter, squatted next to Kira, and grabbed her wrist. “Open. Say ah.

“Ah.”

In quick succession, he looked in her mouth and ears, checked her pulse and blood pressure, and felt under her jaw, saying, “Does this hurt?”

“No.”

He nodded, a sharp gesture. “You’ll be fine. Make sure to drink lots of water. You’ll need it after being in cryo.”

“I have been frozen before,” said Kira, as Alan helped her back onto the exam table.

Fizel’s mouth twisted. “Just doing my job, Navárez.”

“Uh-huh.” Kira scratched her forearm. As much as she hated to admit it, the doctor was right. She was dehydrated, and her skin was dry and itchy.

“Here,” said Alan, and handed her a water pouch.

As Kira took a sip, Marie-Élise, Jenan, and Seppo rushed into sickbay.

“Kira!”

“There you are!”

“Welcome back, sleepyhead!”

Behind them, Ivanova appeared, arms crossed, no-nonsense. “Well it’s about time, Navárez!”

Then Yugo, Neghar, and Mendoza joined them as well, and the entire survey team crowded into sickbay, packing in so close that Kira felt the heat from their bodies and the touch of their breath. It was a welcome cocoon of life.

And yet, despite the nearness of her friends, Kira still felt odd and unsettled, as if the universe were out of joint, like a tilted mirror. Partly because of the weeks she had lost. Partly, she thought, because of whatever drugs Fizel had pumped into her. And partly because, if she allowed herself to sink into the depths of her mind, she could still feel something lurking there, waiting for her… a horrible, choking, suffocating presence, like wet clay being pressed into her nose and mouth—

She dug the nails of her right hand into her left forearm and inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring. No one but Alan seemed to notice; he gave her a worried glance and his arm tightened around her waist.

Kira shook herself in an attempt to dislodge her thoughts and, looking around at them all, said, “So who’s going to fill me in?”

Mendoza grunted. “Give us your report first, and then we’ll bring you up to speed.”

It took Kira a moment to realize that the team hadn’t come just to greet her. There was an anxious look to them, and as she studied their faces, she saw the same signs of stress as on Alan. Whatever they had been dealing with for the past four weeks, it hadn’t been easy.

“Uh, is this going to be on the record, boss?” she asked.

Mendoza’s face remained hard and fixed, unreadable. “On the record, Navárez, and it won’t just be the company seeing it, either.”

Shit. She swallowed, still tasting the hibernation fluids on the back of her tongue. “Could we do this in an hour or two? I’m pretty out of it.”

“No can do, Navárez.” He hesitated, and then added, “It’s better talking to us rather than…”

“Someone else,” said Ivanova.

“Exactly.”

Kira’s confusion deepened. Her worry too. She glanced at Alan, and he nodded and gave her a comforting squeeze. Okay. If he thought this was the right thing to do, then she’d trust him.

She took a breath. “The last thing I remember is heading out to check on the organic material the drone tagged before crashing. Neghar Esfahani was piloting. We landed on island number—”

It didn’t take Kira long to summarize what had followed, ending with her fall into the strange rock formation and the room deep within. She did her best to describe the room, but at that point, her memory became so disjointed as to be unusable. (Had the lines on the pedestal really been glowing, or was that an artifact of her imagination?)

“And that’s all you saw?” said Mendoza.

Kira scratched at her arm. “It’s all I remember. I think I tried to stand up and then…” She shook her head. “Everything after that is blank.”

The expedition boss scowled and stuffed his hands in his overall pockets.

Alan kissed her on the temple. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“Did you touch anything?” Mendoza said.

Kira thought. “Just where I fell.”

“Are you sure? When Neghar pulled you out, there were marks in the dust on and around the pillar in the center of the room.”

“As I said, the last thing I remember is trying to stand up.” She cocked her head. “Why don’t you check the recording from my suit?”

Mendoza surprised her by grimacing. “The fall damaged your suit’s sensors. The telemetry is useless. Your implants weren’t much help either. They stopped recording forty-three seconds after you entered the room. Fizel says that’s not uncommon with traumatic head injuries.”

“Were my implants damaged?” Kira asked, suddenly concerned. Her overlays seemed normal.

