To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 6: “Shouts & Echoes”

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 6

***

Shouts & Echoes

1.

Dr. Carr stared down at her with cold disapproval. “Resume position, Navárez.”

Kira gave him the finger and walked over to the wall beneath the mirrorwindow, where he couldn’t see, and sat. As always, the spotlight followed her.

Again, Carr spoke: “Goddammit, this isn’t a game.”

She lifted her finger over her head. “I’m not working with you if you won’t listen when I say stop.”

“We don’t have time for this, Navárez. Resume position.”

“Want me to break the other S-PAC? Because I will.”

“Last warning. If you don’t—”

“Fuck off.”

Kira could almost hear the doctor fuming in the pause that followed. Then a square of reflected light appeared on the wall opposite her as the mirrorwindow clouded over.

She released the breath she’d been holding.

Stellar security be damned. The UMC couldn’t do whatever they wanted with her! It was her body, not theirs. And yet—as Carr had shown—she was at their mercy.

Kira rubbed her forearm, still in shock. She hated feeling so helpless.

After a moment, she stood and nudged the crumpled S-PAC with her foot. The xeno must have augmented her strength, same as an exoskeleton or a soldier’s battle armor. It was the only explanation for how she could have torn apart the machine.

As for the burns on her arm, only a faint ache remained to remind her of their existence. It occurred to Kira that the xeno had done everything it could to protect her throughout the tests. Lasers, acids, flames, and more—the parasite had deflected nearly everything Carr had thrown at her.

For the first time, she felt a sense of… not gratitude, but perhaps, appreciation. Whatever the suit might be, and as much as she hated it for causing the deaths of Alan and her other teammates, it was useful. In its own way, it was displaying more care for her than the UMC.

It wasn’t long before the hologram popped into existence. Kira saw the same grey room with the same grey desk, and standing at attention before it, Major Tschetter in her grey uniform. A colorless woman in a colorless room.

Before the major could speak, Kira said, “I want a lawyer.”

“The League hasn’t charged you with a criminal offense. Until such time as it does, you don’t need a lawyer.”

“Maybe not, but I want one anyway.”

The woman stared at her the way Kira imagined she would stare at a fleck of dirt on her otherwise immaculate shoes. She was from Sol, Kira felt sure of it. “Listen to me, Navárez. You’re wasting minutes that might mean the difference in lives. Maybe no one else is infected. Maybe only one other person is infected. Maybe all of us are. The point is, we have no way to tell. So stop stalling and get back to work.”

Kira made a dismissive noise. “You’re not going to figure out anything about the xeno in the next few hours, and you know it.”

Tschetter pressed her palms against the table, fingers stretched wide like talons. “I know nothing of the sort. Now be reasonable and cooperate with Doctor Carr.”

“No.”

The major tapped her fingernails against the desk. Once, twice, three times, and then no more. “Noncompliance with the Stellar Security Act is a crime, Navárez.”

“Yeah? What are you going to do, throw me in jail?”

If possible, Tschetter’s gaze grew even sharper. “You don’t want to go down this path.”

“Uh-huh.” Kira crossed her arms. “I’m a member of the League, and I have corporate citizenship through the Lapsang Trading Corporation. I have certain rights. You want to keep studying the xeno? Great, then I want some form of computer access, and I want to talk with a company rep. Send a flash back to Sixty-One Cygni. Now.”

“We can’t do that, and you know it.”

“Tough. That’s my price. And if I tell Carr to back off, then he backs off. Otherwise, you can all go jump out an airlock for all I care.”

A silence, and then Tschetter’s lips twitched and the hologram vanished.

Kira released her breath in a gust, spun around, and started to pace. Had she gone too far? She didn’t think so. Now it was up to the captain to decide whether to grant her requests.… Henriksen, that was his name. She hoped he was more fair-minded than Tschetter. A captain ought to be.

“How the hell did I end up here?” she muttered.

The ship’s hum was her only answer.

 

2.

Not five minutes later, the two-way mirror cleared. To Kira’s dismay, Carr was the only person standing in the observation bay. He eyed her with a sour expression.

Kira stared back, defiant.

The doctor pressed a button, and the hated spotlight reappeared. “Alright, Navárez. Enough of this. We—”

Kira turned her back on him. “Go away.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Well I’m not going to help you until I get what I asked for. Simple as that.”

