To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 4: “Anguish”

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
Purchase from your preferred retailer

Chapter 4

***

Anguish

1.

It was late, and Kira found it increasingly difficult to focus on the conversation. Most of the words slipped past her in a stream of meaningless sound. At last, she roused herself and glanced over at Alan. He nodded, understanding, and they extricated themselves from their chairs.

“Night,” said Neghar. One-word responses had been all she could manage for the past hour or so. Anything more and the coughing cut her off. Kira hoped she wasn’t getting sick; everyone in the group would probably catch the same bug then.

“Night, chérie,” said Marie-Élise. “Things will seem better tomorrow. You’ll see.”

“Make sure you’re up by oh nine hundred,” said Mendoza. “The UMC finally gave us the all-clear, so we blast off at eleven for the Fidanza.”

Kira raised a hand and stumbled off with Alan.

Without discussing it, they went straight to his room. There, Kira pulled off her fatigues, dropped them on the floor, and climbed into bed, not even bothering to brush her hair.

Four weeks of cryo, and she was still exhausted. Cold sleep wasn’t the same as real sleep. Nothing was.

The mattress sagged as Alan lay next to her. One of his arms wrapped around her, his hand grasped hers, and his chest and legs pressed against her: a warm, comforting presence. She uttered a faint sound and leaned back against him.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered.

She turned to face him. “Never.” He kissed her, and she him, and after a time, gentle caresses grew more eager, and they clung to each other with fervent intensity.

They made love, and never had Kira felt more intimate with Alan, not even when he had proposed. She could feel his fear of losing her in every line of his body, and she could see his love in every touch, hear it in every murmured word.

Afterward, they stumbled over to the narrow shower at the back of the room. Keeping the lights dim, they bathed, soaping each other and talking in lowered voices.

As she let the hot water beat across her back, Kira said, “Neghar didn’t sound too good.”

Alan shrugged. “It’s just a bit of cryo sickness. The UMC cleared her. Fizel too. The air in here is so dry—”

“Yeah.”

They toweled off, and then with Alan’s help, Kira slathered lotion across her whole body. She sighed with relief as the cream went on, soothing the prickling of her skin.

Back in bed, with the lights turned off, Kira did her best to fall asleep. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the room with the circuit-board patterns, nor what her discovery had cost the team (and her personally). Nor the words Fizel had thrown at her.

Alan noticed. “Stop it,” he murmured.

“Mmm. It’s just… What Fizel said—”

“Don’t let him get to you. He’s just pissed and frustrated. No one else feels that way.”

“Yeah.” But Kira wasn’t so sure. A sense of injustice wormed inside her. How dare Fizel judge her! She’d only done what she was supposed to—what any of them would have. If she’d ignored the rock formation, he would have been the first to call her out for shirking. And it wasn’t as if she and Alan hadn’t lost plenty because of her discovery, same as the rest of the team…

Alan nuzzled the nape of her neck. “Everything is going to be fine. Just you watch.” Then he lay still, and Kira listened to his breathing slow while she stared into the darkness.

Things still felt wrong and out of sorts. Her stomach knotted even more painfully, and Kira screwed her eyes shut, trying not to obsess over Fizel or what the future might hold. Yet she couldn’t forget what had been said in the mess hall, and a hot coal of anger continued to burn inside her as she fell into a fitful sleep.

 

2.

Darkness. A vast expanse of space, desolate and unfamiliar. The stars were cold points of light, sharp as needles against the velvet backdrop.

Ahead of her, a star swelled in size as she hurtled toward it, faster than the fastest ship. The star was a dull reddish-orange, like a dying coal smoldering against a bed of char. It felt old and tired, as if it had formed during the earliest stages of the universe, when all was hot and bright.

Seven planets spun about the sullen orb: one gas giant and six terrestrial. They looked brown and mottled, diseased, and in the gap between the second and the third planets, a band of debris glittered like flecks of crystal sand.

A sense of sadness gripped her. She couldn’t say why, but the sight made her want to weep the way she had when her grandfather died. It was the worst of things: loss, utter and complete, without a chance of restoration.

The sadness was an ancient sorrow, though, and like all sorrows, it faded to a dull ache and was supplanted by more pressing concerns: those of anger, fear, and desperation. The fear predominated, and from it, she knew danger encroached— intimate and immediate—and yet she found it hard to move, for unfamiliar clay bound her flesh.

