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.
Kira pulled herself along the walls to the front of the Valkyrie and strapped herself into the pilot’s seat. She checked the display: the Extenuating Circumstances was gone. So too was the alien ship, destroyed by the explosion of the UMC cruiser. “Ando, are there any other ships in the system?”
That was one piece of good news. “Ando, does the Valkyrie have a Markov
Another piece of good news. The shuttle was capable of FTL. Even so, the lack of cryo might still kill her. It depended on the speed of the drive. “Ando, how long will it take the Valkyrie to reach Sixty-One Cygni if the shuttle makes an emergency burn to the Markov Limit?”
“Seventy-eight and a half days.”
Kira swore. The Fidanza had only taken about twenty-six days. She supposed the shuttle’s slowness shouldn’t be a surprise. The ship was intended for short-range hops and not much more.
Don’t panic. She wasn’t completely out of luck. The next question would be the determining one.
“Ando, how many ration packs does the Valkyrie carry?”
“The Valkyrie carries one hundred and seven ration packs.”
Kira had the pseudo-intelligence do the math for her. Not having her overlays was frustrating; she couldn’t solve even basic calculations on her own.
Adding in the days needed to decelerate at 61 Cygni resulted in a total travel time of 81.74 days. At half rations, the food would only last Kira eight weeks, which would leave her without food for another 25.5 days. Water wasn’t a problem; the reclamation equipment on the shuttle would keep her from dying of dehydration. The lack of food, on the other hand…
Kira had heard of people fasting for a month or more and surviving. She’d also heard of people who’d died in far less time. There was no telling. She was in reasonably good shape, and she had the suit to help her, so there was a chance she could make it, but it was a real gamble.
She rubbed her temple, feeling a headache forming. “Ando, play the message Bishop left for me.”
An image of a harsh-faced man appeared on the display in front of her: the ship mind’s avatar. His brows were drawn, and he seemed in equal parts concerned and angry. “Ms. Navárez, time is short. Aliens are jamming our comms, and they shot down the one signal drone I was able to launch. Not good. Only hope now is you, Ms. Navárez.
“I’ve included all of my sensor data with this message, as well as records from Doctor Carr, Adrasteia, et cetera. Please forward to the relevant authorities. Destruction of Extenuating Circumstances should remove source of jamming.”
Bishop appeared to lean forward, then, and even though his face was only a simulation, Kira could still feel the force of his personality emanating from the screen: an overwhelming ferocity and intelligence bound to a single-minded purpose. “Apologies for the quality of your treatment, Ms. Navárez. Cause was just and—as attack has proven—concern was warranted, but still sorry you had to suffer. Regardless, counting on you now. We all are.”
He returned to his former position. “And Ms. Navárez, if you see General Takeshi, tell him… tell him I remember the sound of summer. Bishop out.”
A strange wistfulness came over Kira. For all their intelligence, ship minds were no more immune to regret and nostalgia than the rest of non-augmented humanity. Nor should they be.
She stared at the weave of fibers on her palm. “Ando, describe the first appearance of the alien ship.”
“An unidentified vessel was detected via satellite sixty-three minutes ago, thrusting around Zeus on an intercept course.” A holo popped up from the cockpit display, showing the gas giant, its moons, and a dotted line tracing the path of the graspers’ ship from Zeus to Adra. “The vessel was accelerating at twenty-five g’s, but—”
“Shit.” That was a monstrously hard burn.
Ando continued, “—its rocket exhaust was insufficient to produce observed thrust. The vessel then executed a skew-flip and decelerated for seven minutes to match orbits with the UMCS Extenuating Circumstances.”
A cold sense of apprehension gripped Kira. The only way the graspers could pull off maneuvers like that would be by reducing the inertial drag of their ship. Doing so was theoretically possible, but it wasn’t something humans were capable of. The engineering challenges were still too great (the power requirements, for one, were prohibitive).
Her apprehension deepened. It really was the nightmare scenario. They’d finally made contact with another sentient species, but the species was hostile and able to fly circles around any human ship, even the unmanned ones.
Ando was still talking: “Unidentified vessel failed to respond to hails and initiated hostilities at—”
“Stop,” said Kira. She knew the rest. She thought for a moment. The graspers must have jumped into the system on the far side of Zeus. It was the only way they could have avoided being immediately picked up by the Extenuating Circumstances. That or the graspers had launched from inside the gas giant, which seemed unlikely. Either way, they’d been cautious, using Zeus for cover and—as she looked at the holo Ando had playing—waiting for the Extenuating Circumstances to orbit around the backside of Adra before they’d started their burn.
It couldn’t be coincidence that the graspers had showed up a few weeks after she’d found the xeno on Adra. Space was too big for that sort of serendipity. Either the graspers had been watching the moon or a signal had gone out from the ruins when she fell into them.
