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.
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
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."
"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."
"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."
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