To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 5: “Madness”

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 5

***

Madness

1.

Kira’s eyes shot open.

There was no slow rise to consciousness. No gradual return to awareness. Not this time. One moment nothing; the next, a burst of sensory information, bright and sharp and overwhelming in its intensity.

She was lying at the bottom of a tall, circular chamber—a tube with a ceiling five meters above her, far too high to reach. It reminded her of the grain silo their neighbors, the Roshans, had built when she was thirteen. Halfway up the side of the tube was a two-way mirror: a large, silvery rectangle filled with the grey ghost of a reflection. A narrow lightstrip along the edge of the ceiling was the only source of illumination.

Not just one but two robot arms moved about her with silent grace, a cluster of diagnostic instruments protruding from the end of each one. As she looked at them, they paused and then retracted toward the ceiling, where they hung in readiness.

Embedded within one side of the tube was an airlock with a built-in hatch for passing small objects in and out. Opposite the airlock was a pressure door that presumably led deeper into… into wherever. It too had a hatch, similar in size and for the same purpose. Glorified jailer’s slots. There was no bed. No blanket. No sink. And no toilet. Just cold, bare metal.

She had to be on a ship. Not the Fidanza. The Extenuating Circumstances.

Which meant…

A jolt of adrenaline caused Kira to gasp and sit upright. The pain; the spikes; Neghar, Fizel, Yugo, Ivanova… Alan! The memories returned in a deluge. They returned, but Kira wished they hadn’t. Her gut clenched, and a long, deep groan escaped her as she fell to her hands, knees, and forehead. The ridges of the deck cut into her skin, but she didn’t care.

When she could breathe, she howled, pouring all of her grief and anguish into a single wailing cry.

It was all her fault. If she hadn’t found that damned room, Alan and the others would still be alive and she wouldn’t have ended up infected by some sort of xeno.

The spikes.

Where were the spikes and tendrils that had torn through her skin? Kira looked down, and her heart skipped a beat.

Her hands were black when they shouldn’t have been. So too were her arms and her chest and everything else she could see of her body. A layer of glossy, fibrous material clung to her, tight as any skinsuit.

Horror welled up inside Kira.

She clawed at her forearms in a desperate attempt to rip off the alien organism. Even with their hard new veneer, her nails couldn’t cut or break the fibers. Frustrated, she brought her wrist to her mouth and bit.

The taste of stone and metal filled her mouth. She could feel the pressure from her teeth, but no matter how hard she bit down, it didn’t hurt.

Kira scrambled to her feet, heart pounding so fast it skipped beats, the edges of her vision going dark. “Get it off!” she shouted. “Get this fucking thing off me!” Through her panic, she wondered where everyone was, her one coherent thought amid the madness.

One of the robotic arms descended toward her. The manipulator at the end of the arm was holding a syringe. Before Kira could move, the machine reached around her head and injected her behind the ear, on a patch of still-bare skin.

Within seconds a heavy blanket seemed to press down upon her. Kira stumbled sideways, reaching out an arm to catch herself as she fell—

 

2.

 

The panic returned the moment Kira regained consciousness.

There was an alien creature bonded with her. She was contaminated, possibly infectious. It was the sort of situation every xenobiologist dreaded: a containment breach leading to fatalities.

Alan…

Kira shuddered and buried her face in the crook of her arm. Below her neck, her skin prickled with a million tiny fears. She wanted to look again, but she didn’t have the courage. Not yet.

Tears leaked from under her eyelids. She could feel Alan’s absence like a hole in her chest. It didn’t seem possible that he was dead. They’d had so many plans, so many hopes and dreams, and now none of them would come to fruition. She’d never get to see him build the house he’d talked about, nor go skiing with him in mountains in the far south of Adra, nor watch him become a father, nor any of the other things she’d imagined.

The knowledge hurt more than any physical pain.

She felt her finger. The band of polished iron set with tesserite was gone, and with it her only tangible reminder of him.

