After defeating a strange creature -- the self-proclaimed jester of a bygone queen -- the Algorab team, accompanied by the mailpeople, reaches the throne of a fallen Sequence sovereign.
Talasea's breath echoed faintly inside her ihamora. Six hours had passed since the entrance of Algorab forward teams in the queen's chamber. Two heavy rovers had joined the first one, forming a small forward operating camp delineated by a circle of red beacons in the night. Thirty-odd Algorab scientists were gathered here. The jester's body was illuminated by the stark white beams of spotlights dangling over the transbiological frame. Exobiologists in dark blue suits worked on the fallen titan. They had opened its thick skin with a mining laser and Talasea could see them from afar, small dots taking samples from the creature. The preliminary results of the analyses painted a most peculiar image of the self-proclaimed jester. It appeared that the titan wasn't a warform but a creature initially destined to ceremonial functions. This explained why Ezrayîl and Xiaomai had managed to take down the jester with such ease. A true warform would have required much heavier weaponry, like the Lumia's tactical nuclear missiles. Through her infrared visor, Talasea could now see the humanoid frames of the queen's true guardians. Statues, a hundred metres tall, still and silent, hands wrapped around nuclear swords. They were reduced to bone. A lifeform had gnawed at the sleeping bodies of the guardians to subsist inside the enclosed dome and Talasea assumed it was the jester. The last survivor of the royal court had devoured its brethren to survive. A miserable existence amidst the cold ruins of a monumental hall -- all of that to be finished off by a modified Lumia and a rebel swarm queen.
Talasea turned towards the fourth rover, parked two kilometres away from the basecamp. Xiaomai's swarm stood around the beacons, barely visible in the darkness. Xiaomai herself was nowhere to be seen, hidden under her disciples. Jalil gestured in the direction of a raven. Qasmuna put Ezrayîl in a nuclear bombardment stance.
"Ready for illumination," said Jalil.
A small flare rose up in the night, climbing a thousand metres above ground before deploying a parachute, casting a white dawn over the throne room. Talasea blinked. The world became blade-clear. The millennial throne of the queen in storms bloomed in bright colours. Baroque waterfalls surged across a kilometre, watched over by the skeletal angels above. The centre of the hall contained a monumental flight of stairs that looked like a throne, yes, but a throne taller than a small mountain, an impossible throne, whose golden slopes seeped with limestone and marble. It was as if a gigantic hourglass had been shattered on the planet. As if the court itself was frozen in time, impervious to the aeons. One kilometre and a thousand metres, the focal point of Silene's Sequence heritage. An echo of an empire, of the Empire, for there ever only had been one, in all the orbits of the Milky Way, in all the circles of its eight arms around the galactic centre. The majesty of the Sequence on Silene was focused upon this singular point.
Upon the queen in storms.
It hung in a precarious balance, right above the tip of the throne, held by a forest of cables so thin they were almost invisible. The queen was a hundred metres tall. In Talasea's eyes, it was a teardrop of black water, frozen in time and smooth as glass.The Irenian waved at Isaac/Isabeau to reassure them. The swarm hummed around the ravens, arranged in a half-circle, eyes gleaming. Ezrayîl's nuclear missiles were primed and ready.
"How...did we miss the queen?" asked Jalil.
"I had a radar and infrared contact," answered Qasmuna, "but I thought it was just a statue. It appears this sovereign is covered in a stealth coating that is unlike anything we've found on Sequencers. The hull-shell curves radar waves, rendering it almost invisible to our sensors, and the heat signature is obscured. It's strange. It is very rare for Sequence sovereigns to be this stealthy, even when they intend to fight in person. A creature like the queen in storms is meant to project the aura of the Sequence, even on a battlefield. Hiding is only good for assassins and warforms. A Sovereign faces the storm head-on."
"Qas," said a raven on the radio, "I spot a local temperature elevation on the queen!"
"It's waking up. Prepare to evacuate."
A low-pitched sound echoed all around the sunken continent, vibrating through the helmet of Talasea's ihamora. Isaac/Isabeau moved closer to her. A golden light appeared at the surface of the queen -- a tint that surprised Talasea. If she associated the Sequence with black and copper like everyone else, bright gold was rare in Sequence tech. She was familiar with the black and silver beams of the warforms, the red-copper gleam of high-frequency blades and the stark blue of ultra-relativistic self-defence systems. But gold -- molten gold, warming her cheeks under the helmet, she didn't know it. In the light, Talasea saw swarms of black dots swimming around, like radiation crackling through the atmosphere of a dying planet. Then the black dots became Sequence ideograms. It took a handful of seconds for the suit's algorithms to identify the script used by the queen in storms. It was a local variant of the main Sequence tongue in the Perseus arm. The on-board computer could reconstruct it. Sentences danced on the visor.
**[individual mark, pronoun = I?] am the [individual entity capable of projecting power = sovereign?] of [violent weather phenomenon] --> adopting the most likely translation solution --> I AM THE QUEEN IN STORMS.**
Tali ordered the ihamora to give her the best solutions directly, without displaying the entire translation process.
**I hope the spectacle was to your tastes** --> trust 85%.
The irenian had never accustomed herself to the idea that Algorab could decipher Sequence script on the fly. She felt like a seer, reading the messages of an old deity.
**Who are you?** --> trust 98%.
One of Jalil's ravens had lit up two flares and proceeded to answer in sign language, drawing Sequence ideograms in the darkness.
**We are children of the sun. Two-legged mammals. Our lives are short. We travel between stars. We come in peace.**
Tali smiled upon realizing that the suit only gave a trust rating of 86% to its interpretation of stereotyped human-drawn ideograms. Xiaomai didn't share her diplomatic precautions. She raised her prehensile tentacles and positioned herself in front of Ezrayîl as if to cover it. Qasmuna armed the four tactical nuclear missiles of her mech. Behind the rovers, a few teams of ravens had established anti-armour firing positions.
