To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 7: “Countdown”

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.

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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
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Chapter 7

*******

Countdown

1.

A sick knot formed in Kira’s stomach. First contact with another intelligent species—something she’d always dreamed of—and it seemed to be happening in the worst possible way, with violence.

“No, no, no,” she muttered.

The aliens were coming for her, for the suit. She could feel the summons growing stronger. It would only be a matter of time before they found her. She had to escape. She had to get off the Extenuating Circumstances. One of the ship’s shuttles would be ideal, but she’d settle for an escape pod. At least on Adra she might have a fighting chance.

The lightstrip overhead started to flash blue, a strident pulse that hurt Kira’s eyes to look at. She ran to the pressure door and pounded on it. “Let me out! Open the door!” She spun toward the mirror-window. “Bishop! You have to let me out!”

The ship mind didn’t respond.

“Bishop!” She pounded on the door again.

The lights on the door turned green, and the lock spun and clicked. She yanked the door open and dashed across the decon chamber. The door at the other end was still locked.

She slapped the control screen next to it. It beeped, and the lock turned a few centimeters and then stopped with a grinding sound.

The door was jammed.

“Fuck!” She slammed her hand against the wall. Most doors had a manual release, but not this one; they were determined to keep their inmates from escaping.

She looked back at the cell. A hundred different possibilities flashed through her mind.

The liquid nitrogen.

Kira ran to the exam table and crouched, scanning the racks of equipment. Where was it? Where was it? She uttered a cry as she spotted the tank, relieved that it appeared undamaged.

She grabbed it and hurried back to the decon chamber’s outer door. Then she took a deep breath and held it so she wouldn’t pass out from breathing too much of the gas.

Kira placed the nozzle of the tank against the door’s lock and opened the valve. A plume of white vapor hid the door from view as the nitrogen sprayed out. For a moment she felt the cold in her hands, and then the suit compensated and they were as warm as ever.

She kept up the spray for a count of ten and then twisted the valve shut.

The metal-composite lock was white with frost and condensation. Using the bottom of the tank, Kira struck the lock. It shattered like glass.

Kira dropped the tank and, desperate to get out, yanked on the door. It slid open, and a painfully loud klaxon assaulted her.

Outside was a bare metal corridor lit by strobing lights. A pair of bodies lay at the far end, twisted and horribly limp. At the sight of them, her pulse spiked, and a line of tension formed in the suit, like a wire being pulled taut to the point of breaking.

This was the nightmare scenario: humans and aliens killing each other. It was a disaster that could easily spiral into a catastrophe.

Where did the Extenuating Circumstances keep its shuttles? She tried to recall what she’d seen of the ship back at HQ. The docking bay was somewhere along the middle part of the ship. So that was her goal.

To get there she’d have to go past the dead crew and, hopefully, avoid running into whatever had attacked them.

No time to waste. Kira took a breath to steady herself and then hurried forward on light feet, primed to react to the smallest sound or motion.

She’d only seen corpses a few times before: once when she was a kid on Weyland, when a supercapacitor on a cargo loader had ruptured and killed two men right on the main street of Highstone. Once during the accident on Serris. And now of course, with Alan and her teammates. On the first two occasions, the images had burned into Kira’s mind until she’d considered having them removed. But she hadn’t. And she wouldn’t with the most recent memories either. They were too much a part of her.

As she approached the bodies, she looked. She had to. One man, one woman. The woman had been shot with an energy weapon. The man had been torn apart; his right arm lay separate from the rest of his body. Bullets had dented and smeared the walls around them.

A pistol protruded from under the woman’s hip.

Fighting the urge to gag, Kira stopped and pulled the weapon free. The counter on the side said 7. Seven rounds remaining. Not many, but better than nothing. The problem was, the gun wouldn’t work for her.

“Bishop!” she whispered, and held the gun up. “Can you—”

The safety on the pistol snapped off.

Good. So the UMC still wanted her alive. Without her overlays, Kira wasn’t sure if she could hit anything with the gun, but at least she wasn’t entirely helpless. Just don’t shoot a window. It would be a bad way to die.

Still keeping her voice low, she said, “Which way to the shuttles?” The ship mind ought to know where the aliens were and how best to avoid them.

A line of green arrows appeared along the top of the wall, pointing deeper into the ship. She followed them through a maze of rooms to a ladder that led toward the center of the Extenuating Circumstances.

The apparent gravity lessened as she climbed past deck after deck of the rotating hab section. Through open doorways, she heard screams and shouts, and twice she saw the muzzle flashes of machine guns reflected around corners. Once, she heard an explosion that sounded like a grenade going off, and a series of pressure doors slammed shut behind her. But she never saw whatever it was the crew was fighting.