A memory came to her then, from years past: her father kneeling next to her in a greenhouse and bandaging a cut on her arm while saying, “The pain is of our own making, Kira.” He pressed a finger against her forehead. “It only hurts as much as we let it.”

Maybe so, but Kira still felt terrible. Pain was pain, and it insisted on making itself known.

How long had she been unconscious? Minutes? Hours?… No, not hours. She was lying where she’d fallen, feeling neither hungry nor thirsty. Only drained from the torment of misery. Her whole body ached as if bruised.

Behind her shuttered lids, Kira noticed that none of her overlays were displaying. “Petra, on,” she said. Her system didn’t respond, not even with a flicker. “Petra, force restart.” The darkness remained unchanged.

Of course. The UMC would shut down her implants.

She growled into her arm. How could the military techs have overlooked the organism in her and Neghar? The xeno was large. Even a basic examination ought to have spotted it. If the UMC had done their job properly, no one would have died.

“Goddamn you,” she muttered. Her anger fought back the grief and panic enough for her to open her eyes.

Again she saw the bare metal. Lightstrips. Mirrored window. Why had they brought her onto the Extenuating Circumstances? Why risk the additional exposure? None of their choices made sense to her.

She’d avoided the inevitable long enough. Steeling herself, Kira looked down.

Her body was still covered in the layer of inky black. That and nothing more. The material resembled bands of overlapping muscles; she could see the individual strands stretch and flex as she moved. Her alarm strengthened, and a shimmer seemed to pass across the fibers. Was it sentient? No way to know for sure at the moment.

Tentative, Kira touched a spot on her arm.

She hissed, baring her teeth. She could feel her fingers on her arm, as if the intervening fibers didn’t exist. The parasite—machine or organism, she didn’t know which—had worked itself into her nervous system. The motions of the circulating air were noticeable against her skin, as was every square centimeter of decking that pressed into her flesh. She might as well have been totally naked.

And yet… she wasn’t cold. Not as she ought to be.

She examined the soles of her feet. Covered, same as her palms. Feeling upward, she discovered that—in the front—the suit stopped near the top of her neck. There was a small ridge: a drop-off between fibers and skin that curved around her ears. In the back, the fibers continued up and over the back of her head and—

Her hair was gone. Nothing but the smooth contours of her skull met her exploring fingers.

Kira set her teeth. What else had the xeno stolen from her?

As she concentrated on the different sensations of her body, Kira realized that the xeno wasn’t just bonded to her outside; it was inside her as well, filling her, penetrating her, if however unobtrusively.

Her gorge rose, and claustrophobia closed in around her, choking her. She was trapped, embedded in the alien substance with no way of escaping…

She bent over and retched. Nothing came out, but bile coated her tongue and her stomach continued to heave.

Kira shivered. How the hell could the UMC decontaminate her when the suit was wound up all inside? She was going to be stuck in quarantine for months, maybe years. Stuck with it.

She spat into the corner and, without thinking, wiped her mouth on her forearm. The smear of spit soaked into the fibers, like water into cloth.

Disgusting.

A faint hiss—as of speakers turning on—broke the silence, and a new source of light struck Kira’s face.

 

3.

A hologram covered half the wall. The image was several meters high and showed a small, empty desk—painted battleship grey—in the middle of an equally small, equally stark room. A single chair, straight-backed and armless, sat behind the desk.

A woman walked in. She was of medium height, with a pair of eyes like chips of black ice and a cast-iron hairdo shot through with strands of white. A Reform Hutterite, then, or something similar. There were only a few Hutterites on Weyland: a handful of families Kira had seen on occasion during the settlement’s monthly gathering. The older adults always stood out with their sagging skin and receding hairlines and other obvious signs of aging. The sight had scared her when she was little and fascinated her when she was in her teens.

What she focused on, though, weren’t the woman’s features but her clothes. She was wearing a grey uniform—grey like the desk—that had been starched and ironed until each crease looked as if it could slice through hardened tool steel. Kira didn’t recognize the color of the uniform. Blue was the Navy/Spacecorps. Green was the Army. Grey was… ?

