As a virtual dawn swept over Rainwater Station, it became a greenhouse filled with warm colours, gifted by the central lighting tube that gave the hollow asteroid an artificial sun.
The Postmistress had given Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau two small standard size apartments located near Rainwater Station's wetlands. From her bay window, the irenian could catch the morning light as it peered through the palm trees and gorse flowers. Swarms of winged reptiles darted by, carried by the breeze. Tali had barely slept. Anti-radiation medicine given by Rainwater medics after her close encounter with the Night Flight had awoken old wounds. The pain radiated from her solar plexus in concentric waves like pale suns. With every breath came blades, searing through her belly. She had not even considered eating breakfast. She wouldn't dare imagine what even the smallest amount of nourishment could trigger in her. As she put her palm against her belly, Talasea could make out the complex geometry of her scars, running from her chest to the edge of her lower abdomen. Rivers, splattered against her ocean-coloured skin, not unlike the chaotic pattern of an electrical discharge. Pushing against her skin, Talasea felt the microscopic cysts left by shrapnel five years prior. Heavy metals had been removed from her body but some of the carbon shards had been left in place -- too close to major arteries, too close to the heart, too hard to reach. She had been fed with nothing but painkillers and filtering medicine for the better part of a year. The result had permanently affected the nerves around her digestive tract. Without her monad's neutering compounds, every flare-up would have been unbearable instead of simply agonizing.
Her gaze turned outwards, Talasea tried to forget the world war raging in her abdomen. The Rainwater Communal Library didn't have many books and Talasea was out of things to read. She was left with her old cassette Walkman, a relic having crossed the Milky Way twice already, and Bubbles' company. The avatar lived in Talasea's alarm clock. She had spent the night staring at it.
"You take care of Isa, eh?"
"Of course," answered the triangular bird, "come on, I think I'm qualified enough to help them choose clothes, right? I know there's a colour code to follow but I think I'm sophisticated enough to remind them they need purple and black."
Tali smiled between two stomach cramps.
"It's not that simple. Trust me, it's quite an important moment for them, so don't mess it up."
"Of course. Do you want me to get you something too?"
"Oh, I'd have a few ideas, but I need to make a list first."
"What kind of ideas?"
"Stupid, painkiller-infused ones."
Isaac/Isabeau had decided to take a bicycle to move across Rainwater Station's narrow streets. The idea had proven to be a disaster. Isa had no trouble walking or running in low gravity but cycling was another matter. They had lost the habit and their inner hear had yet to attune itself to Rainwater Station. Three spectacular accidents and the sorry looks of a dozen passer-bys later, Isa had abandoned their ride and limped their way to the station's community market.
"Oh, hey," said Bubbles from her post-it, "do you still have your spectacles?"
"Well then put them on, idiot."
Isaac/Isabeau obliged. They tapped the side of their glasses and Bubble's avatar appeared in a corner of their field of view.
"Gods, are you here to help me with my shopping? I told Tal I can absolutely handle myself alone."
"Isa, Isa, Isa. You're about to buy your first dress! I can't leave you alone."
"And what does an AI know about dresses?"
"I do not spend all my time as a spaceship or a container full of leaves and lichen, you know. It is even possible that I might have, one day, occupied a humanoid frame."
"Oho. You need to tell this story!"
"Later. Watch out. Twelve o'clock."
Isa stepped to the side, avoiding a four-legged drone that carried a bundle of wood from a world-tree. The one on Rainwater Station towered above a urban area, its thick canopy filtering out the artificial sunlight. Made for bigger spaces, it grew too fast and the Rainwater Commons spent most of their time pruning its branches.
One street later, Isaac/Isabeau arrived at the Rainwater Bazaar. The vast community market was spread across an entire cylindrical section, under the shadow of a minaret. In the artificial light, the mosque's tower was like the hand of a clock, pointing at the station's main lake.
The bazaar's medina was sprawling and full of colours, arranged around a white limestone dome whose blue mosaics reflected the light of the hollow asteroid. The dome bore the emblems of the Five Suns commune. It had originally been built for Rainwater's cybersyn -- a complex mainframe destined to coordinate the station's economy. The project had petered out for various reasons and Rainwater Station now handled itself very well without a central CPU. The bazaar was held by a myriad of small cooperatives, most of which only had two to three members. Bubbles pointed at the nearest clothing shop with red lines on the ground. Isaac/Isabeau welcomed the help. The medina didn't have much in the way of coherent planning and it was easy to lose oneself in the sprawling chaos of fountains, stairs and inner courtyards. Rainwater wasn't made for visitors. The bazaar had never been conceived for spaceship crews seeking goods and entertainment. It was made for the locals, who knew the place by heart. Bubbles cheated; she had downloaded the station's schematics.
The clothing store was baptized "Of Linen and Wool", a name Isaac/Isabeau found quite amusing considering neither linen nor wool were available on the station. They passed through the curtains at the entrance and found themselves in the blueish light of an inner courtyard. A random thought crossed their mind: the entire station, in a sense, was nothing but a gigantic inner courtyard. The shop's owner spawned in front of Isa, as if assembled out of thin air. She was more than two metres tall and the slenderness of her frame hinted at a life spent in low gravity.
"Welcome," said the owner in Swahili, "may I ask your pronouns if it's acceptable?"
"They/them," answered Isa with a shy smile, "but sometimes she/her. Depends on the day."
"And what day is it?"
"More like a "she" day. And you?"
"She/her. Most of the time. Good. What are you looking for?"
Isaac/Isabeau considered the owner. She had something of a Stellar Couturier. Yes. It was a good nickname.
"Well, I'm looking for a dress. Or a skirt. I don't really know. First time I buy one."
"Aw. You're blushing."
"Oh yes. Good, good. What's that dress for?"
"I'm a new mailperson. It looks like I need a uniform of sorts. Black and purple. I thought a skirt and a shirt would be perfect."
"And you are right! Follow me."
Isaac/Isabeau walked through the room, following the Stellar Couturier. The shop had a great variety of tunics, dresses, flight suits and other coloured shirts.
"Nothing your size, I am afraid. Terrans are always a headache. You're either too tall or not thin enough. Terran gravity is such a mess. No offence, of course. I'll have to print the skirt. Would you please step on the little circle on the floor?"
Isaac/Isabeau obliged. A LIDAR emitter sized them up, then the Stellar Couturier unfolded a virtual reality mirror.
"Let's see. What do you want?"
"I need the skirt to be usable in zero-g and I don't really feel like showing my thighs to everyone."
"Long pleated skirt with flight pants underneath."
"I like the idea."
"And for the upper body?"
"A shirt. I have an irenian friend who wears those very well. You know, these shirts with a laced collar and falling sleeves? Purple."
The Stellar Couturier typed something on her e-ink tablet and snapped her fingers. The VR mirror immediately showed Isaac/Isabeau with a long black skirt and a purple shirt. They spun the skirt, feeling a bout of euphoria go up their spine. The Couturier smiled.
"You are gorgeous. However, there's a little issue with the shirt, if it's to be used for official matters. Tell me, if that's okay...how long have you been under HRT for?"
"A year and a half, roughly. Monad only. No outside source.Why?"
"Well, your chest...these shirts are a bit on the open side and their cleavage is a slightly, how to say this...plunging."
Isaac/Isabeau looked down and noticed that the Couturier wasn't wrong. They felt another wave of euphoria run up their belly. Years spent in deep space had detached them from the welcome changes exerted by their monad.
"Oh. Yes. Right. Maybe we could use a less revealing cut?"
"Noted," added the Couturier as she altered the shirt.
"That being said, can I also keep the original cut? That would be two shirts then."
"Of course. I'll print the clothes as soon as possible, let's say this afternoon. Technically, these are work-related expenses, right? I'll see with the Postmistress."
In a corner of Isa's eyes, Bubbles' avatar winked.
The AI's high-pitched voice hummed in the apartment.
"Do you feel better, blue?"
Talasea raised an eyebrow. She had found the strength to sit sideways in her old sofa.
"Somewhat. I guess. How's Isa?"
"They found a very beautiful skirt and are jumping up and down in joy."
"Gender euphoria. Good!"
"I ordered some food. Rice and falafels. Today's community menu."
"Go to hell."
"I also filed a printing request for your clothes. I quite amused by the contrast between the two sets, by the way. Between the mundane sweater and the extremely revealing bustier...you don't seriously intend to wear the latter to hand out letters?"
"I don't see what you are talking about. It doesn't show a single centimetre of skin."
"Yes...technically speaking...this is not wrong."
"Hey, Bubbles. What's up with the sudden puritanism?"
"It's not puritanism, I can't physically grasp the concept. I'm just wondering if the Postmistress would approve of this, er, uniform."
"I do whatever the hell I want with my body, Bubbles, if I want to show it, I show it. Of course, what would you know of this..."
"You're very flippant today."
"I know. I always say stupid things when my belly is a warzone. But keep these clothes."
"Oh, they won't move. Do you feel like flying the Internationale? We have letters to hand out."
"Ah. Let's not make the postal service wait."
For a short while: the stars take the colour of blood.
The cockpit's VR windows flickered while the ship adapted to the moody light of the Outrenoir system. It was located fifteen lightyears away from Rainwater Station and only harboured two natural objects: a stellar black hole and a brown dwarf, captured several million years before by the powerful gravity well. Planets had ceased to inhabit the surroundings of Outrenoir for billions of years. The supernova had swept everything away, swallowing the system in a storm of heat and light. The reintegration of Courier 7 had placed it within a few astronomical units of the black hole, far enough to avoid any time dilation effects. The black hole gleamed in visible light and X-rays. Seen through the sensors of the Internationale, it looked like a minuscule black and orange sphere, with an inverted accretion dome looming over it. Much closer to the vessel was the brown dwarf, Outrenoir's only companion. A vast orange eye gleaming very slightly against the cosmic background.
Though it was spread between a dead star and an unborn one, Outrenoir was far from empty. Talasea saw many infrared signatures, corresponding to a variety of spaceships moving in and out of the area. Their profiles showed exploration vessels, cargo ships, messenger craft and even a few military engines. Every trajectory pointed away or towards the same object, a station on an elongated orbit between the black hole and the brown dwarf.