Halfway up, the ship lurched—hard—forcing Kira to grab the ladder with both hands to avoid being thrown off. A weird, swirling sensation caused her gorge to rise and bile to flood her mouth. The Extenuating Circumstances was spinning end for end, not a good situation for a long, narrow ship. The frame wasn’t designed to withstand rotational forces.

The alarms changed tone, becoming even more shrill. Then a deep male voice emanated from the speakers in the walls: “Self-destruct in T-minus seven minutes. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. Self-destruct in T-minus six minutes and fifty-two seconds.”

Kira’s insides went cold as ice. “Bishop! No!”

The same male voice said, “I’m sorry, Ms. Navárez. I have no other choice. I suggest you—”

Whatever else he said, Kira didn’t hear, wasn’t listening. Panic threatened to overwhelm her, but she pushed it aside; she didn’t have time for emotions. Not now. A wonderful clarity focused her mind. Her thoughts grew hard, mechanical, ruthless. Less than seven minutes to reach the shuttles. She could do it. She had to.

She scrambled forward, moving even faster than before. She’d be damned if she was going to die on the Extenuating Circumstances.

At the top of the ladders, a ring of green arrows surrounded a closed hatch. Kira pulled it open and found herself in the spherical hub that joined the different hab sections.

She turned aftward, and vertigo gripped her as she saw what seemed to be a long, narrow pit dropping away below her. The shaft was a terror of black metal and stabbing light. All the hatches in all the decks that stacked the stem of the ship had been opened, an offense that normally would have been worthy of a court-martial.

If the ship fired its engines, anyone caught in the shaft would plummet to their death.

Hundreds of meters away, toward the stern, she glimpsed troopers in power armor grappling with some thing: a mass of conflicting shapes, like a knot of shadows.

An arrow pointed into the darkness.

Kira shivered and launched herself toward the distant fight. To keep her stomach from rebelling, she chose to view the shaft as a horizontal tunnel rather than a vertical pit. She crawled along the ladder bolted to the floor/wall, using it to guide her path and keep her from drifting off course.

“Self-destruct in T-minus six minutes. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”

How many decks to the docking bay? Three? Four? She had only a general idea.

The ship groaned again, and the pressure door in front of her slammed shut, blocking the way. Overhead, the line of green arrows switched directions, pointing to the right. It started to blink with seizure-inducing speed.

Shit. Kira swung herself around a rack of equipment and hurried along Bishop’s detour. Time was running out. The shuttles had better be primed for departure or she’d have no chance of escaping…

Voices sounded ahead of her. Dr. Carr saying, “—and move it! Hurry, you moron! There’s no—” A loud thud interrupted him, and the bulkheads vibrated. The doctor’s shouting shifted into a higher pitch, his words incoherent.

As Kira pulled herself through a narrow access hatch, a fist seemed to grip and squeeze her chest.

In front of her was an equipment room: racks of shelving, lockers stuffed with skinsuits, a red-labeled oxygen feed pipe at the back. Carr hung near the ceiling, his hair frazzled, one hand wound in a strap tied to several metal cases that kept bumping into him. A dead Marine lay wedged in one of the shelving units, a row of burns stitched across his back.

On the other side of the room, a large, circular hole had been cut through the hull. Midnight-blue light streamed out of the hole from what seemed to be a small boarding craft mated to the side of the Extenuating Circumstances. And within the recess moved a monster with many arms.

 

2.

Kira froze as the alien propelled itself into the storage room.

The creature was twice the size of a man, with semi-translucent flesh tinted shades of red and orange, like ink dissolving in water. It had a torso of sorts: a tapered ovoid a meter wide covered in a keratinous shell and studded with dozens of knobs, bumps, antennae, and what looked like small black eyes.

Six or more tentacles—she wasn’t sure how many, as they kept writhing about—extended from the ovoid, top and bottom. Textured stripes ran the length of the tentacles, and near the tips, they seemed to have cilia and an array of sharp, claw-like pincers. Two of the tentacles carried white pods with a bulbous lens. Kira didn’t know much about weapons, but she knew a laser when she saw one.

Interspersed among the tentacles were four smaller limbs, hard and bony, with surprisingly hand-like appendages. The arms remained folded close to the creature’s shell and didn’t stir.

Even in her shock, Kira found herself tallying the features of the alien, same as she would with any other organism she’d been sent to study. Carbon based? Seems like it. Radially symmetrical. No identifiable top or bottom.… Doesn’t appear to have a face. Odd. One fact in particular jumped out at her: the alien looked nothing like her suit. Whether the being was sentient or not, artificial or natural, it was definitely different from the xeno bonded with her.

The alien moved into the room with unsettling fluidity, as if it had been born in zero-g, turning and twisting with seemingly no preference for which direction its torso pointed.

At the sight, Kira felt a response from her suit: a rising rage as well as a sense of ancient offense.