A new string of ideograms flashed from the queen.
**XIAOMAI. Here you are. The most gifted of my workers. Thus should my reign end, then. Make of Silene a garden. THIS PLANET IS YOURS NOW.** --> trust 76%.
On her VR display, Qasmuna perceived the opening of the dome a split-second before the transbiological muscles of the dome flexed like a petal torn by the wind. The transparent cables keeping the queen in place snapped. Four insect-like limbs unfolded from the teardrop-shaped frame, stabilizing her on the pyramidal throne. Ezrayîl's systems detected another sudden rise in the temperature of the queen. It tried to interpret the signature and concluded the queen in storms was about to light up its ground to space engines. Qasmuna flicked a switch on her radio, broadcasting on all channels.
"Qasmuna to everyone, we have a main engine ignition! Find shelter immediately! Talasea, Isa, Jalil and the rover teams, converge towards Ezrayîl."
Xiaomai's swarm moved around the rovers to shield them with their bodies. Isaac/Isabeau remained still amidst the chaos. Talasea could see they were terrified.
"Tal...we're all dead. The queen will ignite its engine. Heat and radiation will kill us all."
The Irenian ran towards Isaac/Isabeau, tried to grasp them by the hip to bring them to shelter. The ihamora was too smooth to afford a proper grip but Qasmuna rushed to her help, using Ezrayîl's free arm to get a hold of Isa and shielding them with her mech's frame. Talasea ran behind the Lumia. The ground quaked. A bright light suddenly appeared above the throne, seeping from the icy sky, casting white shadows on the bone court. Talasea huddled against Isaac/Isabeau, putting her hand against the ihamora's chest.
"Isa, we are dead only if the queen in storms uses a fusion or antimatter drive. The former isn't worthy of a Sequence sovereign, the latter is too risky to use in a confined space."
"What is she going to use then?"
"I don't know. But we will not die."
The small earthquakes intensified. The shadows disappeared in pearlescent light. The Irenian could feel the take-off even through Ezrayîl's armoured hull. A powerful shockwave propagated through the ihamora, while her visor blinked in crimson red as it absorbed a massive dose of radiations that without the armour would have been deadly. The light gained in intensity until the surrounding world became nothing but marble and pearl. Isaac/Isabeau met Talasea's gaze -- they found her so serene in the heart of the storm that it manage to appease them for a short while.
"See? If it was a nuclear drive," she said, softly, "we'd already be stardust."
Isaac/Isabeau sighed. In the enclosed world of the ihamora, her heart beat with a violence they weren't familiar with. Isaac/Isabeau switched to Bubbles' radio channel.
"Hey. You hear me?"
The silly bird appeared on the visor.
"Do you have eyes on the continental dome?"
"Yes. Don't move."
"Can't. What do you see?"
The AI projected a compressed video on Isaac/Isabeau's virtual reality space. The continental dome was wrapped in cold clouds, the tip open like a titanic daisy flower. The queen had just left the building. It pushed towards the sky, followed by a trail of incandescent light. The snow followed in its wake. The queen's trajectory was smooth and light -- as if its engines, weak engines, so weak they couldn't even vaporize the humans in the enclosed space, were as immaterial as Silene's very atmosphere. Ten seconds later, the queen in storms ignited her main drive and the white light became a pillar of focused power. Freed from Silene's gravity, the queen accelerated towards low orbit and Bubbles finally lost it.
Inside the continental hall, silence reigned once again. The light had disappeared, yet it left its imprint on the world. It seemed to Talasea that she could see them still: the blade-sharp shadows cast by the queen, shrapnel of a self-contained star.
For a short while the Irenian felt alone, abandoned by the bright light of the sovereign. Then, Isaac/Isabeau's touch reassured her and she let this thought sweep over her like the molten snow on Ezrayîl.
When Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau left the tramway that brought them back from the continental hall, they were exhausted and could barely stand up. Even with their endoskeleton assist, ihamoras put a huge strain on their wearer, both mental and physical. It took Talasea a massive effort to wake up from her nap, extirpate herself from her cocoon of coral and transbiological muscle, clean up the heat exchanger fluid and get back into her clothes. Neither her nor Isaac/Isabeau found the strength to walk back to the Internationale. They collapsed on a sofa in a small observation room that faced the twilight-soaked plains of Silene. Algorab's raven didn't object. Talasea fell asleep, holding Isaac/Isabeau's hand. She felt as if a warm snow was pouring over her through the bay window.
When the two companions emerged from their sleep, two hours had passed. Red night lights filled the hallways. Talasea found four cups of tea on the table in front of the sofa, as well as meal that came right from Avicenna's kitchens. Jalil strolled in with a plate of sugary cakes, while Qasmuna lay on the other sofa. The Yazidi looked even more tired than the mailpeople.
"Everything alright?" asked the Irenian, still dizzy. Jalil answered with a soft voice.
"No one is wounded, but everyone in the continental hall received their yearly radiation exposure allowance in a minute. I asked our medics to perform additional tests and you should get a full check-up as well. Ihamoras are sturdy but only up to a point. Our monads show non-negligible chances of light radiation poisoning."
"We'll get examined at Outrenoir. I still can't realize what happened. It's the first time I see a Sequence sovereign from up close."
"Likewise," answered Isaac/Isabeau. Qasmuna nodded.
"Same as well, but I think Jalil is more experienced in this domain."
Qasmuna's husband nodded.
"True. I was part of the boarding team that seized a captured Orrery after the failed assault on Draugr, that was ten years ago. I saw a sovereign there, yes, but it had been devoured by its crew. Never truly saw such a creature in its majesty."