A sound made her turn. The doctor had planted both fists on the console in front of him. “Get back into position, Navárez, or else—”

“Or else what?” She snorted.

Carr’s scowl deepened, his eyes two gleaming dots buried above his fleshy cheeks. “Fine,” he snapped.

The comm clicked off, and the two S-PACs again emerged from their slots in the ceiling. The one she’d damaged had been repaired; its manipulator looked good as new.

Apprehensive, Kira dropped into a crouch as the machines moved toward her, like spider legs extending. She batted at the near one, and it dodged so fast it seemed to teleport. There was no matching the speed of a robot.

The two arms closed in at the same time. One caught her by the jaw with its cold, hard manipulators, while the other robot dove in with a syringe. Kira felt a spot of pressure behind her ear, and then the needle on the syringe snapped.

The S-PAC released her, and Kira scrambled into the center of the cell, panting. The hell? In the mirror-window, the doctor was frowning and staring at something on his overlays.

Kira felt behind her ear. What had been bare skin just hours before was now covered by a thin layer of the suit’s material. Her scalp tingled; the skin along the edges of her neck and face felt as if it were crawling. The sensation intensified—becoming a cold fire that pricked and stung—as if the xeno were struggling to move. But it didn’t.

Once again the creature had protected her.

Kira looked up at Carr. He was leaning against the equipment in front of him, staring down at her with a heavy frown, his forehead shiny with sweat.

Then he turned and left the mirror-window.

Kira released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Adrenaline was still coursing through her.

A loud thud sounded outside the pressure door.

 

3.

Kira froze. What now?

Somewhere a bolt snapped open and atmospheric pumps whined. Then a row of lights across the center of the door flashed yellow, and the lock rotated and decoupled from the wall.

Kira swallowed hard. Surely Carr wasn’t going to send someone in there with her!

Metal scraped against metal as the door slid open.

Beyond it was a small decon chamber, still hazy with mist from the chemical spray. In the haze stood two hulking shadows, backlit by blue warning lights mounted on the ceiling.

The shadows moved: loader bots, covered from top to bottom in blast armor, black and massive and scarred from use. No weapons, but between them sat a wheeled exam table with racks of medical equipment mounted underneath the mattress. Shackles hung at each of the four corners of the bed, and straps too: restraints for unruly patients.

Like her.

Kira recoiled. “No!” She glanced at the two-way mirror. “You can’t do this!”

The bots’ heavy feet clanked as they stepped into the cell, pushing the exam table before them. The wheels squealed with protest.

In the periphery of her vision, Kira saw the S-PAC machines approaching from either side, manipulators spread wide.

Her pulse spiked.

“Citizen Navárez,” said the rightmost bot. Its voice was staticky out of the cheap speaker embedded in its torso. “Turn around and put your hands on the wall.”

“No.”

“If you resist, we are authorized to use force. You have five seconds to comply. Turn around and put your hands on the wall.”

“Go jump out an airlock.”

The two bots stopped the exam table in the middle of the room. Then they started toward her while, at the same time, the S-PACs darted in from the sides.

Kira did the only thing she could think of: she dropped into a sitting fetal position, arms wrapped around her legs, forehead buried against her knees. The suit had hardened in response to the scalpel; maybe it could harden again and keep the machines from strapping her to the table. Please, please, please…

At first it seemed her prayer would go unanswered.

Then, as the grippers at the end of the S-PACs touched her sides, her skin stiffened and constricted. Yes! A brief moment of relief as Kira felt herself locking into position, the fibers twining together in places where flesh touched flesh, welding her into a single, solid piece.

The S-PACs snapped against her sides, unable to find purchase against the now slick, shell-like veneer of the suit. Her breath came in short, gasping gulps, stifling hot in the pocket of space between her mouth and legs.

Then the battle bots were upon her. Their giant metal fingers clamped down on her arms, and she felt them lift her off the floor and carry her toward the exam table.

“Let me go!” Kira shouted, not breaking position. The frantic tempo of her pulse outraced her thoughts, filled her ears with a sound like a roaring waterfall.

Cold plastic touched her ass as the bots lowered her onto the exam table.

Curled as she was, none of the shackles could be secured around her wrists or ankles. Nor would any of the straps work. They were meant to be used on a person lying down, not sitting up.