Outrenoir Harbour had a peculiar appearance. It was a Zanzibar station, much like Rainwater. The Harbour was built around a hollowed-out asteroid which had been polished to create a long, all-white cylinder. Two radiator arrays adorned the prow and stern of the station, forming straight, symmetrical lines of gleaming bronze. Around the kilometre-long asteroid orbited a large golden ring where ships and shuttles would anchor themselves. As it rotated, the orbital station slowly revealed complex Art Deco style geometrical ornaments inspired by lunar complexes back in the solar system. Isa switched the engines of Courier 7 off and concluded their approach on RCS thrusters, aiming for the postal birth on the outer ring. A drone called Courier 2 was already there, lodged in its nest. A swarm of little djinn drones rushed to unload the containers. The majority of Courier 7's letters were non-priority and would be dispatched by the postal service of Outrenoir Station at a later date. Talasea and Isa only had two priority letters remaining -- stamped with the Postmistress' emblem, in-person delivery only. There were many reasons for a Five Suns citizen to pay extra and benefit from this service: a desire for discretion, a lack of trust in the postal drones, legally dubious cargo or words -- none of this mattered to the Postmistress and her mailpeople. The postal service of the Five Suns did not discriminate.
Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau dressed in black and purple then took a shuttle to the station. Six Inyanga-class ships were moored to the ring. The ships were affiliated to the Starmoth Initiative. Their one hundred and eighty crewmembers had spent more than a year in deep space and Outrenoir Harbour was a welcome respite. If Rainwater Station was the origin point of the Five Suns and Kollontai its capital city, Outrenoir Harbour was its free port. A place set aside from the normal world, where crews could seek respite and pleasures.
"The dress is a very good choice," commented Talasea while the shuttle flew through Outrenoir's main airlock, under the watchful gaze of two Babylonian lions made of sculpted regolith.
Centrifugal gravity inside Outrenoir Harbour was equivalent to half a gee, like on Rainwater Station. The postal service airlock led to a small hallway whose walls were covered in Simurgh bird shaped, black and purple mosaics. The legendary creatures of ancient Persia felt perfectly at home in this environment, thought Isaac/Isabeau, even though they didn't really feel like a messenger of the gods. A humanoid frame intercepted them at the end of the hallway. Isa sized them up. Spherical, multifaceted helmet. Black and dark red suit with an armour plate protecting the chest. Byzantine-inspired shapes on the sides. Composite crossbow in hand. It was a member of the station's security. Isaac/Isabeau decided to call them Cataphract.
"I'll need your IDs", said the Cataphract in Arabic, voice muted by the helmet.
Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau showed them their silver brooches. The Cataphract used their glove to scan the markings, then gestured them to come in.
"Isn't Outrenoir supposed to be a free harbour?" asked Talasea with a smile.
"Free harbour only means we don't discriminate when it comes to outside visitors. Five Suns state servants, now that's another story. It's for your own good."
"Such concern for our well-being is touching, but I warn you, I'm not gonna open my mail for you."
The Cataphract had something one could have mistaken for a laugh.
"There are things way worse than letters going through this station. Come in. I'll warn Mademoiselle Verne of your arrival."
"Good. We've got mail for her."
The tunnel with Simurgh birds led to a decontamination area, that itself opened on the inside of Outrenoir Harbour. The station was a pagan ode to crowds and pleasures. Unlike Rainwater Station, it wasn't lit by a central sun-tube but by an army of luminous minarets -- a sea of candles, bathing the station in an endless golden twilight. Outrenoir Harbour was made of a single city, spread across seven hundred metres of habitable length. The rare wetlands were deep mangroves whose lakes seemed to draw the light in. The rest of the architecture resulted from the unfiltered output of an artificial intelligence trained on the aesthetic history of Babylon, Carthage and Baghdad together. Flamboyant lions loomed over Andalusian mosques. Fac similes of Toledo gardens blossomed amidst large streets adorned with Islamic mosaics. In the distant fog towered dark blue Moloch statues, above the golden domes of byzantine temples. Scents of incense and recreational drugs floated in the streets populated by a staggering diversity of crewmembers impressed by Outrenoir's strange promises.
Isaac/Isabeau felt a gust of sweet vertigo rise up in their lower abdomen, nourished by the low-pitched thumps of music that came from the establishments under the twin lions. Talasea side-eyed them and Isaac/Isabeau suddenly remembered some of their most memorable nights out in Elora's underbelly. A fragment of romantic tenderness briefly seized them. Talasea took Isa's hand.
"Right," said the pilot, "our first letter is for a citizen named Maria Villaverde. Some sort of private eye, I think. Well, I supposed. She belongs to a cooperative that looks a lot like a private investigation firm. Adress unclear. Bubbles?"
The stupid bird manifested itself in a corner of Talasea's post-it.
"I have access to station data. Follow the guide!"
Bubbles' guidance led Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea towards a district made of coloured medinas built under the shadow of the gigantic Moloch statue guarding the Harbour's fusion core. The crowd was sparser and less amenable.
"Tell me, Bubbles," asked Isaac/Isabeau, "how's the crime rate on Outrenoir Harbour?"
"Significantly higher than in the rest of the Five Suns," calmly answered the AI, "which is not surprising for a free port. That being said, this rate is relatively low regardless. The local administration must be quite competent. To the right, kids. Villaverde's office is there."
Isaac/Isabeau crossed the boulevard, passed by a yellow-eyed tramway, then under the stylized lions of a medina and finally entered the courtyard of a community apartment complex. Villaverde lived on the second floor. There was no mailbox. Villaverde's office had a beautiful Art Deco door. A panel said: "Maria Villaverde, Intel and Investigations". There was no doorbell. Talasea knocked. Once. Twice. Nobody answered. Isaac/Isabeau entered and found themselves face to face with the tip of a bolt, engaged in a carbon composite crossbow. It was held by a goon wearing a plain shirt and cargo pants, complemented by a kevlar-sewn flack jacket. Isaac/Isabeau grabbed the crossbow and planted the bolt in the thin wall. There had been no conscious thought on their end; merely a reflex. The mercenary -- there was no way it was an official combatant, judging from the equipment -- drew a combat knife. Talasea intercepted it with a curved dagger. The goon watched them in disbelief. Isaac/Isabeau neutralized the crossbow by removing the bolt while Talasea kept pressing against the knife with her own dagger. The Earth-made weapon was an antique, but perfectly capable of penetrating a flack jacket.
"Oh, hey, it's the mail! I think I have a letter to get, if you do not mind." said a voice coloured by a slight Spanish accent. It came from the other end of the office. Maria Villaverde, wearing a sweater and blue jean pants, faced a mercenary in a squared shirt and bulletproof vest. They both held each other at gunpoint -- Villaverde with an old revolver and the goon with a high-tech spec ops crossbow.
"Hell. We're out of here," said the other mercenary before darting out of the office, followed by his morally wounded comrade. Isaac/Isabeau noticed that none of the two henchmen carried any ID number or communal heraldry with them. Villaverde deposited her revolver on the table and told the two mailpeople to come in.
"You have a letter, Maria Villaverde," whispered Talasea. She took out a handwritten letter from her pocket, "I need a signature for the receipt."
Villaverde fixed her gray hair and signed the paper. In return, the irenian gave her the letter. Judging from the stamps, it came from the other side of the Milky Way.
"Beautiful thing", commented Bubbles, the arrows on her post-it pointing at the revolver, "I didn't know the Five Suns allowed the personal possession of firearms."
"They don't. It's an old weapon, dates back to the Low Age. It's never been marked or registered anywhere."
"Do you often happen to be held at gunpoint by soldier to hire?"
Villaverde raised an eyebrow.
"I don't know. Do you often happen to disarm people in close combat? Is that a thing you learn in mail school?"
"I won't answer that question," smiled Isaac/Isabeau.
"Well then I won't answer yours. The hazards of my profession aren't your concern, I think."
"That's fair," conceded Talasea with a very professional smile, "good day, mistress detective, with the compliments of the Five Suns and its postal service."
Isaac/Isabeau climbed down the stairs and found no one waiting for them. They decided to blend in with the crowd and walk back towards the station's main streets. The pilot massaged their sore elbow.
"I didn't know you'd kept that jambiya."
Talasea had carefully sheathed the blade. It was almost invisible in the folds of her shirt.
"It's always in my luggage. And I thought, hey, we're going to Outrenoir, that may be useful. I think I was right. Great reflex, by the way."
"Some things aren't so easily forgotten. Hey, Bubbles, do you have any idea who these people were? Do their clothes remind you of something?"
"Why ask me?"
"I don't know."
The stupid bird did a loop on its post-it.
"Unsure. Don't think they belong to a prominent military commune. Certainly not Algorab operatives, they never go out without the raven on their suits. Not Sahaak either. They had no tattoos and intimidating someone in broad daylight isn't exactly their modus operandi. We're too far from Mars for them to be Reds...USRE black ops operatives, maybe? The clothing style would match, at least. No idea what Terran secret services would do here, however. And Isa wouldn't have disarmed a spec ops soldier like this. I don't know. Local goons, maybe? No firearms, no IDs, plain clothes, they could be a particularly aggressive sample of the Outrenoir fauna."
"This station is a riot."
"I'd expect it, Tal. Outrenoir Harbour is a safety valve for crews that have seen nothing but the hull of their ship for months on end. Villaverde's line of work tends to attract...radical reactions. Especially among spaceship crews."
"These men did not seem like they were explorers or cargo ship crew."
"Ah! You've never been aboard a deep space cargo ship and it shows. These crews are like family. Or, sometimes, old Terran mafias. You don't want to push people like that over the edge. Regardless, I don't think it's our role to interfere with Outrenoir's criminal underworld. We can't discriminate between honest citizens and the rest. All mail..."
"Is worth delivering, I know."
The second priority letter was addressed to a certain Aline Verne. It was none other than the only surviving letter from the Night Flight. Isaac/Isabeau felt the cannister's odd presence in the back of their satchel as they entered the Singularity, Outrenoir's main night club. The building had been named in reference to the nearby black hole, of course, but Isaac/Isabeau wondered if it didn't refer to its geometrical complexity as well. Once past the ornate doors, the postwomen found themselves under a vast dome, bathed in a dark, sweet light -- night blue under the shade of golden Simurgh birds. The Singularity was a temple for the weary traveller, dedicated to the pleasures of the mind and spirit. Most of the services offered by the Singularity took place in the inner gardens and their theaters of greenery. One could pay for their stay with local Five Suns currency, but the Singularity also accepted knowledge: stellar maps, archaeological discoveries, or even crew stories. Isaac/Isabeau stopped in front of a clearwater pool, surrounded by dozens of jewel-covered doors, leading to gardens and lakes arranged as a whole array of parallel worlds. A Cataphract stepped out of the emerald shadows and asked the mailwomen what they were doing here. Talasea answered they had a hands-on delivery for Mademoiselle Aline Verne. The Cataphract nodded, confiscated Talasea's curved dagger, then allowed them to enter the main night club.