"You seem to hold Sequence sovereigns in high regard."
"Why wouldn't I? They're fascinating creatures. Some of them are older than humankind and yet we can communicate with them as if we were just distant cousins. It is tragic that the Sequence is such an antithesis to us. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened had we managed to find a common ground."
Qasmuna approved and kissed Jalil on the forehead.
"That sovereign is different from the rest. It abdicated. Gave its planet to rebellious workers."
Jalil shrugged. Outside, the blizzard raged on, drowning the forward base in a sea of white, dancing fog. The continental wall had disappeared again.
"What planet, Qas? Silene is dead. It's not an abdication. The queen in storms only got rid of a graveyard. Of her graveyard."
"She could have killed us all, yet she spared us."
"Why kill us? It's the first time it encounters a human being. When I stumble upon an unknown microbe, my first reflex is not to sterilize it. Yet I don't spare it because I care, I spare it because I can't be bothered to destroy it. Same here. But I see Isaac/Isabeau fell asleep again..."
Talasea smiled, stroking Isa's hair with the back of her hand.
Jalil stood up.
"Dame Talasea, may I carry Isa to one of our spare rooms? They'll be better than in a sofa."
Jalil leaned over Isaac/Isabeau and, kindly, took them in his arms. He left in silence, walking through the commons and disappearing in the maze of Avicenna's rooms. Talasea finished her plate of cakes, then whispered:
"Qasmuna, you said you wanted to measure up to the Sequence. Here you are. You took down a warform with Ezrayîl."
"A pathetic comedian sacrificed by the queen to hold a devastated, ruin-filled hall. It's not something I'm going to celebrate. So my quest is still ongoing, I fear. But, tell me, Tal...what did you feel when this creature moved towards us, ready to fight?"
The Irenian met Qasmuna's eyes. They gleamed in gold -- just like when they had made love on Kollontai. Once again, Qasmuna gauged Talasea's soul. The Irenian probed her own feelings and did not find anything of note.
"I didn't feel different than how I would have felt facing an avalanche or a nuclear reactor on meltdown."
"This is not uncommon among explorers. Our war upon the Sequence is nothing more than yet another event on the road for you. But you are not just an explorer, Tal, you're an Irenian. And thus, you learned how to fight. Doesn't this change anything to your experience?"
"I didn't learn how to fight, I learned how to dance with a blade, which isn't the same. That my swords can kill is merely tangential."
"You know that I used to be a ship captain and thus I think I have a good grasp on people and their soul. And I also think one learns a lot about someone when making love with them. Yet, I can't see through you and I find this intriguing. You are an excellent navigator, a good pilot, an admirable woman, but it seems like you're merely grazing the surface of the world, as if you were afraid of making an impression on it. And I do not get it."
The Irenian finally stared back at Qasmuna.
"So...we made love only so that you could get to understand me?"
"No. I truly desired you and it is still the case. But yes, I also want to grasp who you are, before you take it to the void again."
"I am not going anywhere, Qasmuna."
"Look. I am a married woman. We allow us to have occasional lovers, but Jalil and I are sworn to each other and this is an oath we truly take to heart. And you are not a free heart either."
"Isa and I aren't exactly together."
"Oh, I do believe you are. In an unusual way, perhaps, but you too are soulmates. You and Isa are entwined, Tal. And one day, yes, you will leave. So yes, I fear you will remain a mystery to me. But here I am, talking about me. What are you thinking about, little blue lady?"
The Irenian smiled and blushed ever so slightly.
"I am thinking about you, I am thinking that if we were alone, without Avicenna, without anything else, just us and the blizzard, I'd kiss you until you'd beg for mercy. And I realize that's the soppiest thing I've ever said."
"Well, it is a well-known fact that Irenians are deliciously perverted, all the while running on tea and corny love letters."
And, right before Jalil came back, Qasmuna pressed her lips against Talasea's. The Irenian long considered this kiss as the best she had ever received from another woman.
Invited by the Algorab crew at the Avicenna dig site, our mailfolk prepare to enter an ancient Sequence citadel.
Jalil gestured towards the passage.
"We are going to move through the gate. We are almost certain that Sequence activity beyond it is residual, but it is impossible to be entirely certain. The citadel was a sovereign's throne, it is not impossible that some defence systems may still be active. You can come with us if you wish to, but it might be dangerous."
The mailpeople stared at each other for a split-second -- all it took for their curiosity to get the better of them.
"What security measures are in place?" asked Isaac/Isabeau regardless -- their past experiences with the Sequence had been rowdy enough. Jalil pointed at the six-wheeled rover parked in the icy fog.
"The archaeological team uses this rover. It's armoured and uses schock dampeners. With the ihamoras for personal protection, we'll be safe."
"I take it Qasmuna isn't coming?"
"Qasmuna is our life insurance."
"I am not certain a Lumia, even a militarized model, is fit against the Sequence," commented Isa.
"Ezrayîl is a dedicated artillery platform", answered Jalil, "it's not the vector that counts, it's the armament."
The improvised warmachine spread its manipulating arms open. Its back supported a long-range railgun artillery lance, tilted vertically in the image of a sword in its sheath. A mere glance was enough to see that it was a true weapon of war. The Lumia raised its right arm towards the monumental door. Jalil led Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau inside the six-wheeled rover, where they met the rest of the archaeological team, wearing grey-white ihamoras. A few hands were shaken, nothing more. The ravens accepted the presence of the mailfolk but did not enjoy it.
"We'd happily give you tea, but we can't safely remove our helmets," said Jalil, "Pilot, we can go."
