To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Read To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini: Chapter 8: “Out & About”

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 8

***

Out & About

1.

The stars and the ship spun around her in a dizzying kaleidoscope.

Kira opened her mouth and allowed the air in her lungs to escape, as you were supposed to do if spaced. Otherwise you risked soft tissue damage and, possibly, an embolism.

The downside was, she had only about fifteen seconds of consciousness left. Death by asphyxiation or death by arterial obstruction. Not much of a choice.

She gulped out of instinct and flailed, hoping to catch something with her hands.

Nothing.

Her face stung and prickled; the moisture on her skin boiling off. The sensation increased, becoming a cold fire that crawled upward from her neck and inward from her hairline. Her vision dimmed, and Kira felt sure she was blacking out.

Panic set in then. Deep, overriding panic, and the last remnants of Kira’s training fled her mind, replaced by the animal need to survive.

She screamed, and she heard the scream.

Kira was so shocked, she stopped and then, purely by reflex, took a breath. Air—precious air—filled her lungs.

Unable to believe it, she felt her face.

The suit had molded itself to her features, forming a smooth surface over her mouth and nose. With the tips of her fingers, she discovered that small, domed shells now covered her eyes.

Kira took another breath, still incredulous. How long could the suit keep her supplied with air? A minute? Several minutes? Any more than three and it wouldn’t matter, because nothing would be left of the Extenuating Circumstances but a rapidly expanding cloud of radioactive dust.

Where was she? It was hard to tell; she was still spinning, and it was impossible to focus on any one thing. Adrasteia’s shining bulk swung past—and beyond it, the enormous curve of Zeus’s silhouette—then the broken length of the Extenuating Circumstances. Floating alongside the cruiser was another vessel: a huge blue-white orb covered with smaller orbs and the biggest set of engines she’d ever seen.

She was hurtling away from the middle of the Extenuating Circumstances, but the forward section of the ship was listing toward her, and ahead of her gleamed a row of the diamond radiators. Two of the fins were broken, and ropes of silver metal leaked from the veins within.

The fins looked beyond her reach, but Kira tried anyway, unwilling to give up. She stretched out her arms, straining toward the nearest of the radiators as she continued to spin. Stars, planet, ship, and radiators flashed by, again and again, and still she kept straining…

The pads of her fingers slipped across the surface of the diamond, unable to find purchase. She screamed and scrabbled but without success. The first fin spun away, then the next and the next, her fingers brushing each in turn. One stood slightly higher than the rest, mounted on a damaged armature. Her palm scraped against the diamond’s polished edge, and her hand stuck—stuck as if covered with a gecko pad—and she came to a stop with a violent jolt.

Hot pain flooded her shoulder joint.

Relieved beyond belief, Kira hugged the fin as she peeled her hand free. A soft bed of cilia coated her palm, waving gently in the weightlessness of space. If only the suit had kept her from getting blown out of the Extenuating Circumstances in the first place.

She looked for the back half of the ship.

It was several hundred meters away and receding. The two shuttles were still docked along the stem; they both looked intact. Somehow she had to reach them, and fast.

She really had only one choice. Thule! She braced herself against the diamond fin and then jumped with all her might. Please, she hoped, let her aim be correct. If she missed, she wouldn’t get a second chance.

As she bored across the fathomless gulf that separated her from the stern of the Extenuating Circumstances, Kira noticed she could see faint lines radiating in loops along the hull. The lines were blue and violet, and appeared to cluster around the fusion engine—EM fields. It was like having her overlays back, at least in part.

Interesting, if not immediately useful.

Kira focused on the alien ship. It shone in the sun like a bead of polished quartz. Everything about it was spherical or as close to spherical as possible. From the outside, she couldn’t tell what might be living quarters and what might be fuel tanks, but it looked like it could hold a substantial crew. There were four circular windows dotted around its circumference and one near the prow of the ship, which was surrounded by a large ring of lenses, ports, and what appeared to be various sensors.

