A Queen in Rain -- Second Issue

Spark of light, fold, rebound, integration. The Azure was cast in the real world, silent drifting, radiators cold.

"Welcome to the last known location of our resident exoarchaeologist," announced Lines. "If you see it dwindle, do not panic."

Jyothi's Flame was an RR Lyrae star, a variable sun associated with higher galactic latitudes and metal-poor compositions. It expanded and contracted every six hours, doubling its temperature and luminosity in a manner of minutes. Aside from their astronomical value, RR Lyrae stars were value by interstellar navigators as their variability allowed for accurate distance measurements and thus pinpoint folds. The low metallicity of RR Lyrae stars caused them to have small planetary systems. Jyothi's Flame was parent to a single planet, Old Retreat, and a vast asteroid belt.

Old Retreat was a Mars-sized world with a thick oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere fed by unicellular plankton booming in the planet's oceans. The RR Lyrae sun was young and plants had yet to colonise the continents. Lifeless, the landmasses were however not empty. From their thirty thousand kilometre approach vector, the crew of the Azure could make out the singular shapes of geometric structures buried in rocky deserts, carved out from the crust by an unknown civilisation. The identity of Old Retreat's dwellers was forever gone to the tides of time.

"Sensors?" asked Talasea, querying Lines.

"I have two passive contacts in low planetary orbit, classified as Sierra 1 and Sierra 2. Sierra 1 is a small courier spaceship named Topaz. It is Jyothi's personal craft. Sierra 2 is new to me. Two hundred meters in length and the radiators do not appear to be sized for a fusion drive. On visual I see bearings for an electromagnetic tether. It is a q-drive vessel."


"I do not think so. Never seen an exploration vessel with such an ornate hull. The thermal surface are, and this is no jest, covered in actual gold. Not folds, solid gold. It is a Candleworld vessel. I am getting two database matches. It is either In Gold Sewn or There, Lies A Light. Both are personal ships belonging to one Dame Maat."


"Candleworld ships are equipped with standard laser grids but neither of these engines appear to have missiles or particle beams. You know how isolated deep space communities operates, however. Who knows what they could have mounted on this frame."

"Ping it," said Talasea. The Azure flashed its communications laser towards the q-drive vessel, informing the golden hull of its ID, origin, and of its desire for a dialogue. The Candleworld hull beamed back a message in Swahili.

"They acknowledge but don't want to talk. They also mention that their name is In Gold Sewn", said Lines.

"Not hostile but not open. Tal, did Jyothi expect visitors?" asked Isaac/Isabeau.

"I do not think so."

"Both Jyothi and the Candleworlders are tideless, right?"

"Indeed. Jyothi is two hundred and fifty-seven years old and the owner of the In Gold Sewn should not be much younger. I will be going down with Isa and Shilka on the Lady of Berlin. Serena, Lines, you keep the helm."

Half an hour later, the Lady of Berlin had detached from the Azure and followed a steep descent trajectory towards the surface of Old Retreat. The shuttle evoked the same marine shapes as the Azure albeit it had a different origin. It was a former racing vessel, bought by the Initiative in a graveyard of the Sol asteroid belt and repurposed as a tail-sitting shuttle. Cramped and hard to pilot, the Lady of Berlin was capable of unassisted take-off and landing from planets with up to five Earth gravities. Old Retreat's Mars-like gravity made it easily accessible to the drag racer. The Lady of Berlin entered the world's atmosphere seamlessly, switching to chemical engines for its deceleration. The In Gold Sewn did not seem to mind the shuttle's presence, albeit it pinged it with its radar. Upon leaving its plasma sheath, the Lady of Berlin entered horizontal flight above a sprawling desert. The star outlined titanic typefaces carved on the planet with orbital lasers. Without writings, fossils or usable technology, out of context, the ruins of Old Retreat were impossible to understand. Isaac/Isabeau had visited hundreds of similar planets, wandering objects bearing the remnants of civilisations long extinct. There was a faint hope that Old Retreat had once belonged to the Sequence, as the continental buildings bore marks of transbiological engineering. The theory remained weak however. Many ancient civilisations had used transbiological technology in one way or another. It wasn't enough to link the planet to the million-year old empire.

"I have a bead on Jyothi's outpost," announced Talasea. "She is not answering my hails. I find this concerning."

Five hundred meters above ground, the Lady of Berlin ignited a ring of auxiliary engines to stabilise its vertical descent. The landing legs hit the dusty ground, rocket flames vitrified a handful of flat rock and the shuttle came to a halt in-between two wind-polished arcologies. Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea closed their helmets, prepping their exosuits. They were all white, marked with the dark blue band of the Starmoth Initiative. The decaying ruins, submitted to relentless storms, released thick blankets of fine particles undulating in the air. The presence of local, unknown life forced Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau to keep their rebreathers in a closed circuit.

Isaac/Isabeau reached the ground first, jumping down in the white shadow of the Lady of Berlin. Talasea followed, dragging Shilka with her. The tracked drone was equipped with a standard rescue loadout -- two recovery djinns in their lodging and a medical suite.

"Where is your exploration spirit?" asked Isa, noticing that Talasea had armed herself with a rapid-fire Saiph rifle painted in Starmoth Initiative pattern.

"It died with the Themis. How is the outpost?"

Isa conducted a quick examination of Jyothi's base camp. The tideless had built a pressurised habitat between two ruins, powered by a solar panel array and vertical wind turbine. Her shuttle stood upright on a foldable pad, prow covered in dust. It hadn't moved in weeks. The six-wheeled rover was nowhere to be found. The wind had erased its tracks.

"Azure, this is Talasea. Jyothi is not here. Can you pick the rover's signal?"

"No. Either she didn't activate the beacon or the ruins are bouncing her signal around," answered Lines on the radio.

"Hang on, hang on. I am getting a distress call on a generic shortwave radio channel," intervened Serena.

"Patch it," said Talasea.

A hail of interference followed. Then a voice, multifaceted in a honey-covered chorus.

"This is Jyothi Pradesh, archaeologist of the Kapteyn Institute. I have been attacked by Sequence shamblers. My rover has been disabled. I am moving underground back towards my outpost. They are on my heels. Requesting assistance."

Interference killed the radio channel shortly after. A Sequence lifeform broke through the dust -- starfish made of transbiological tissue, black interspersed with swarms of golden particles. Isa gestured towards Shilka. The drone took up speed, seeking for cover. Talasea reeled the safety of her rifle back and fired a continuous stream of tracers towards the shambler. Transbiological creatures could rearrange themselves in real time and she knew she couldn't harm the shambler -- but she had to keep up the pressure, slow it down.

"Talasea, you have a fast mover inbound to your location!" said Serena from the Azure. Amidst their mad dash for shelter, Isaac/Isabeau realized how smooth the transition towards military lingo had been and it caused them great distress. The shambler recoiled and reorganized itself as Talasea swapped magazines. It pushed forwards, tentacles hugging the ground with swift grace. Shamblers had been no more than lowly workers in the galactic arm-spanning empire of uniform biology, yet they had vastly more speed, strength and agility than the most intricate human drone.

Tali yelled, "Isa, when I resume firing, make a run for the shuttle and--"

A rumbled emerged to the planetary east, then a shape coalesced into being. Black with gold outlines, engine nacelles tilted forty-five degrees, aerodynamic tiles sharply angled, it was a transatmospheric shuttle adorned with the triangular flame of the Candleworld. Distracted by a new element in its well-ordained world, the shambler directed one of its tendrils skywards. The radio crackled, infused with a pearlescent voice.

"Starmoth Initiative operators, this is Candleworld vessel In Gold Sewn, please mark your position with an infrared beacon if able."

Talasea punched the emergency patch on her suit.

"I see it. Craft going around. Hold your position. Danger close."