The rover revved its electric engine and its large tires gripped the solidified snow. Ezrayîl followed behind, casting a large shadow over the wheeled vehicle, while Xiaomai flanked them, a titanic creature in the white night. As it neared the monumental door, the former Sequencer rose up on its hind legs and its prehensile tail cracked like a whip. It held the artefact high, as if looking for a keyhole.
"So it comes from Draugr..." said Talasea.
"Yes," answered Jalil, "it's part of the relics we found amidst the wrecked Sequence ships after their failed assault on Draugr station, twenty years ago. Look."
The raven displayed a three dimensional scan of the artefact on the virtual reality space of the rover. The object was strangely mundane. A dagger without a pommel, made of black metal -- iron imbued with transbiological particles. A side panel mentioned that the artefact, while superficially simple, was impossible to replicate without access to Sequence manufacturing technology.
"It was found in a ceremonial chamber. Recent studies showed that it was a key, the property of an Expedient, that is to say some sort of...let's say emissary, or perhaps tax inspector. Such a key can be used to open a Sequence citadel, under the condition that it is not older than the artefact. Technological drift can be very severe in Sequence communities, and transbiological material doesn't react well to interfaces created more than two to three dynasties prior. The key of Draugr is two million years old and the citadel was grown five hundred thousand years ago. Compatibility should be perfect.
Xiaomai inserted the artefact in the door with her prehensile tentacle. A moment passed. Then, a faint whirr echoed through the blizzard and the two wings of the door slid open, the retraction of their transbiological material leaving an opening large enough for Xiaomai, the rover and Ezrayîl.
"Do tell, Jalil, you weren't sure this would work?"
"No," conceded the Algorab technician, "and I don't know how we would have done it without the key. We ran out of ideas months ago. Attempts at digging under the citadel encountered impassable abysses. Upside teams didn't find a single usable crack in the continental dome and even mining charges won't get through the transbiological walls. Nuclear charges were considered but our projections showed the citadel was too unstable to risk destabilizing it further. It would not be fortunate for the continent to just...give out."
"So we are in unexplored territory."
Blizzard and snow flowed through the slit in the door. A white ray of light spiralled through the infinite night, quickly repelled by the abyss. Xiaomai deployed her collar. It lit up like a blue lantern. The rover's spotlights raked a dry, icy soil. Transbiological bone, flayed alive by time until nothing subsisted but the very heart of the citadel walls. A LIDAR beam pulsed through the citadel.
"The hall is ten kilometres long, one kilometre large and one kilometres tall. Exactly the dimensions of a royal Sequence hall."
"Astounding diversity, as usual," said one of the ravens.
"It's more that the Silene Sequence wasn't prestigious enough to warrant a non-standard citadel. This regal hall was probably built from a regular cell, without genetic alterations."
Talasea approved with a nod. On the VR screens had appeared an army of fantastical creatures standing alongside the walls, slowly emerging from the icy fog as the RADAR and LIDAR feedbacks bounced towards the rover. Legions of statues, frozen in the bone-cracking cold of the citadel. They were two to three hundred metres tall. Their shapes, alternatively abstract and grotesque, were not clearly understandable for the human mind. Contacts with the regal art of the Sequence were always disorienting, especially if one did not take into account the fact that none of what the away team could see matched the appearance of the citadel hall at the apex of the Sequence. All that was left were ossified shadows left by the slow decomposition of external surfaces. Trying to understand these remains was akin to guessing the shape of a spaceship from a single piece of machinery. With her surface-level knowledge of the Sequence, Talasea could try to figure out what this place could have looked like, half a million years ago.
The full statues, celebrating the staggering diversity of Sequence sophonts on Silene. The light, golden, vibrant, emanating from swarms of biological lanterns. The long queues of various creatures, coming to the sovereign, offering her tribute and seeking immemorial wisdom. Some of the lines were so long that they had spawned small camps scattered amidst the golden forests. Further towards the throne, the royal guardians, frozen in their corallian splendour, multiple hands wrapped around gigantic blades with an edge barely thicker than a single atom. Tapestries the size of cities, telling the romance of the sovereign and that of the Sequence, blending in a metaphor running over ten kilometres. And far, far away in the coloured forests, the gold and red light of the sovereign's cocoon, as she slumbered in her industrious sleep.
Or, maybe, none of that, because it was just a fever dream, because the Sequence remained obscured in time, nothing but an army of ghosts and guesses, broken down by a million years.
"What are you seeking for here, exactly?" asked Talasea in the eerie silence of the rover, "I doubt the sovereign is more than a fossil, considering the derelict state of the citadel. The rest will not be of much use, not with such a small team. You'll need years to study even the statues."
"We are looking for death," answered Jalil, stone-cold.
"You know the Perseus arm better than I, navigator. There isn't a single planet with an active biosphere in a one hundred lightyears radius around the Five Suns. Most of these devastated worlds bear signs of voluntary destruction."
"That, I know. This is why the Five Suns exist in the first place. And you think the Silene sovereign might be responsible for this bubble of dead worlds?"
"It is the only Sequence sovereign in a thousand lightyears radius. I don't believe in randomness when they are involved and neither does Algorab. And if something, anything remains of this queen, we could get answers."
The engine whisper ceased, shaking up the passengers. Talasea swept across the virtual reality displays. The small convoy now found itself five kilometres away from the entrance. The light seeping from the outside was invisible.
"What's happening?" asked Isaac/Isabeau.
"Look. Xiaomai stopped."
Talasea looked to the right. The rebel Sequencer had deployed its collar to the fullest and looked around like a sentry.
"What is she doing?"
"I am unsure. Xiaomai seems capable of using her collar like a radar receiver, while the dorsal organs work as an emitter."
Suddenly, Xiaomai filled the radio channels with a short string of words.
BEHOLD, A JESTER.