“Your implants,” said Fizel, “are in perfect working order.” His lip curled. “More than can be said for the rest of you.”

She stiffened, unwilling to let him see how frightened that made her. “Just how badly was I hurt?”

Alan started to answer, but the doctor overrode him. “Hairline fractures in two ribs, chipped cartilage in your right elbow along with a strained tendon. Fractured ankle, ruptured Achilles, multiple bruises and lacerations, and a moderate to severe concussion accompanied by cerebral swelling.” Fizel ticked off each injury on his fingers as he spoke. “I repaired most of the damage; the rest will heal in a few weeks. In the meantime, you may experience some soreness.”

At that, Kira nearly laughed. Sometimes humor was the only rational response.

“I was really worried about you,” Alan said.

“We all were,” said Marie-Élise.

“Yeah,” said Kira, tightening her hold on Alan. She could only imagine what it had been like for him, waiting for her these past weeks. “So, Neghar, you managed to haul me out of that hole?”

The woman wobbled her hand in front of her. “Eh. So-so. It took some doing.”

“But you got me out.”

“Sure did, honey.”

“Next chance I get, I’m buying you a whole case of cinnamon rolls.”

Mendoza snared Fizel’s exam stool and sat. He rested his hands on his knees, arms straight. “What she’s not telling you is—You know what? Tell her, go ahead and tell her.”

Neghar rubbed her arms. “Shit. Well, you were unconscious, so I had to strap us together so I could keep you from getting your head ripped off or something when Geiger winched you out. There wasn’t much room in the tunnel you fell through, and, well—”

“She tore her skinsuit,” said Jenan.

Neghar extended a hand toward him. “That. Full—” A cough interrupted her, and she doubled over for a moment, hacking. Her lungs sounded wet, as if she had bronchitis. “Guh. Full pressure breach. Was a bitch to patch with one hand while hanging from a harness.”

“Which meant,” said Mendoza, “that Neghar had to be quarantined along with you. We ran every test in the book, including some that aren’t. They all came up negative, but you were still unresponsive—”

“Which was scary as fuck,” said Alan.

“—and since we didn’t know what we were dealing with, I decided it was better to put both of you into cryo until we got a handle on the situation.”

Kira winced. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Neghar.

Fizel thumped himself on the chest. “What of poor me? You forget about me. Cryo is easy. I had to stay in quarantine for almost a month after working on you, Navárez. A month.”

“And I appreciate your help,” said Kira. “Thank you.” She meant it too. A month in quarantine would wear on anyone.

“Bah. You shouldn’t have been poking your bony nose where it didn’t belong. You—”

“Enough,” said Mendoza in a mild tone, and the doctor subsided, but not without flicking his index and middle fingers toward her in a way that Kira had learned was a rude gesture. A very rude gesture.

She took another sip of water to fortify herself. “So. Why did you wait so long to thaw us out?” Her gaze shifted back to Neghar. “Or did they wake you up sooner?”

Neghar coughed again. “Two days ago.”

Around the room, Kira noticed faces tightening, and the mood growing tense, uncomfortable. “What is it?” she asked.

Before Mendoza could answer, the roar of a firing rocket—louder than any of their shuttles—sounded outside and the walls of the compound shuddered as if from a minor earthquake.

Kira flinched, but none of the others seemed surprised. “What was that?” On her overlays, she checked the feed from the cameras outside. All she couldsee were billows of smoke expanding from the landing pad some distance from the buildings.

The roar quickly receded as whatever vessel was taking off vanished into the upper atmosphere.

Mendoza stabbed a finger toward the ceiling. “That’s the problem. After Neghar brought you back, I told Captain Ravenna, and she sent an emergency flash to the suits at Sixty-One Cygni. After that, the Fidanza went radio silent.”

Kira nodded. That made sense. The law was clear: in the event of discovering intelligent alien life, they were to take all necessary measures to avoid leading those aliens back to settled space. Not that a technologically advanced species would have much difficulty finding the League if they were motivated to look.