Kira rubbed her face, feeling suddenly tired. Okay. She had to assume the graspers had reinforcements that could show up at any moment. There was no time to lose.
“Ando, are we still being jammed?”
“Then—” She stopped. If she sent an FTL signal to 61 Cygni, could it lead the graspers back to the rest of human-settled space? Maybe, but they’d find it anyway if they were looking—assuming they didn’t already have every human planet under observation—and the League needed to be warned about the aliens as soon as possible. “Then send a distress call to Vyyborg Station, including all pertinent information concerning the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances.”
“Unable to comply.”
“What? Why? Explain.”
“The FTL antenna is damaged and unable to maintain a stable field. My service bots can’t repair it.”
Kira scowled. “Reroute distress call through the commsat in orbit. Satellite Twenty-Eight G. Access code—” And she rattled off her company authorization.
“Unable to comply. Satellite Twenty-Eight G is non-responsive. Debris in the area indicate it was destroyed.”
“Dammit!” Kira slumped back in the chair. She couldn’t even get a message to the Fidanza. It had only left a day ago, but without FTL comms, the ship might as well be on the other side of the galaxy as far as she was concerned. She could still transmit slower than light (and she would), but it would take eleven years to reach 61 Cygni, which wouldn’t do her or the League any good.
She took a steadying breath. Stay calm. You can get through this. “Ando, send an encrypted report flagged eyes-only to the ranking UMC officer at Sixty-One Cygni. Use best means available. Include all relevant information pertaining to myself, Adrasteia, and the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances.”
An almost imperceptible pause, and then the pseudo-intelligence said, “Message sent.”
“Good. Now, Ando, I want to make a broadcast on all available emergency channels.”
A small click. “Ready.”
Kira leaned forward, putting her mouth closer to the display microphone. “This is Kira Navárez on the UMCS Valkyrie. Does anyone read me? Over.…” She waited a few seconds and then repeated the message. And again. The UMC might not have treated her very well, but she couldn’t leave without checking for survivors. The sight of the escape pods jettisoning from the Extenuating Circumstances still burned in her mind. If anyone was left alive, she had to know.
She was just about to have Ando automate the message when the speaker crackled and a man’s voice answered, sounding eerily close. “This is Corporal Iska. What is your current location, Navárez? Over.”
Surprise, relief, and a sense of mounting worry took hold of Kira. She hadn’t actually expected to hear from anyone. Now what? “I’m still in orbit. Over. Uh, where are you? Over.”
“Planetside, on Adra.”
Then a new voice sounded, a youngish woman: “Private Reisner reporting. Over.”
Another three followed, all men: “Specialist Orso, reporting.” “Ensign Yarrek.” “Petty Officer Samson.”
Last of all, a hard, tight-clenched voice that made Kira stiffen: “Major Tschetter.”
Six survivors in total, with the major being the highest ranking. After a few questions, it became clear that all six had landed on Adra, their escape pods scattered across the equatorial continent, where the survey HQ was located. The pods had attempted to land as close as possible to the base, but with their small thrusters, close had ended up being tens of kilometers away for the nearest pod and, in the case of Tschetter’s, over seven hundred klicks.
“Right, what’s the game plan, ma’am?” said Iska.
Tschetter was silent for a moment. Then: “Navárez, have you signaled the League?”
“Yup,” said Kira. “But it’s not going to reach them for over a decade.” And she explained about the FTL antenna and the commsat.
“Fug-nuggets,” Orso swore.
“Cut the chatter,” said Iska.
They could hear Tschetter take a breath, shift position in her escape pod. “Shit.” It was the first time Kira had heard her curse. “That changes things.”
“Yeah,” said Kira. “I checked the amount of food here on the Valkyrie. There’s not a whole lot.” She recited the numbers Ando had given her and then said, “How long until the UMC sends another ship to investigate?”
More sounds of movement from Tschetter. She seemed to be having difficulty finding a comfortable position. “Not soon enough. At least a month, maybe more.”
Kira dug her thumb into her palm. The situation kept getting worse.
Tschetter continued: “We can’t afford to wait. Our first priority has to be warning the League about these aliens.”
“The suit calls them graspers,” Kira offered.
“Is that so?” said Tschetter, her tone cutting. “Any other pertinent pieces of information you’d care to share with us, Ms. Navárez?”
“Just some weird dreams. I’ll write them down later.”
“You do that… Again, we have to warn the League. That and the xeno you’re carrying, Navárez, are more important than any one of us. Therefore, I’m ordering you under special provision of the Stellar Security Act to take the Valkyrie and leave for Sixty-One Cygni right now, without delay.”
“Ma’am, no!” said Yarrek.
Iska growled. “Keep it down, Ensign.”