The shuttle banked left and opened fire with two side-mounted coilguns. Needles whirred their way through the thin air, burrowing in the transbiological material as droplets penetrating the upper layer of the ocean during a seastorm. The shambler surged. As the shuttle opened fire again, it fragmented in three distinct parts and collapsed, transbiological amoeba colonies splattered on the ground, golden particles dying in scattered sunlight.

"Tal," screamed Jyothi. "They have me cornered, I won't be able to hide for long!"

"I Gold Sewn," said Talasea. "Thanks for the help but I believe we both have a friend in need!"

"Indeed we do. Stand back."

The sides of the shuttle opened, revealing the curled up silhouettes of ten humanoid, remote-controlled frames with geometric heads and black-gold liveries. They unfurled and jumped down, leg springs absorbing the impacts with ease and deployed in a diamond formation around Isaac/Isabeau, Talasea and Shilka. One of the drones swept them with a LIDAR, sizing them up to integrate their shapes in the unit's geographical space. A synthetic yet smooth voice echoed from a lead drone.

"Morning. I am a distributed quasi-sapient combat system belonging to Candleworld vessel In Gold Sewn. My name is Myriad-7. Ready to protect publicly funded research with deadly force."

Talasea opted to roll with the flow. The drones looked capable and heavily armed enough. She also knew the Candleworlders would do anything to save a fellow tideless, even one that didn't adhere to their ideology. No one left forwards.

"Jyothi, we are coming, give me your location!" said the Irenian on the radio.

"I am at the base of the nearest arcology to the planetary east, five hundred meters to your position. Take the main entrance, there is no--"

Cut feed and static again. Talasea dashed forward, Myriad-7 in tow. The drones moved across the harsh terrain as one -- for they were one. Albeit each humanoid was acting independently, their distributed intelligence coordinated its constituent members the way an octopus would control its tentacles as a nebula of intent. When the group closed in, a young Sequencer chittered out of the arcology. Myriad-7 opened fire.

In the sky the star contracted and a bloody twilight gained dominion over the landscape.

Isa blinked. The next Sequencer appeared as a thinking cloud of baroque paintings, black, gold and blood merged in a moving ensemble. Warform! thought Talasea and she scattered with Myriad-7. Tracers plunged into the Caravaggio-tinted cloud. The Sequence had not produced soldiers in a hundred thousand years. This one was old, weak and battered -- and yet it decimated Myriad-7 with ease. A bright focal point emerged from the filtered-out oil painting, coalescing into an invisible laser beam that cut through exposed armoured heads, melting circuits to a luminous crisp. The warform pivoted and expelled a geyser of kinetic needles, arching them to hit the scattered drones and humans from behind cover. The orbiting shuttle countered with its laser pod, turning the shells into small failing stars to be blown away by the wind. The remaining elements of Myriad-7 hammered the Sequencer with a mixture of tracers and back-fired mortar shells. The warform wielded but did not break. It adapted its density and layout in real-time to survive the vicious combination of explosive and penetration ammunition. Isaac/Isabeau found it disturbingly enthralling to watch. The baroque creature shifted and slithered while tracers overpenetrated, barely slowed down. It fought back with laser bursts and guided shards, forcing the shuttle to lay covering fire.

Talasea slid near one of the drones, swapping her magazines again.

"Would you by chance happen to have a tactical nuclear weapon aboard the In Gold Sewn?"

"I am afraid not."

"Then we cannot kill that Sequencer."


"Yet we cannot leave Jyothi."

"Agreed. However, concerning your first statement: we might have access to stronger, albeit improvised weaponry."

"Of what kind?"

"Take cover. Please."

The drone waved at the shuttle. The aircraft switched to horizontal flight again, climbed towards the summit of the arcology, turned around at the end of its candle and fired the engines at full blast. It breached the sound barrier halfway down the ruin. The warform failed to evade in time. The unmanned shuttle impacted the ground at thirty-five hundred kilometers per hour and was instantly shattered in a sphere of plasma and black shrapnel. The external surfaces of the warform were stretched as water pierced by a stone then the explosion washed them away. Isaac/Isabeau's HUD gleamed in red and orange while their suit analysed the compounds released by the crash: organic pseudo-kerosene and toxic hydrazine.

"Move!" ordered Myriad-7. The drones and humans rushed towards the arcology. The ruin hadn't even budged and the warform wasn't even quite dead. The surface of its inner core was charred to a crisp and splattered against the dust but it still lived. Veined structures moved out in the darkness, retreating in every crevice they could find, leaving golden particles behind. In time, if it could find enough biomass, the warform would be able to recreate its frame and emerge anew. In order to prevent Sequencers from regrowing, one had to use a powerful radiation source, industrial torches or a dedicated bioweapon. Once the veins had retreated back into the ground, it was too late. Within a week -- an eyeblink for the Sequence -- it would reappear.

But the explorers were not here to conquer. The Sequence could keep its haunted ruins.

Shilka rolled between the hinges of a monumental door and scanned the insides of the ruins with its sensor pod. Amidst the dust and twilight a human silhouette walked towards the hastily assembled rescue party. A woman, much taller than Talasea, who wore a sand-colored exosuit and breathed freely without a helmet. Her skin had the texture of oak bark smoothed out by a thousand storms. Her eyes had multiple corneas, filtering out the deep blue of her iris as fog above an ocean. She was lightly wounded: a faint stream of sap ran down her right arm. Dazzled, she stumbled on a rock, tried to find her balance. Talasea caught her.


Shilka offered the half-vegetal woman a place to sit and deployed its transbiological tentacles for a rapid health assessment. Jyothi coughed. Her voice was rasp.

"Tal, Isa, I see the Azure saved my sorry person once again. Ah. And a Myriad too."

The closest drone bowed, tapping its mechanical fist against a graphite-plated chest.

"Dame Maat sends her regards and is sorry for not having checked out on you earlier, though it seems we arrived in the nick of time."

"Did she even deign to come?"

"She was indisposed and remained on the Candleworld. We can bring you back to her if you wish so."

"I wish to remain with the Initiative, thank you. While I do appreciate the gesture, Maat and I do not see eye-to-eye but I am sure you have been briefed on the matter."

"Dame Jyothi. I am a high-performance distributed field combat system and while I can entertain a convincing conversation within the framework of my emotional support programs, I am not qualified to discuss what my manufacturer may feel towards you and vice versa. Dame Maat wished that we ensured our safety and this task is complete. My role stops there."

"Speaking of," inquired Isa. "How will you ascend back to the In Gold Sewn?"

"Spare shuttle. Thanks for your concern. Navigator Talasea, I will thus leave Dame Jyothi to you. Take good care of her or I shall report it to Dame Maat."

"That a threat?"

"I am legally incapable of issuing verbal threats except to hostile entities and you do not happen to be firing at me at the moment. I bid you farewell."

The drone bowed and the small platoon shuffled away in the sunset.

"That is the most well-spoken field drone I've ever encountered," commented Isaac/Isabeau. "Last time I tried to repair Shilka, she insulted me in Russian."

The Azure's medical bay was designed for the needs of explorers: extensive trauma repairs and long-term radiation damage treatment. It was however quite myopic and in the eyes of the mainframe Jyothi was affected by a severe yet unknown disease that had filled most of her body with algae, lichen, bark and sap. Lines rushed to convince the stubborn medbay that the tideless wasn't, in fact, dying.

"I am sorry but we do not usually have tideless crewmembers aboard this ship. If it gets too annoying I'll bypass the software and handle you myself. Do you know it once mistook my vegetal mainframe for a shipborne infestation and tried to sterilize me?"

The tideless smiled. Every centimetre of her exposed skin was made of a smooth bark-like material. It absorbed the medbay's ambient white light and reflected blunt, smoothed out colours.

"Do not worry. Most medbays don't like me. If I had been seriously wounded, I would have flown to the In Gold Sewn instead. Saraswati be praised I wasn't, otherwise I would have had to listen to Maat's virtual print scolding me for hours on end."