“Ravenna was spitting antimatter she was so mad,” said Mendoza. “The crew of the Fidanza weren’t planning on having to stay here for more than a few days.” He waved a hand. “In any case, once corporate got the message, they alerted the Department of Defense. Couple of days later, the UMC dispatched one of their cruisers, the Extenuating Circumstances, from Sixty-One Cygni. They arrived in-system about four days ago, and—”

“And ever since they’ve been a royal pain in the ass,” said Ivanova.

“Literally,” said Seppo.

“Bastards,” Neghar muttered.

The UMC. Kira had seen enough of the League’s military, both on and off Weyland, to know how they tended to run roughshod over local concerns. One of the reasons, she thought, was the relative newness of the service; the League, and thus the United Military Command, had only been created in the wake of the discovery of the Great Beacon. A coming together had been needed, the politicians claimed, given the implications of the Beacon. Growing pains were to be expected. But the other reason for the UMC’s often callous disregard, Kira believed, was the imperialistic attitude of Earth and the rest of Sol. They thought nothing of ignoring the rights of the colonies in favor of what was best for Earth, or what they called “the greater good.” Good for whom, though?

Another grunt from Mendoza. “Captain of the Extenuating Circumstances is a cat-eyed SOB by the name of Henriksen. Real piece of work. His main concern was that Neghar here had picked up some sort of contamination in those ruins. So Henriksen sent down his doctor and a team of xenobiologists and—”

“And they set up a clean room and spent the past two days poking and prodding us until we puked,” said Jenan.

“Literally,” said Seppo.

Marie-Élise nodded. “It was so unpleasant, Kira. You are lucky you were still in cryo.”

“I guess,” she said slowly.

Fizel snorted. “They irradiated every square centimeter of our skin, multiple times. They X-rayed us. They gave us MRIs and CAT scans, ran full blood panels, sequenced our DNA, examined our urine and feces, and took biopsies; you may notice a slight mark on your abdomen from the liver sample. They even cataloged our gut bacteria.”

“And?” said Kira, glancing from face to face.

“Nothing,” said Mendoza. “Clean bill of health, for Neghar, for you, for all of us.”

Kira frowned. “Wait, they tested me also?”

“You better believe it,” said Ivanova.

“Why? Do you think you’re too special to be examined?” asked Fizel. His tone set Kira’s teeth on edge.

“No, I just…” She felt weird—violated even—knowing those procedures had been performed on her while she was unconscious, even if they had been necessary to maintain proper biocontainment.

Mendoza seemed to pick up on her discomfort. He eyed her from beneath his heavy brows. “Captain Henriksen made it abundantly clear that the only reason he isn’t keeping us under lock and key is because they found nothing unusual. Neghar is the one they were really worried about, but they weren’t going to let any of us off Adrasteia until they were sure.”

“You can’t blame them,” said Kira. “I’d be doing the same in their place. Hard to be too careful in this sort of situation.”

Mendoza huffed. “I don’t blame them for that. It’s the rest of it. They put us under a strict gag order. We can’t even talk to corporate about what we found. If we do, it’s a felony and up to twenty years in prison.”

“How long is the gag order?”

His shoulders rose and fell. “Indefinite.”

There went Kira’s plans for publication, at least in the near term. “How are we supposed to explain why we’re so late returning from Adra?”

“Drive malfunction on the Fidanza resulting in unavoidable delays. You’ll find the details in your messages. Memorize them.”

“Yessir.” She scratched her arm again. She needed lotion. “Well, that’s a hassle, but it’s not that bad.”

A pained expression crossed Alan’s face. “Oh it gets worse, babe. A lot worse.”

Kira’s sense of dread returned. “Worse?”

Mendoza nodded slowly, as if his head was too heavy for his neck. “The UMC didn’t just quarantine the island.”

“Nope,” said Ivanova. “That would have been too easy.”

Fizel slammed his hand down on the counter. “Just tell her already! They quarantined the whole damn system, okay? We lost Adra. It’s gone. Poof!”

 

3.

Kira sat next to Alan in the mess hall, studying a live image of the Extenuating Circumstances taken from orbit and projected from the holo in front of them.