The woman seated herself, placed a tablet on the desk, centered it with the tips of her forefingers. “Ms. Navárez. Do you know where you are?” She had a thin, flat mouth, like that of a guppy, and when she spoke, her bottom row of teeth was visible.

“The Extenuating Circumstances.” Kira’s throat hurt; it felt raw and swollen.

“Very good. Ms. Navárez, this is a formal deposition in accordance with article fifty-two of the Stellar Security Act. You will answer all of my questions, willingly and to the best of your knowledge. This isn’t a court, but if you fail to cooperate, you can and will be charged with obstruction, and if your statement is later found to be false, perjury. Now, tell me everything that you remember after you woke up from cryo.”

Kira blinked, feeling lost and confused. Grinding out each word, she said, “My team… what about my team?”

Guppy Face pressed her lips together into a pale line. “If you’re asking who survived, four of them did. Mendoza, Neghar, Marie-Élise, and Jenan.”

At least Marie-Élise was still alive. Fresh tears threatened to spill down Kira’s cheeks. She scowled, not wanting to cry in front of the other woman. “Neghar? How…”

“Video footage shows that the organism she expelled melded with the one currently attached to your body after the… hostilities. As far as we can tell, the two are indistinguishable. Our current theory is that Neghar’s organism was drawn to yours as yours was larger and more fully developed—a lesser part of a hive-swarm rejoining the greater, if you will. Aside from some internal bleeding, Neghar seems unharmed and free of infection, although at the moment, it’s impossible for us to be sure.”

Kira’s hands knotted into fists as her anger swelled. “Why didn’t you spot the xeno before? If you had—”

The woman made a cutting motion with her hand. “We don’t have time for this, Navárez. I understand you’ve had a shock, but—”

“You couldn’t possibly understand.”

Guppy Face eyed Kira with something close to disdain. “You’re not the first person to be infected by an alien life-form, and you’re certainly not the first person to lose some friends.”

Guilt caused Kira to look down and squeeze her eyes shut for a moment. Hot tears peppered the backs of her fists. “He was my fiancé,” she mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Alan, he was my fiancé,” Kira said, louder. She gave the woman a defiant look.

Guppy Face never blinked. “You mean Alan J. Barnes?”

“Yes.”

“I see. In that case, you have the condolences of the UMC. Now, I need you to pull yourself together. The only thing you can do is accept God’s will and move forward. Sink or swim, Navárez.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“I didn’t say it would be easy. Grow a pair and start acting like a professional. I know you can. I read your file.”

The words stung Kira’s pride, although she would never admit it. “Yeah? Well who the hell are you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your name? You haven’t told me.”

The woman’s face tightened, as if she hated to share any personal information with Kira. “Major Tschetter. Now, tell me—”

“And what are you?”

Tschetter raised an eyebrow. “Human, last I checked.”

“No, I meant…” Kira gestured at the woman’s grey uniform.

“Special attaché to Captain Henriksen, if you must know. This is beside the—”

Frustrated, Kira let her voice rise. “Is it too much to ask what branch of the armed forces, Major? Or is that classified?”

Tschetter assumed a flat, affectless expression, a professional blankness that told Kira nothing of what she was thinking or feeling. “UMCI. Fleet Intelligence.”

A spy then, or worse, a political officer. Kira snorted. “Where are they?”

Who, Ms. Navárez?”

“My friends. The… the ones you rescued.”

“In cryo, on the Fidanza, being evacuated from the system. There. Satisfied?”

Kira released a bark of laughter. “Satisfied? Satisfied?! I want this damn thing off me.” She plucked at the black coating on her arm. “Cut it off if you have to, but get it off.”

“Yes, you made your desire abundantly clear,” said Tschetter. “If we can remove the xeno, we will. But first, you’re going to tell me what happened, Ms. Navárez, and you’re going to tell me right now.”