The world beyond was blood-red.
"Night club" was quite the demeaning term for the heart of the Singularity, thought Isaac/Isabeau. The very name had something trivial in their eyes. It reminded them of the Terran bars from their youth, before Isaac had become Isaac/Isabeau. This kaleidoscope of red lights and enthralling music was not just a place for entertainment. It was a mosque-sized airlock, a decompression chamber where spaceship crews, after months in deep space, could forget the strict discipline of long-range vessels. The vast red room was not unlike the combustion chamber of a fusion drive. The lights and bass were lasers, focused on the fuel pellets that were the crowd. The diversity on display was astonishing, from Terrans with tall, powerful frames to thin and delicate Selenites, and all the shades in-between. All skin colours were represented; pale grey of spacers, luxurious irenian blue, black and bronze from the Earth. Some wore flight suits bearing the emblems of a hundred communes. Some had shirts, dresses and tunics. Some were almost naked, their skin only covered in q-augs and tattoos. The ambience was both serene and electric. At any moment, considered Isaac/Isabeau, the dances could turn into orgies and yet sex was carefully reserved to private alcoves, separated from the rest of the fusion chambers by heavy curtains. Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau found the contrast between their very official garments and the pagan chaos of the night club fairly amusing. Their glances met and Talasea flaunted her eyes at Isaac/Isabeau. The two mailpersons were no stranger to such places and shared cherished memories of the Crimson River, Elora's counterpart to the Singularity. Sweet, confused, carnal memories -- and Talasea giggled when she saw Isa blush.
Then their eyes turned to the centre of the fusion chamber. There was Mademoiselle Aline Verne.
She wore a late 20th century black dress and a white shirt with a 19th century Terran tie -- a summit of well-studied nonchalance. She swung in a hammock as if she was in the courtyard of a family house, somewhere in the European colonies of the Low Age. The scene only lacked an old oak and the clicking noises of a medieval android. Verne was ageless, though somewhere between forty and sixty years old. Through her tinted glasses, she watched over the kingdom at her feet. Isaac/Isabeau could not say if Verne was incredibly vain or a phenomenal actress but the reality of her power made little doubt. It came from the base, from the syndicalist structures that had elected her as the head representative of the Singularity. That was to say, Outrenoir's grand mistress, for there was no one else to challenge her. And in this world of Babylonian lions and open-sky luxury, a syndicalist representative could not afford to stay in her office. She had to stand in broad daylight, a sovereign in her empire.
With a regal gesture of her hand, Mademoiselle Aline Verne told the two mailpersons to come closer. Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau walked through the crowd and towards the queen of Outrenoir. A Cataphract side-eyed them and reached for his taser but Verne stopped him with a glance. From up close, Isaac/Isabeau found Verne to be incredibly beautiful. The wrinkles around her lips curved like the waves of an ocean world.
"You have mail," said Talasea, "it's from the Earth, priority letter. I'd like you to sign here and there, please."
"I wasn't expecting anything from the Earth..." answered Verne, taking the letter with a smile that vanished as soon as she noticed the sender's address on the back of the envelope. She opened it and started reading. Halfway through the letter, her voice broke.
"What are you two still doing here?"
Talasea held her notebook like a shield.
"I...I need you to sign the receipt, please."
Verne wiped a tear on her cheek, signed the receipt as asked then signalled a Cataphract to escort them outside the Singularity. The armed goon proceeded unceremoniously, leaving the two mailpersons alone in the dark street.
The walk back to the ship wasn't glorious. Talasea checked Outrenoir's mailbox, leaving with a hundred letters. Isaac/Isabeau sent a drone to grab the packages left by the locals. Both tasks took them about half an hour. When they came back to Courier 7, they found Verne waiting for them. She was alone, a flight suit above her royal garments. Verne had calmed down but it was obvious she had cried. Talasea raised her hands as if to clear herself from an offence she hadn't committed.
"We cannot be held responsible for the content of our letters."
Verne's voice had become raspy.
"I know, but you are responsible for the manner in which you deliver them. You should have warned me. I don't like appearing vulnerable in public. Outrenoir isn't exactly a democracy, little mailwoman. We are a feudal regime. Reputation matters..."
"And the queen can't be seen crying," whispered Isa, attracting a sombre look from Verne.
"I see that even fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth, Terrans can't help but patronize spacers."
"It wasn't my intent."
"I imagine. But next time, don't take so many liberties with me. Postal service or not."
Talasea wanted to answer but was interrupted by Bubbles.
"Do you know where this letter comes from, Aline Verne? We recovered it from a ship darting towards its star, melting in a plasma storm and spewing radiation at us. Look through the bay window. See the little circle over there? The paler one. That's the entry point of the cannister that contained your letter. With the velocities involved, five metres above and it would have decapitated Talasea or Isa. Two metres below and I was the one biting it. It was a week ago. So you'll pardon us for not having minds clear enough to think about preserving your little aura of majesty. Thanks."
Heavy silence fell on the loading bay.
"I see," whispered Verne, "I see. You three are intriguing and sorrow makes me forget what I'm saying. But I maintain my warning. Be careful. Not everyone is waiting for their mail with childlike enthusiasm, standing next to their little mailbox. Some letters should have never arrived. Good travels, ladies."
Isaac/Isabeau didn't correct Verne. Under the black sun of Outrenoir Harbour, in her purple dress, Isa truly felt as a woman and it was the only good memory she'd keep of that day.
Stamp illustration: Joyce Maureira for Stars Without Numbers, released as part of a free use license.
Rainwater Station hummed all around hangar bay 24D. Courier 7 lay here, in its berth, radiators neatly folded and antennae retracted.
Bubbles' feeding sap was perfectly transparent. Through the reinforced glass of her canister, Isaac/Isabeau could see the vegetal architecture of the artificial intelligence. Bubbles was nestled inside a small spherical room that provided a permanent influx of artificial sunlight. When they had first met each other, five years before, the sheer complexity of Bubbles' cloud of lichen and microscopic leaves had been quite the impressive sight for Isa. Now, however, they admired her simplicity. The artificial intelligence was a forest folded unto itself, millions of green-and-gold stars gleaming together. Yet, her sophistication was nowhere near that of a human brain. Bubbles was every bit as intelligent as Isaac/Isabeau or Talasea, yet she inhabited a substrate that was several orders of magnitude simpler than their brains. The AI, though, did not exactly think like a mammal. Her words, her intuitions, her understandings were very human but they did not come from the same processes. Bubbles entertained simultaneous thoughts, instead of the sequential thinking of human brains. She was closer to the distributed intelligence of a tree, or even a forest, than anything else.
Isa tapped the container. A lichen branch hummed in response. The silly bird appeared on Bubbles' post-it.
"Everything alright in there?"
Bubbles was in a partial sleep cycle and half her vegetal processors were offline.
"Rather. Courier 7 is a nice ship. It's quite simple and I don't like complex vessels."
"I see you haven't taken over onboard systems yet. They don't accept your presence?"
"They do. But they are also perfectly adequate and I don't see why I'd replace them. Besides, I don't feel ready to merge with a ship. Not after what happened last time."
"Still having nightmares?"
"An AI doesn't dream, Isa. We don't have nightmares either. We simply do not make this convenient distinction you have between dream and reality, as a part of us is always sleeping. I might have used the term nightmare out of simplicity, but it's not quite what I intended to say. It is wrong to say that I still dream about the destruction of the *Distant Shores*. It would be more correct to say that I never ceased reliving it."
"Talasea said you were like a soldier who had lost a limb."
"And Talasea, with all due respect, is wrong. When the *Distant Shores* exploded, I *was* the ship. To me, its destruction never ended. It is still going on, in every waking moment."
"And when will it end?"
"When I will finally be able to stop thinking about how and why our ship was destroyed for the simple crime of exploring an old ruin. I am currently trying to reconstruct the trajectory of the missile from the last data I was able to acquire before ejection. Slow work, but I have to do it for the sake of my peace of mind."
"I know what you are going to say. I have already considered it a thousand times. It's not an obsession, Isaac/Isabeau. My thoughts, as complex as they can be, do not interfere with my mental well-being. Neither do they interfere with my abilities as a crewmember."
"I wasn't insinuating anything of the sort and I am sad you can think I was. But I'm sorry. It wasn't my intent to hurt you."
"I know, Isa, I know. I would have been much more miffed had it come from Talasea."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"Because she's always sincere."
It was cold in the pressurized hangar next to Courier 7. The Lunar Mechanic leaned over her workshop, surrounded by a small court of maintenance drones. Three superconductor toroidal batteries lay on the table, smooth surfaces reflecting the ambient lights. Talasea considered them in silence. It was hard to believe that these objects, barely the size of a handbook, contained as much energy. Superconducting batteries were strange objects. It was easy to forget that, for centuries, their size had only been justified by the necessity to bring them them to very low temperatures. Modern superconductors could operate at room temperatures and thus weren't subject to the tyranny of cryogenic coolant.
"So?" asked Talasea, pointing at the three tores.
"These two are in good shape but the third one is too unstable. If I put it back in Courier 7, it might quench destructively. There are several tens of megajoules stored in that thing. Magnet quenching could turn it into a fragmentation grenade."
"I know how SMES units work, thank you. What happened? Physical damage?"
"Likely. It's one of the oldest batteries aboard Courier 7. I should have swapped it earlier."
"Did you empty it?"
The Lunar Mechanic smiled.
"No. It can still blow right in our faces."
"Why didn't you discharge it then?"
"Because I know what I am doing."
Talasea nodded. Then, slowly, she grabbed the SMES unit and elevated it right under her eyes.
"I wonder if the debris from a destructive quench would have enough velocity to kill me on the spot."
The Lunar Mechanic nodded.
"Are you sure?" asked Talasea while considering the toroid as if it had been some kind of exotic bird.