The thought of abandoning the survivors didn’t sit right with Kira. “Look, if I have to go to Cygni without cryo, I’ll do it, but I’m not going to just leave you guys.”
Tschetter snorted. “Very commendable of you, but we don’t have time to waste on you flying around Adrasteia picking us up. It would take half a day or more, and the graspers could be on us by then.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Kira said in a quiet voice. And it was, she realized somewhat to her surprise.
She could almost hear Tschetter shake her head. “Well, I’m not, Navárez. Besides, the shuttle only carries four cryo tubes, and we all know it.”
“Sorry, Major, I can’t just fly off and abandon you.”
“Dammit, Navárez. Ando, command override, authorization—” Tschetter recited a long, meaningless password.
“Override denied,” said the pseudo-intelligence. “All command functions in the Valkyrie were assigned to Kira Navárez.”
If anything, the major’s voice grew even colder: “On whose authority?”
“Ship mind Bishop.”
“I see.… Navárez, get your head on straight and do the responsible thing. This is bigger than all of us. Circumstances demand—”
“They always do,” Kira murmured.
She shook her head, although no one could see. “Doesn’t matter. I’m coming down there for you. Even if—”
“No!” said Tschetter and Iska nearly at the same time. Tschetter continued: “No. Under no circumstances are you to land the Valkyrie, Navárez. We can’t afford to have you caught flat-footed. Besides, even if you fill up at your base before blasting off again, you’ll use up a good portion of your propellant getting back into orbit. You’re going to need every bit of delta-v to decelerate once you reach Sixty-One Cygni.”
“Well, I’m not just going to wait up here and do nothing,” said Kira. “And there’s nothing you can do to force me to leave.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the comms.
There has to be a way to save at least some of them, thought Kira. She imagined being alone on Adra, starving or trying to hide from the graspers. It was a horrifying prospect, and one she wouldn’t have wished on even Dr. Carr.
The thought of Carr stopped her for an instant. The terror on his face, the warnings he’d shouted, the bones sticking from his skin… If she hadn’t shot the oxygen line, maybe he could have escaped the Extenuating Circumstances. No. The grasper would have killed both of them if not for the explosion. Still, she felt sorry. Carr might have been a bastard, but no one deserved to die like that.
Then she snapped her fingers. The sound was surprisingly loud in the cockpit. “I know,” she said. “I know how to get you off-planet.”
“How?” Tschetter asked, wary.
“The drop shuttle back at HQ,” said Kira.
“What shuttle?” said Orso. He had a deep voice. “The Fidanza took it with them when they left.”
Impatient, Kira barely waited for him to stop speaking: “No, not that one. The other shuttle. The one Neghar was flying the day I found the xeno. It was going to be scrapped because of possible contamination.”
A sharp tapping came over the speakers, and Kira knew it was Tschetter’s nails. The woman said, “What would it take to get the shuttle into the air?”
Kira thought. “The tanks probably just need to be filled up.”
“Ma’am,” said Orso. “I’m only twenty-three klicks away from the base. I can be there in under fifty minutes.”
Tschetter’s answer was immediate: “Do it. Move.”
A faint click sounded as Orso dropped off the line.
Then Iska said in a somewhat tentative voice, “Ma’am…”
“I know,” said Tschetter. “Navárez, I need to talk with the corporal. Hold position.”
The comms went dead.
Kira reviewed the shuttle’s controls while she waited. When several minutes passed and Tschetter still hadn’t called back, Kira unstrapped herself and rummaged around in the shuttle’s storage lockers until she found a jumpsuit.
She didn’t need it—the xeno kept her plenty warm—but she’d felt naked ever since she’d woken up on the Extenuating Circumstances. Something about having a set of proper clothes comforted her, made her feel safer. Silly or not, it made a difference.
Then she went to the shuttle’s small galley area.
She was hungry, but knowing how limited the supply of rations were, she couldn’t bring herself to eat a meal pack. Instead, she got a pouch of selfheating chell—her favorite—and brought it back to the cockpit.
While she sipped the tea, she viewed the patch of space where the Extenuating Circumstances and the graspers’ ship had been.
Nothing but empty blackness. All those people, dead. Humans and aliens alike. Not even a cloud of dust remained; the explosion had obliterated the ships and scattered their atoms in every possible direction.
Aliens. Sentient aliens. The knowledge still overwhelmed her. That and the fact that she had helped kill one… Maybe the tentacled creatures could be negotiated with. Maybe a peaceful solution was still possible. However, any such solution would probably involve her.
At the thought, the backs of her hands crinkled, the crosswoven fibers bunching like knotted muscles. Since the encounter with the grasper, the suit had yet to fully settle down; it seemed more sensitive to her emotional state than before.