Grasper! Wrongflesh manyform! Flashes of pain, bright as exploding stars. Pain and rebirth in an endless cycle, and a constant cacophony of noise: booms and cracks and shattering retorts. The pairing was not as it ought to be. The grasper did not understand the pattern of things. It did not see. It did not listen. It sought to conquer rather than to cooperate.

Wrongness!!!

This wasn’t what the xeno had expected from the summons! Fear and hate roared through Kira, and she didn’t know which was the suit’s and which was hers. The tension inside her snapped, and the skin of the xeno rippled and began to spike out, same as on Adra, needle-sharp spears jabbing in random directions. But this time, she felt no pain.

“Shoot it!” Carr shouted. “Shoot it, you fool! Shoot it!”

The grasper twitched, seeming to shift its attention between them. A strange whispering surrounded Kira, like a billowing cloud, and from it she felt currents of emotion: first surprise, and then in quick succession recognition, alarm, and satisfaction. The whispers grew louder, and then a switch seemed to flip in her brain and she realized she could understand what the alien was saying:

[[—and alert the Knot. Target located. Send all arms to this position. Consumption is incomplete. Containment and recovery should be possible, then we may cl—]]

“Self-destruct in T-minus five minutes. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”

Carr swore and kicked himself over to the dead Marine and yanked on the man’s blaster, trying to free it from the corpse.

One of the laser-wielding tentacles shifted positions, the gelatinous muscles within flexing and relaxing. Kira heard a bang, and a white-hot spike of metal erupted from the side of the Marine’s blaster as a laser pulse hit it, sending the gun careening across the room.

The alien turned toward her. Its weapon twitched. Another bang, and a bolt of pain lanced her chest.

Kira grunted, and for a moment, she felt her heart falter. The spikes on the suit pulsed outward, but to no avail.

[[Qwon here: Foolish two-form! You profane the Vanished. Foulness in the water, this—]]

She scrabbled for the rungs of the ladder by the access hatch, trying to get away, trying to escape, even though there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Bang. Heat stabbed her leg, deep and excruciating.

Then a third bang, and a scorched crater appeared in the wall to her left. The suit had adapted to the laser frequency; it was shielding her. Maybe—

As if in a daze, Kira spun back around and, somehow, lifted the pistol, held it before her. The barrel of the gun wavered as she struggled to aim at the alien.

“Shoot it, damn you!” the doctor screamed, specks of froth flying from his mouth.

“Self-destruct in T-minus four minutes and thirty seconds. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”

Fear narrowed Kira’s vision, constricted her world to a tight cone. “No!” she shouted—a panicked rejection of everything that was happening.

The gun went off, seemingly of its own accord.

The alien darted across the ceiling of the equipment room as it dodged. It was terrifyingly fast, and each tentacle seemed to move with a mind of its own.

Kira yelled and kept squeezing the trigger, the recoil a series of hard smacks against her palm. The noise was muted, distant.

Sparks flew as the grasper’s laser shot two of the bullets out of the air.

The creature swarmed over the skinsuit lockers and paused while clinging to the wall by the red feed pipe—

“Wait! Stop! Stop!” Carr was shouting, but Kira didn’t hear, didn’t care, couldn’t stop. First Alan, then the xeno, and now this. It was too much to bear. She wanted the grasper gone, no matter the risk.

Twice more she fired.

A patch of red crossed her line of sight, beyond the end of the muzzle, and—…

Thunder cracked, and an invisible hammer slammed Kira against the opposite wall. The blast shattered one of the xeno’s spines. She could feel the fragment spinning across the room, as if she were in two places at once.

As her vision cleared, Kira saw the ruins of the supply room. The grasper was a mangled mess, but several of its tentacles still waved with weak urgency, blobs of orange ichor oozing from its wounds. Carr had been thrown against the shelving. Shards of bones stuck out from his arms and legs. The orphaned piece of the xeno lay against the bulkhead across from her: a slash of torn fibers draped across the crumpled panels.

More importantly, there was a jagged hole in the hull where one of the bullets had hit the oxygen line, triggering the explosion. Through it, the blackness of space was visible, dark and dreadful.

A cyclone of air rushed past Kira, dragging at her with inexorable force. The suction pulled Carr, the grasper, and the xeno fragment out of the ship, along with a stream of debris.

Storage bins battered Kira. She cried out, but the wind stole the breath from her mouth, and she struggled to grab a handhold—any handhold—but she was too slow and the walls were too far away. Memories of the breach on Serris flashed through her mind, crystal sharp.

The split in the hull widened; the Extenuating Circumstances was tearing itself apart, each half drifting in a different direction. Then the outflow of gas sent her tumbling past the bloodstained shelves, past the breach, and into the void.

And all went silent.

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

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