"I take it that you are not very close to your brethren in the halo?"

"Pushing the definition of brethren here. We are not the same kind of tideless. I wear symbiotic q-augs that replace my failing organs and interlace with my remaining human cells while they discarded most of their body and put their brain in a sealed container deep inside a frame that has their likeness. I am a human that chose to remain because I wanted to see what the future had in store for us. They are a design elaborated from the get-go and chose to remain because they are deeply afraid of death. Our similarities are surface-level. Still, she sent a rescue party because I missed our latest exchange of letters and I appreciate the sentiment."

The door hissed open and Talasea drifted inside the medbay. Jyothi extended her hand. The Irenian took it.

"How did you allow the Sequence to get the jump on you? What happened?" inquired Talasea.

"First off, I was wrong to call this world's inhabitants unknown. It is indeed a Sequence planet, albeit one with heavily degraded characteristics. We are bad at identifying these worlds, but how do you attribute common criteria to an empire that lived for twenty million years?"

"These ruined arcologies are too low-tech for the Sequence."

"Indeed. But it doesn't mean that this star wasn't at one point in history within Sequence space. You know how some of the halo stars have trajectory that periodically make them go through the galactic disk, like Kapteyn's Star? Old Retreat orbits one of these suns. A very elongated trajectory brings it through the galactic disk every two million years. The current ruins belong to a civilisation that is merely a hundred thousand years old. Yet one million years ago it was a Sequence world. Geological analyses show telltale signs of Sequencer terraforming. To what aims did they seek to colonize such a mundane world, I do not know. Perhaps they didn't need any reason. Perhaps they just could. They left seeds of shamblers and warforms behind in their ultimate exodus. Very old, very confused things but dangerous regardless. At least that is my theory. This warform wasn't sapient. It just followed a pattern. Called to the stars for orders but they were long-silent. In Sequence doctrine, a habitable world is either within the Sequence or will one day belong to it. A million years is nothing, for the Sequence has no concept of discrete time or space. The warform was merely applying this instruction to the letter."

"I can buy your theory but dormant Sequencers never wake up in my experience."

"Precisely. But remember how we've always speculated there existed a broadcast or signal that could tell a dormant Sequence world to wake up?"

"I am aware. Algorab thinks it is a radio signal or more likely a type of X-ray laser shone through interstellar space to awake Sequence necropolises."

"And I am certain this signal was used on the planet, waking up the dormant Sequencers, what was left of them at least. One warform and a shambler, all that remained of them. Wildlife, bacteria and oxygen decay have subsumed the rest."

"It would be an accident then? Some ruin in the halo emitted a wake-up broadcast thousand of years ago and your planet happened to be in the way?"

"No, I would have known about it. The Sequence was advanced yet not godlike. You cannot physically hide a broadcast of that magnitude. Listen to me, Tal. A dessicated Sequencer takes a week to regrow. And seven days before they started manifesting themselves, a spaceship made a pass in high orbit. No hails were given, but it showered me with a radio sweep. I refuse to admit it as a coincidence. Not that deep in the halo."

Talasea narrowed her eyes, a tungsten shard in her heart.

"What ship?"

"I caught it on telescope. Small but nimble, two hundred meters at best but it had a fusion drive. Looked military."



"Jyothi, I need a straight answer. Do you have enemies that would cross twenty thousand lightyears to get at you?"

"I have more enemies than Isa ever had lovers but it doesn't matter. I am two hundred and fifty-seven years old and I am excavating dusty ruins at the edge of known space. I am nobody. My enemies all died of old age and boredom. Besides I have nothing to do with the Themis. It is human exploration as a whole that is being targeted in the halo, not a singular ship. The message, to me, is clear: do not remain here. You are not welcome."

"Would Algorab have the capability to awaken dormant Sequencers?"

"Not as far as I know but I have little doubt they studied ways to counter potential awakenings. If such a signal exists and is perceptible by humans, they know about it. Why do you care about the ravens?"

"The Luciole that obliterated the Themis was armed with a UREB spinal mount. Until proven otherwise this is an Algorab ship."

"Outer heavens."

"You said it."

"Tal, I have a favour to ask. There is a star, seventy lightyears away, with an ancient Sequence world. I have a small automated outpost there, I intended to study the ruins. Before the Luciole left Old Retreat, it burned to match velocity with this system. My satellites might have flashed it and produced a clearer ID. I need to get there."


"The star Jyothi mentioned has a relative velocity of thirty-five kilometers per second. It will take us under three days to do the round trip."

"Burn away."

The star in the sky was angry but feeble. It was, in fact, not quite a sun and Isaac/Isabeau couldn't but feel it resented the world for this. Brown dwarfs always came in two categories. The first one were happy with their existence and hung in the skies of their planets, distant but warm. The second kind hated every single moment of their life as the cosmic fates had given them just enough mass to understand what they were missing. They were bloodshot eyes watching their worlds with malice and glee.

Habitable planets orbiting brown dwarfs were a statistical oddity. Though the failed stars did have a Goldilocks zone most of them did not emit enough sunlight for conventional lifeforms to thrive and most brown dwarf ecosystems only subsisted as bacterial colonies hidden under a thick ice sheet. Watcher's World was different. Almost Earth-sized, it was heated by powerful tidal forces and its continents were set ablaze by monumental volcanic eruptions. Constant outgassing had blanketed the planet in a thick, grey atmosphere below which flourished fungal life. Million-year old arcology pillars pierced the grey troposphere.

The Lady of Berlin shook and trembled, thrusters burning against the planet's gravity. A candle, searing through red darkness. Jyothi flipped the pages of her check-list.

"Alright, listen up. The atmosphere is partially breathable but we will keep our exosuits tightly sealed and rebreathers set to full recycling. Thorough suit disinfection before and after landing. I have collected enough data to say that local microbes are innocuous to humans but it is impossible to say if the reverse is true. In doubt we won't take any chances. Local Sequence ruins are inactive, but still. No one touches anything."

The Lady of Berlin darted through turbulence. Drifting towards a tectonic pillar, it adjusted its trajectory with a combination of RCS bursts and aerodynamic manoeuvres.

"I would feel better if we had Shilka with us. Armed," whispered Isaac/Isabeau.

"The Sequence on Watcher's World is dead and buried, Isa. If anything was to awaken down there it would be promptly consumed and turned into useful materials by local life. It evolved to feed on Sequence remnants. Remember the galactic rule..."

"Everyone hates the Sequence. No Pasaran at the galactic scale," smiled Talasea.

Jyothi's research outpost on Watcher's World was very well hidden. It was trivial to miss from orbit and even from the sky one needed to known where to look. The majority of her complex resided beneath the cloud layer, seeking the company of life. Though it encroached upon a pair of pillars darting through the grey ocean, the upper atmospheric systems were barebones: a surface to space antenna, installed at the broken summit of the highest, a captive blimp for meteorological studies and a makeshift landing pad. The Lady of Berlin performed a final burn whose flame grazed the weaved surface; Jyothi, Talasea and Isa disembarked shortly. The brown dwarf was perched in a desolate sky, several times the size of Luna. Its bronze light fell on the arcologies, glittering on the wind-polished bony surfaces. They remained inaccessible to any form of analysis. It was a basic rule of exo-archaeology that time was an abyss and ancient civilisations could become impossible to study in detail after a mere ten thousand years. One hundred thousand years was often too much to get any usable technological artifact beyond the sturdiest of architectures and the simplest of tools. A million years was a death sentence for most. Time was deep as space. Space was deep as time. Both conspired against humankind's futile attempts at making sense of the galaxy.

The Sequence was the exception. Even if it was dead, even if the Empire had collapsed, even if its fascinating and terrifying dream of transcendantal unity was gone, the Great Chain remained. Shamblers and workers still prowled forever altered planets. Arcologies and orbital rings still stood. Ships still drifted through the void. Megastructures remained in place, eyes wide open on the void.