If nothing else, the attack on the Extenuating Circumstances had settled one debate: humans weren’t the only self-aware species to be violent, even murderous. Far from it.
Kira switched her gaze to the front viewport and the gleaming bulk of Adrasteia beyond. It was strange to realize that the six crew members— Tschetter included—were somewhere down on the surface.
Six people, but the shuttle only held four cryo pods.
An idea occurred to Kira. She opened the comm channel again and said, “Tschetter, do you read? Over.”
“What is it, Navárez?” said the major, sounding irritated.
“We had two cryo pods at HQ. Remember? The ones Neghar and I were in. One of them might still be there.”
“… Noted. Would there be anything else of use at the base? Food, equipment—that sort of thing?”
“I’m not sure. We hadn’t finished cleaning the place out. There might still be some plants alive in the hydro bay. Maybe a few meal packs in the galley. Plenty of survey equipment, but that won’t put food in your stomach.”
“Roger that. Over and out.”
Another half hour passed before the line sprang to life again and the major said, “Navárez, do you read?”
“Yes, I’m here,” said Kira, quickly.
“Orso found the drop shuttle. It and the hydro cracker seem to be functional.”
“Now, here’s what is going to happen,” said Tschetter. “Once he finishes refueling the shuttle—which should be in… seven minutes—Orso is going to collect Samson, Reisner, and Yarrek. This will require two separate trips. They will then rendezvous with you in orbit. The shuttle will return under its own power to the base, and you, Ms. Navárez, will give the order to Ando and leave on the Valkyrie. Are we clear?”
Kira scowled. Why did the major always irritate her so? “What about the cryo tube I mentioned? Is it there at the base?”
Kira winced. The suit must have hit the tube when it emerged. “Understood. Then you and Iska—”
A strange sense of affinity came over Kira. She didn’t like the major—not one bit—but she couldn’t help but admire the woman’s toughness. “Why you? Shouldn’t—”
“No,” said Tschetter. “If you’re attacked, you need people who can fight. I broke my leg during the landing. I wouldn’t be any good. As for the corporal, he volunteered. He’ll make the trip on foot to the base over the next few days, and when he gets there, he’ll fly out to bring me in.”
“… I’m sorry,” said Kira.
“Don’t be,” said Tschetter, stern. “Can’t change what is. In any case, we need observers here in case the aliens return. I’m Fleet Intelligence; I’m the one best suited for the job.”
“Of course,” said Kira. “By the way, if you dig around in Seppo’s workstation at HQ, you might find some seed packs. I don’t know if you can get anything to grow, but—”
“We’ll check,” said Tschetter. Then, in a slightly softer tone, “I appreciate the thought, even if you’re a real pain in the ass sometimes, Navárez.”
“Yeah, well, takes one to know one.” Kira scuffed her palm against the edge of the console, watching how the surface of the suit flexed and stretched. She wondered: If she were in Tschetter’s position, would she have the courage to make the same decision?
“We’ll let you know when the shuttle launches. Tschetter out.”
“Display off,” said Kira.
She studied her reflection in the glass, a dim, ghostly double. It was her first time getting a good look at herself since the xeno had emerged.
She almost didn’t recognize herself. Instead of the normal, expected shape of her head, she saw the outline of her skull, bare and hairless and black beneath the layered fibers. Her eyes were hollow and there were lines on either side of her mouth that reminded her of her mother.
She leaned closer. Where the suit faded into her skin, it formed a finely detailed fractal, the sight of which struck a strange chord in her, as if she’d seen it before. The sense of déjà vu was so strong, for a moment she felt as if she were in another place and another time, and she had to shake herself and move back.
Kira thought she looked ghoulish—a corpse risen from the grave to haunt the living. Loathing filled her, and she averted her gaze, not wanting to see the evidence of the xeno’s effects. She was glad Alan had never seen her like this; how could he have liked or loved her? She imagined a look of disgust on his face, and it matched her own.
For a moment tears filled her eyes, but Kira blinked them back, angry.
She put on the brimmed cap she’d dug out of a locker and turned up the collar of the jumpsuit to hide as much of the xeno as possible. Then: “Display on. Start recording.” The screen lit up, and a yellow light appeared next to the camera in the bezel.
“Hi, Mom. Dad. Isthah… I don’t know when you’ll see this. I don’t know if you ever will, but I hope you do. Things haven’t gone too well here. I can’t tell you the details, not without getting you in trouble with the League, but Alan is dead. Also, Fizel and Yugo and Ivanova and Seppo.”
Kira had to look away for a moment before she could continue. “My shuttle is damaged, and I don’t know if I’m going to make it back to Sixty-One Cygni, so if I don’t: Mom, Dad, I have you listed as my beneficiaries. You’ll find the info attached to this message.