Kira bit back another curse. She wanted to rant and rage; she wanted to lash out and make Tschetter feel even a small measure of her hurt. But she knew it wouldn’t help. So she did as she was ordered. She told the major everything she remembered. It didn’t take long, and Kira found no relief in confession.

The major had numerous questions, most of them focused on the hours before the parasite burst forth: Had Kira noticed anything unusual? An upset stomach, elevated temperature, intrusive thoughts? Had she smelled anything unfamiliar? Had her skin been itchy? Rashes? Inexplicable thirst or cravings?

Aside from the itching, the answer to most of the questions was no, which Kira could see didn’t please the major. Especially when Kira explained that—to the best of her knowledge—Neghar hadn’t experienced the same symptoms.

Afterward, Kira said, “Why didn’t you stick me in cryo? Why am I on the Extenuating Circumstances?” She didn’t understand it. Maintaining quarantine was the most important task in xenobiology. The thought of breaking it was enough to give anyone in her profession the cold sweats.

Tschetter smoothed an invisible wrinkle out of her jacket. “We tried to freeze you, Navárez.” Her gaze met Kira’s. “We tried and failed.”

Kira’s mouth went dry. “Failed.”

A short nod from Tschetter. “The organism purged the cryonic injections from your body. We couldn’t keep you under.”

A new fear struck Kira. Freezing the xeno was the easiest way to stop it. Without that, they had no quick way to keep it from spreading. Also, without cryo, it was going to be a hell of a lot harder for her to get back to the League.

Tschetter was still speaking: “After we released you and Neghar from quarantine, our medical team was in close contact with the both of you. They touched your skin. They breathed the same air. They handled the same equipment. And then”—Tschetter leaned forward, intense—“they came back here, to the Extenuating Circumstances. Now do you understand, Navárez?”

Kira’s mind started to race. “You think you’ve been exposed.”

Tschetter inclined her head. “The xeno took two and a half days to emerge after Neghar was removed from cryo. Less so in your case. Being frozen may or may not have slowed the development of the organism. Either way, we have to assume the worst. Minus the time since your release, that means we have somewhere between twelve and forty-eight hours to figure out how to detect and treat asymptomatic hosts.”

“That’s not enough time.”

The corners of Tschetter’s eyes tightened. “We have to try. Captain Henriksen has already ordered all nonessential crew into cryo. If we don’t find a solution by end of tomorrow, he’ll have the rest of us frozen.”

Kira licked her lips. No wonder they’d been willing to bring her onto the Extenuating Circumstances. They were desperate. “What happens to me then?”

Tschetter steepled her fingers. “Our ship mind, Bishop, will continue your examination as he sees fit.”

Kira could see the logic in that. Ship minds were kept isolated from the rest of the life-support system. By all rights, Bishop ought to be perfectly safe from infection.

There was just one problem. Whatever she was carrying wasn’t just a threat on the micro level. She lifted her chin. “And what if… what if the xeno acts out the way it did on Adra? It could rip a hole right through the hull. You should have set up a pressure dome on the surface, studied the xeno there.”

“Ms. Navárez…” Tschetter made a minuscule adjustment to the position of the tablet in front of her. “The xeno currently occupying your body is of the highest possible interest to the League, tactically, politically, and scientifically. We were never going to leave it on Adrasteia, regardless of the risk to this ship or this crew.”

“That’s—”

“Furthermore, the chamber you are currently in is completely isolated from the rest of the ship. Should the xeno attempt to damage the Extenuating Circumstances as it did your base, or should it display other hostile actions, the entire pod can be jettisoned into space. Do you understand?”

Kira’s jaw clenched despite herself. “Yes.” She couldn’t blame them for the precautions. They made sense. Didn’t mean she had to like them.

“Let me be perfectly clear, Ms. Navárez. The League won’t let any of us return home—including your friends—until we have a reliable means of detection. Let me repeat that: no one on this ship will be permitted within ten light-years of a human-settled planet unless we can figure this out. The League would blow us out of the sky before they would let us land, and rightly so.”