The ship must have been half a kilometer long. Stark white, with a spindly midsection, bulbous engine at one end, and a petal-like arrangement of spinning decks at the other. The habitat sections were hinged so they could lie flat against the stem of the ship when under thrust, a costly option that most vessels went without. At the nose of the Extenuating Circumstances were several ports, like shuttered eyes: missile tubes and lenses for the ship’s main laser.

A quarter of the way down the ship, a pair of identical shuttles fitted snugly against either side of the hull. The shuttles were far larger than the ones the survey team had used. Kira wouldn’t be surprised if they were equipped with Markov Drives, same as a full-sized spaceship.

The most striking feature of the Extenuating Circumstances was the banks of radiators that lined its midsection, starting directly behind the habitats and continuing all the way down to the swell of the engine. The edges of the diamond fins flashed and gleamed as they caught the light of the sun, and the tubes of molten metal embedded within the fins shone like silver veins.

In all, the ship looked like a huge, deadly insect, thin, sharp, and glittery.

“Hey,” said Alan, and she tore her attention away from the overlays to see him holding out her engagement ring, almost as if he were proposing again. “Thought you might want this.”

Despite her worries, Kira softened for a moment, feeling a welcome warmth. “Thank you,” she said, slipping the iron band onto her finger. “I’m glad I didn’t lose it in that cave.”

“Me too.” Then he leaned in close and murmured, “Missed you.”

She kissed him. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“Congratulations to the both of you, chérie,” said Marie-Élise, and she wiggled her finger from Kira to Alan.

“Yeah, congrats,” said Jenan, and everyone else added their well-wishes. Everyone but Mendoza—who was off radioing Ravenna to set up a pickup time for the following day—and Fizel—who was cleaning his fingernails with a plastic butter knife.

Kira smiled, pleased and somewhat self-conscious. “Hope you don’t mind,” said Alan, bending down toward her. “I kinda let it slip when it looked like you weren’t going to wake up.”

She leaned back against him and gave him another quick kiss. Mine, she thought. “It’s fine,” she murmured.

Then Yugo came over to them and knelt by the end of the table so he wasn’t looming over Kira. “Do you think you can eat?” he asked her. “It would do you some good.”

Kira wasn’t hungry, but she knew he was right. “I can try.”

He nodded, spade-shaped chin touching the top of his chest. “I’ll warm up some stew for you. You’ll like it. Nice and easy on the stomach.”

As he lumbered away, Kira returned her attention to the Extenuating Circumstances. She scrubbed at her arms again and then started to fiddle with the ring on her finger.

Her head was still spinning from Mendoza’s revelation, and her earlier sense of disassociation had returned even stronger than before. She hated that all their work over the past four months had been for nothing, but more than that, she hated the thought of losing the future she and Alan had planned together on Adrasteia. If they weren’t going to settle there, then—

Alan must have guessed what she was thinking, because he leaned down so his lips were close to her ear and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find another place. It’s a big galaxy.”

And that was why she loved him.

She hugged him tighter.

“What I don’t understand—” she started to say.

“There are a lot of things I don’t understand,” said Jenan. “Like, who keeps leaving their napkins in the sink?” And he held up a soggy piece of cloth.

Kira ignored him. “How can the League expect to keep any of this a secret? People are going to notice that a whole system has been marked off-limits.”

Seppo hopped up to sit cross-legged on one of the tables. With his slight stature, he looked almost childlike. “Easy. They announced the travel ban a week ago. The story is we discovered a contagious pathogen in the biosphere. Something like the Scourge. Until containment is assured—”

“Sigma Draconis stays quarantined,” said Ivanova.

Kira shook her head. “Shit. I don’t suppose they let us keep any of our data.”

“Nope,” said Neghar.

“Nada,” said Jenan.

“Nothing,” said Seppo.

“Zip,” said Ivanova.

Alan rubbed her shoulder. “Mendoza said he’d talk with corporate when we get back to Vyyborg. They might be able to convince the League to release everything unrelated to the ruins.”

“Small chance of that,” said Fizel. He blew on his nails and then continued cleaning them. “Not with the League. They’ll keep your little discovery a secret for as long as they can. The only reason they ever told anyone about Talos Seven is because there’s no way to hide the damn thing.” He wagged his butter knife at Kira. “You cost the company a whole planet. Pleased with yourself?”