“Also, I know this might sound strange, but I need you to trust me. You have to prepare. You have to really prepare. There’s a storm coming, and it’s going to be a bad one. Worse than ’thirty-seven.” They’d understand. The joke had always been that only the apocalypse could be worse than the storm that year. “Last thing: I don’t want the three of you to get depressed because of me. Especially you, Mom. I know you. Stop it. Don’t just stay at home moping. That goes for all of you. Get out. Smile. Live. For my sake, as well as your own. Please, promise me that you will.”
Kira paused and then nodded. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for putting you through this. I wish I’d returned home to see you before this trip… Love you.”
She tapped the Stop button.
For a few minutes, she sat and did nothing, just stared at the blank screen. Then she forced herself to record a message for Sam, Alan’s brother. Since she couldn’t tell the truth about the xeno, she blamed his death on an accident at the base.
By the end, Kira found herself crying again. She didn’t try to stop the tears. So much had happened in the past few days, it was a relief to let go, if only for a short while.
On her finger, she felt a phantom weight where the ring Alan had given her should have been. Its absence only worsened the flow of tears.
Her turmoil left the fibers restless beneath the jumpsuit, bead-like bumps forming along her arms and legs and across her upper back. She snarled and slapped the back of her hand, and the beads subsided.
Once she regained her composure, she made similar recordings for the rest of her dead teammates. She didn’t know their families—she didn’t even know if some of them had families—but Kira still felt it was necessary. She owed it to them. They’d been her friends… and she’d killed them.
The last recording was no easier than the first. Afterward, Kira had Ando send the messages, and then she closed her eyes, drained, exhausted. She could feel the suit’s presence in her mind—a subtle pressure that had appeared sometime during their escape from the Extenuating Circumstances—but she sensed no hint of thought or intent from it. Still, she had no doubt: the xeno was aware. And it was watching.
A burst of static sounded in the speakers.
Kira started and realized she must have nodded off. A voice was speaking: Orso. “—do you read? Over. Repeat, do you read, Navárez? Over.”
“I hear you,” she said. “Over.”
“We’re just refueling the drop shuttle. We’ll be blasting off this forsaken rock soon as our tanks are full. Rendezvous with the Valkyrie in fourteen minutes.”
“I’ll be ready,” she said.
“Roger that. Over.”
The time passed quickly. Kira watched through the shuttle’s rear-facing cameras as a shining dot rose from the surface of Adrasteia and arced toward the Valkyrie. As it neared, the familiar shape of the drop shuttle came into view.
“I can see them,” she reported. “No signs of trouble.”
“That’s good,” said Tschetter.
The drop shuttle came up alongside the Valkyrie, and the two vessels fired their RCS thrusters as they gently mated, airlock to airlock. A faint shudder passed through the Valkyrie’s frame.
“Docking maneuver successfully completed,” said Ando. He sounded entirely too cheery for Kira’s taste.
The airlocks popped open with a hiss of air. A hawk-nosed man with a buzz cut stuck his head through the opening. “Permission to come aboard, Navárez?”
“Permission granted,” said Kira. It was just a formality, but she appreciated it.
She stuck out a hand as the man floated over to her. After a moment’s hesitation, he accepted it. “Specialist Orso, I presume?” she said.
“You presume correctly.”
Behind Orso came Private Reisner (a short, wide-eyed woman who looked as if she’d signed up for the UMC right out of school), Petty Officer Samson (a red-haired beanpole of a man), and Ensign Yarrek (a heavyset man with a large bandage on his right arm).
“Welcome to the Valkyrie,” said Kira.
They all looked at her somewhat askance, and then Orso said, “Glad to be here.”
Yarrek grunted and said, “We owe you one, Navárez.”
“Yes,” said Reisner. “Thank you.”
Before sending the drop shuttle back to Adra, Orso went to a row of cabinets set flush to the hull at the back of the Valkyrie. Kira hadn’t even noticed them before. Orso entered a code, and the lockers popped open to reveal several racks of guns: blasters and firearms alike.
“Now we’re talking,” said Samson.
Orso picked out four guns, as well as a collection of battery packs, magazines, and grenades, and then carried them over to the drop shuttle. “For the major and the corporal,” he explained.
Kira nodded, understanding.
Once the weapons were safely stowed and everyone was back on the Valkyrie, the drop shuttle disconnected and fell away toward the moon below.
“I’m guessing you didn’t find any extra food at the base,” Kira said to Orso.
He shook his head. “Afraid not. Our escape pods carry a few rations, but we left them for the major and the corporal. They’ll need it more than we will.”
“You mean more than I will.”
He eyed her, wary. “Yeah, suppose so.”
Kira shook her head. “Doesn’t matter.” He was right, in any case. “Okay, let’s do this.”