There were explanations to this unusual longevity. Technology, to a certain extent, the transbiological materials that could self-repair over timeframes measured in geological eons. But the heart of the Sequence was the intent. Out of all the extinct non-human civilisation, the Sequence had been the only one able and willing to mentally project itself across all of space and time. Sooner or later, any Sequence scholar was hit by this realisation -- that somewhere, out there, in the galactic past, a civilisation had once coveted colonialism at an astronomical scale.

Isaac/Isabeau took a deep breath. Wind howled around the arcology, whistling between the cracks in the ruins. They took a glance at their heads-up display. External temperature dove at minus seventy-five degrees Celsius. Most incoming radiation was in the thermal infrared spectrum with a dash of visible light peering through the brown dwarf's atmospheric stripes. The exosuit picked up a few trace compounds in the atmosphere: transbiological contaminants, bacteria, fungal spores coming from the surface. Nothing to worry about.

"I hope your pad is cleared for the Lady of Berlin's mass," commented Talasea, glancing at the endless cliff of the arcology. Jyothi shrugged.

"My own shuttle is heavier. It should hold."

"How did you even attach the pad?"

"I drilled through the surface of the arcology. Took me a good month."

"You drilled holes through a Sequence ruin? It is not like you to damage an object of study."

"I had three options. First one was to land the shuttle atop the arcology which was too dangerous, even fossilised transbio superstructures can react badly to superheated exhaust. Second option was to put a pad on the surface beneath the clouds, which would have been hell to land on. Third option, you're looking at it. Not ideal but the best compromise."

"Haven't tried an arcology in better shape?"

"The closest one is a hundred kilometers away and about to collapse."

Jyothi pointed at a vague vertical shadow in the distance.

"Can't see anything," sneered Talasea. "The perks of being born under the light of a blue supergiant. Right. Where is your mainframe?"

"On the other side of the central chasm. Take the bridge."

The small group crossed over the endless well. The kilometric tower had once been full of organic material and its slow decay had left the bones exposed to the brown dwarf's dead light. Jyothi's servers hung on a small platform in the middle of the well. Isa could see a blue blinking light on the surface to space antenna, pacing in cadence to keep flying critters away. Jyothi kicked her computers with a grimace.

"Just what I feared," uttered the tideless. "The mainframe is fried. That's why I couldn't get logs from orbit. Radiation damage. Some bastard washed it with X-rays and gamma. Glancing UREB shot, I would speculate. It's practical. Even if you miss, you still kill something."

"You don't have a backup?"

"Do you enjoy fog and fungi?"

The lower levels of the arcology were accessible via a contraption suspended to a hot hair balloon that Jyothi had had the gall to call an elevator and which in Isa's eyes was properly prehistorical. The foggy spaces didn't have as many cracks and crevices as the upper sections and the brown dwarf's light was absent. The only gleams in the night were the elevator-blimp's biological lanterns that cast a glowing warmth against the bone walls. That relic belonged to a younger age now. The structure was covered in carvings and writings while remnants of bridges and platforms dangled in the well. A technological civilisation had dwelled in this ruin after the decay and disappearance of the central biomass. For how long? It was impossible to say. Maybe these inhabitants had hailed from the remains of the Sequence in this system or maybe they had been from a different species altogether, part of the myriad of ephemeral societies that had risen in the wake of the Great Chain's galactic collapse only to return to the river of time a few thousand years later. None of these civilisations had ever managed to prosper. The shoulders they were standing on were those of crumbling giants; compromised ecosystems and collapsing infrastructure that had promised them an easy space age only to give out under the mounting pressure of unwilling usurpers.

Isaac/Isabeau allowed themselves to rest against the railing of the blimp. They stared at the carvings as they passed by. Sometimes they caught a shape their brain associated with a known image. Giant figures worshipping a dying sun in the sky. Trees longing for the rain. An empress sitting on a throne of bone and dust. Children playing in the grass under the shadow of an ancient fortress. Pareidolia. Phantoms. Nothing more.

And yet.

An image kept repeating itself, a pattern Isa saw through thousands of carvings as they appeared and disappeared in the night. Meaning that had never been contained in the original intent of the carvings and yet that their mind kept printing in the world all around.

A certainty.

Far away, there was a sea. Far away there was a desert and they were the same. Far away, there was a grey sky above the salty dust and in the folds of geology the promise of warm waters.

Far away, there was a queen in rain.

And the blimp kept descending until the carvings were gone, until nothing remained but a pitch-black darkness and in the distance the thin bones of long-dead Sequencers. They rested against the dark, ash-like ground. There too, no meaning remained, no message, just thin webs of fossilised coral.

The blimp came to a halt in a slight rumble of cables and gears. It was hard for Isa to imagine the ancient frames that had once fleshed out the bones. They saw glimpses of titanic starfish or perhaps flowers covered in black and gold. Jyothi snapped her fingers. A line of faint blue lights appeared on the ground, materialising a path leading through a forest of Sequencer bones drowned in a thick mist.

The sun had never truly reached the surface of Watcher's World. Under the cover of the everfog, the brown dwarf was a mere suggestion. Just an echo, ruby peering through the droplets. Jyothi dimmed her spotlight and the world lit up. Mycelium veins ran through the ground, beaded with microscopic luminescent spheres. Fungal structures towered in the darkness, glowing faintly as ground-level swirls outlined them. Well-organised clouds of self-propelling spores floated above the explorers, communicating with short streaks of blue-yellow light.

There was no vegetal or animal lifeform in sight. Just fungi of all sizes and shapes, warmed by planetary tidal heating. Jyothi chimed in with a soft voice, as if not to disturb Isa and Talasea's reverie.

"You are looking at the halo's first and as far as I know, only fungi-exclusive ecosystem. As fungus cannot thrive on its own, it is feeding on the Sequence. Millions of years of transbiological waste, enough to keep the forest growing for millenia. In time this source will dry up and the planet will return to its initial state, barren and deserted. Yet for now this last remnant prospers. You are stepping on a mass grave and the world born out of death."

They kept walking through the fungal forest. A kilometre north of the ruined pillar, the flat plain gave way to a steep slope that went towards a sea of matte grey. Gills and stalks filled the vertical horizon, extending to the other side of the chasm several kilometers out. Jyothi's little outpost hung to the side of the slope, nestled in a perched valley. While the make was human, the blue-black colors blended in the ecosystem as if the hydroponic dome and the hab module were a peculiar species of fungi.

"Welcome to my humble abode," said Jyothi. She directed her companions towards the outpost's airlock. The tideless opened the airtight door and the explorers went through a disinfection room, removed their exosuits, entered the outpost. The air inside was dry and warm: small world-trees grew in the hydroponics drome, watching over rows of fruits, cereals and vegetables.

"Place is fully autonomous. I get power from a geothermal plant, the dome is self-sufficient and I have algae tanks for oxygen," said Jyothi.

Isaac/Isabeau looked around. The outpost followed Jyothi's personal tastes -- copper linings, vintage submarine-like portholes overlooking the fungal sea, hand-drawn planetary maps, compasses and model ships. A small shrine stood in a corner of the room, adorned with the icon of a Low Age saint of the Outer Church. Saint Jyothi herself; fragment of a former life under the light of Sol.

"Cosy," smiled Isaac/Isabeau.

"I didn't intend on building it. I wanted to study the planet from orbit, using my ship as a temporary habitat but zero-g does a number on my augs and I fell in love with the fungal forest. I opted to remain and the little automated facility turned into something bigger."

Talasea peeked through the nearest porthole.

"You like the impression of living underwater."