The threat was nearly upon her; she could feel it drawing nigh, and with it, panic breaking. There was no time to wait, no time to think. She had to force her way free! First to rive and then to bind.

The star brightened until it shone with the force of a thousand suns, and blades of light shot forth from the corona and into the darkness. One of the blades struck her, and her vision went white and it felt as if a lance had been driven into her eyes and every inch of her skin burned and crisped.

She screamed into the void, but the pain didn’t stop, and she screamed again—

 

Kira bolted upright. She was panting and drenched in sweat; the blanket clung to her like plastic film. People were shouting elsewhere in the base, and she recognized the sound of panic in their voices.

Next to her, Alan’s eyes flew open. “Wh—”

Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside. A fist pounded against the door, and Jenan shouted, “Get out here! It’s Neghar.”

Cold fear shot through Kira’s gut.

Together, she and Alan scrambled into their clothes. Kira spared a second of thought for her strange dream—everything felt strange at the moment—and then they hurried out of the cabin and rushed over toward Neghar’s quarters.

As they approached, Kira heard hacking: a deep, wet, ripping sound that made her imagine raw flesh going through a shredder. She shuddered.

Neghar was standing in the middle of the hallway with the others gathered around her, doubled over, hands on her knees, coughing so hard Kira could hear her vocal cords fraying. Fizel was next to her, hand on her back. “Keep breathing,” he said. “We’ll get you to sickbay. Jenan! Alan! Grab her arms, help carry her. Quickly now, qu—”

Neghar heaved, and Kira heard a loud, distinct snap from inside the woman’s narrow chest.

Black blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, painting the deck in a wide fan.

Marie-Élise shrieked, and several people retched. The fear from Kira’s dream returned, intensified. This was bad. This was dangerous. “We have to go,” she said, and tugged on Alan’s sleeve. But he wasn’t listening.

“Back!” Fizel shouted. “Everyone back! Someone get the Extenuating Circumstances on the horn. Now!”

“Clear the way!” Mendoza bellowed.

More blood sprayed from Neghar’s mouth, and she dropped to one knee. The whites of her eyes were freakishly wide. Her face was crimson, and her throat worked as if she were choking.

Alan,” said Kira. Too late; he was moving to help Fizel.

She took a step back. Then another. No one noticed; they were all looking at Neghar, trying to figure out what to do while staying out of the way of the blood flying from her mouth.

Kira felt like screaming at them to leave, to run, to escape.

She shook her head and pressed her fists against her mouth, scared blood was going to erupt out of her as well. Her head felt as if it were about to burst, and her skin was crawling with horror: a thousand ants skittering over every centimeter. Her whole body itched with revulsion.

Jenan and Alan tried to lift Neghar back to her feet. She shook her head and gagged. Once. Twice. And then she spat a clot of something onto the deck. It was too dark to be blood. Too liquid to be metal.

Kira dug her fingers into her arm, scrubbing at it as a scream of revulsion threatened to erupt out of her.

Neghar collapsed backwards. Then the clot moved. It twitched like a clump of muscle hit with an electrical current.

People shouted and jumped away. Alan retreated toward Kira, never taking his eyes off the unformed lump.

Kira dry-heaved. She took another step back. Her arm was burning: thin lines of fire squirming across her skin.

She looked down.

Her nails had carved furrows in her flesh, crimson gashes that ended with crumpled strips of skin. And within the furrows, she saw another something twitch.

 

3.

Kira fell to the floor, screaming. The pain was all-consuming. That much she was aware of. It was the only thing she was aware of.

She arched her back and thrashed, clawing at the floor, desperate to escape the onslaught of agony. She screamed again; she screamed so hard her voice broke and a slick of hot blood coated her throat.

She couldn’t breathe. The pain was too intense. Her skin was burning, and it felt as if her veins were filled with acid and her flesh was tearing itself from her limbs.

Dark shapes blocked the light overhead as people moved around her. Alan’s face appeared next to her. She thrashed again, and she was on her stomach, her cheek pressed flat against the hard surface.

Her body relaxed for a second, and she took a single, gasping breath before going rigid and loosing a silent howl. The muscles of her face cramped with the force of her rictus, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes.