“Citizen Navárez, noncompliance is a criminal offense. Cooperate now, or—”

“No!!!”

The bots pulled on her arms and legs, trying to stretch her out. The suit refused to give. Two hundred–some kilos of powered metal for each machine, and they couldn’t break the fibers that bound her in place.

The S-PACs made a futile attempt to help, their manipulators scrabbling against her neck and back—oil-slick fingers attempting to grasp hold of greased glass.

Kira felt as if she were trapped in a tiny box, the soft walls pressing in on her, suffocating. But she stayed curled up, refusing to budge. It was her only way of fighting back, and she’d sooner pass out than give Carr the satisfaction of victory.

The machines retreated for a moment, and then the four of them began to bustle about her in an organized fashion: removing equipment from the racks underneath the mattress, adjusting a diagnostic scanner to accommodate her fetal position, laying out tools on a tray by her feet… With a sense of anger, Kira realized Carr was going to continue with his tests and there was nothing she could do about it. The S-PACs she might have been able to break, but not the loader bots; they were too big, and if she tried, they’d just lock her to the table and then she’d be even more at their mercy.

So Kira didn’t move, although sometimes the machines repositioned her for their own reasons. She couldn’t see what they were doing, but she could hear, and she could feel. Every few seconds an instrument of some kind touched her back or sides, scraping, pushing, drilling, or otherwise attacking the skin of the suit. Liquids poured across her head and neck, much to her annoyance. Once she heard the clicks of a Geiger counter. Another time she felt a cutting disk make contact with her arm, and her skin grew warm while the strobelike flash of flying sparks illuminated the dark crannies around her face. And all the while, the scanner arm kept moving around her—whirring, beeping, humming—moving in perfect coordination with the loader bots and the two S-PACs.

Kira yelped as a laser blast drilled into her thigh. No.… More blasts followed, on different parts of her body, and each blast was a burning jab of pain. The smell of burnt flesh and burnt xeno filled the air, acrid and unpleasant.

She bit her tongue to keep from crying out again, but the pain was pervasive and overwhelming. The constant bzzt of the discharging laser accompanied each pulse. Soon just hearing the sound was enough to make her flinch. Sometimes the xeno would protect her and she’d hear a piece of the table or the floor or the walls vaporize. But the S-PACs kept rotating the wavelength of the laser, avoiding the suit’s adaptations.

It was like a tattoo machine from hell.

Then the pulses grew faster as the robots fired in bursts that allowed for continuous cutting, the bzzts forming a single jagged tone that vibrated in her teeth. Kira screamed as the flickering beam carved down her side, attempting to slice away the xeno, force it to retreat. Her blood sputtered and hissed as it evaporated.

Kira refused to break form. But she kept screaming until her throat was raw and slick with blood. She couldn’t help it. The pain was too great.

As the laser burned another track, her pride fled. She no longer cared about appearing weak; escaping the pain had become the sole focus of her existence. She begged Carr to stop, begged and begged and begged, to no effect. He didn’t even respond.

Between the lashings of agony, fragments of memories passed through Kira’s mind… Alan; her father tending his Midnight Constellations; her sister, Isthah, chasing her through the racks in the storage room; Alan laughing; the weight of the ring sliding onto her finger; the loneliness of her first posting; a comet streaking across the face of a nebula. And more she failed to recognize.

How long it went on, Kira didn’t know. She retreated deep into the core of herself and clung to one thought above all else: this too shall pass.

The machines stopped.

Kira remained frozen where she was, sobbing and barely conscious. At any moment, she expected the laser to hit her again.

“Stay where you are, Citizen,” said one of the loader bots. “Any attempt to escape will be met with lethal force.” There was a whine of motors as the S-PACs retreated into the ceiling, and a heavy series of steps as the two loader bots moved away from the exam table. But they didn’t return the way they’d come.

Instead, Kira heard them trundle over to the airlock. It clanked open. Her gut went ice-cold as fear flooded her. What were they doing? Surely they weren’t going to vent the cell? They wouldn’t. They couldn’t…

The loader bots entered the airlock, and to Kira’s relief, the door closed after them, although it did nothing to lessen her confusion.

And then… silence. The airlock didn’t cycle. The intercom didn’t turn on. The only sounds were of her breathing and the fans circulating the atmosphere and the distant rumble of the ship’s engines.