“I was doing my job,” she said. “If anything, it’s good I found the ruins now, before anyone settled on Adra. It would cost a hell of a lot more to ship a whole colony back off-world.”

Seppo and Neghar nodded.

Fizel sneered. “Yeah, well, that still doesn’t make up for screwing us out of our bonuses.”

“They canceled our bonuses,” Kira said flatly.

Alan made an apologetic face. “Corporate said it was on account of project failure.”

“Sucks too,” said Jenan. “I’ve got kids to feed, you know? It would have made a big difference.”

“Me too—”

“Same. Two ex-husbands and a cat ain’t—”

“If you’d only—”

“Don’t know how I’m going to—”

Kira’s cheeks burned as she listened. It wasn’t her fault, and yet it was. The whole team had lost out because of her. What a disaster. At the time she’d thought finding the alien structure was going to be good for the company, good for the team, but it had just ended up hurting them. She glanced at the logo printed on the wall of the mess hall: Lapsang printed in the familiar angular font with a leaf over the second a. The company was always running ads and promotional campaigns touting their loyalty to customers, colonists, and employee-citizens. “Forging the future together.” That had been the slogan she’d grown up hearing. She snorted. Yeah, right. When it mattered, they were just like any other interstellar corporation: bits before people.

“Dammit,” she said. “We did the work. We fulfilled our contract. They shouldn’t punish us for it.”

Fizel rolled his eyes. “And if starships farted rainbows, wouldn’t that be lovely? My God. Oh you feel bad, so sorry. Who cares? That’s not going to get us our bonuses back.” He glared at her. “You know, it would have been better if you tripped and broke your neck as soon as you stepped out of the shuttle.”

A brief, shocked silence followed.

Next to her, Kira felt Alan stiffen. “You take that back,” he said.

Fizel tossed the knife into the sink. “Didn’t want to be here anyway. Waste of time.” And he spat on the floor.

Ivanova hopped away from the gob of saliva. “Goddamn it, Fizel!”

The doctor smirked and sauntered off. There was someone like him on every mission, Kira had learned. A sour shitheel who seemed to take perverse pleasure in being the piece of grit stuck in everyone’s teeth.

The others started talking the moment Fizel was out of sight:

“Don’t mind him,” said Marie-Élise.

“Could have happened to any of us—”

“Same old Doc, always—”

“Should have heard what he said when I thawed out. He—”

The conversation stalled as Mendoza appeared in the doorway. He gave them a measured look. “There a problem in here?”

“Nossir.”

“We’re good, boss man.”

He grunted and trundled over to Kira and, in a lower voice, said, “Sorry about that, Navárez. Nerves have been stretched a bit tight the past few weeks.”

Kira smiled wanly. “It’s okay. Really.”

Another grunt, and Mendoza took a seat by the far wall, and the room soon returned to normal.

Despite her reply, Kira couldn’t seem to lose the knot of unease in her gut. Too much of what Fizel had said struck home. Also, it bothered her not knowing what she and Alan were going to do now. Everything she’d laid out in her mind for the next few years had been overturned by that damned alien structure. If only the drone hadn’t gone down. If only she hadn’t agreed to check the site for Mendoza. If only…

She started as Yugo touched her on the arm.

“Here,” he said, and handed her a bowl filled with stew and a plate piled with steamed vegetables, a slice of bread, and half of what must have been their only remaining bar of chocolate.

“Thanks,” she murmured, and he smiled.

 

4.

Kira hadn’t realized how hungry she was; she felt weak and shaky. The food didn’t sit well, though. She was too upset, and her stomach kept rumbling from a combination of anxiety and the remnants of cryo.

From his spot on the neighboring table, Seppo said, “We’ve been trying to decide whether the ruins here were made by the same aliens who made the Great Beacon. Whaddya think, Kira?”

She noticed the others watching her. She swallowed, put down her fork, and in her best professional voice said, “It seems… it seems unlikely that two sentient species could have evolved so close together. If I had to bet, I’d say yes, but there’s no knowing for sure.”

“Hey, there’s us,” said Ivanova. “Humans. We’re in the same general region.”