"Ten years ago, I worked on a mining ship in lunar orbit. An old thing whose battery had been neglected for far too long. I'm alone up there. I remove the battery, leave it to my djinn like an idiot and it quenches without a warning. I found my drone under the shape of a faint cloud of gas and debris. Trust me. Your pretty face is even less resilient than a space drone."
The Lunar Mechanic took the battery back and stored it in the armoured rack she used for damaged SMES units.
"What are you trying to prove, Talasea?"
"Oh. Nothing. I just wanted to see if finding myself in front of a live grenade would manage to scare me. You see, a few years ago I had a ship accident. Since then, I have a few hundred grams of metal in my body and I can't feel fear anymore."
"Some would consider that a decent outcome."
"And did this toroid manage to scare you?"
The Lunar Mechanic sighed, shook her head and gestured Talasea to exit her hangar so that she could go back to work.
The Postmistress intercepted Talasea as she passed the hangar door towards the inside of the station. She held an empty teacup in her hand and looked as if she had just stumbled out of her office even though it was on the other end of Rainwater Station. Sometimes the Irenian wondered if the grey-haired woman didn't have the gift of teleportation.
"I am in need of you. It's a bit early in the week, I know, but I have a slight issue."
"I assume the other courier ships can't handle it?"
The Postmistress laid a tired gaze upon the hangar. Around Courier 7 stood six other vessels, stamped Courier 1 to Courier 6. Though the messenger drones were as large as the Internationale, even their shapes looked dull.
"Is it a delivery?" asked Talasea.
"The contrary. We're about to welcome a messenger drone from the Earth. Long-range automated cargo vessel, codename Night Flight. Its reintegration point is a variable star located seven lightyears away. I would like you to meet up with it. The Night Flight is a big machine and it's also a fragile one. The letters and packages it's carrying are of great value to our community. My mind would be more at peace if you accompanied the Night Flight for the last leg of its journey."
"Right. We're departing as soon as we can."
A massive equatorial storm had taken hold of Typhoon. Yes, thought Isaac/Isabeau, the gas giant's clouds still looked like eyes -- that of a very old sea creature, slumbering across aeons. Bubbles' avatar had moved across the screens, so that she'd look like she was sitting on the blue giant. The AI looked grim.
"I do feel like the AI of a random messenger drone and I don't like it."
Isaac/Isabeau ate a piece of apple cake while going over the translation check-list.
"Messenger drones aren't sapient, are they?" they answered.
"No. AIs may emerge inside one from time to time but they very quickly manifest themselves. Messenger drones are a crap envelope for a sapient being. Dumb, limited things. The only interesting aspect of a messenger drone is its delta-v. The small ones are like racing ships. Unlike Courier 7..."
"Well, yeah. It's easy to to be fast when you weigh ten tons on a rainy day."
"I do not advise using messenger drones in a rainstorm."
"That was a metaphor, Bubbles."
The avatar giggled.
"I know! I was messing with you."
Talasea entered the cockpit with a bag of dried fruits. She had engaged the magnetic clamps of her flight suit and moved almost like in normal gravity, save for her long black hair, floating behind her like a lazy jellyfish.
"Right, lovebirds, are we ready to translate?"
"Relative velocity matched. Ready."
"Very ceremonial, well then."
Talasea gave Isa a bright smile, the first one they'd see in a long while.
For a split-second: the world takes the colours of a sunless day.
The destination system of the Night Flight had no name, just an alphanumeric code that contained its spectral type and galactic location: EOL-PRAU-AV-04, with a literal translation in Arabic and Hindi. Despite their oddly poetic aspects, these denominations were nothing but cold identification sheets. There was one for each of the four hundred billion stars in the galaxy, discovered or not. Isa looked towards the main star. EOL-PRAU-AV-04 was a very simple system, made of a single star and a cloud of debris devoid of any human presence. The sun gleamed in yellow and red. The only reason why the Night Flight had chosen it as its exit point was the variable nature of the star. It pulsed every six hours, creating variations in magnitude that were visible hundreds of lightyears away, allowing for very accurate long-range translation drops.
Bubbles deployed the multispectral sensor suite of Courier 7 and started prowling its surrounding for signs of the Night Flight. It took her a little under eight minutes to catch the ship's thermal signature. What she saw was quite grim.
"Isa, Talasea, I have a problem."
The avatar snapped her fingers, highlighting a dot on the system map, at the edge of the variable star's sphere of influence. In theory, the Night Flight should have found itself in deep space, a few light-hours away from EOL, with a low relative velocity. Instead, it was barely a few millions kilometres away from the star and moved at several tens of kilometres per second, relative to Courier 7. It was so close to the star that Bubbles had trouble acquiring a clear bead on the target. Talasea hung her thermos to a magnetic tray and let out a beautiful irenian curse.
"What in the actual hell is that ship doing..."
"I don't know. I've been trying to contact it, both with radio messages and our communications laser. No answer whatsoever. Not even a pre-recorded message."
"Maybe its fusion drive has failed," answered Isaac/Isabeau, nestled in their seat.
"The Night Flight is equipped with an emergency magsail precisely for this kind of issue," shot back Bubbles, "it can decelerate even without a fusion drive. And even if all of its engines are out, it can still use its geometry drive to get out of the way and call for help. The only reason I see for the ship's current trajectory is that its autopilot is offline."
"How much time do we have until it is unrecoverable?"
"A few hours at best, considering its current velocity. The star is very active and its close environment is too dangerous to allow for ulterior recovery."
"Can we get the cargo back ourselves?"
"This is going to be hard. We could intercept the Night Flight with a translation but we don't have enough thrust to actually catch up with it."
Talasea nodded. Bubbles was right. The geometry drive of Courier 7 could allow the ship to teleport a few kilometres away from the Night Flight but the speed difference between the two ships would only give them a handful of seconds to meet up. If Courier 7 was to send a drone towards the Night Flight, it would crash on the cargo ship and probably destroy it. A more powerful ship would have probably been able to catch up with the Night Flight but the engines of Courier 7 had been designed for lightness and fuel economy, not for raw power. Isa started considering her possibilities regardless. The main microwave drive was way too weak but Courier 7 could also use its auxiliary drives. The first auxiliary engine quenched individual batteries -- instead of simply emptying them -- to provide direct thrust out of superheated plasma. The second auxiliary drive was fuelled by the tanks of metastable nitrogen. It was, in effect, a rocket drive, capable of outputting immense amounts of thrust at a very low fuel efficiency. This engine was primarily meant to be used for take-off, but by combining the thrusts of all three drives for an hour -- the longest time they could afford to thrust for before the Night Flight would be unrecoverable -- Courier 7 could possibly reach a significant fraction of the cargo ship's speed. It could perhaps be enough to catch the most important containers, if the EVA djinns could go fast enough. Isaac/Isabeau told Bubbles, who nodded in approval.
"It's not impossible but...we'll be very close to the star. When it pulses again, the Internationale will be dangerously exposed. Why do you want to get this cargo so much? Just packages and letters..."
"We are mailpeople now," answered Isa.
"Our job description doesn't include intercepting a mad ship darting towards a star."
Talasea raised her eyes from her thermos and blinked, as if springing out of a bad dream.
"The Night Flight has spent two years and a half travelling from the Earth. Each and every one of its letters has been weighted, rewritten, reconsidered to the milligram, so that as many of them could be sent aboard the vessel. The words carried in that sip have been chosen and reflected upon many times by several thousand people. Letters of love, letters of regret, letters of hope, boring letters, extraordinary letters. Essential letters. Not a single one of them is useless. One day, a letter like this saved my life and that is not a joke. That's why I want to try. Because some of these letters, all of them perhaps, may change lives."
"I hear this argument," answered Bubbles, "I'm not saying I approve of it but I get it. Very well."
"I propose we start with a single, hour-long thrust to align ourselves on the Night Flight. Then a translation within ten thousand kilometres so that we could observe it closer, try to establish a comlink and, if possible, ask the autopilot to drop the containers so that we could tag and grab them."
Talasea and Isa fastened their seatbelts. The pilot pushed the throttle.
The three drives ignited in sequence. The main Lazward drive started drawing battery power to heat up hydrogen propellant. Then, several SMES units were diverted towards a secondary circuit where they were quenched and vaporized to inject superheated plasma in the exhausts. Finally, Isaac/Isabeau started up the auxiliary rocket drive, that started converting metastable fuel into heat and light.
Talasea grimaced as she felt thrust push her against her seat. Her flight suit inflated in several places to balance out blood pressure in her body. Isa exhaled and took her hand. Their monads -- little artificial organs implanted in their neck -- liberated painkillers and anti-g drugs in their veins. They spent the following hour in a confused transe. Courier 7 was nothing but a small blue blade, sheathed at the top of a white flame.
After an hour of thrust, the propellant reserves of Courier 7 were empty and half the batteries had been emptied or quenched. Isa cut the drives. Talasea pushed the translation controls.
The star suddenly filled the void. It was so bright that it took the virtual windows of the cockpit a short while to compensate by dimming the output from the cameras. Talasea had reintegrated the ship ten thousand kilometres or so away from the Night Flight. Bubbles turned the sensors towards the cargo ship.
"Well, would you look at that..."
She sent the three dimensional silhouette of the Night Flight to the windows. Isaac/Isabeau could see the seven hundred metres long frame of the ship. They saw the complex superstructure of the fusion drive, the steel-water plate acting as a radiation shield, the metal scaffold containing the cargo and the propellant tanks, the AI module at the front -- but the longer they looked, the less the ship made sense. It wasn't destroyed but it wasn't alive either. It was a ghost, thin and fragile, darting towards its destruction in a fusion-powered pyre.
"The ship has been hit by high-speed impactors, probably a swarm of debris or micrometeorites. One chance in a billion but the Night Flight had no armour. The autopilot module has been completely trashed, the radiators have been either minced or torn off and I am unsure the fusion drive is properly contained. I see no working RCS either."
"Can you link up to intact subsystems?"
"Trying to. The Night Flight still has an intact antenna. I'm attempting to transmit our postal service codes."
"You're trying to take control of the ship."
"Of what's left of it, aye."
A few seconds passed, during which the Night Flight crossed over a hundred kilometres. Then, the three-dimensional schematics lit up, highlighting a few subsystems the AI had managed to take control of. Bubbles had full admin access to the individual containers and the fusion drive. The rest was either destroyed or unreachable.