 

4.

Kira’s sobs slowly ran out. The pain was fading to a dull ache as the suit bandaged and healed her wounds. She stayed curled into a ball, though, halfconvinced that Carr was pulling a trick on her.

For a long, empty while she waited, listening to the ambient sounds of the Extenuating Circumstances for any hint she might be attacked again.

In time, she began to relax. The xeno relaxed with her, allowing the different parts of her body to unstick from one another.

Lifting her head, Kira looked around.

Aside from the exam table and a few new scorch marks, the cell appeared the same as before… as if Carr hadn’t just spent the last few hours (or however long it had been) torturing her. Through the airlock window, she could see the loader bots standing one next to the other, locked into hard points along the curving wall. Standing. Waiting. Watching.

She understood now. The UMC didn’t want to allow the bots back into the main area of the ship. Not when they were worried about contamination. But they also didn’t want to leave the bots where she could access them.

Kira shivered. She swung her legs over the side of the table and slid to the floor. Her knees were stiff, and she felt sick and shaky, as if she’d just finished a set of sprints.

No evidence of her injuries remained; the surface of the xeno looked the same as before. Kira pressed her hand against her side, where the laser had cut deepest. A sudden throb of pain caused her to suck in her breath. So she wasn’t entirely healed.

She sent a hate-filled glance toward the mirror.

How far would Captain Henriksen allow Carr to go? What were their limits? If they were truly scared of the xeno, was any measure too far? Kira knew how the politicians would spin it: “In order to protect the League of Worlds, extraordinary measures had to be taken.”

…had to be taken. They always used the passive voice when acknowledging a mistake.

She didn’t know exactly what time it was, but she knew they were getting close to their final deadline. Was that why Carr had left off tormenting her? Because more xenos were emerging among the crew of the Extenuating Circumstances?

Kira eyed the closed pressure door. If so, it would be chaos throughout the ship. She couldn’t hear anything, though: no screams, no alarms, no pressure breaches.

She rubbed her arms, feeling cold as she remembered the breach on Serris, during her third mission out of Weyland’s system. A pressure dome on the mining outpost had failed, nearly killing her and everyone else.… The whistle of escaping air still gave her nightmares.

The cold was spreading throughout her body. It felt as if her blood pressure was dropping, a horrible, doom-laden sensation. In a detached way, Kira realized the ordeal had left her in shock. Her teeth chattered, and she hugged herself.

Maybe something on the exam table could help.

Kira went to examine it.

Scanner, oxygen mask, tissue regenerator, chip-lab, and more besides. Nothing overtly dangerous, and nothing to help her with the shock. Mounted at one end of the bed was a bank of vials containing various drugs. The vials were sealed with molecular locks; she wouldn’t be opening them any time soon. Underneath the mattress hung a canister of liquid nitrogen, beaded with condensation.

Feeling suddenly weak and light-headed, Kira sank to the floor, keeping a hand on the wall for balance. How long had it been since she’d had any sort of food? Too long. Surely the UMC wouldn’t let her starve. At some point Carr would feed her.

He’d just have to, right?

 

5.

Kira kept expecting Carr to reappear, but he didn’t. Nor did anyone else come to talk with her. That was just fine, as far as she was concerned. Right then, she just wanted to be left alone.

Still, without her overlays, being alone was its own special form of torture. All she had were her thoughts and memories, and neither of those were particularly pleasant at the moment.

She tried closing her eyes. It didn’t work. She kept seeing the loader bots. Or if not them, the last, horrifying moments on Adra, and each time, her heart rate spiked and she broke into a hot sweat.

“Dammit,” she muttered. Then, “Bishop, you there?”

The ship mind didn’t answer. She wasn’t even sure he heard, or if he did, if he was allowed to answer.

Desperate for a distraction, and with nothing else to do, Kira decided to run an experiment of her own. The suit could harden in response to threat/pressure/stimuli. Okay. How did it decide what constituted a threat? And was that something she could influence?

Ducking her head between her arms, where no one else could see, Kira concentrated on the inner part of her elbow. Then she imagined the tip of a knife pressing into her arm, breaking the skin… pushing into the muscles and tendons beneath.

No change.

She tried twice more, struggling to make her imagining as real as possible. She used the memory of past pains to help, and on the third attempt, she felt the crease of her elbow harden, a scar-like pucker drawing together her skin.