"I've always wanted to live under the sea but my vegetal organs do not enjoy it as much as my brain does. This is the next best thing. When this is all over I may settle here. I am starting to get very, very old, you know. Two hundred and fifty-seven years is a lot. There are a few worlds on which I'd like to die and this one is slowly but surely making its way towards the top of the chart. I wonder if the fungi would enjoy my grave, however. They are used to feeding on much older creatures."

"Grim perspective."

"I see nothing grim in the natural process of decay. On the contrary, it feels me with joy. I guess my friends on the Candleworld would disagree, of course. They barely tolerate the mere mention of death."

"If I had gone to such lengths to prolong my life I would also be overly cautious. Though it is not in my plans to become a tideless," said Talasea.

"Good. It feels terrible."

"Say the immortal tree person."

"Point taken. Blame my hubris, but I just wanted to see the world and a single life isn't enough for this. Oh, it looks like my backup is indeed intact: the UREB strike didn't pierce the cloud layer."

Jyothi opened an old-fashioned typewriter-lectern and the output of a rudimentary waveform analysis software filled the screen. Talasea and Isa took a peek.

"So this was picked by the satellite dish before it was fried?" asked the Irenian.

"Yes. I have a full sensor array on that contraption. Let's see what we are looking at...ah. Interesting."

"Indeed," said Isa. "Looks like they went very close to the surface before frying your electronics."

"If they were trying to awaken the Sequencers, nothing answered their calls but death," said Talasea.

"It is definitely a Luciole," intervened Serena on the radio. "The radar signature is unmistakable, however there is something funky going on with the infrared bands. The radiators were modified."

"Agreed," shot Talasea back. "Bigger dissipators?"

"No," said Isa. "It would show on radar otherwise."

"That's the UREB then. The spinal mount messes with the heat profile. I see no other option. It is indeed the same ship that killed the Themis and is now trying to wake Sequencers up," commented Isaac/Isabeau.

"Hey Lines, I was wondering. With the two separate records we have of this mysterious vessel, we can now reconstruct its profile and search for it in our databases, no?"

"Correct. A good approximation at least," replied the NHI on Talasea's radio. "However, I shall note that Algorab ship databases are typically not public and the lineups of Earth-based fleets are classified. That's the two main Luciole dens in human space out of my reach. My search might not turn up anything."

"Go ahead regardless."

"Alright. Searching. I have a match. Partial but the heat signature is almost perfect. Not where I expected to find it however."

"How so?"

"It is from a lost vessel database. Algorab keeps a public record of the ships it lost in space but whose current whereabouts are unknown. In extenso, that's a repository of ships whose destruction has yet to be confirmed so that explorers can identify the wrecks if they come across them. The match I got is for a modified Luciole interceptor named City of Brass, vanished twenty-seven years ago in the galactic halo. The database points out that the City of Brass didn't have a sister-ship and received a custom nozzle. Hence, the signature is unique. It cannot be mistaken for another lost ship."

"We are running after a ghost ship," uttered Isa.

"Twenty-seven years," said Jyothi. "A lot of time for a ship to run independently. The range of a Luciole is, what, a few weeks?"

"About a month at best," said Isaac/Isabeau. "Up to a year if paired with a tender."

Talasea nodded, "does the signature file mention the last known location of the City of Brass?"

"It does. The City of Brass' last known location is a settlement known as Sorceress' World. Two hundred lightyears away, well outside the path of the Twilight Run."

"A settlement? That far out? Algorab base?"

"Possibly. We'd have to check out," said Lines.

"Then we have a lead. Jyothi, do you wish to follow, stay here or do we bring you back at Rainwater?"

The tideless curved her lips in a smile.

"I'll go with you on Sorceress' World. I do not intend on living forever; and I am curious."

A Queen in Rain -- First Issue

The sky was split in half. Below, the swirling arms of the Milky Way. Above, the sheer blackness of intergalactic space and the lone shimmers of the galactic halo. Out of an eternity of silence appeared a white rebound against space and the sudden outline of a human-made shape.

Eighty-five lightyears and seven milliseconds away from its integration point, the exploration dhow Azure reintegrated three-dimensional space in a sudden influx of redshifted colours. Seventy metres long and sleek-framed, the Azure had a fuselage not unlike that of an elegant sea creature. Its shape was specifically studied to withstand the dimensional stresses of repeated long-range geometry translations, summoning the traits of squids and prehistorical eels within the conceptual realm of a spaceship. The hull was all white, two stylised eyes on the sides, near the prow in the image of old Earth triremes, watching the restless sea. The four nacelles of its fusion drive, bundled at the stern, were cold and clear. Four long, thin heat dissipators protruded from the spaces in-between the spherical propellant tanks. They formed two parallel inverted Vs, gathered in an X-cross, hilt of an interstellar dagger.

The bridge of the Azure was streamlined but lived-in, adopting the same oceanic curves as the exterior hull. A faint orange glow seeped from the instruments panels, outlining Serena's tattoos against the black display of virtual reality screens.

"Our calculated margin of error at integration point is within 0.00005% of our translation range," said the pilot. "I do not have enough references in the sky to determine our exact margin of error but it should be close to the theoretical minimum for an eighty-five lightyear fold."

"I concur with Serena's assessment," chimed in Lines. The ship's non-human intelligence presented as a black silhouette printed on a display panel. While the Azure was state-of-the-art, the controls Serena had at her disposal were old-school -- physical sticks, throttles and three dimensional knobs for RCS thrusters. Talasea, the ship's navigator, drifted through the cockpit, a thermos of Eloran tea in her hands. The orange glow turned her blue skin a peculiar shade of violet. She glided towards a seat, strapped herself in, fastened the seatbelt and took a sip of tea.

"Navigator speaking," she said on the intercom. "We are about to initiate orbital insertion towards Diamond's World. We are on the lookout for the exploration ship Themis or what may be left of it. General quarters."

Talasea flicked and switch and the orange lights flickered to pale blue.

"Sensors?" she asked. Lines switched her ink avatar to a fairy wearing a pilot helmet.

"The solar wind from Diamond's Star is battering us. I am reading coronal mass ejections at a frequency three to four times higher than the baseline for G-class suns. Peculiar but not unheard of. I'll be filling the star for astronomical review."


"Orbital space is dead. I have seven contacts classified as Sierra 1 to Sierra 7. 1 to 6 are the remnants of Starmoth Initiative reconnaissance satellites. Sierra 7 is a debris cloud in medium orbit leaking secondary radiation in a circular pattern. Based from the residual heat and fragmentation profile, this is the wreck of the Themis. It was killed right off. Direct strike from higher orbit with a laser or perhaps a particle accelerator weapon."


"You already know the answer to this question, blue. If there had been any distress beacons or emergency suit signals I would have mentioned it."

"Of course." The Irenian's voice remained serene albeit Lines could hear it crackle between syllables. The crew of the Themis were complete strangers to the denizens of the Azure. The Starmoth Initiative had millions of active members and was highly compartmentalised between expeditions, yet Talasea could but feel a bitter kinship with them. They had been wandering the void not because they wanted to conquer and settle but to feed a romantic desire for unknown stars. Their quest did not warrant such an unceremonious end.

"How late are we?" asked Serena, guiding the Azure on an insertion trajectory.

"Hard to say," said Lines. "But I have eyes on the fission drive of the Themis and it has yet to cool down. The attack is recent which means the messenger probe we received was sent right after the destruction of the ship. Brave little drone slipped under the attacker's sensor shadow."

Serena shrugged. Her artificial arms gleamed in a blue reflection of white coral.

"It might be a trap. Someone could have let the drone slip away in the hopes of attracting and destroying a second ship. It's a common guerilla tactic. Many Lucioles fell victim to it in the Smyrnian Bubble during the war against Solovyova's recyclers."

"We are at the edge of the halo and the closest Smyrnian privateer is two galactic arms away," said Talasea.

"Hold on!" blinked Lines. "I am getting a signal from the Themis."