Jalil leaned towards one of the ravens that Talasea assumed to be a linguist or an exobiologist.
"What does she mean?"
"I don't know. Qasmuna, do you see something?"
Ezrayîl covered the rover. Its targeting laser pulsed through the royal hall.
"I have strange LIDAR returns," said Qasmuna, "looks like a statue but its position isn't fixed. Doesn't appear to be a Sequence warform but I can't rule out an unknown model."
Xiaomai turned back and beamed a signal towards her swarm. A booming echo rippled in the night. On her sensor screens, Qasmuna saw a wide mass of small creatures running on the ceiling, a kilometre above the Lumia, as if they were forming up to flank a distant target. The continental hall lit up with bright blue beams as the organic swarm engaged an invisible object with their organic arbalests. The Yazidi aimed her tracking radar at the convergence point of the attacks and finally got a glimpse of the creature.
It was bipedal -- a very rare trait in the Sequence. Four arms and no head, fifty metres tall. The colossus only held thanks to the sheer ductile strength of transbiological frames. Its skin was made of bone coral; it looked as if it was made of thousands of human chests glued together. In the center of a gaping belly were four sensor mounts and a line of sharp bas-reliefs that gave it an eerily human face frozen in a wide smile. The upper arms held a pair of monofilament whips. The creature used them to spread atom-thin death in a five hundred metres radius around its massive frame. The lower arms had been hastily converted into weapon mounts for high-power laser emitters that mercilessly cauterized the hordes reaching towards the warform. The bipedal Sequencer moved with a heavy, stumped kind of grace. It never stopped. Never caught a break. Each of its moves annihilated a small army of Xiaomai's minions. As it fought, the Jester started running towards Ezrayîl and the rover. The transbiological muscles of its grotesque body allowed it to run at more than a hundred kilometres per hour.
Xiaomai lunged forwards with a high-pitched scream.
The swarm queen was impulsive and resentful, but it was also an organic warmachine trained through the crucible of a rebellion against its former masters. It unfolded its prehensile tentacle and struck as soon as she had entered within combat range of the attacker. The blue filament cracked in the abyss, slashing across the bone coral skin, pulverising the glued chests and drawing a spray of black and gold blood -- a baroque painting in motion.
The Sequencer buckled then rose up with a scream so strident that Talasea heard it through the rover and the ihamora.
Another scream followed, saturating the radio.
BEHOLD, THE JESTER!
The creature's whips cracked and swung back towards Xiaomai, piercing through her armoured skin. Qasmuna's displays repeatedly failed to identify the type or origin of that Sequencer. The Lumia's algorithms ran in circles.
"Move out of the way!" she ordered the rover while displacing Ezrayîl in front of the six-wheeled vehicle. Two kilometres inwards, Xiaomai called her swarm back around her to form a shield against the Jester's laser weapons. In the dusty, eternal twilight, they looked like two luminous swords cutting through the organic mass with disconcerting ease. A reaper amidst a field of ripe wheat, thought Isaac/Isabeau.
The bipedal creature howled again. Qasmuna's algorithms translated immediately.
I AM THE SOVEREIGN'S JESTER! I AM THE SOVEREIGN'S JESTER! AND I WANT TO KNOW THE NAME OF WHAT I KILL!
Xiaomai recoiled, intercepting one of the whips with her tentacle. The moire material held for a handful of seconds before Xiaomai's member was cut in half. Her white-hot transbiological blood sprayed electric blue across the hall. Xiaomai didn't answer the Jester. Perhaps, speculated Qasmuna, she didn't want to offer the Sequence her new name.
The Jester kept striking at her. Every hit exposed Xiaomai's internal organs a bit further under the fractured skin. It howled for a third time. Qasmuna felt one its eyes resting on the Lumia.
WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU?
The Yazidi saw no reply to this meaningless harangue. Even if she had wanted to, the question was hard to answer. She was one in two. Qasmuna and Ezrayîl, linked by an umbilical cord made of optic fibre, a perfect two-headed warrior. And for the split-second during which the Jester had exposed its colossal torso, Ezrayîl's radar had painted something. It was almost nothing. A patch of weakened material, two metres below the chest eyes. A scar from an old fight, perhaps, or a growth defect. No matter. Qasmuna seized the opportunity. She deployed Ezrayîl's electromagnetic lance, took aim and opened fire.
The railgun surged and cracked like an arbalest breaking under excessive torsion. A single sabot shell whistled through the darkness. In the eyes of the Sequence creature, it was nothing but a minuscule needle, a vague inconvenience they could sweep away with a flick of their wrist. The Jester didn't even compute the existence of Ezrayîl's projectile.
Then it felt pain for the first time in its life.
The sabot wasn't a pure penetrating projectile. It carried a miniscule warhead made of a dark substance harvested from the symbiotic forest organism of Draugr. Algorab didn't give this compound a name, merely a string of numbers. It was a bacteriological weapon improvised by the anarchist Draugr hivemind and for which the ravens were nothing but vectors. Qasmuna was convinced the refusal to name the substance had a pragmatic reason. The power of the Sequence was also that of the Verb. By imposing its way to name things, the ancient empire dominated them. A nameless compound was also devoid of history and context, robbing the Sequence of its favourite vectors of control.
On impact, the flechette was crushed, transferring its kinetic energy to the transbiological skin. Algorab knew that the largest Sequence creatures were impervious to conventional kinetic weaponry -- but that was irrelevant.
The sphere exploded a split-second after the flechette, spreading its contents over the transbiological skin as it bounced back to a normal state. The Draugr compound poured into the microscopic breach opened by the sabot round. A powerful exothermic reaction followed. Instead of stitching itself back together, the small wound stabilized and remained open, as the compound temporarily suppressed the regenerative abilities of Sequence warforms.