The engine looked no different from any of the rockets she was familiar with (Newton’s third law didn’t care whether you were human or xeno). However, unless the aliens had launched from somewhere extremely close, they had to have a Markov Drive as well. She wondered how they could have snuck up on the Extenuating Circumstances. Could they jump right into a gravity well? Not even the League’s most powerful ships could manage that particular trick.

The strange, aching pull Kira still felt seemed to originate from the alien vessel. Part of her wished she could follow it and see what happened, but that was the crazy part of her, and she ignored it.

She could also feel the orphaned piece of the xeno, distant and fading as it receded into space. Would it again become dust? She wondered.

In front of her, the back half of the Extenuating Circumstances was beginning to yaw. A ruptured hydraulic line in the hull was the culprit, spewing liters of water into space. She estimated the change of angle between her and the ship, compared it to her velocity, and realized that she was going to miss by almost a hundred meters.

Hopelessness gripped her.

If only she could go there instead of straight ahead, she would be fine, but—

She moved to the left.

Kira could feel it, a brief application of thrust along the right side of her body. Using an arm to counterbalance the motion, she glanced backwards and saw a faint haze of mist expanding behind her. The suit had moved her! For an instant, joy, and then she remembered the danger of the situation.

She focused on her destination again. Just a little more to the left and then angle up a few degrees, and… perfect! With each thought, the xeno responded by providing the exact amount of thrust needed to reposition her. And now faster! Faster!

Her speed increased, although not as much as she would have liked. So the suit did have its limits after all.

She tried to guess how much time had passed. A minute? Two minutes? However long it was, it was too long. The shuttle’s systems would take minutes to start up and ready for departure, even with emergency overrides. She might be able to use the RCS thrusters to put a few hundred meters between her and the Extenuating Circumstances, but that wouldn’t be enough to protect her from the blast.

One thing at a time. She had to get into a shuttle first, and then she could worry about trying to get away.

A thin red line swept across the back half of the ship, moving up the truncated stem—a laser beam slicing it apart. Decks exploded in plumes of crystalizing vapor, and she saw men and women ejected into space, their last breaths forming small clouds in front of their contorted faces.

The laser swerved sideways when it reached the docking section, swerved and sliced through the farthest shuttle. A burst of escaping air pushed the mangled shuttle away from the Extenuating Circumstances, and then a jet of fire erupted from a punctured fuel tank in one of its wings, and the shuttle spiraled away, a top spinning out of control.

“Goddammit!” Kira shouted.

The aft part of the Extenuating Circumstances rolled sideways toward her, driven by the decompression of the ruptured decks. She arced around the surface of the pale hull, hurtling over it dangerously fast, and smashed into the fuselage of the remaining shuttle. Printed in large letters along the side was the name Valkyrie.

Kira grunted and spread her arms and legs, trying to hold on.

Her hands and feet stuck to the shuttle, and she scrambled across the fuselage to the side airlock. She punched the release button, the light on the control panel turned green, and the door slowly began to slide open.

“Comeon, comeon!”

As soon as the gap between the door and the hull was wide enough, she wiggled through to the airlock and activated the emergency pressurization system. Air buffeted her from all directions, and the sound of the whooping siren faded in. The suit’s mask didn’t seem to interfere with her hearing.

“Self-destruct in T-minus forty-three seconds. This is not a drill.”

“Fuck!”

When the pressure gauge read normal, Kira opened the inner airlock and shoved herself through, toward the cockpit.

The controls and displays were already active. One glance at them, and she saw that the engines were lit and all the preflight checklists and protocols had been taken care of. Bishop!

She swung herself down into the pilot’s seat and struggled with the harness until she got herself strapped in.

“Self-destruct in T-minus twenty-five seconds. This is not a drill.”

“Get me out of here!” she shouted through the mask. “Take off! Take—”

The Valkyrie jolted as it detached from the cruiser, and the weight of a thousand tons crashed into her as the shuttle’s engines roared to life. The suit hardened in response, but still, it hurt.