The non-human intelligence displayed a waveform on a side panel. Serena interpreted it as a positioning beacon belonging to the ship's black box. Few vessels mounted those. Many had simple recorders transferred aboard a distress drone in case of critical failure but deep space exploration vessels favoured older-fashioned methods, knowing a distress probe had good chances of never reaching its destination once clear from human space.

"Lines, can you check if it is a legit signal?" demanded Serena.

"Identification codes check out. You really are on edge."

"With all due respect for our resident NHI, there is only one person on this ship that died in battle and I would like not to repeat the experience. Something killed the Themis and it wasn't a void fairy. Give me a LIDAR sweep on the debris cloud. Check for sleepers."


Serena waited a minute for the Azure to establish a centimetre-scale three dimensional map of the wreck through the interface of low intensity laser beams. Under her artificial fingers she could feel a cloud of cold needles orbiting around the bitter warmth of the fission vessel. She tasted blood.

"Clear. I see no sleepers or cold Casabas," said the pilot.

"Get us closer, RCS only," said Talasea. The Azure moved towards the Themis, leaving faint wakes of crystallised gas behind. "Lines, I would like you to deploy anti-debris laser mounts and calculate a short-range evasive translation under ten thousand kilometres."

"I see Serena's wariness is communicative."

"I am no warrior but I once entered a still-warm tomb with nothing but a laser stylus and got burned for it. That too, I do not wish to reenact."

"Grand spirits in that cockpit," said Isaac/Isabeau, the Azure's resident exogeographer as they drifted on the bridge. There had never been a semblance of a uniform aboard the exploration scout but Isa's white and blue flight suit was the closest they had to a recognisable style. "I cannot blame you, however. How many scouting ships have we been losing in the halo these past six months?"

"The Themis is the first confirmed destruction. All the others suffered from mechanical failures and were retrieved or at worst successfully evacuated," tempered Lines. "We are twenty thousand lightyears away from Earth and with limited support, such attrition is to be expected."

"Yet someone or something took down that ship. An intent. Not a failure."

"Isa, look at me," said Talasea. "It is fine. It already happened on Initiative expeditions. Some of our own carry their enemies all the way from human space."

"Killing a ship twenty-five thousand lightyears from home takes some impressive dedication. More than that of a Smyrnian recycler, that is for sure."

"You used to be a solar envoy, you know plenty about determination and old grudges. Besides, it would be the perfect crime, wouldn't it? No culprit, no prosecution, all you need is a determined crew, a long-range vessel and an expedition plan."

The Azure stabilised its trajectory half a thousand kilometers away from what was left of the Themis, locked on a parallel orbit to the debris cloud. Thirty thousand kilometers below, Diamond's World gleamed in faint red. Why did that planet even deserve a name, thought Talasea? Most stars in the galactic halo were old subdwarfs trailing at the lower end of the luminosity scale and surrounded by icy, desert worlds. One out of a hundred had any sort of life beneath the surface, in the vast majority of cases dime-a-dozen bacteria. Even a large expedition like the Twilight Run would not waste time with such stars, instead focusing on the rare G and K-class suns, or the more exotic out-of-sequence stars. The only reason why the Themis had garnered any interest in Diamond's World was the variable nature of its parent star. Its pulses visible from thousands of lightyears out, it made a great beacon for the incoming expedition vessels to calibrate their translations not unlike the pulsars of the Neutron Highway diving towards the centre of the galaxy. A lighthouse that had made the unlucky ship a grave.

Serena flicked a switch. A thump echoed through the Azure as it opened its hangar bay.

"Djinn away."

The extra-vehicular drone appeared on the ship's sensor screens as a small blip surrounded by a nickname, Almaz. It ignited a pair of thrusters to reach the wreck and worked its way in the direction of the black box. The djinn was a small sphere equipped with transbiological tentacles and gimballed sensors. Its feeble but trusty mind was trained for zero-g sample retrieval and maintenance operations. Almaz was quick to find the black box within the debris, then grabbed with its tentacles. Lines' avatar somersaulted on the screens as she received a datafeed from Almaz.

"Wait, Talasea. Problem."

"Do tell."

"Black box is fried. Electronics have been battered. Data storage is visually intact, the tapes held, but the interfacing port is unusable."

"Is it a problem?"

"You bet is it. This is not supposed to happen. Black boxes are designed to withstand the punishment of a high-speed re-entry or even a fold fragmentation, they're shock, thermal and radiation-hardened. Leaks from the fission vessel alone cannot explain this damage."

"Shoddy construction perhaps?"

"The black box was purchased from the Selene Shipyards, it is as sturdy as they get. The only explanation I see is that the Themis was destroyed by a weapon emitting intense amounts of gamma and X-rays. Which means it didn't fall victim to a simple particle accelerator but to a relativistic electron beam, which is a far more powerful object. No thug, no recycler, no privateer can get their hands on such a weapon. It is military."

"Tal, I've got a ship incoming at light-second range!" warned Serena. The screens went red. A flurry of hasty blinks clicked through the sensors. Talasea lost her link to the djinn while the front side of the debris cloud turned into a glowing swirl of superheated dust.

"Lines, act upon that pattern I asked you to calculate, now, translate 1-1!" she yelled. The simple order froze Isaac/Isabeau to their core. Translate 1-1: perform a single hyperluminal blink towards the last pre-calculated translation point. A tactical evasive manoeuvre. The Azure disappeared in a fold of its geometry drive and resumed existence ten thousand kilometers to the side. A cold snap rummaged through the exploration vessel as it tried to compensate for the loss of potential energy going up the gravity well of Diamond's World. Talasea glanced at her thermos then at the bubbles of tea floating around her and finally at the helmet she had put on through force of habit. Her sensors had trouble re-acquiring anything in the X-ray and gamma ranges.

"It appears that we have been targeted by a UREB," whispered Lines.

Isaac/Isabeau held their breath. UREB, Ultra-Relativistic Electron Beam. Particle stream weapon with an effective range just under one light-second, using relativistic effects to keep an electron beam coherent across the distance. Could cut through an unarmoured ship in two with a single strike, submitting the crew to a radiation shower. So this is how the Themis died.

"How did they miss?" asked Talasea and her calmness was the only thing that kept both Isa and Serena from giving in to panic.

"UREBs are vulnerable to jitter at extreme ranges," said Lines. "And we are a hard target to pinpoint. Missed us by about a hundred kilometers. Our low hull temperature saved us."

"How silent are we?"

"Thrusters are cold, RCS to neutral, I engaged the active cooling for solar surveys, we're as cold as the ship can get but still several tens of kelvin above background."

"Eyes on the attacker?"

Serena breathed fast, noticed Talasea, but it was now adrenaline, not fear.

"I have an infrared contact. Three hundred thousand kilometers downrange. Fusion drive, small ship, hull size under five hundred meters. Can't identify it. Tal, we need to slither out. Lines?"

"Can't budge. If I start calculating a long-range jump, the heat spike will give out our position."

"If we don't sod off, they'll end up finding us regardless. The Azure is a souped-up scout, not a warship. Lines, calculate three short-range translations. First one fifty thousand kilometers to a point on the other side of the planet, orthogonal to the attacker. Then another one hundred kilometers starwards and finally to our initial point by the Themis," said Talasea.

"What is the plan?"

"I need the black box back. It has sensor data from the Themis and all we need to identify the attacker. You said it was a small ship, meaning the UREB is a spinal mount not a turret. They'll have to turn around to target us again after each of our translations, if we go fast enough reacquisition will not be possible. Once we have the black box we escape to deep space. Lines, clear?"


"Translate 1-1."

The Azure jumped away and reintegrated reality five thousand kilometers starwards.

"Fire fusion drive."

A bright wide plume pierced the night, turning the ship into a bright infrared beacon. The crew felt a surge of weightness move through their spines. Lines relayed.

"Eyes on attacker. It's moving, clockwise spin."