Kira felt sorry for Marie-Élise and the others, but at least they wouldn’t be aware of the time passing. She squared her shoulders. “Okay. So what do you need from me?”

Tschetter smiled without humor. “Your willing cooperation. Do I have it?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. Then—”

“Just one thing; I want to record a few messages for my friends and family, in case I don’t make it. Also a message for Alan’s brother, Sam. Nothing classified, but he deserves to hear from me.”

The major paused for a second, eyes darting as she read something in front of her. “That can be arranged. It may be some time before any communications are allowed, though. We’re running silent until we receive orders from Command.”

“I understand. Oh, and—”

“Ms. Navárez, we’re operating under a very tight deadline.”

Kira held up a hand. “Can you turn my implants back on? I’m going to go crazy in here without my overlays.” She nearly laughed. “I might be going crazy anyway.”

“Can’t,” said Tschetter.

Kira’s defenses shot back up. “Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t. The xeno destroyed your implants. I’m sorry. There’s nothing left to turn back on.”

Kira grunted, feeling as if another someone had died. All her memories… She’d had her system set to automatically back up to the server at HQ at the end of each day. If the server had survived, then so had her personal archives, although everything that had happened to her since would be lost, existing only in the fragile and fallible tissues of her brain. If she had to choose, she would have rather lost an arm than her implants. With her overlays, she had a world within a world—a whole universe of content to explore, both real and invented. Without, all she was left with were her thoughts, thin and insubstantial, and the echoing darkness beyond. What’s more, her senses had been blunted; she couldn’t see UV or infrared, couldn’t feel the magnetic fields around her, couldn’t interface with machines, and worst of all, couldn’t look up whatever she didn’t know.

She was diminished. The thing had reduced her to the level of an animal, to nothing more than meat. Primitive, unenhanced meat. And in order to do that, it must have worked its way into her brain, severed the nanowire leads that joined the implants to her neurons.

What else had it severed?

For a minute Kira stood still and silent, breathing heavy. The suit felt as hard as steel plate around her torso. Tschetter had the sense not to interrupt. At last Kira said, “Then let me have a tablet. Or some holo-glasses. Something.”

Tschetter shook her head. “We can’t allow the xeno to access our computer system. Not at the moment. It’s too dangerous.”

A huff of air escaped Kira, but she knew better than to argue. The major was right. “Dammit,” she said. “Okay. Let’s get started.”

Tschetter picked up her tablet and stood. “One last question, Navárez: Do you still feel like yourself?”

The question struck an unpleasant chord. Kira knew what the major was asking. Was she, Kira, still in control of her mind? Regardless of the truth, there was only one answer she could give if she were to ever walk free.

“Yes.”

“That’s good. That’s what we want to hear.” But Tschetter didn’t look happy. “Alright. Doctor Carr will be with you shortly.”

As Tschetter started to walk away, Kira asked a question of her own: “Have you found any other artifacts like this?” The words fell out of her in a breathless jumble. “Like the xeno?”

The major glanced back at her. “No, Ms. Navárez. We haven’t.”

The holo winked out of existence.

 

4.

Kira sat by the pressure door, still mulling over the major’s final question. How could she be sure her thoughts, actions, or emotions were still her own? Plenty of parasites modified the behavior of their hosts. Maybe the xeno was doing the same to her.

If so, she might not even notice.

Some things Kira felt sure an alien wouldn’t be able to successfully manipulate, no matter how smart the creature was. Thoughts, memories, language, culture—all of those were too complex and context-dependent for an alien to fully understand. Hell, even humans had difficulty going from one human culture to another. However, big emotions, urges, actions, those would be vulnerable to tampering. For all she knew, her anger might be coming from the organism. It didn’t feel like it, but then it wouldn’t.

Have to try and stay calm, Kira thought. Whatever the xeno was doing to her was out of her control, but she could still watch herself for unusual behavior.

A spotlight snapped on overhead, pinning her beneath its harsh glare. In the darkness beyond, there was a stir of movement as the robotic arms descended toward her.