The bulbous alien ship flashed past the nose of the Valkyrie, and then Kira glimpsed the forward section of the Extenuating Circumstances half a kilometer away, and she saw a pair of coffin-shaped escape pods shoot out from the prow of the ship and burn toward Adra’s desolate surface.

In a surprisingly quiet voice, Bishop said, “Ms. Navárez, I left a recording for you on the Valkyrie’s system. Contains all the pertinent information regarding you, your situation, and this attack. Please watch at earliest convenience. Unfortunately, nothing else I can do to help. Safe travels, Ms. Navárez.”

“Wait! What—”

The viewscreen flared white, and the aching pull in Kira’s chest vanished. An instant later, the shuttle bucked as the expanding sphere of debris hit. For a few seconds, it seemed as if the Valkyrie would break apart. A panel above her sparked and went dead, and somewhere behind her, a bang sounded, followed by the high-pitched whistle of escaping air.

A new alarm rang out, and rows of red lights cycled overhead. As the roar of the engines cut out, the weight pressing down on her vanished, and the stomach-churning sensation of free fall returned.

 

2.

“Ms. Navárez, there are numerous hull breaches in the aft,” said the shuttle’s pseudo-intelligence.

“Yes, thank you,” Kira muttered, unbuckling her harness. Her voice sounded strange and muffled through the mask.

She’d made it! She could hardly believe it. But she wasn’t safe, not yet.

“Kill the alarm,” she said.

The siren promptly cut out.

Kira was glad the mask stayed in place as she followed the high-pitched whistles toward the back of the shuttle. At least she didn’t have to worry about blacking out if the pressure dropped too low. She wondered, though: Would she have to spend the rest of her life with her face covered?

First she had to make sure she did live.

The whistles led her to the rear of the passenger compartment. There she found seven holes along the edge of the ceiling. The holes were tiny, no wider than a piece of pencil lead, but still large enough to drain the atmosphere from the shuttle within a few hours.

“Computer, what’s your name?”

“My name is Ando.” It sounded like a Geiger, but it wasn’t. Militaries used their own, specialized programs to fly their ships.

“Where’s the repair kit, Ando?”

The pseudo-intelligence guided her to a locker. Kira retrieved the kit and used it to mix a batch of quick-setting, foul-smelling resin (the mask didn’t seem to block the scent). She troweled the goop into the holes, and then covered each one with six cross-layered strips of FTL tape. The tape was stronger than most metals; it would take a blowtorch to remove that many strips.

As she rolled up the kit, Kira said, “Ando, damage report.”

“There are electrical shorts in the lighting circuitry, lines two-twentythree-n and lines one-five-one-n are compromised. Also—”

“Skip the itemized report. Is the Valkyrie spaceworthy?”

“Yes, Ms. Navárez.”

“Were any critical systems hit?”

“No, Ms. Navárez.”

“What about the fusion drive? Wasn’t the nozzle pointing back at the explosion?”

“No, Ms. Navárez, our course put us on a bias with regard to the Extenuating Circumstances. The explosion struck us at an angle.”

“Did you program the course?”

“No, Ms. Navárez, ship mind Bishop did.”

Only then did Kira begin to relax. Only then did she allow herself to think that maybe, just maybe, she was really going to survive.

The mask rippled and peeled off her face. Kira yelped. She couldn’t help it; the process felt like a giant sticky bandage being removed.

Within seconds, her face was clear.

Kira tentatively ran her fingers over her mouth and nose, around the edges of her eyes, touching and exploring. To her surprise, she seemed to have kept her eyebrows and eyelashes.

“What are you?” she whispered, tracing the neckline of the suit. “What were you made for?”

No answers were forthcoming.

She looked over the inside of the shuttle: at the consoles, the rows of seats, the storage lockers, and—next to her—four empty cryo tubes. Tubes that she couldn’t use.

At the sight, sudden despair filled her. It didn’t matter that she’d escaped. Without the ability to enter cryo, she was effectively stranded.

 

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

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