All Talasea could see on her sensors was a small stick of wood tumbling in the wind. The attacker had taken the bait.

"Translate 1-2."

The Azure folded forwards and towards the Themis, leaving right before another avalanche of radiation. The brief burn had sent the ship on direct rendez-vous trajectory with the vestiges of the derelict exploration ship. Seeing its parent ship coming back, Almaz fired its thrusters and set a course towards the incoming scout.

"Attacker is rotating again. Lines, come on, get Almaz aboard!"

"I'm trying to get it to aim for the hangar bay!"

"You do not have to!" yelled Isaac/Isabeau. "Almaz, deploy your tentacles and grab the ship, you don't have time for retrieval!"

"The little guy will not hold."

"He will. I told him a new trick, painted the EVA handles on the prow with IR beacons, he'll hang on to them and you'll be able to burn as hard as you want. Transbiological tentacles are sturdy enough."

The drone made contact with the Azure in a faint bump, holding onto the handles with its tentacles as if the ship had been a very hot, very fast buoy. Half the transbiological limbs broke, a panel was destroyed, but Almaz held on.

"Heat spike on the attacker, the UREB is spooling up again!"

"Now, translate 1-3, away we are!"

The Azure disappeared again. The temperatures on the bridge had started to rise to less comfortable levels as the radiators tried to dissipate heat from the hasty, brute-force translation calculations. As the fold occurred, the crew felt the sudden presence of nonexistent rain on their tongues and saw glimpses of a faraway rainforest under the light of inner suns. The Azure reintegrated the fabric of space on the other side of Diamond's World a split-second later, quickly followed by an offensive jump from the attacker. The Azure slipped out again, one light-second, then two, then three and managed to calculate an out-of-system translation, leaving in a wake of blueshifted radiation for a destination half a lightyear out. Lights went out on the bridge. Windows flickered and boot screens filled the instruments panels. Serena understood the Azure had ran out of random-access memory after the succession of folds. The sudden darkness was more of a feature than an error -- complex calculations were expected to crash the mainframe and preserving the central processing unit.

"Almaz, do we still have it?" asked Talasea.

"Recovering the little guy now," said Isa, out of breath. "He will require a few weeks of repairs but he is there and the black box with him."

Serena breathed in, letting go of her flight controls. Sweat drenched her suit and her golden eyes were bloodshot. She closed them and said :

"Lines, damage report."

"We are fine. I register limited burn-out damage on the mainframe, nothing I can't smooth out. One of the radiators was eroded. You will all need preventive treatment for radiation exposure."

Serena sighed, whispered a surah of the Quran and unbuckled her seatbelt.

"Tal," she said, drifting away from the cockpit. "With all my affection, you need to get yourself fixed. You are not even fazed. Did you even feel anything resembling fear?"

"The terror always comes afterwards," she chimed in, letting her long hair float away as a tired jellyfish.

"You keep trying to convince yourself of that. I'll be sleeping if anyone needs me."

Left to her own devices, the Irenian stared at the screens for a long while, plotting an out of system translation towards the stream of friendly vessels awaiting eighty lightyears out. Numbers danced on the hollow map of nearby halo stars, turning into lines that coalesced into an abstract bridge through the of void. Somewhere at the centre of gravity of the Azure, Lines started feeding data to the geometry drive one last time. The four-dimensional cube dove in the folds of the world, probing the limit between reality and unreality, labouring at the universe in buzzing warmth. Talasea let go of her controls and grabbed Isaac/Isabeau's hand between the seats. They kissed, cuddled and the Irenian departed the bridge with an exhausted smile, aiming for the comfort of her bed. Left alone, Isaac/Isabeau stretched in their seat. Their heart threatened to breach their ribcage but the rest looked in working order. They closed their eyes, listening to the hum of the ship.

"Are you alright?" asked Lines.

"Immediate or long-term?"


"An answer you know already. It is funny, Lines. I have always thought that the Azure would have made a brilliant spy vessel, hadn't it been bought by the Starmoth Initiative. I even half-heartedly expected we would end up ambushing something one day."

"We are not defenceless. I think that if the Azure had been equipped with a missile or two we could have tackled that UREB vessel, it wasn't handled very well. It must be some manner of very well-equipped privateer, perhaps even a mercenary. I wonder what the crew of the Themis did to warrant such determined hatred. But I do not feel bad, just shaken a bit. It is not the first time we have to fight."

"Come on. Scaring scavengers and illegal archaeologists with laser glares isn't the same as avoiding UREB strikes from a criminal ship. You are just trying to comfort yourself into thinking you weren't an inch away from ending up as superheated dust. I am exhausted. I am going to bed, too. Take care of the ship, Lines, you have the bridge."

As Isaac/Isabeau left, the Azure performed its geometry translation, and for a second suspended in time they felt the caress of sand, blown across the vastness of a derelict ringworld.

Two hundred lightyears and seventeen hours later, the Azure reintegrated the world at the heart of a yellow dwarf system above which the Milky Way spiralled in a stream of blurred stars. It burned ten minutes to decelerate then flipped around and beamed a message to a large heat source two thousand kilometers out.

"Rainwater port, this is Serena Shanxi aboard the Azure, requesting permission to approach within your controlled space."

A smooth voice answered in Hindi, "Rainwater Control to Azure, you are go for approach. Engines off, RCS only, radiators extended, you are cleared for docking on bay D24."

The scout shut everything down and met up with an oddly-shaped chemical tug -- a repurposed mining vessel known as Purple Prose Proletariat, as wide as it was large, wide-eyed thing which handled the Azure with precision if not care. The Azure smoothly made its way to Rainwater port.

Soon after its inception, the Starmoth Initiative had understood that it would never have enough resources to carry out long-range exploration on its own. It had to rely on public enthusiasm, the same enemy it had been fighting for decades, trying to establish a panhuman standard for exo-studies amidst a chaos of careless digs and incoherent databases. Thus Community Expeditions were born: communal events gathering dozens, sometimes hundreds of vessels in large streams that would cover entire regions of the Milky Way at once under the oversight and expertise of the Initiative. The core of any Community Expedition was one of the Initiative's mobile harbours, of which Rainwater was a perfect representative. Usually the Initiative would have requisitioned a medium-sized habitat such as a Zanzibar Station, strap engines and a geometry drive to it then call it a day. The halo stars, however, were a different environment than the dense arms of the Milky Way. Their suns had high relative velocities compared to the rest of the Milky Way, travelling at several hundred kilometers per second on elongated trajectories that brought them out and around the galaxy. While it was theoretically possible to provide an asteroid station with enough delta-v to bridge the gap, it was a pointlessly expensive endeavour. Rainwater had thus been assembled around a high-velocity star at the edge of the Milky Way's bulge, then sent climbing towards the galactic roof at a leisurely pace. Now it cruised under the light of a halo sun, precursor to an expedition that had ever-growing chances of getting cancelled in panic.

Serena had come to like the simplicity of Rainwater. The travelling station was built around an elongated, hollowed-out asteroid five kilometres in length. Its greebles had been smoothed out and the old craters bore surface ports, communication arrays and slow-moving radiator mounts that followed the station's centrifugal rotation. Only a handful of ships orbited in unison with Rainwater. The Community Expedition was still under assembly. Many vessels were burning out in the distant arms to link with the halo stars and Rainwater's advance fleet was mainly composed of tenders and scouts, little more than scaffolds with tanks and engine bells. The small flotilla sent a hail of salutes as the Azure approached the station's docking ring.

"Welcome back home," said Rainwater control. "We know you bore ill news but let it not taint your return."

"Thanks, control. Azure, over and out."