It was enough for Xiaomai. She struck. A newly regrown tentacle surged through the breach, reaching inside the Jester before the creature had the time to understand what happened. Xiaomai quickly got to its multiple hearts and cut them loose.
When the swarm queen pulled her tentacle back, a powerful stream of golden blood flowed through the wound.
The Jester stumbled, then fell down.
The vehicles slowly moved closer to the colossal corpse. The swarm queen had disappeared in the night, licking its deep wounds amidst the rest of her minions. Qasmuna trained Ezrayîl's guns on the Jester, ready to finish it off if it was to come back from the dead -- but the Jester was already cold.
The monster had fallen.
The first package delivery of our mailpeople after the attack on the Internationale brings them to the ancient Sequence ruins of Silene.
The Internationale now flew like an outlaw, IFF switched off, two radiators folded out of three, going through random translations in-between orbital insertions to prevent delta-v tracking. Isaac/Isabeau would have been more at ease with an armed escort but the Al-Awaidh was still in repairs and the coast guards' gunship did not have the translation capabilities to follow the Internationale in its travels. Bubbles took a marked enjoyment in moving this way, but neither Isaac/Isabeau nor Talasea found it particularly pleasant.
The pilot and the navigator were bathed in the stark blue light of Courier 7's geometry drive. The faster than light mover was installed right at the centre of gravity of the ship. Its crystalline cube rested in a harness of carbon fibre strings, with copper needles bridging the gap between the drive's carvings and the ship's navigation mainframe. The geometry drive hummed -- a low-pitched bass line that echoed between the walls of the chamber. Talasea had just finished examining the geometry drive with a laser stylus and a pair of polarizing glasses. By diffracting the light of her stylus through the geometry drive, she could make out the fine details of its seemingly smooth surface. Only an experienced navigator could read the feedback on her virtual reality screens. As the geometry drive existed in four spatial dimensions at once, it interacted with light in ways that escaped common sense.
"So? What do you say?" asked Isaac/Isabeau, watching their companion as if they were their physics teacher.
"Lots of scratches around the mainframe connexions and hairline cracks are bound to appear soon, but this kind of wear and tear isn't surprising for a twenty year old drive. It should be good for another five hundred translations, but it's in dire need of a full review."
"You mean a drive extraction?"
"Yes. Open the engine compartment, disconnect the drive, needle by needle, and perform a full nano-scale scan. About five days of work and the Internationale already spent fifteen in pressurized dock. It will be hard to make it fit in our schedule."
"Especially with two postal drones riddled with bullet holes."
Bubble's avatar suddenly appeared on the geometry drive. The silly bird had put on a chapka in honour of Courier 7's destination, Silene.
"Oi, lovebirds. Algorab just sent a laser hail."
"What are they saying?"
"They want us to state our ID, cargo and mission statement. Then to kill our drive, keep our heading and deactivate our laser grid. Non-compliance will have us shot down. I obliged. The threats aren't just for show, the coms laser doubled as a rangefinder."
"Phew. The ravens are nervous today."
"Seems justified, considering the recent events."
Isaac/Isabeau stepped against the wall and propelled themselves towards the commons, then the cockpit and ended up in their seat, ready to answer the radio.
"Courier 7 Internationale to Cordoba Port. You aren't going to shoot down the messenger, aren't you?"
"It all depends on your cargo," answered a raven.
"We have mail for Cordoba Port."
"You can drop a capsule our way. Anything else?"
"Yes. We have a priority package, in-person delivery only. For someone named Xiaomai, at Dig Site Avicenna."
"Copy. You're cleared for propulsive landing at dig site Avicenna. Watch out for inclement weather. Beaming LIDAR relief data as well as the frequency of the landing pad channel."
"Thanks. We'll be landing in three hours."
I was the queen in storms.
A long time ago, I was a sovereign. How long, such is a great question. For you, aeons; the same timespan as between your civilisation and the first steps of your homo sapiens ancestors. For me, a significant part of my life. For the Sequence, an eyeblink. Just the time for an empire to finally die. Perhaps sovereign isn't, in fact, the right word. It's not adequate. Your tongue, your very brain, aren't capable of grasping what it meant to be a Sequence sovereign. To rule over a world. To be complete, to be in absolute power; and yet, to abandon yourself.
Silene was my citadel.
Below the Internationale there was a stark line between night and day. On one side of the divide, the serene white and stark blue of Silene's ocean. On the other, the endless night of the dark side, one hundred degrees Celsius below zero, its atmosphere thin and sharp like a mirror. The divide cut the circular ruins of the Sequence exactly in two -- six concentric circles, the largest the size of a Terran continent. The messenger ship had entered Silene's atmosphere with a forty-five degrees tilt, exposing one third of its thermal armour to the plasma sheath. Isaac/Isabeau stared at the temperature displays. The ceramic plates went up to one thousand degree Celsius -- only one fourth of the way to the Internationale's critical temperature, yet the pilot couldn't avert their eyes from the sensors. Their behaviour wasn't normal, they knew it. The Internationale was constantly kept under watch by Bubbles during a re-entry and the AI could even decide to abort a landing on her own, according to a series of alert thresholds she had set up with Isa. The Internationale was fine and even if it hadn't been, Bubbles had it under control.
"hey, Isa," said the bird, "relax. Hull repairs will hold. I soldered the plates myself."
They nodded, weakly.
When the plasma sheath dissipated, Isaac/Isabeau switched to vertical flight for the deceleration burn.
"I've got a solid ping on Avicenna's beacon. They don't have an automated landing system, we'll have to do it by hand, on instruments," said the pilot, "we'll be one hundred and fifty kilometres inside the dark hemisphere. The landing pad will be engulfed in darkness."