After that, it got easier. With each attempt, the suit became more responsive, as if it were learning. Interpreting. Understanding. A frightening prospect.

At the thought, the thing constricted across the whole of her body.

Kira sucked in her breath, caught by surprise.

A deep sense of unease formed in her as she sat staring at the weave of fused fibers on her palms. She’d been concerned, and the suit had reacted to that concern. It had read her emotions without her making any attempt to impose them on the organism.

The unease turned to poison in her veins. That last day on Adra, she’d been so upset and out of sorts, and then during the night, when Neghar had started vomiting blood, she’d been so afraid, so incredibly afraid.… No! Kira recoiled from the thought. It was the UMC’s fault that Alan had died. Dr. Carr had failed, and because of his failure, the xeno had emerged the way it had. He was the one to blame, not… not…

Kira hopped to her feet and started pacing: four steps in one direction, four steps in the other.

Moving helped shift her thoughts from the horror of Adra to things more familiar, more comforting. She remembered sitting with her father on the bank of the stream by their house and listening to his stories of life on Stewart’s World. She remembered Neghar jumping up and hooting after beating Yugo at a racing game, and long days working with Marie-Élise under Adra’s sulfurous sky.

And she remembered lying with Alan and talking, talking, talking about life and the universe and all the things they wanted to do.

“Someday,” he said, “when I’m old and rich, I’ll have my own spaceship. Just you wait.”

“What would you do with your own spaceship?”

He looked at her, serious as could be. “I’d make a long jump. As long as I could. Out toward the far rim of the galaxy.”

“Why?” she’d whispered.

“To see what’s out there. To fly into the deep depths and carve my name on an empty planet. To know. To understand. The same reason I came to Adra. Why else?”

The thought had scared and excited Kira, and she’d snuggled closer to him, the warmth of their bodies banishing the empty reaches of space from her mind.

 

6.

BOOM.

The deck shuddered, and Kira’s eyes snapped open, adrenaline pumping through her. She was lying against the curve of the wall. The dull red glow of ship-night permeated the holding cell. Late or early, she couldn’t tell.

Another tremor jolted the ship. She heard screeches and bangs and what sounded like alarms. Goosebumps crawled across her skin, and the suit stiffened. Their worst fears had come true; more xenos were emerging. How many of the crew were affected?

She pushed herself into a sitting position, and a veil of dust fell from her skin. The thing’s skin.

Startled, Kira froze. The powder was grey and fine and smooth as silk. Spores? She immediately wished for a respirator. Not that it would do any good.

Then she noticed she was sitting in a shallow depression that perfectly matched the shape of her sleeping body. Somehow she’d sunk several millimeters into the deck, as if the black substance coating her were corrosive. The sight both puzzled her and increased her revulsion. Now the thing had turned her into a toxic object. Was it even safe for someone to touch her? If the—

The cell tilted around her and she flew across the room and slammed into the wall along with the dust, which poofed out in a cloud. The impact knocked the breath out of her. The exam table crashed next to her, parts flying loose.

An emergency burn. But why? The thrust grew stronger… stronger… It felt like two g’s. Then three. Then four. Her cheeks pulled against her skull, stretching, and a lead blanket seemed to weigh her down.

A strange vibration passed through the wall, as if a giant drum had been struck, and the thrust vanished.

Kira fell on all fours and gasped for breath.

Somewhere nearby, something banged against the hull of the ship, and she heard the pop and rattle of what sounded like… gunfire?

And then Kira felt it: an aching summons, tugging her toward a place outside the ship, tugging on her like a string anchored in her chest.

At first, disbelief. It had been so long since the summons had been laid upon her, so very long since she had been called to perform her sacred duty. Then exultation at the much-delayed return. Now the pattern could be fulfilled, as once before.

A disjunction, and she stood in familiar flesh upon a now-vanished cliff, at the moment when she had first felt the compulsion that could be resisted but never ignored. She turned, following it, and saw in the gradient sky a ruddy star wink and waver, and she knew it was the signal’s source.

And she obeyed, as was only right. For hers was to serve, and serve she would.

Kira gasped as she returned to herself. And she knew. They weren’t facing an infestation. They were facing an invasion.

The owners of the suit had come to claim her.

 

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

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