In the corner, Neghar was coughing again, a wet, meaty sound that Kira found off-putting.

Jenan said, “Yeah, but there’s no telling how much territory the Beacon xenos covered. It could have been half the galaxy for all we know.”

“I think we would have found more evidence of them if that were the case,” said Alan.

“Well, didn’t we just?” said Jenan.

Kira had no easy answer to that. “Did you learn anything more about the site while I was in cryo?”

“Mmm,” said Neghar, and held up a hand while she struggled to finish coughing into her sleeve. “Gah. Sorry. Throat’s been dry all day… Yeah. I ran some subsurface imaging before I pulled you out of the hole.”

“And?”

“There’s another chamber, right below the one you discovered. It’s pretty small, though, only a meter across. It might be housing a power source, but it’s impossible to tell for sure without opening it up. Thermals didn’t pick up any heat signature.”

“How large is the whole structure?”

“Everything you saw above ground, plus another twelve meters below. Aside from the rooms, it looks like just solid foundation and walls.”

Kira nodded, thinking. Whoever had made the structure, they had built it to last.

Then Marie-Élise said, in her high, flutelike voice, “The building you found doesn’t seem like the same sort of work as the Beacon. That is, it’s such a small thing in comparison.”

The Great Beacon. It had been discovered out on the edge of explored space, 36.6 light-years from Sol and 43-some light-years from Weyland. Kira didn’t need to check her overlays to know the distances; she’d spent hours upon hours as a teen reading about the expedition.

The Beacon itself was an amazing artifact. It was, quite simply, a hole. A very large hole: fifty kilometers across and thirty deep, surrounded by a net of liquid gallium that acted as a giant antenna. For the hole emitted a powerful EMP burst every 5.2 seconds, and with it, a blast of structured noise that contained ever-evolving iterations of the Mandelbrot set in ternary code.

Attending the Beacon were creatures that had been dubbed “turtles,” although Kira thought they looked more like ambulatory boulders. Even after twenty-three years of study, it still wasn’t clear if they were animals or machines (no one had been foolish enough to attempt a dissection). The xenobiologists and the engineers agreed it was unlikely the turtles had been responsible for the Beacon’s construction—not unless they’d lost all their technology—but who or what was responsible was still a mystery.

As for its ultimate purpose, no one had any idea. The only thing they knew for sure was that the Beacon was around sixteen thousand years old. And even that was merely a rough estimate based on radiometric dating.

Kira had an uncomfortable suspicion she might never find out whether or not the makers of the Beacon had anything to do with the room she’d fallen into. Not even if she lived for several hundred more years. Deep time was slow to surrender its secrets, if ever it did.

She sighed and dragged the tines of her fork across the side of her neck, enjoying the sensation of the metal tips on her dry skin.

“Who cares about the Beacon,” said Seppo, hopping down from his table. “What really bothers me is that we can’t even make any money off this mess. Can’t talk about it. Can’t publish. Can’t go on the talk shows—”

“Can’t sell the entertainment rights,” said Ivanova in a mocking tone.

They laughed, and Jenan called out, “As if anyone would want to see your ugly face.”

He ducked as she threw her gloves at him. Chuckling, he offered them back to her.

Kira hunched her shoulders, her sense of guilt strengthening. “Sorry for the trouble, everyone. If there was anything I could do to fix this, I would.”

“Yeah, you sure dicked things up good this time,” said Ivanova.

“Did you have to go exploring?” Jenan said, but he didn’t sound serious.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Neghar. “It… it could have…”

A cough interrupted her, and Marie-Élise finished what she’d been saying: “It could have been any of us.”

Neghar bobbed her head in agreement.

From the wall where he was sitting, Mendoza said, “I’m just glad you weren’t too badly hurt, Kira. You and Neghar. We lucked out, all of us.”

“We still lost the colony,” Kira said. “And our bonuses.”

A sharp glint appeared in Mendoza’s dark eyes. “Somehow I think your find will more than make up for those bonuses. Might take years. Might take decades. But long as we’re smart, it’ll happen, sure as death and taxes.”

 

Excerpted from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, copyright © 2020 by Christopher Paolini.

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