Halfway up the cylindrical wall, the two-way mirror blurred transparent. Through it, she saw a short, hunched man in a UMC uniform standing at a console. He had a brown mustache and deep-set eyes that stared at her with feverish intensity.

A speaker clicked on overhead, and she heard the man’s gravelly voice: “Ms. Navárez, this is Doctor Carr. We met before, although you wouldn’t remember.”

“So you’re the one who got most of my team killed.”

The doctor tilted his head to the side. “No, that would be you, Ms. Navárez.”

In that instant, Kira’s anger curdled into hate. “Oh fuck you. Fuck you! How could you have missed the xeno? Look at the size of it.”

Carr shrugged, tapping buttons on a display she couldn’t see. “That’s what we’re here to find out.” He peered down at her, his face round and owlish. “Now stop wasting time. Drink.” One of the robotic arms presented her with a pouch of orange liquid. “It’ll keep you on your feet until there’s time for a solid meal. I don’t want you passing out on me.”

Biting back an obscenity, Kira took the pouch and downed it in a single, sustained gulp.

Then the hatch set within the airlock popped open, and at the doctor’s order, she dropped the pouch inside. The hatch closed, and a loud thud sounded as the airlock vented into space.

From that point on, Carr subjected her to an unrelenting series of examinations. Ultrasounds. Spectrographs. X-rays. PET scans (prior to those she had to drink a cup of milky-white liquid). Cultures. Reactant tests… Carr tried them all and more.

The robots—he called them S-PACs—acted as his assistants. Blood, saliva, skin, tissue: if she could part with it, they took it. Urine samples weren’t possible, given how the suit covered her, and no matter how much Kira drank, she never felt the need to relieve herself, for which she was grateful. Peeing in a bucket while Carr watched wasn’t something she wanted to do.

Despite her anger—and her fear—Kira also felt a strong, almost irresistible curiosity. The chance to study a xeno like this was what she’d hoped for her whole career.

If only the chance hadn’t come at such a terrible price.

She paid close attention to which experiments the doctor was running and in which order, hoping to glean some hint of what he was learning about the organism. To her immense frustration, he refused to tell her the results of his tests. Every time she asked, Carr was evasive or outright refused to answer, which did nothing to improve Kira’s mood.

Despite his lack of communication, Kira could tell from the doctor’s scowls and muttered expletives that the thing was proving remarkably resistant to scrutiny.

Kira had theories of her own. Microbiology was more her specialty than macro, but she knew enough about both to deduce a couple of things. First, given its properties, there was no way the xeno could have evolved naturally. It was either a highly advanced nanomachine or some form of gene-hacked lifeform. Second, the xeno possessed at least a rudimentary awareness. She could feel it reacting to the tests: a slight stiffening along her arm; a soap-bubble shimmer across her chest, so faint as to be nearly invisible; a subtle flexing of the fibers. Whether it was sentient or not, though, she didn’t think even Carr knew.

“Hold still,” said the doctor. “We’re going to try something different.”

Kira stiffened as one of the S-PACs produced a blunt-tipped scalpel from within its casing and lowered the knife toward her left arm. She held her breath as the blade touched. She could feel the edge pressing against her, sharp as glass.

The suit dimpled beneath the blade as the S-PAC scraped it sideways across her forearm, but the fibers refused to part. The robot repeated the motion with increasing force, until at last it gave up scraping and attempted a short draw cut.

As Kira watched, she saw the fibers underneath the blade fuse and harden. It looked as if the scalpel were skating across a surface of molded obsidian. The blade produced a tiny shriek.

“Any pain?” the doctor asked.

Kira shook her head, never taking her eyes off the knife.

The robot withdrew several millimeters and then brought the round tip of the scalpel down upon her forearm in a swift, plunging movement.

The blade snapped with a bell-like ping, and a piece of metal spun past her face.

Carr frowned. He turned to speak to someone (or someones) she couldn’t see, and then turned back to her. “Okay. Again, don’t move.”

