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.
In place of the Milky Way, a distorted reflection of the shuttle appeared—a dark, dim bulk lit solely by the faint glow from within the cockpit. Kira saw herself through the windshield: a smear of pale skin floating above the control panel, like a flayed and disembodied face.
She’d never observed a Markov Bubble in person; she’d always been in cryo when a jump took place. She waved her hand, and her misshapen doppelgänger moved in unison.
The perfection of the mirrored surface fascinated her. It was more than atomically smooth; it was Planck-level smooth. Nothing smoother could exist, as the bubble was made out of the warped surface of space itself. And on the other side of the bubble, on the other side of that infinitesimally thin membrane, was the strangeness of the superluminal universe, so close and yet so far away. That she would never see. No human ever could. But she knew it was there—a vast alternate realm, joined with familiar reality by only the forces of gravity and the fabric of spacetime itself.
“Through the looking glass,” Kira muttered. It was an old expression among spacers, one whose appropriateness she hadn’t really appreciated until then.
Unlike a normal area of spacetime, the bubble wasn’t completely impermeable. Some energy leakage occurred from inside to outside (the pressure differential was enormous). Not much, but some, and it was a good thing too, as it helped reduce the thermal buildup while in FTL. Without it, the Valkyrie, and ships in general, wouldn’t be able to stay in superluminal space for more than a few hours.
Kira remembered a description her fourth-year physics teacher had once used: “Going faster than light is like traveling in a straight line along a right angle.” The phrase had stuck with her, and the more she’d learned of the math, the more she’d realized how accurate it was.
She continued to watch her reflection for several more minutes. Then, with a sigh, she darkened the windshield until it was opaque. “Ando: play the complete works of J. S. Bach on a loop, starting with the Brandenburg Concertos. Volume level three.”
As the opening chords sounded, soft and precise, Kira felt herself begin to relax. The structure of Bach had always appealed to her: the cold, clean mathematical beauty of one theme slotting into another, building, exploring, transforming. And when each piece resolved, the resolution was so immensely satisfying. No other composer gave her that feeling.
The music was the one luxury she was allowing herself. It wouldn’t produce much heat, and since she couldn’t read or play games on her implants, she needed something else to keep her from going crazy in the days to come. If she’d still had her concertina, she could have practiced on it, but since she didn’t…
In any case, the soothing nature of the Bach would work with the cabin’s low pressure to help her sleep, which was important. The more she could sleep, the faster the time would go by and the less food she would need.
She lifted her right arm and held it before her face. The suit was even darker than the surrounding darkness: a shadow within shadows, visible more as an absence than an actuality.
It should have a name. She’d been damn lucky to escape the Extenuating Circumstances. By all rights the grasper should have killed her. And if not, then the explosive decompression. The xeno had saved her life multiple times. Of course, without the xeno, she never would have been in danger in the first place… Still, Kira felt a certain amount of gratitude toward it. Gratitude and confidence, for with it, she was safer than any Marine in their power armor.
After everything they’d gone through, the xeno deserved a name. But what? The organism was a bundle of contradictions; it was armor, but it was also a weapon. It could be hard, or it could be soft. It could flow like water, or it could be as rigid as a metal beam. It was a machine but also somehow alive.
There were too many variables to consider. No one word could encompass them all. Instead, Kira focused on the suit’s most obvious quality: its appearance. The surface of the material had always reminded her of obsidian, although not quite as glassy.
“Obsidian,” she murmured. With her mind, she pressed the word toward the xeno’s presence, as if to make it understand. Obsidian.
The xeno responded.
A wave of disjointed images and sensations swept through her. At first she was confused—individually they seemed to mean nothing—but as the sequence repeated, and again, she began to see the relationships between the different fragments. Together they formed a language born not of words but associations. And she understood:
The xeno already had a name.
It was a complex name, composed of and embodied by a web of interrelated concepts that she realized would probably take her years to fully parse, if ever. However, as the concepts filtered through her mind, she couldn’t help but assign words to them. She was only human, after all; language was as much a part of her as consciousness itself. The words failed to capture the subtleties of the name—because she herself didn’t understand them—but they captured the broadest and most obvious aspects.
The Soft Blade.
A faint smile touched her lips. She liked it. “The Soft Blade.” She said it out loud, letting the words linger on her tongue. And from the xeno she felt a sense, if not of satisfaction, then of acceptance.
Knowing the organism had a name (and not one she had given it) changed Kira’s view of it. Instead of thinking of the xeno just as an interloper and a potentially deadly parasite, now she saw it more as a… companion.
It was a profound shift. And not one she had intended or anticipated. Though as she belatedly realized, names changed—and defined—all things, including relationships. The situation reminded her of naming a pet; once you did, that was that, you had to keep the animal, whether you’d planned to or not.
The Soft Blade…
“And just what were you made for?” she asked, but no answer was forthcoming.
Whatever the case, Kira knew one thing: whoever had selected the name— whether it was the xeno’s creators or the xeno itself—they possessed a sense of elegance and poetry, and they appreciated the contradiction inherent in the concepts she’d summarized as the Soft Blade.
It was a strange universe. The more she learned, the stranger it seemed, and she doubted she would ever find the answers to all her questions.
The Soft Blade. She closed her eyes, feeling oddly comforted. With the faint strains of Bach playing in the background, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep, knowing that—at least for the time being—she was safe.
Excerpted from To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, copyright © 2020 by Christopher Paolini.