“Places, people!” Orso shouted. As the three others scrambled to strap themselves in, Orso joined her at the front and settled into the copilot’s seat.
Then Kira said, “Ando, lay in a course for the nearest port at Sixty-One Cygni. Fastest possible burn.”
An image of their destination appeared in the console display. A labeled dot blinked: the Hydrotek refueling station in orbit around the gas giant Tsiolkovsky. The same station the Fidanza had stopped at on its way out to their current system, Sigma Draconis.
Kira paused a moment and then said: “Engage.”
The shuttle’s engines roared to life, and a solid 2 g’s of thrust pressed them
backwards, gently at first and then with swiftly increasing pressure.
“Here we go,” Kira murmured.
Ando kept up the 2-g burn for three hours, at which point the pseudointelligence throttled back the thrust to a more manageable 1.5 g’s, which allowed them to move around the cabin without too much discomfort.
The four UMC personnel spent the next hour going over every part of the shuttle. They double-checked Kira’s repairs—“Not bad for a civvy,” Samson grudgingly admitted—counted and recounted the meal packs; cataloged every weapon, battery, and cartridge; ran diagnostics on the skinsuits and the cryo tubes; and generally made sure the ship was in working order.
“If something goes wrong while we’re under,” said Orso, “you probably won’t have time to wake us up.”
Then he and the others stripped down to their underwear, and Yarrek, Samson, and Reisner got into their cryo tubes and started the round of injections that would induce hibernation. They couldn’t stay awake any longer or they’d need to eat, and they had to save the food for Kira.
Reisner laughed nervously and gave them a little wave. “See you at SixtyOne Cygni,” she said as the top of her cryo tube lowered and closed.
Kira waved back, but she didn’t think the private saw.
Orso waited until the others had lapsed into unconsciousness, and then he went to the lockers, removed a rifle, and brought it over to Kira. “Here. It’s against regs, but you might need this, and if you do… well, beats having to fight hand-to-hand.” He looked at Kira with a somewhat sardonic expression. “We’re all going to be helpless around you anyway, so what the hell. Might as well give you a chance.”
“Thanks,” she said, taking the rifle. It was heavier than it looked. “I think.”
“No problemo.” He winked at her. “Check with Ando; he can show you how to operate it. There’s one other thing, orders from Tschetter.”
“What?” said Kira, suddenly on guard.
Orso pointed at his right forearm. The skin there was slightly lighter than his upper arm, and a sharp line separated the two. “See that?”
He pointed at a similar difference in shade on the middle of his left thigh.
“Got hit by shrapnel a few years back. Lost both limbs and had to get them regrown.”
Orso shrugged. “Eh. It didn’t hurt as bad as you might expect. The point is… once you run out of food, if you think you’re not going to make it, pop open my cryo pod and start cutting.”
“What?! No! I couldn’t do that.”
The corporal gave her a look. “It’s no different than any lab-grown meat. As long as I’m in cryo, I’ll be perfectly fine.”
Kira grimaced. “Do you really expect me to turn into a cannibal? Jesus Christ, I know things are different back at Sol, but—”
“No,” said Orso, grabbing her by the shoulder. “I expect you to survive. We aren’t playing games here, Navárez. The entire human race could be in danger. If you need to cut off one of my arms and eat it in order to stay alive, then you damn well should. Both arms if you have to, and my legs too. Do you understand?”
He was nearly shouting by the time he finished. Kira squeezed her eyes together and nodded, unable to look him in the face.
After a second, Orso released her. “Okay. Good… Just, uh, don’t get chophappy unless you need to.”
Kira shook her head. “I won’t. Promise.”
He snapped his fingers and gave her finger guns. “Excellent.” He climbed into the last cryo pod and settled into the cradle. “Are you going to be alright on your own?”
Kira leaned the rifle against the wall next to her. “Yeah. I’ve got Ando to keep me company.”
Orso grinned. “That’s the spirit. Don’t want you going stir-crazy on us, eh?” Then he pulled the lid of the cryo tube shut, and a layer of cold condensation soon covered the inside of the window, hiding him from view.
Kira let out her breath and carefully sat next to the rifle, feeling every added kilo from the 1.5 g’s in her bones.
It was going to be a long trip.
The Valkyrie maintained the 1.5-g burn for sixteen hours. Kira took the opportunity to record a detailed account of the visions she’d been receiving from the xeno, which she had Ando send to both Tschetter and the League.
She also attempted to access the records Bishop had transferred from the Extenuating Circumstances, specifically those pertaining to Carr’s examination of the xeno. To her great annoyance, the files were password protected and labeled For Authorized Personnel Only.
When that failed, Kira napped, and when she could no longer nap, she lay looking at the xeno shrink-wrapped around her skin.