She obeyed, and the S-PACs moved around her in a blur, jabbing every centimeter of skin covered by the xeno. At each spot, the organism hardened, forming a small patch of adamantine armor. Carr even had her lift her feet so the robots could stab at the soles. That made her flinch; she couldn’t help it.

So the xeno could defend itself. Great. Freeing her would be that much harder. On the plus side, she didn’t have to worry about being stabbed. Not that it had been a problem before.

The way the thing had emerged on Adra, spikes bristling, tendrils writhing… Why wasn’t it acting like that now? If anything might have been expected to provoke an aggressive response, it should have been this. Had the xeno lost the ability to move after bonding with her skin?

Kira didn’t know, and the suit wasn’t telling.

When the machines finished, the doctor stood, one cheek sucked in as he chewed on it.

“Well?” said Kira. “What did you find? Chemical composition? Cell structure? DNA? Anything.”

Carr smoothed his mustache. “That’s classified.”

“Oh come on.”

“Hands on your head.”

“Who am I going to tell, huh? I can help you. Talk to me!”

“Hands on your head.”

Biting back a curse, Kira obeyed.

 

5.

The next round of tests was far more strenuous, invasive even. Crush tests. Shear tests. Endurance tests. Tubes down her throat, injections, exposures to extremes of heat and cold (the parasite proved to be an excellent insulator). Carr seemed driven to the point of distraction; he yelled at her if she was slow to move, and several times, Kira saw him berating his assistant—a hapless ensign by the name of Kaminski—as well as throwing cups and papers at the rest of his staff. It was clear the experiments weren’t telling Carr what he wanted, and time was fast running out for the crew.

The first deadline came and went without incident. Twelve hours, and so far as Kira could tell, the xeno hadn’t emerged from anyone on the Extenuating Circumstances. Not that she trusted Carr to inform her if it had. But she could see a change in his demeanor: a renewed sense of focus and determination. The doctor had his second wind. They were working against the longer deadline now. Another thirty-six hours before the rest of the crew would have to enter cryo.

Ship-night came, and still they continued to work.

Uniformed crew brought the doctor mug after mug of what Kira assumed was coffee, and as the night wore on, she saw him toss back several pills. StimWare or some other form of sleep-replacement meds.

Kira was increasingly tired herself. “Mind giving me some?” she said, gesturing toward the doctor.

Carr shook his head. “It’ll mess with your brain chemistry.”

“So will sleep deprivation.”

That gave him a moment’s pause, but then the doctor just shook his head again and returned his attention to the instrument panels in front of him.

“Bastard,” Kira muttered.

Acids and bases had no effect on the xeno. Electrical charges passed harmlessly across the skin of the organism (it seemed to form a natural Faraday cage). When Carr raised the voltage, there was an actinic flash at the end of the S-PAC and the arm flew back as if it had been thrown. As the smell of ozone filled the air, Kira saw that the S-PAC’s manipulators had fused together and were glowing red hot.

The doctor paced about the observation bay, tugging at the corner of his mustache with what looked like painful force. His cheeks were red, and he seemed angry, dangerously so.

Then he stopped.

A moment later, there was a clatter as something dropped into the delivery box outside the cell. Curious, Kira opened it and found a pair of dark glasses: eye protection against lasers.

A worm of unease twisted inside her.

“Put them on,” said Carr. “Left arm out.”

Kira obeyed, but slowly. The glasses gave the cell a yellowish cast.

The manipulator mounted on the end of the undamaged S-PAC flowered open to reveal a small, glossy lens. Kira’s unease sharpened, but she held her position. If there was any chance of getting rid of the thing, she’d take it, no matter how much it hurt. Otherwise she knew she’d end up spending the rest of her life stuck in quarantine.

The S-PAC positioned itself above and just to the left of her forearm. With a snap, a purplish-blue beam shot from the lens to a point on the deck near her feet. Flecks of dust gleamed and glittered in the bar of collated light, and the grating below began to glow cherry red.

