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.
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."
"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?"
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.
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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