"I should be able to drop the containers but I still don't approve of the idea. Our relative angles are awful. The djinns are stupid."
"And the digital mail data?"
"Three terabytes of recorded messages. I am copying them aboard our ship. But the letters are out of bounds, I'm afraid."
"Can you fire the fusion drive ? If the Night Flight thrusts towards the star, it may be possible to bridge the remaining gap between our relative velocities."
"Isa, the radiators of the cargo ship are mostly useless. The fusion drive must be producing several terajoules of heat when under power. Without working rads, the Night Flight will melt."
The star pulsed as it entered a bright cycle. The screen of Courier 7 were further dimmed by Bubbles to absorb the influx of light and heat. A cloud of swirls appeared alongside the front section of the Night Flight. The fragile superstructures of the interstellar ship were melting. Contrary to Courier 7, the cargo ship did not possess any meaningful thermal armour. The magsail was long gone, its fragile web entirely disintegrated. Tali sighed.
"Whatever happens, the Night Flight is lost. Go ahead, Bubbles."
"Wait," interrupted Talasea, "leave us a minute so that we can escape the radiation cone of the fusion drive. Isa, I don't think we'll have time to eject and get all the containers. We'll have to sort them out in order of priority. Do we have access to their specific content?"
"No but the cargo manifests contain a few general indications. Wait. There are only administrative documents in a few cargo racks...here, I see a container with nothing but handwritten letters."
"Very good. We'll eject this one first, as soon as we've matched relative velocities. Bubbles?"
For the following ten seconds, the Internationale and the Night Flight continued moving in parallel, ten thousand kilometres away from each other. The star now filled a third of the sky but the Night Flight plunged towards its doom at twice the speed of Courier 7. Bubbles felt awful. The idea of deliberately killing a ship was exceedingly sour to her vegetal soul, but she ended up switching the drive on regardless.
Somewhere at the heart of the Night Flight, the ravaged structure of a fusion candle sprung to life. A set of gears ejected a micropellet of deuterium and tritium, not larger than a grape. A myriad of lasers were triggered, triggering a fusion reaction. The pellet liberated a vast quantity of energy. Most of it was converted into thrust, produced by the vaporization of a large amount of reaction mass. The rest was turned into a hail of neutrons, sterilizing the wake of the cargo ship, as well as thermal radiation. Normally, waste heat would have been absorbed by the radiators and dissipated into space, but the dying vessel did not possess this capability anymore. The Night Flight became its own heat sink. Thermal output spread through the ship, melting cables, rupturing rivets, stressing soldered plates, turning the hull white hot.
A bright plume appeared in front of the ship, facing the star. The fusion drive now worked at full power, burning pellet upon pellet, in a desperate effort to slow the Night Flight down and allow Courier 7 to catch up with it. Bubbles had originally assumed she could maintain thrust for about ten minutes. She managed twenty, by sacrificing the water tanks to dissipate additional heat but the vessel was doomed. After eighteen minutes, the Night Flight was nothing but a white-hot candle. Bubbles announced she was about to lose containment on the fusion drive. Talasea ordered to kill the engines and eject the containers. Their relative speed was still in the ballpark of a few hundred metres per second but Courier 7 now had a chance to grab the containers.
The Internationale switched its geometry drive again and teleported a hundred kilometres away from the Night Flight, right behind it so that it wouldn't place itself within the radiation cone.
Right as Bubbles sent the kill order, the Night Flight's superstructure betrayed her. The control circuits had melted, preventing the instructions from propagating through the vessel. Bubbles immediately switched to emergency controls but it was already too late. The lasers lit up but the fusion chamber could not withstand the superheated plasma any longer. The entire drive melted down. As it vaporized itself, a rapidly expanding sphere of plasma started devouring the ship.
The Night Flight had lived through its penultimate moments. The sensors of Courier 7 captured every single second of its death in exquisite detail. Bubbles desperately tried to eject the containers while the Night Flight died all around her in a storm of plasma and molten metal. For a split-second, the artificial intelligence believed the letters would survive but the rupture of the hull cut her hopes short. Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau witnessed thousands of packages and letters succumb to the sudden fiery expansion of the drive. The cargo ship spewed molten debris in a spiralling trajectory. Well below the star's escape velocity, they would end up falling into the star well before cooling down. The pilot sighed but didn't say anything. They watched the container fragments, spread across the void at the speed of a rifle projectile. Isaac/Isabeau briefly wondered how long the ink would withstand the combined assault of vacuum and heat. There was nothing to do. Courier 7 could barely pick up the signatures of the debris and the wreck was nothing but a molten, irradiated constellation falling towards the star. Even if Courier 7 had had the time to catch up with the letters, their individual containers were now lost in space.
Suddenly, Courier 7 woke up. A blood-red alarm lit up on the instruments panel, followed by the automatic highlighting of a section of the ship on the screens. Hull rupture, said the computer, albeit without gravity.
"Debris strike," announced Talasea, without losing her composure, "it comes from the Night Flight. I have a slight loss of atmosphere in the crew compartment. Some damage on electrical circuits but I can't really tell how expensive they are."
"I'll check it out," added Isaac/Isabeau, unbuckling their harness, zipping up their flight suit and leaving the cockpit.
The first thing they noticed through their helmet visor was a collection of small plants drifting through the ship's kitchen, drawn towards hard vacuum by the air escaping through a hole in the hull. It was barely ten centimetres across. The debris strike had cut through the outer armour with ease, piercing several layers of circuits in the process. The air would take several hours to leave the kitchen. Isaac/Isabeau plugged the breach with a mixture of carbon plates and self-expanding gel. Then, they turned towards the inside of the room, looking for the arrival point of the projectile. The improvised penetrator wasn't hard to find. It had pierced right through Talasea's pressure cooker. The complex machine had been properly pulverized. The piece of debris was lodged in the water heater. The only thing preventing a sudden flood was the presence of a carbon nanotube cylinder, stuck halfway through the hole.
"Isa," asked Talasea on the radio, "what's happening?"
"The projectile is a letter cannister from the Night Flight. I imagine it's been ejected during the explosion. One chance in a billion..."
"Are the contents intact?"
Isa examined the cylinder. It bore the emblem of the Astropostale, the Earthbound interstellar postal service. Each of the letters aboard the ship had been stored in a similar contraption. The carbon nanotube structure was very sturdy -- almost like a military-grade cannister. The front part had been folded by the shock but the rest was more or less intact. Isaac/Isabeau managed to recover a roll of yellowish paper, moist but readable.
The last surviving letter from the Night Flight.
Isa folded the letter with the utmost care, then drifted back towards the cockpit.
Six hours later, Courier 7 was vertically landed in a vacuum hangar on Rainwater Station. The Lunar Mechanic watched in distress. The Internationale had a whole in the hull and the entirety of the prow was covered in dark soot from the exposure of its heat tiles to the variable star.
"What the hell did you do with your ship? It's a courier vessel, not an exploration ship! You're not flying an Inyanga anymore, kids!"
"I doubt an Inyanga would have survived such a brutal exposure to a star. At least I wouldn't have tried," commented Isaac/Isabeau, who knew the fragile exploration vessels by heart.
The Lunar Mechanic leaned against the thick glass of her office and waved towards the two crewmembers.
"It was idle talk. I've never worked on an Inyanga. Whatever. Get out of here. I'll repair the damage and you'll figure out the rest with the Postmistress. Out!"
Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau left without asking for more.
The Postmistress sat by her desk, an empress in a room far too large for a single person. Rainwater station had entered its night cycle. A blueish light peered through the windows, surrounding the middle-aged woman in a purple aura. She was busy sifting through her files, a teacup in her right hand. In the other, she held the pencil with which she had just filled a very long and very complex ship damage statement for the station authorities and the Five Suns administration. From time to time, Isa and Talasea gave each other sideways looks. They sat at a small table, piling up priority mail. The Postmistress didn't look particularly upset, only surprised.
"There's one thing you should remember, I think...you're state servants now, but it doesn't mean you are obliged to dive into a star for mere letters. Courier 7 is a sturdy ship but it's not an interceptor. This tube could have ended up in a much worse place. Like the engines for instance. You do know what a direct impact in SMES units mean, right?"
"Oh," whispered Talasea, "I know a certain mechanic who did stress it, yes."
"And rightfully so. But I won't patronize you, I have better things to do. I do admire your spirit of initiative, albeit the operation was less fruitful than expected. But a letter, well, that's already something. And that's already a lot...now, out of my office. You must be exhausted."
Talasea and Isa quickly vanished. The Postmistress watched them depart with a smile. These two were to be watched, she thought, but they were also quite capable. With time, she could probably give them the most important letters, the ones with the Astropostale seal...
Something suddenly sprang to life in her piles of paper. Intrigued, the Postmistress took out a mailing envelope whose e-ink stamp had transformed into a stupid bird with large, equally stupid eyes. The Postmistress smiled.
"Bubbles. How do you do?"
"Very well. You do not ask me why I'm here?"
"Oh. I wouldn't count too much on the firewalls of an e-ink postage stamp. I imagine it must be trivial for you to hack it."
"That's the how, not the why."
"Alright. Do you want to ask me something?"
"Yes. I have questions. Is it common for long range courier ships to arrive here in such a state? Space is vast and micrometeorites don't strike like that."
"Huge assumptions, little stamp."
"I'm not assuming anything. I just have a certain experience with destroyed spaceships. First-hand experience. So I'm just asking questions. That's all."
The Postmistress stared at the postage stamp. This little bird was really silly-looking. She wondered if it wasn't a way for the AI to shield itself against reality.
"Yes," she admitted, "it is strangely common. The Night Flight is our third transgalactic ship to suffer this kind of damage. Three ships in twenty years, that's...quite a lot more than baseline."
"Same damage each time?"
"Probably. The Night Flight is the first ship we've managed to really get eyes on, thanks to you. But the damage on the other ships, reconstituted from wreck analysis, looked quite a lot like that on the Night Flight. Compatible with micrometeorite impacts, yes...but also with a kinetic fragmentation weapon."
"Who would do that?"
"I have no idea. There are fifty thousand lightyears between us and the Earth, covered in the span of six months and one thousand two hundred and fifty translations. Many things can happen between the Earth and the Five Suns."
"What do you know, exactly?"