She traced a wandering line across her forearm, noting the feel of the fibers beneath her finger. Then she slid a hand under the thermal blanket she had tucked around herself—under the blanket and under the jumpsuit—and she touched herself where she hadn’t dared before. Breasts, stomach, thighs, and then between her thighs.
There was no pleasure to the act; it was a clinical examination, nothing more. Her interest in sex was somewhere south of zero at the moment. And yet, it surprised Kira how sensitive her skin was even through the covering fibers. Between her legs was as smooth as a doll, and yet she could still feel every familiar fold of skin.
Her breath hissed out between her clenched teeth, and she pulled her hand back. Enough. She’d more than satisfied her curiosity in that regard for the time being.
Instead, she experimented with the xeno. First she tried to coax the suit into forming a row of spikes along the inside of her forearm. Tried and failed. The fibers stirred in response to her mental command, but they otherwise refused to obey.
She knew the xeno could. It just didn’t want to. Or it didn’t feel sufficiently threatened. Even imagining a grasper in front of her wasn’t enough to convince the organism to produce a spike.
Frustrated, Kira shifted her attention instead to the suit’s mask, curious if she could summon it forth on demand.
The answer was yes, but not without difficulty. Only by forcing herself into a state of near panic, where her heart was pounding and pinpricks of cold sweat sprang up across her forehead, was Kira able to successfully communicate her intent, and only then did she feel the same creeping tingle along her scalp and neck as the suit flowed across her face. For a moment Kira felt as if she were choking, and for that moment her fear was real. Then she mastered herself, and her pulse slowed.
With subsequent attempts, the xeno grew more receptive, and she was able to get the same result with a sense of focused concern—easy to produce given the circumstances.
While the mask was in place, Kira lay for a while, staring at the EM fields around her: the giant, hazy loops emanating from the Valkyrie’s fusion drive and the generator it fed. The smaller, brighter loops clustered around the interior of the shuttle and stitched one segment of paneling to another with tiny threads of energy. She found the fields strangely beautiful: the diaphanous lines reminded her of the aurora she’d once seen on Weyland, only more regular.
In the end, the strain from her self-induced panic was too great to maintain, and she allowed the mask to retract from her face, and the fields vanished from view.
At least she wouldn’t be entirely alone. She had Ando, and she had the suit: her silent companion, her parasitic hitchhiker, her deadly piece of living apparel. Not an alliance of friendship but of skinship.
Before the burn cut out, Kira allowed herself to eat one of the ration packs. It would be her last chance to have a meal with any sensation of weight for a very long time, and she was determined not to waste it.
She ate sitting next to the small galley area. When finished, she treated herself to another pouch of chell, which she nursed over the better part of an hour.
The only sounds in the shuttle were her breathing and the dull roar of the rockets, and even that would soon disappear. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the cryo tubes at the back of the Valkyrie, cold and motionless, with no indication of the frozen bodies within. It was strange to think she wasn’t the only person on the shuttle, even though Orso and the rest were barely more than blocks of ice at the moment.
It wasn’t a comforting thought. Kira shivered and let her head thump back against the floor/wall.
Pain shot through her skull, and she winced, eyes watering. “Dammit,” she muttered. She kept moving too quickly for the increase in g-forces and hurting herself as a result. Her joints ached, and her arms and legs throbbed from a dozen bumps and bruises. The xeno protected her from worse, but it seemed to ignore small, chronic discomforts.
Kira didn’t know how the people on Shin-Zar or other high-g planets bore it. They were gene-hacked to help them survive and even thrive within a deep gravity well, but still, she had a hard time imagining how they could ever really be comfortable.
“Warning,” said Ando. “Zero-g in T-minus five minutes.”
Kira disposed of the drink pouch and then gathered a half-dozen thermal blankets from the shuttle’s lockers and brought them with her back to the cockpit. There, she wrapped the blankets around the pilot’s chair, creating a golden cocoon for herself. Next to the chair, she taped the rifle, a week’s worth of ration packs, wet wipes, and a few other essentials she thought she might need.
Then a faint jolt ran through the bulkhead, and the rockets cut out, leaving her in blessed silence.
Kira’s stomach rose within her, and the jumpsuit floated away from her skin, as if inflated. Trying to keep her lunch (such as it was) from making an encore appearance, she nestled into the foil-wrapped chair.
“Shutting down nonessential systems,” said Ando, and across the crew compartment, the lights winked out, save for faint red strips above the control panels.
“Ando,” she said, “lower the cabin pressure to the equivalent of twenty-four hundred meters above sea level, Earth standard.”
“Ms. Navárez, at that level—”
“I’m aware of the side effects, Ando. I’m counting on them. Now do as I say.”
Behind her, Kira heard the whir of the ventilation fans increase, and she felt a slight breeze as the air started to flow toward the vents by the ceiling.