Hands turned her over. They gripped her arms and legs, holding them in place. It did nothing to stop the pain.

“Kira!”

She forced her eyes open and, with blurry vision, saw Alan and, behind him, Fizel leaning toward her with a hypo. Farther back, Jenan, Yugo, and Seppo were pinning her legs to the floor, while Ivanova and Marie-Élise helped Neghar away from the clot on the deck.

Kira! Look at me! Look at me!”

She tried to reply, but all she succeeded in doing was uttering a strangled whimper.

Then Fizel pressed the hypo against her shoulder. Whatever he injected didn’t seem to have any effect. Her heels drummed against the floor, and she felt her head slam against the deck, again and again.

“Jesus, someone help her,” Alan cried.

“Watch out!” shouted Seppo. “That thing on the floor is moving! Shi—”

“Sickbay,” said Fizel. “Get her to sickbay. Now! Pick her up. Pick—”

The walls swam around her as they lifted her. Kira felt like she was being strangled. She tried to inhale, but her muscles were too cramped. Red sparks gathered around the edges of her vision as Alan and the others carried her down the hallway. She felt as if she were floating; everything seemed insubstantial except the pain and her fear.

A jolt as they dropped her onto Fizel’s exam table. Her abdomen relaxed for a second, just long enough for Kira to steal a breath before her muscles locked back up.

“Close the door! Keep that thing out!” A thunk as the sickbay pressure lock engaged.

“What’s happening?” said Alan. “Is—”

“Move!” shouted Fizel. Another hypo pressed against Kira’s neck.

As if in response, the pain tripled, something she wouldn’t have believed possible. A low groan escaped her, and she jerked, unable to control the motion. She could feel foam gathering in her mouth, clogging her throat. She gagged and convulsed.

“Shit. Get me an injector. Other drawer. No, other drawer!”

“Doc—”

“Not now!”

Doc, she isn’t breathing!”

Equipment clattered, and then fingers forced Kira’s jaw apart, and someone jammed a tube into her mouth, down her throat. She gagged again. A moment later, sweet, precious air poured into her lungs, sweeping aside the curtain darkening her vision.

Alan was hovering over her, his face contorted with worry.

Kira tried to talk. But the only sound she could make was an inarticulate groan.

“You’re going to be okay,” said Alan. “Just hold on. Fizel’s going to help you.” He looked as if he were about to cry.

Kira had never been so afraid. Something was wrong inside her, and it was getting worse.

Run, she thought. Run! Get away from here before—

Dark lines shot across her skin: black lightning bolts that twisted and squirmed as if alive. Then they froze in place, and where each one lay, her skin split and tore, like the carapace of a molting insect.

Kira’s fear overflowed, filling her with a feeling of utter and inescapable doom. If she could have screamed, her cry would have reached the stars.

Fibrous tendrils erupted from the bloody rents. They whipped about like headless snakes and then stiffened into razor-edged spikes that stabbed outward in random directions.

The spikes pierced the walls. They pierced the ceiling. Metal screeched. Lightstrips sparked and shattered, and the high-pitched keen of Adra’s surface wind filled the room, as did the blare of alarms.

Kira fell to the floor as the spikes jerked her around like a puppet. She saw a spike pass through Yugo’s chest and then three more through Fizel: neck, arm, and groin. Blood sprayed from the men’s wounds as the spikes withdrew.

No!

The door to sickbay slammed open and Ivanova rushed in. Her face went slack with horror, and then a pair of spikes struck her in the stomach and she collapsed. Seppo tried to run, and a spike impaled him from behind, pinning him to the wall, like a butterfly.

No!

Kira blacked out. When she came to, Alan was kneeling next to her, his forehead pressed against hers and his hands heavy upon her shoulders. His eyes were blank and empty, and a line of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

It took her a moment to realize that a dozen or more spikes stitched her body to his, joining them with obscene intimacy.

Her heart fluttered and stopped, and the floor seemed to drop away into an abyss. Alan. Her teammates. Dead. Because of her. The knowledge was unbearable.

Pain. She was dying, and she didn’t care. She just wanted the suffering to end—wanted the swift arrival of oblivion and the release it would bring.

Then darkness clouded her sight and the alarms faded to silence, and what once was, was no more.

 

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

citation

Back to the top of the page

1 Comment

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.