"Me? Many things, Bubbles. That's the privilege of postal services in such a place. Sadly, though, I don't know what's happening to Astropostale ships."
"Mmmh. You know, I might end up filing an official demand to put weapon hardpoints on Courier 7. You're starting to scare me."
"Oh. I doubt you can mount anything other than a slingshot."
Bubbles disappeared from her postage stamp with a shrug. The Postmistress sat back and lost her gaze in the contemplation of the nightly station.
Colourful lights drifted alongside the three kilometres cylinder.
Behind the Postmistress were five stars, painted in white on the dark blue wall. Their names were written in Hindi, Sanskrit and Arabic. Outrenoir, the black hole. Kollontai, the yellow dwarf. Silene, the red dwarf. Sauveterre's Respite and its trinary parent. And, finally, Rainwater station, turned towards the galactic centre. Five fragments of humankind, lost in the Perseus Arm, fifty thousand lightyears away from the Sun.
An island in the sky.
The Postmistress wore deep purple. It was the uniform of the Five Suns' postal service, marked with the triple goddess symbol. On the edges of the civilized world, postal services were more than an institution. They were a religion and the Postmistress of Rainwater Station was one of its priestesses. She glanced at the papers signed by her two new recruits. The first one was named Tali Talasea and with such a name as well as her deep blue skin she could only be an Irenian. The second one was named Isaac/Isabeau and the Postmistress smiled as she realized they had erased the entire "gender" column and added the following note: "why do you even ask that anyway."
The Postmistress gave them the sheet of paper back. Isa grabbed it, folded it into a paper plane and threw it across the room.
"You are right," conceded the Postmistress, "I shouldn't ask that. It's not appropriate. But these registering papers are old and I have yet order new ones."
The Postmistress glanced at the couple. Isaac/Isabeau wore a simple short-sleeved flight suit, dark blue, bearing the triple goddess symbol. She wondered where Isaac/Isabeau had found this, probably in the cargo ship that had brought both of them to the Five Suns. They were Terran, judging from their general silhouette. African, maybe, albeit their name was rather European-sounding. The Irenian wore a white shirt with laced sleeves and black jean pants, a strange combination that the Postmistress found absolutely ridiculous and yet very apt for the Irenian. The Postmistress considered the third paper, signed by someone named "Bubbles". Instead of answering any question, they had drawn the entirety of the Bayeux Tapestry on the sheet.
"Where's your third companion? Courier 7 needs three pilots."
The Irenian took a little post-it out of her pocket and glued it to the desk. A little e-ink triangle appeared on it. It had two blinking eyes and looked like a stylized bird. The shape waved at the Postmistress.
"Bubbles is an artificial intelligence. She was born out of an autopilot system. We partnered with her when we came to the Five Suns."
"I am not sure Courier 7's radiators and power generation are AI-rated."
"The on-board life support is powerful enough for ten crewmembers and Bubbles is a vegetal AI. She'll be fine."
The Postmistress nodded.
"Fair enough. Can I ask you two a question? You belong to the Starmoth Initiative. You're explorers and navigators, not mailpeople. You don't actually need to work. I know you've missed your ride to the Earth and the next one leaves in two years but why answer my offer with so much enthusiasm?"
"We already piloted a ship similar to Courier 7," answered Isaac/Isabeau while grabbing Bubbles' post-it back.
"Yes, it's a common ship type. We've received a small flotilla of those seven years ago. A cargo ship captain who hadn't managed to sell them and had decided what Rainwater clearly needed were twenty fast messenger vessels, free of charge. If you really want to fly one of these, you could borrow it. Or buy it. We owe that station to the Starmoth Initiative after all. We could certainly arrange something."
"We just want to be useful."
The Postmistress nodded, yet she didn't believe a single word they'd just said. The motives of her volunteers mattered little, as long as they were apt.
"Good. From tomorrow onwards, you'll have access to Courier 7. The previous team called it Internationale. Does that name suit you?"
The Postmistress nodded once again. She had hired two old students with the curriculum vitae of an entire exploration vessel, but after all, Courier 7 had never been a normal ship.
The community bar named the Dancing Dryad was a small establishment nestled inside the inner urban bay of Rainwater Station. The station, thirty years before, had been a pioneer, sent into deep space to serve as a relay for a large trans-galactic expedition. The expedition had never reached its destination but the relay had remained. Rainwater was a very simple thing. It was a Zanzibar-class station made of a three kilometres long hollow asteroid. Two thousand inhabitants resided in the urban-rural tissue installed alongside the inner slopes of the asteroid. The local centrifugal gravity was half of that of the Earth -- cosy for Talasea, slightly too low for Isa. The Irenian had to gauge the Coriolis force accurately to avoid spilling tea on everyone in the bar. While Isa was fairly bad at this little exercise, it was a second nature for Tali, born in an O'Neill cylinder. Her stream of tea hit their two teacups dead-on, under the amused gaze of the Tired Vriij. The tentacled creature wore a thin exosuit allowing him to survive outside of the ocean. He communicated with the outside with a vegetal computer, turning sonar clicks into a synthesized voice. With humans, the Tired Vriij identified himself as male, which wasn't entirely accurate but a good enough approximation. The creature manipulated glasses and bottles with the utmost dexterity but clients were few and far between and he found himself with too much time on his hands.
"So, he said, you're Courier 7's new crew then?"
"Not yet. We have yet to step aboard."
"Well then I hope you'll find the ship to your tastes. Messenger drones are good, of course, but for unorthodox deliveries, you can't beat human pilots."
Talasea raised an eyebrow.
"What kind of unorthodoxy are we talking about?"
"The Postmistress didn't tell you?"
"She's not very talkative."
"Never was. But don't worry, I'm not talking about illegal packages. Just that our island in the sky is full of little corners that messenger drones have trouble reaching. That's where you come in."
"Can I ask you a question?"
The Tired Vriij waved a tentacle in approval.
"What happened to the previous crew of Courier 7? The Postmistress mentioned their names, Josephine, Eglantine and Odysseus, but without further information."
"I guess that question was to come sooner or later. To be honest I have no idea. They all belonged to the Starmoth Initiative, just like you, and had missed their transport to the Earth. They were very similar to you, in a sense. I think they went away with the latest transport, the Semiramis. The one you missed. I didn't pay much attention to them, I'm afraid. I had more pressing problems."
"A real cataclysm. We were running out of tea. Don't laugh! We are fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth. A few tons of tea is all that separates us from existential dread at all times."
The docking spaces of Rainwater Station were located outside the asteroid, alongside the craters of the equatorial zone. They were reachable with a tramway that, after a few minutes of travel with a colourful crowd, led to the vast hangars dug in the minerals-rich walls of the asteroid. The hollow asteroid was full of iron and the exposed walls had taken a sweet red colour with time.
The Lunar Mechanic watched the three new pilots of Courier 7 disembark from the tramway with a tired smile. She had been a Rainwater citizen for a good decade and had come with the second wave of Starmoth Initiative cargo ships. She wore two symbols on her blue sweater. On one side, the five silver suns and, on the other, the six-tipped star and the inverted crescent of the Moon Communes from the solar system. The Lunar Mechanic had initially seen her civil service in the selenite community of Rainwater Station as punishment. With time, however, she had come to see it as a blessing. The Lunar Mechanic wanted peace above all else. When one exiled themselves to the other end of the galaxy, it was either for the love of the great void and its mysteries, or to get as much breathing space as possible. The Lunar Mechanic belonged to the second category. She couldn't stand change nor agitation. Thus, she felt every single muscle in her body tense up as she bowed to the Irenian, the Terran and their AI companion pinned to a post-it. She had already installed the AI aboard Courier 7. Bubbles' vegetal canister, at least, didn't take too much room or energy. The Lunar Mechanic appreciated it. She liked artificial intelligences, especially the ones born from autopilots or vacuum cleaners. They enjoyed peace as much as her.
"I glanced over your profiles," said the Lunar Mechanic, "and, well, I don't think I have much to teach you. You are familiar with the ship class. Courier 7 only received marginal modifications, you'll figure them out on board. Come. Let me show you the ship."
She snapped her fingers and the nearest hangar door opened.
Hollow asteroid stations like Rainwater could welcome small vessels inside, instead of docking them in free space. The craters had vast airlocks that allowed messenger ships and small cargo vessels to be maintained by suit-less personnel. Thus Talasea and Isa found themselves suddenly in front of Courier 7, callsign Internationale, standing upright in landing bay 24D of Rainwater Station. The ship was about forty meters long. Without the outer hull, thought Isaac/Isabeau, the Internationale would have been quite an ugly ship. It would have been made of an hexagon-shaped cockpit at the prow, of a similarly shaped central section and of an engine surrounded by propellant spheres for the main drive. A vertical miniature refinery, such was the closest comparison in Isa's mind. The ship was saved by its hull. It covered Courier 7 prow to stern. Three midsection openings revealed the rear part of the engine section, leaving room for trisymmetrical radiators, folded in the grey surface. Talasea didn't see any point to this hull. The ship wasn't fast enough for interstellar dust to be a concern and it landed vertically, thus didn't require aerodynamic surfaces. It was purely for show. And what show...Courier 7's livery was deep blue, with a white band in the centre, bearing the triple goddess symbol. It was immatriculated 7-ISI.
Against the white background of the hangar, Courier 7 was a fold of geometric paper, fallen from an ancient sky.
"Here is the beast," said the Lunar Mechanic as if she was looking at a rusty tractor, "it's made for ten crewmembers, the geometry drive is operational and the payload is about a thousand tons. The ship is equipped with a Lazward drive. Microwave-arcjet propulsion powered by superconductor batteries."
"And an auxiliary rocket drive with metastable nitrogen propellant," interrupted Talasea with a hand gesture.
"Good. I'll leave you the keys."
The Lunar Mechanic sighed.
"It's a metaphor. The biometric system will recognize you, I registered your faces in its database. I assume Courier 7 is under your responsibility now. The Five Suns Postal Service has a free maintenance agreement with Rainwater Station, within reasonable limits of course. By that I mean that if you come back with a destroyed drive I won't be able to do much but I can swap your used batteries out. Ah. While I'm at it. Your luggage is aboard and I have two deliveries for you. Here's the cargo manifest. The Postmistress told me you could handle it."
The Lunar Mechanic handed Talasea an e-ink tablet.