She tabbed the comms. “Tschetter. The burn just ended. We’ll be transitioning to FTL in three hours. Over.” The time was needed to allow the fusion reactor to cool as much as possible and for the Valkyrie’s radiators to chill the rest of the shuttle to near-freezing temperatures. Even then, it was likely the shuttle would overheat two or three times while in FTL, depending on how active she was. When that happened, the Valkyrie would have to return to normal space long enough to shed its excess thermal energy before continuing onward. Otherwise, she and everything in the Valkyrie would cook in their own heat.
The light-speed gap between the Valkyrie and Adra meant it was over three minutes before Tschetter’s reply arrived: “Roger that, Navárez. Any problems with the shuttle? Over.”
“Negative. Green lights across the board. What about you?” The major, Kira knew, was still waiting in the escape pod for Iska to retrieve her.
… “Situation normal. I managed to splint my leg. Should allow me to walk on it. Over.”
Kira felt a pang of sympathetic pain. That must have hurt like hell. “How long until Iska reaches the base? Over.”
… “Tomorrow evening, barring any problems. Over.”
“That’s good.” Then Kira said, “Tschetter, what happened to Alan’s body?” It was a question that had been bothering her the past day.
… “His remains were transported to the Extenuating Circumstances, along with the rest of the deceased. Over.”
Kira closed her eyes for a moment. At least Alan had had a funeral pyre fit for a king: a flaming ship to send him off into eternity. “Understood. Over.”
They continued to exchange messages intermittently over the next few hours—the major suggesting things Kira could do to make the trip easier, Kira giving advice about surviving on Adra. Even the major, Kira thought, was feeling the weight of circumstances.
Then, Kira said, “Tschetter, tell me: What did Carr actually find out about the xeno? And don’t give me that classified bullshit. Over.”
… A sigh sounded on the other end of the line. “The xeno is composed of a semi-organic material unlike anything we’ve seen before. Our working theory was that the suit is actually a collection of highly sophisticated nanoassemblers, although we weren’t able to isolate any individual units. The few samples we collected were almost impossible to study. They actively resisted examination. Put a couple of molecules on a chip-lab, and they break the lab or eat their way through the machine or short out the circuit. You get the idea.”
“Anything else?” said Kira.
… “No. We made very little progress. Carr was particularly obsessed with trying to identify the xeno’s source of power. It doesn’t seem to be drawing sustenance from you. Quite the opposite, in fact, which means it has to have another way of generating energy.”
Then Ando said, “FTL transition in five minutes.”
“Tschetter, we’re just about to hit the Markov Limit. Looks like this is it. Good luck to you and Iska. Hope you make it.” After a brief pause, Kira said, “Ando, give me aft cameras.”
The display screen in front of her sprang to life, showing the view behind the shuttle. Zeus and its moons, including Adrasteia, were a cluster of bright dots off to the right, alone in the darkness.
Alan’s face appeared in her mind, and her throat tightened.
“Goodbye,” she whispered.
Then she panned the camera over until the system’s star appeared on the display. She stared at it, knowing that she would likely never see it again. Sigma Draconis, the eighteenth star in the Draco constellation. When she had first spotted it listed on the company reports, she’d liked the name; it had seemed to promise adventure and excitement and perhaps a bit of danger.… Now it seemed more ominous than anything, as if it were the dragon come to eat all of humanity.
“Give me the nose cameras.”
The screen switched to a view of the stars ahead of the shuttle. Without her overlays, it took her a minute to find her destination: a small, reddish-orange dot near the center of the display. At that distance, the system’s two stars merged into a single point, but she knew it was the nearest star that she was heading for.
It struck Kira then, with visceral strength, just how far away 61 Cygni was. Light-years were long beyond imagining, and even with all the benefits of modern technology it was an enormous, terrifying distance, and the shuttle no more than a mote of dust hurtling through the void.
… “Roger that, Navárez. Safe travels. Tschetter out.”
A faint whine sounded at the back of the shuttle as the Markov Drive began to power up.
Kira glanced toward it. Though she couldn’t see the drive, she could picture it: a great black orb, huge and heavy, resting on the other side of the shadow shield, a malignant toad squatting in the spaces between the walls. As always, the thought of the machine gave her the creeps. Perhaps it was the radioactive death contained in its precious grams of antimatter and the fact that they could destroy her in an instant if the magnetic bottles failed. Perhaps it was what the machine did, the twisting of matter and energy to allow for entry into superluminal space. Whatever it was, the drive unsettled her and made her wonder what strange things might happen to people while they slept in FTL.
This time, she’d get to find out.
The whine intensified, and Ando said, “FTL transition in five… four… three… two… one.”
The whine peaked, and the stars vanished.
Excerpted from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, copyright © 2020 by Christopher Paolini.