"Loading the LIDAR profiles in the nav computer. Watch out for crosswinds."
Courier 7 kept descending. Brief engine burns illuminated Silene's eternal night. The concentric circles of the ruins grew ever closer. The target of the ship was a small dot in the easternmost part of the Sequencer citadel. The walls were birthed by the iceshelf like Earth mountains, scraping the skies eight thousand meters above sea level. Talasea shivered. The walls weren't buildings, not exactly. They were the bones and abandoned shells of the living civilisation that had been Silene. Billions upon billions of sophonts had lived here for millions of years and yet Silene had been nothing but a minuscule fragment of the Sequence. A galactic grain of sand. A minute later, the Internationale was swallowed by the shadow of a wall taller than the Himalayas mountains. Seven kilometres below blinked the distant lights of Dig Site Avicenna. LIDAR sensors raked the ground.
Bubbles bowed on her post-it.
"Ready for final approach."
"Thrusters throttled to fifty percent. Aligned on landing pad."
"Watch out, I see two Algorab landers and one of them is exceedingly badly parked."
"I see it, I see it. Ground contact in ten seconds. Full power to landing thrusters. Landing legs deployed."
"We're good. Ground contact confirmed. Welcome to the night side of Silene. Outside temperature is minus fifty-eight degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is so dry it hasn't snowed in two million years. Isn't this incredible?"
Talasea already had her pompom hat at the ready.
Dig Site Avicenna was at the exact centre of a circle fifty kilometres in radius. The station itself wasn't much impressive. According to Algorab registries, it accounted for fifty inhabitants. Three landing pads were located five hundred metres away from a little base made of six cylindrical habitat modules half-buried in the ice. Though a faint twilight was visible to the east, the dig site didn't receive enough sunlight for solar panels to power it. A small modular reactor hummed in a corner, emitting elongated clouds of steam in the icy night. Judging from the presence of several hydroponic stations, Dig Site Avicenna was fully self-sufficient.
"Hey, watch this," said Isaac/Isabeau while they walked on the solidified ice that carried the beams of the landing pads. Four rectangular sheaths were turned towards the black sky, soldered atop a turret. Tali shivered while answering.
"Looks like a battery of ground-to-orbit missiles."
"Under such a small package?"
"You can do a lot of things with cryogenic rocket fuel and an open mind. With four missile cells, they can interdict the entirety of the dark side and a good part of the day side.
"The ravens are indeed nervous."
"It's not a new development. Look at the layer of ice and snow on the turret. This missile mount has been here for several years at least. Algorab definitely has something to protect here."
"Indeed, we do," said someone on Avicenna's open radio channel, "the throne of a sleeping queen."
Talasea and Isaac turned towards a white spectre. The creature that walked towards them wasn't exactly human. It was two metres tall and its frame was smooth and polished, as if they had been made of ice and snow. The cold being moved in the biting wind with ease. On its chest was painted a stylized raven and the two-number identification of Silene's Algorab chapter. Its head was a heavy padded helmet, isolated from the outside world by a Kevlar cloak covering the seams of their suit. Through the visor, the mailpeople caught a glimpse of Jalil's kind eyes and well-groomed beard.
"Welcome to dig site Avicenna!"
"What are you doing in an ihamora suit?"
"Standard procedure on a dig site. We're in the immediate vicinity of Sequence ruins and of the local lifeforms that try to destroy them. And I don't feel the cold anymore. It appears you have a package for Xiaomai?"
"Indeed. No birthday card, though."
"Can we do that inside, with some hot tea?"
The central building of Dig Site Avicenna was vastly more welcoming than Port Cordoba's commons. The structure was made of inflatable walls, kept together by a slight overpressurisation. It was cheap and light -- sobriety in means was the modus operandi of Algorab on Silene. The scenery was that of an orbital laboratory : bright, comfy, made of warm colours and round curves. Without his reinforced suit, Jalil now looked entirely innocuous, almost out of place even. He wore a thick sweater and pair of ski pants that came from the darkest ages of industrial fashion. Qasmuna sat net to him, an ornate veil covering her hair. A few young ravens worked in the laboratories on the first floor. A vacuum drone rolled around the commons. Dinner was ready. The ambient feeling of peace was so complete that it was impossible to imagine the extent of the Sequence necropolis around and beneath Dig Site Avicenna. When Tali sat in front of Qasmuna, the Yazidi gave her the kindest look. Jalil nodded. He knew of their shared afternoon and did not mind.
"I didn't think I'd find you two here," said Isaac/Isabeau, hesitating between herbal tea and lavender tea.
"We're ravens first, biologist and pilot second," answered Jalil, "and our natural place in this world is amidst ruins and dead things."
"Besides, the food here is better than on Port Cordoba" added Qasmuna without a hint of irony.
"I haven't seen the Al-Awaidh in orbit, by the way."
"Still under repairs at Rainwater. Our only defences are the ground to orbit missiles, for now."
"Do you seriously think someone might want to engage Algorab? Even our researchers are armed to the teeth."
"Nothing is impossible, at this stage. I'm even surprised the Five Suns let you fly."
"Without the postal service, the commune would quickly shatter and our drones are both too stupid and too easy to hack. Deep down, I believe the Postmaster sees us as an outside element that can be readily sacrificed. I can hardly blame him. We aren't Five Suns citizens. Speaking of, do you have news of their inquiry?"
"No. The Five Suns have a lot of goodwill but they're completely out of their depth. They want to be pioneers and helpers, they can't handle ghost ships and terrorists. They are not cut out for this world. Neither are we, but we are better armed."
"Well. We have a package for someone named Xiamoai. It's a small reinforced letter. Fragile. Hands-on delivery."