"One hundred tons of plants for a mining station and a single package with unknown contents for a lunar outpost that doesn't exist on any map?"
The Lunar Mechanic shrugged.
"Welcome to the postal service."
In the image of most vessels, Courier 7 had a vertical deck plan, with each compartment perpendicular to the axis of thrust. The ship was a small forty meters tall building, with a small habitable section. When they entered the cockpit, Talasea and Isa found themselves in familiar territory. The hexagon-shaped compartment had no windows, using a series of virtual reality windows instead. The seats for the pilot and copilot were mounted side by side, like on an antique airliner. The controls, noted Isa, were quite vintage compared to the modern appearance of the vessel. There were no touchscreen nor complex haptic feedback system like on some engines. Instead, there were flight sticks, switches, buttons and three-dimensional knobs. It all gave a strangely timeless impression. Isa floated to the copilot's seat. The windows came to life, displaying a three hundred and sixty degree vision of the hangar. Bubble's bird appeared in a corner.
"I think the ship is ready. It's under power and I have loaded a checklist."
"I'm coming!" said Talasea who was busy donning her flight suit. She went to the pilot's seat and went over the check-list with Isa. Then, she opened a communications channel with Rainwater Station. An angelic voice answered her query.
"Rainwater Control, we have you on the line, Courier 7. We just received your flight plan for two destinations. You are authorized to leave the station. Thrusters only. Good travels."
"Thanks, Rainwater. Hangar depressurization. Courier 7, departing."
The iris-shaped airlock opened and the magnetic clamps were disengaged. Talasea took the helm, leading the vessel outside with on RCS thrusters. Faint clouds of crystallized gas provided the ship with a single impulsion sufficient for the vessel to leave the station.
The empty asteroid orbited in silence, followed by a wake of wire radiators. In the background, Talasea and Isa could see the half-lit blue crescent of Typhoon, Rainwater Station's parent gas giant. There were few spaceships in the vicinity and most of them were just small dots of light, several hundred kilometres away. Traffic around Rainwater Station was minimal. The station was almost autarkic and only imported minerals and ecosystemic goods. Bubbles stood in a corner of the screens, under the e-ink avatar of a lady in a pilot jacket, legs dangling above a radar screen. She waved her arms and spawned a map of Typhoon and its sixty-seven moons, centred around the small golden circle of Rainwater Station.
"The destination of our plants is a station named Titania Port, orbiting a small planetoid. I suggest a direct trajectory. One hour of thrust for the translation."
"Perfect, Bubbles," answered Isa, "how are things down here?"
"I'm adapting. The ship is comfy. On-board systems are a bit cramped but I'll get used to it. It's kind of you to allow me to live in a ship again."
Tali approved with a smile and flicked a switch. The three radiators slowly unfolded like rectangular wings. Courier 7 was still cold. The heat sinks gleamed ever so slightly, like bronze under sunlight.
Beyond them, space was serene.
Tal moved her seat back a few inches and turned towards Isaac/Isabeau. The pilot was absorbed by a window describing the technical parameters of the drive.
"How long has it been since we were last together in a cockpit?"
"I don't know. A few years?"
"Ten years, Isa. Ten years."
Isaac/Isabeau closed the window and shook their head, as if they had just realized something.
"We...we should have kept in touch."
"Yes. We should have."
The Irenian had a faint smile. Bubbles announced the Internationale was far enough to start its burn. Talasea oriented the ship towards Titania Port.
At the beginning of the second space age, two centuries before, it would have taken several days for Courier 7 to bridge the five million kilometres of void between Rainwater Station and Titania Port, even with a fusion drive. The Internationale had nothing of the sort. While very elegant, its drive wasn't very powerful and would have taken weeks to bring it to its destination. Courier 7, however, had a tool its distant ancestors didn't possess. The weird miracle that had given humankind the stars. At the heart of the ship rested a geometry drive capable of teleporting Courier 7 towards its destination and sparing it most of the journey. All the Internationale had to do was to switch its engines on and match the relative velocity of Titania Port.
Isa pushed the throttle. Twenty metres behind the cockpit the Lazward drive ignited. The propellant tanks started pumping liquid hydrogen in the engine. The Internationale stored several hundred compact batteries, under the shape of superconducting toroids coils the size of a handbook. One of the coils was engaged in the drive and started discharging the energy stored in its magnetic field to supply a powerful microwave chamber. Rapidly superheated, the hydrogen propellant was expelled by the ship's nozzles, creating a large blue bell in its wake. Courier 7 moved forwards.
Talasea and Isa felt a faint pressure against their chests. It had nothing of the violence of a fusion drive. Lazward drives were sweeter engines.
One hour and several empty batteries later, Courier 7 had reached the same relative speed as Titania Port. Isa announced the ship could start translating. Talasea opened a screen.
"Geometry drive under power."
Right above the engine, a thousand blue hexagons started gleaming, traversed by alternative current.
The navigation computer of Courier 7 started clicking. The radiators gleamed slightly more as they absorbed the heat generated by the motherboards. The economy of faster than light travel relied on computing power and Courier 7 wasn't lacking in that department. The result came to Tali a few minutes later as a complex equation the Irenian could read without difficulty. Isa glanced at it sideways. Everything seemed in order.
"The navigator asks the copilot for translation approval."
"The copilot approves. Engaging safeties."
Isa flicked an entire row of switches and disconnected most of the ship's systems, keeping only the drive online. The cockpit switched to blue ambient lights. Talasea opened the safety cap of the geometry drive button and uttered a silent prayer, followed by Isa.
Then she pushed the translation throttle.
Three-dimensional space folded around Courier 7. The ship disappeared, leaving nothing but a wake of disappearing fragments of light. Isa and Talasea felt something strange; on their tongue, the salty taste of an ocean that did not exist. Four million kilometres and a millisecond later, Courier 7 reappeared on the same orbit as Titania Port in a brief influx of blueshifted light.
Isa looked away from their dashboard. Typhoon filled the entirety of the background and the vast storms on its north pole honoured the gas giant's name. Facing the gas giant was the planetoid mined by Titania Port, a shapeless mass of regolith pierced by extraction moholes. Titania Port itself was half a kilometre large. It was built around a transparent sphere filled with greenery, surrounded by two rings where small ships came and went. Numerous radiators and solar panels extended from the equator of the sphere and they made the station look like a gigantic flower in Talasea's eyes.
"Titania, the queen of fairies," beeped Bubbles from her post-it, "I wonder if we'll meet Oberon as well."
The Internationale came across a handful of spacecoaches that minded their business around Titania Port. These mining ships were incredibly simple. They were mostly made of water ice. Their drives were microwave electrothermal engines, using little chambers to heat up water propellant. Practically made of water, spacecoaches were the ideal mining vessel for deep space endeavours. None of them would beat the Internationale in a straight run but Bubbles assumed it wasn't their main design requirement.
"No crew, judging from the size of the spacecoaches and no one answers my calls on the radio," indicated Talasea, "but Titania Port seems to be in perfect working order."
"I do not know. Maybe everyone is on holidays."
"Right. Some random algorithm just gave me the greenlight for docking. Proceeding."
Isaac/Isabeau nodded and took the controls of Courier 7 for the final approach. They led the ship with utmost accuracy, bringing it to the outer docking ring of Titania Port. Two magnetic clamps stabilized the ship and a foldable airlock linked Courier 7 to the station. Talasea waited for a message authorizing them to get in but in vain. Bubbles sighed.
"We could just throw them the plants."
"I mean she's right. Every single one of our containers is pressurized and has its own RCS thrusters. We could just drop them under their windows and let them handle the scooping."
"No," cut Talasea, "it's obvious that whoever gave this package to the Postmistress wanted a human to come to their door. Otherwise, they would have just requested a mass driver to shoot them the goods. Come."
Bubbles shrugged and turned her avatar into a gardener.
After donning a shawl above their light flight suit, Isa and Talasea left Courier 7 for the station. Something trembled in the distance. A mass driver had just launched a payload of minerals towards Rainwater Station. Titania did not bother with sending transport ships to its homeworld. It was content with merely hurling its daily production at the station. The containers accelerated towards a parking orbit, matching the velocity of Rainwater Station that just had to catch them. Straightforward, if not fast -- a delivery took up to two months. It was obvious that the inhabitants of Titania Port had no desire to interact with anyone. An airlock opened in front of Talasea and Isa. They entered a decontamination chamber, then a long industrial hallway that led to Titania's main microgravity chamber.
The centre of Titania Port was a forest. The vast transparent sphere nestled between the petal-shaped heat sinks was traversed by a two hundred metres long world-tree. Its roots were inserted in the station's geological glass. A living watermark, filtering out the cold light from Typhoon's distant sun. The leaves were dark red and yet the monumental tree did not know autumn nor winter. Red was its natural colour, allowing it to draw energy from weak dwarf stars. Talasea pushed against the hallway's exit and darted through the spaceborne greenhouse. The Irenian moved like a serpent in microgravity. She grabbed a branch and stabilized herself in the first quarter of the world-tree. A lone blue bird. Isa rejoined Talasea with more difficulty, gliding through the canopy. A lukewarm breeze flowed through the greenhouse, pumped by the air recycling systems. Isa put their hand against the wood. The bark was filled with myriads of microscopic creaks. Mountain ranges for amoeba.
"That's a Martian world-tree," deducted Isa, "it's surprising to find one that far away from the solar system. Hard to transport. Takes some dedication."
"The inhabitants of Titania probably only took the seeds."
"I don't think so. Look at how the roots are embedded in the station with no substratum nor humus layer. This tree didn't grow here. It was transplanted directly during its adult stage. It was probably smaller back then, but still, quite an achievement."
One of the branches bended towards Talasea as if to salute her.
"Hey...could it be that the world-tree *is* Titania's crew? What do you think, Bubbles?"
The AI answered through a post-it glued on Isa's sleeve.
"I have never heard of a world-tree housing artificial intelligences. Trees, even geoscaled ones, have too slow of a metabolism to allow for the emergence of consciousness fast enough to handle the day to day operations of a mining station. But let's not presume of any...oh. Look up."
Talasea and Isa raised their gaze, even though "up" was a confused notion in zero gravity environments. A constellation of flower pots, primed for plantations, was drifting towards them. Each of the flower pots was equipped with small RCS thrusters preventing group collisions.
"I think we've just found the destination of our hundred ton of orchids."