The marine creature named Azure fit snugly inside bay D24. Rainwater's hangars looked as silos, attached alongside a non-rotating ring circling the outer hull and thus unconcerned by centrifugal gravity. Serena watched the damage from her perch atop a scaffold. The radiator would take Lines and her drones two hours to fix up but Serena was more concerned by the outer armour. It had escaped the crew's attention in the ambient chaos but the attacker had managed to sneak in a few laser strikes at the Azure during one their closer passes. Their mere sight cauterised Serena's mind restless. That's how I died. In melted hull fragments, my body carved in two by shrapnel as warm as a star's surface. She slid her hand against the rough graphite-weave hull.



The NHI existed as an avatar in a corner of Serena's augmented reality lenses as a space fairy. Her six-legged drones chipped away at the hull.

"Did the Themis die fast?"

"You know how to lighten the mood. Direct UREB strike at an unarmoured vessel is an immediate death sentence. The Themis was instantly shattered, radiation wash submitted the crew to doses lethal within a minute. I got word from the recovery ship, they found DNA fragments from the seven crewmembers but only two corpses. The rest got vaporised. Serena, I am not sure discussing this sort of thing is good for your mental health."

"Lines, are you qualified in any ways to discuss my psychological well-being?"


"Then I suggest we resume tending to the Azure. When the mainframe crashed I noticed several failures in our secondary systems. Was that due to thermal throttling or was it a fluke on the software side?"

"Combination of both I believe. We are no combat ship. Pushing short-range translations as Talasea did is not within our design specifications. Thermal throttling is too aggressive. The CPU cores are downclocked when they reach 200°C but according to their data sheet they can function up to 300°C without major reductions in lifespan. I'll adjust for it and run a few tests in hard vacuum."

"If we ever have to do this again, I'm not sure software tricks will be sufficient. We'll have to invest in better chips to guarantee evasive capability. I'll have to ask Rainwater engineers, see if they have something we can swap out."

"Starting to talk like a soldier again. Not sure I like it."

"You are the one who brought the thermal throttling issue up. It is not a thing explorers and merchants have to worry about. In fact it is not a thing we should have to worry about ever again, in a normal world."

By definition, the Starmoth Initiative was a decentralised, socialised effort stemming from the will of universities, civilian governments and interested individual. The Twilight Run was thus a collective effort and Initiative's head on Rainwater an unassuming man who had the quiet ethos of a high-ranking state servant trained to fill spreadsheets and give reminders, not orders. Rashidi Kalu had once served a superpower far away on distant Earth but his domain of expertise had moved to the cold stars of the outer Milky Way and the logistics of an expedition led across fifty thousand lightyears. His office was perched above a wet forest in the middle of Rainwater's cylinder. Through the bay windows gleamed a mangrove lake where Terran trees grew under the station's sun-cylinder. The office doubled as a single-person apartment. Kalu's bed was neatly folded in a corner, giving space to his visitors. He had prepared two cups of grey Tyran tea for Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea, a beverage as sweet as the arid planet was harsh.

"Our engineers have analysed the black box," he said, stirring the teapot. "I am afraid not much of value was recovered. Contrary to the initial assessment by your NHI, the tapes were not exploitable."

"So it was a trap and I risked the lives of my crew for nothing," said Talasea, taking an absently-minded sip from her teacup.

"I am afraid so, but you had no way of knowing without direct access to the contents of the black box. Do not be too harsh on yourself. The Azure was designed to get into charged situations and come out unscathed, this is why we've bought it instead of yet another Inyanga. Besides, the data you recovered from your own vessel proved eminently valuable. Engineering tells me the attacker was human based on the infrared signature. A modified Luciole frame to be accurate."

Isaac/Isabeau felt the damp warmth of Rainwater turn to molten ice.

"Luciole frames capable of mounting spinal UREBs are not common. In fact I only know of one organisation that fields them."

"Algorab, yes. I have already forwarded a message to the Serene Sea but the courier probe will take weeks to arrive."

"We considered the possibility of a vengeance or targeted assassination against the crew of the Themis by a paramilitary engine. Do you believe there is a chance the ravens are involved?"

"It would not be the first time Algorab has difficulties with rogue elements," sneered Kalu. "This is what happens when you think your citizen's duty is to protect humankind from the silent ruins that scatter the Milky Way, with force of arms if necessary. But in this case, I am truly at a loss. The chances of direct Algorab involvement are low but on the other hand, I do not know of any other UREB operators in human space. We would know if a Smyrnian recycler had gotten their hands on such a weapon, and a proper military would have just launched a geometry missile your way."

"Yes," nodded Talasea. "Particle beams are peculiar weapons. They are not worth their energy expense in regular peer combat against human vessels that can perform tactical folds. Algorab uses their UREB-toting Lucioles to crack the transbiological hulls of slower than light Sequence vessels. That is their sole function, to go toe to toe with ancient abominations from the dawn of time. An electron lance would not be my weapon of choice if I sought to hunt down exploration craft."

"There is something I need to ask, even though I know dragging the subject back to the surface is a very bad idea," said Isaac/Isabeau. "But could this ship, by any chance, belong to the Candleworld?"

Kalu removed his spotless glasses to wipe them with a cloth. His figure of embarrassment was that of the Starmoth Initiative as a whole.

"I do not know. They do face lone Sequencers from time to time and they have the technology to field a UREB but they do not use Luciole frames. Their ships rely on plasmadynes and q-drives. As far as I know, you didn't spot a magnetic tether in the wake of the attacker."

"No. Fusion drive, probably aneutronic. Sorry. Was an idle thought."

"It is fine, Isa. It is just that the Candleworld and its inhabitants remain a most sensitive topic. The Twilight Run is meant to explore Sequence ruins and extrasolar exosystems in the halo, not to practise anthropology on an extant human civilisation, however isolated it may be, with the unfortunate colonialist undertones such an endeavour would bring. The Candleworld wishes to have nothing to do with the Starmoth Initiative, let us not cross their path. I would like you to keep this lead quiet. Algorab is our best bet."

"What are we going to do with the rest of the expedition?"

"Couriers have been dispatched to warn the communal members of the Twilight Run that we are encountering problems and that their journey is to be postponed until further notice. However many of the vessels are already burning to velocity-match with the halo and the couriers might not reach them in time. The timing of the Themis' destruction is very unfortunate. I have also recalled all the scouts but I would like you to go out in the black once again, as soon as the Azure is ready. There is an archaeological outpost we weren't able to reach and I want you to evacuate the lone scientist working there. Name's Jyothi. An acquaintance, I believe."

"I co-signed a paper on Sequence history with her, yes," said Talasea. "The Azure can fly out in eight hours. We'll prep for a recovery mission."

"Many thanks. Now if you'll excuse me, I have obituaries to write."

Talasea and Isa found a bench in the Rainwater gardens. The station's sun-cylinder was now reddish, casting twilight shadows in the mangrove. Four-winged birds glided in low gravity, running after nimble butterflies.

"How do you feel, Tal?"

"I am fine and I do not like it. It frustrates me. I feel as some manner of apathetic ghost. If you were to tell me right here, right now, that I would drop dead in a minute, it wouldn't spawn any feeling whatsoever in me. Sometimes I wonder if I didn't die on this expedition in the Pale Path and I am now just dreaming about a life that actually ended. But on the off-chance that this is the real world I fear that one day I will get us all killed."

"What did the psychologist say?"

"That there is nothing nominally wrong with me. She can go die in a supernova. I was wondering, do you wish to have company tonight?"

"I am not really in the mood. Sorry."

"It is fine," she said. 

"That being said -- do you want a hug?"


Isaac/Isabeau leaned against the Irenian and took her in their arms. She snuggled against them, eyes closed, listening to the chirping birds and humming station.

"Isa," she whispered, playing with the geographer's hair, "there is something I've meant to tell you ever since we departed Elora. It is stupid, and you do not need my approval for anything, but...your new name really suits you. Isabeau. That's made for you."

They smiled, kissed Talasea on the forehead, and in the crimson warmth of Rainwater the couple fell asleep. 

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