Moving sideways, the robot brought the beam into contact with her forearm.

Kira tensed.

There was a brief flash, and a wisp of smoke curled upward, and then… and then to her astonishment, the laser beam curved around her arm, like water flowing around a stone. Once past her arm, the laser regained its geometric precision and continued straight down to the deck, where it traced a ruddy line across the grating.

The robot never paused its sideways slide. At a certain point, the laser flipped sides and arced around the inside of her forearm.

Kira felt no heat; it was as if the laser didn’t exist.

What the xeno was doing wasn’t impossible. It was just very difficult. Plenty of materials could bend light. They were used in numerous applications. The invisibility cloak she and her friends had played with when they were kids was a perfect example. However, to detect the exact wavelength of the laser and then manufacture a coating that could redirect it, and all in a tiny fraction of a second, was no mean feat. Not even the League’s most advanced assemblers could pull that off.

Once again Kira revised upward her estimate of the xeno’s abilities.

The beam vanished. Carr scowled and scratched his mustache. A young man—an ensign, she thought—approached the doctor, said something. The doctor turned and seemed to shout at him; the ensign flinched and then saluted and gave a quick answer.

Kira started to lower her arm.

“Stay,” said the doctor.

She resumed her position.

The robot settled over a spot a few centimeters below her elbow.

A pop rang out, nearly as loud as a gunshot, and Kira yelped. It felt as if she’d been jabbed with a red-hot spike. She yanked her arm back and clapped a hand over the wound. Between her fingers, she saw a hole as big around as her pinkie.

The sight shocked her. Out of everything they’d tried, the laser blast was the first to actually hurt the suit.

Her astonishment was nearly enough to override the pain. She bent over, grimacing as she waited for the initial surge to wear off.

After a few seconds, she glanced back at her arm; the suit was flowing into the hole, the fibers reaching out and grasping each other, tentacle-like. They closed over the wound, and within moments, her arm looked and felt the same as before. So the organism could still move.

Kira let out her breath in a ragged flow. Had it been the suit’s pain she felt or her own?

“Again,” Carr said.

Setting her jaw, Kira held out her arm, hand clenched in a fist. If they could cut through the suit, perhaps they could force it to retreat.

“Do it,” she said.

Pop.

A spark and a small puff of vapor erupted from the wall as a pin-sized hole appeared in the metal plating. She frowned. The suit had already adapted to the laser’s frequency.

With hardly any pause:

Pop.

More pain. “Dammit!” She grabbed her arm and pressed it against her stomach, lips pulled tight against her teeth.

“Don’t fucking move, Navárez.”

She gave herself several breaths and then resumed position.

Three more spikes drove through her skin in quick succession. Her whole arm was on fire. Carr must have figured out how to shift the laser’s frequency in a way to bypass the suit’s defenses. Elated, Kira opened her mouth to say something to him—

Pop.

Kira flinched. She couldn’t help it. Okay, Carr had had his fun. Time to stop. She started to draw her arm back, but the second S-PAC spun around and grabbed her wrist with its manipulator.

“Hey!”

Pop.

Another blackened crater appeared on her forearm. Kira snarled and tugged against the robot. It refused to budge.

“Stop it!” she shouted at the doctor. “That’s enough!”

He glanced at her and then returned to studying something on a monitor below the edge of the mirror-window.

Pop.

A new crater appeared in the same spot as the last one, which was already filling in. The blast drilled even farther into her arm, burning through skin and muscle.

“Stop!” she shouted, but Carr didn’t respond.

Pop.

A third crater overlapping. Panicked, Kira grabbed the S-PAC holding her and yanked, throwing all her weight backwards. It shouldn’t have made any difference—the machines were large and well-built—but the joint behind the S-PAC’s manipulator snapped, and the manipulator broke free with a spray of hydraulic fluid.

Surprised, Kira stared for a moment. Then she pried the manipulator off her wrist, and it fell to the floor with a solid bang.

Carr stood watching with a frozen expression.

“We’re done here,” said Kira.

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

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