"But why?" asked Bubbles.
"I am unsure the question means anything," answered Isa, "after all, we find ourselves in a station where someone imported an entire world-tree from the Earth, probably for no other reason than the fact that it looks stunning. So why not..."
"About forty thousand orchids, I'd say," computed Bubbles.
Talasea contemplated the greenhouse. The world-tree's canopy undulated in unison with the back and forth of mining drones outside. Without birds or other animals, the spherical forest was eerily serene. Such a silent wood should be terrifying, thought Talasea, but in microgravity she could watch every angle of approach. No predator was hiding around her. There was nothing but the wind and purer air than on a Terran mountaintop. Isa drifted towards a flowerpot that moved away with a short RCS burst.
"Well," said the pilot of Courier 7, "no one came to see us."
"Maybe the inhabitants have no desire of seeing us. Maybe the only thing that mattered was that we would *see* these thousands of flowerpots. That we could witness the mining station that is trying to grow orchids in the Five Suns. It feels like no one but the postal service comes here in person."
"Can we leave now?"
"I'll put a word on the world-tree. Just to tell whoever lives in Titania that we have been here. Isa? Give me a post-it please. And one without Bubbles on it, this time."
Talasea and Isa floated back through the empty hallways to get back to the Internationale. The ship had been carefully unloaded by Titania Port's drones. The personnel was still nowhere to be seen. The zero gravity hangars were only populated by the yellow eyes of semi-sapient djinn maintenance drones. Someone had glued a post-it on the hull to thank the crew.
"Well," joked Isa, "that must be the local mode of communication."
Courier 7 detached from the station and Isa lit up the engines as soon as they had passed the safety distance. The small package was destined to one of the largest moons of Typhoon. Al-Bayda was very deep in the gas giant's gravity well. Its relative velocity was rather low, just a few kilometres per second, the equivalent of a few tens of minutes of acceleration. Talasea was slightly nervous. Al-Bayda was very close to the gas giant, so close that the reintegration point would skim the edge of the inner gravity well. The navigator hated "raking the surface" as she used to say, and risking reintegration in a low orbit wasn't something she was keen on.
"I don't even know why the Postmistress is sending us down there. Al-Bayda is empty. There's not even an automated relay station. Hey, Bubbles. What's in that package?"
"I have no idea."
"You can't scan it?"
The avatar looked positively scandalized.
"A mailperson doesn't take peeks at their own cargo, come on! All I know is that it's about ten kilograms heavy and the density isn't high enough for it to be a nuclear bomb."
"But it's in the adequate range to be a normal bomb!"
"Isa, this isn't funny," cut Talasea as she engaged the geometry drive.
Al-Bayda suddenly appeared like the perfectly smooth skull of a fallen goddess. The planet was so close to the gas giant that the tidal forces were enough to put the core under constant stress, allowing the planet to maintain liveable, if arctically low temperatures. Without this geothermal activity, Al-Bayda would have been a vitrified desert, too cold to keep its atmosphere from outgassing. The planet was tidally locked, presenting the same face to the gas giant for all eternity.
It took Isa a bit of time to adjust the sensors of Courier 7 to the powerful magnetic field of Typhoon, strong enough to jam the instruments. The short-range radio clicked. A text message that Bubbles traced back to an unregistered satellite on a polar orbit. The transmission carried nothing but the coordinates of a ground station. Isa and Talasea exchanged a glance.
"Bubbles, you've often travelled in isolated places like the Five Suns. Is it normal to send packages to unregistered locations?"
"No. Al-Bayda is isolated. The locals might not be thrilled at the idea of displaying their adress to the Five Suns at large. I guess we could decline the delivery but in that case I doubt the Postmistress would keep us. And we need to..."
"I know. Isa, is the landing zone usable?"
The pilot opened a window displaying one of the planet's hemispheres.
"Rainwater's databanks are parcellar but it looks like a mountain valley. We have enough room to land. The weather is quite bad, however. There's a storm forming up above the valley."
"Can we fly through this?"
"Well we have to, because we can't just drop the package. The wind seems to peak at a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. However the atmospheric pressure is only one third of the Earth baseline. Such a storm isn't as mean as it looks. With folded radiators and antennae, we'll get through."
"I'm with you."
Talasea flipped the ship around so that the engines would face the planet. Then Isa launched Courier 7 on an atmospheric re-entry trajectory. Bubbles and Isaac/Isabeau made some tea while Talasea prepared a meal for after the landing. Right before entering Al-Bayda's atmosphere, Isa folded the radiators and retracted the antennae. The beginning of the descent was rather peaceful. Without the heat sinks, Courier 7 penetrated through the rarefied air like a teardrop. Isa had the engines at their fingertips, using short impulses from the auxiliary chemical rockets to control their descent. When Courier 7 left its plasma sheath, it had only had a few minutes of respite before being engulfed by the storm. Isa felt the ship tremble under the wind. They flew blind, following Bubbles' radar guidance. Talasea watched the engine, getting ready to fire the main chemical engines for an emergency abort. The roles had been assigned without a word.
Two thousand metres above ground, Courier 7 shook and drifted sideways. Isa tried to compensate with the flight stick but the ship kept closing the gap with the mountains.
"I lost an RCS thruster," said Isa while trying to compensate again. The rocky wall was only a kilometre away and Courier 7 kept drifting.
"I can't restart it!"
"It's engulfed in ice," answered Bubbles, "I'll try to purge it with a short burst at full power. Compensate on my mark."
Isa approved. Bubbles ignited the faulty RCS thrusters at full power and Isa did the same with the opposite one to avoid sending Courier 7 into deadly spiral. The AI reiterated the manoeuvre three times. The ice cap was only ejected after last attempt. Isa wrangled control back from the Internationale a mere two hundred metres away from a blade-sharp mountaintop. Talasea had her hand on the cockpit ejection control, ready to trigger a violent abort.
"It's alright, it's alright. Resuming nominal descent."
Courier 7 realigned itself with the landing zone, a few hundred metres below. Isa pushed the chemical thrusters at full power and the ship found itself in nigh-stationary flight. There was a landing pad below, half-covered in snow. Bubbles pinged it with a communications laser and the pad allowed them to land. Fifty metres above the snowy ground, a ring of stabilizing thrusters was triggered for the final approach and Courier 7 hit the ground in a large puddle of molten snow.
"Engines offline. External temperature is minus twenty-eight degrees Celsius. We'll have to spray the RCS thrusters with antifreeze before taking off again. I thought they were temperature-controlled by electric heating?"
"They are, but it is obviously not enough. We'll have to mention it in the maintenance logs."
Talasea oriented one of the external cameras to get a quick view of the buildings around the landing pad. Through the biting wind she could make out the outlines of a handful of buildings, an hydroponic dome with broken windows and a ground to space antenna. In the infrared spectrum, the Irenian could see a few dots of heat, corresponding to the heat sinks of a small-sized nuclear reactor. The station was inhabited, yet no one had answered Courier 7's hails.
"I don't see any mailbox," commented Isa while straightening up their suit's collar.
"Let's climb down. Bubbles, you have the ship."
The avatar on the screen waved her hand in approval. Bubbles had donned a virtual arctic suit and had put a penguin on her shoulder. Talasea did not find it amusing at all.
Talasea and Isa left the ship in full exosuits. The air contained a sizeable fraction of oxygen but it was too spare to breathe in and with the cold they preferred using fully enclosed helmets. Starmoth Initiative suits were comfy and rather light for the level of environmental protection they offered. All-white, they were identified by dark blue lines on the flanks, arms and legs, completed by the moth emblem on the chest and in the back.
"It's cold," commented Talasea. Her threshold for "freezing" was somewhere near fifteen degrees Celsius. The wind had calmed down. A string of red lights marked the path between the landing pad and the station. Talasea and Isa walked towards it, holding on to the lifelines that linked the beacons together. Courier 7 disappeared behind them, swallowed by the snow and fog. For a long moment -- ten minutes, perhaps -- Talasea and Isa found themselves lost in the world, abandoned to a sea of textureless white.
Further ahead, the path widened and the station appeared all around them. The snow formed a plaza, flattened by the wind. The hangars and the dome were mired in frost. The parabolic antenna was silent. Some of the panels had fallen, leaving empty squares behind. Talasea brushed the snow away from a nearby sign. The black letters said STATION FOUR. Talasea thought it was way too mundane of a word for the station not to have something to hide. Isa considered that it meant, at least, that there were a station one, two and three.
Then they saw her.
She walked towards them, unfazed by the wind, wearing a dark purple suit. Through the helmet visor they could make out the unmistakable face of the Postmistress. Isa gave her the package. The Postmistress bowed as she retrieved it. The Postmistress opened the package and a stream of sand poured into the wind until the cardboard box was empty.
"I assume it means we've passed the job interview," commented the Irenian on the local radio.
The Postmistress bowed once again.
"I am wondering. You dived head-first into a storm with a light ship, on an unknown planet, all of that to deliver a package. Why? Answer thruthfully. Don't give me platitudes about public duties. You don't know the Five Suns. You have no link with our commune. So what? You don't strike me as adrenaline junkies. No one is listening on this planet, there's just you and me. So. Why?"
"Why do you care?"
"I like to know why my pilots fly."
The Irenian stepped forwards. She signalled the Postmistress to switch her radio off then started talking to her visor against visor, so that they could communicate through vibrations in Plexiglas, without any risk of radio interception.
"We need to lay low for a while."
"Are you fugitives?"
"No. We just need some calm and quiet."
"Why not seek it in the immensity of space?"
"That far from human space we wouldn't get very deep in the galaxy and a long-range exploration ship is not exactly stealthy. It can only resupply at islands in the sky like the Five Suns. So it's best to stay in these places and make ourselves useful."
"Why the postal service?"
"Because we know how to man a messenger ship. And because there is nothing better than the normalcy of such a line of work to blend in."
"If you consider the postal service of the Five Suns as normal, I have very bad news for you."
"You know very well what I mean."
The Postmistress deposited three silver insignas in Talasea's hand. They bore five stars, surrounded by stylized wings.
The Postmistress waved at her newfound crew and walked in the snow, towards a courier ship lost in the frozen mist. The Irenian looked up. Through the clouds gleamed the blue cyclones of Typhoon.
A thousand eyes, waiting for something to come.
Cover illustrated by Kruger.
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