"I see. Xiaomai is the, er, thinking head of Dig Site Avicenna. So to speak. She isn't at the base, however, she's away."
"We'll wait for her then."
"I think you should go meet her in person. She left very clear instructions to that effect. Of course you can't go alone, so w''re coming."
"It is quite rare for former Starmoth Initiative members to be welcomed at Algorab dig sites."
"True enough. Consider this a favour. Not to the Starmoth Initiative but to the postal service."
A hot meal later, Qasmuna and Jalil took Jalil and Isaac/Isabeau to the lower floor of Avicenna station, where the ravens stored the EVA equipment. The walls were cut in the deep ice, covered in transparent walls that kept it well below freezing temperatures. The ceilings were bright-colored, not unlike those of a medieval cathedral, bringing a strange joyfulness to the Sequence ossuary below.
"The dig site itself is twenty kilometres away, towards the outer wall. The ice wasn't stable enough to put the station closer to the ruins. The chasms below the surface reach several kilometres beneath the iceshelf. Right. You need to wear ihamora suits."
"Do we have to?" said Isaac/Isabeau, visibly tired.
"I can't let you go on a dig site without adequate protection."
The small group went to the prep room where the ihamora suits were stored and maintained. Avicenna Station kept half a dozen unmarked suits for visitors and spares. A row of polished statues, smooth as snow, whose blind eyes stared at the pilot and the navigator in utter silence.
"Are you familiar with ihamoras?" asked Jalil. Isa and Talasea answered positively before disappearing in the EVA lockers. Contrary to Starmoth Initiative exosuits, Algorab ihamoras did not require underclothes. After undressing, Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea took a shower then covered their bodies in conducting gel. The ihamoras weren't unlike medieval armours and required a long, complex dress-up process. First came the underlayer of artificial muscle tissue. It felt cold and slimy at first, then quickly became as natural and form-fitting as a second skin. Above this underlayer came a thermal regulation suit made of artificial veins filled with heat conducting fluid. Finally, the suit was completed by a third underlayer for kinetic protection, with pouches of memory foam that hardened in response to physical trauma.
The ihamora itself was accessed from the back, which unfolded like a shuttle airlock. Entering it felt like disappearing in a sarcophagus. The wearer found themselves in pitch black and absolute silence for ninety seconds. Then, as the ihamora recognized the wearer's monad and linked up to it, the armour came to life. Every move of the wearer was matched and amplified by the armour -- one had to always keep in mind that the ihamora multiplied natural strength fivefold. The helmet displayed a 270° window on the outside world in virtual reality. Audio and tactile feedback came a short while later, relayed by the skin-level sensors of the ihamora. In many regards, it was closer to a diving suit than a space suit and, once inside, the world became muted and distant. It was a small price to pay for the sheer feeling of power and safety the suit gave to its host. The ihamora was thick enough to survive blows and temperatures that would have been immediately deadly for a regular human being. The polished, full-cover silhouette protected the miniaturized engines demultiplicating the strength and speed of the host. Inside, an archaeologist became a true actor of their environment and not only a passive victim of the Sequence and its ancient ghosts.
It took half an hour for Isaac/Isabeau to escape the locker. Tali spent ten more minutes dressing up, as her Pleiades-made monad had difficulties linking up to the suit.
"Well," commented Qasmuna, that was acceptably fast. "Jalil?"
Qasmuna's husband already wore his ihamora. He nodded.
"You won't suit up?" asked Isaac/Isabeau, noticing that Qasmuna only had a light exosuit.
"I don't need an ihamora, you'll see why. The tram is just over here."
Two tunnels below, the warehouses led to a small tram station, fifty metres underneath the iceshelf. A train made of two carriages linked the station to the dig site. Qasmuna brought everyone inside and the train left in silence.
The night swallowed it.
Isaac/Isabeau secured their package against their chest.
"Relax," smiled Qasmuna, "it won't explode."
"What are you doing on that dig site, exactly?"
"You know what Silene used to be, correct?"
"Incubator-worlds of the Sequence were all led by a Sovereign, that is to say the incarnation of the imperialist will of the great chain itself. The dig site is the throne of that sovereign. The throne of the queen in storms."
The tunnel suddenly turned into a bridge, suspended in-between mythologically tall pillars that plunged into a bottomless chasm. Far away in that void gleamed scattered stars that Talasea assumed to be remanent dots of transbiological activity. Elongated cables installed by the ravens linked the track to lone beacons, resting on the bedrock six thousand metres below.
"Here rested the heart of Silene," whispered Jalil as the carriage passed by arches of fossilized coral like ghost heart lobes.
Less than a kilometre before the dig site.
Out of this world the queen made a garden and out of this garden we rose like decadent grass. Out of this world she made a cathedral and of this cathedral we ensured the desecration. From your little planet lost in the Milky Way, from this peculiar miniature you call the Earth, you cannot begin to comprehend what the Sequence was. You can search for as long as you wish, you can study our ruins until your eyes turn to ash, but you will never understand it. You had kings, you had queens, you had dictators, you had empires, but you did not have the Empire. You cannot understand because you have the ability to move faster than light at your leisure, linking your scattered worlds together in mere months. We never had this freedom. This power. Twenty million years and we never broke the mystery of the geometry drive. The Sequence wanted power, harmony, empire, but it lived between stars we took centuries to travel to and from. Even if death was but a game we had solved aeons prior, the only solution to holding our civilization together was harmony in all things. The ultimate alienation, where the servant forgets they even have a master.
For such was the Sequence. Such was the Empire. Not a machine that enslaved, not a machine that conquered, but a machine that built. It built worlds. It built paradises. It destroyed and rebuilt histories to make other civilisations believe they had always been part of the Sequence. It manipulated the very flesh of a billion species to have it blend and meld in a single crucible -- in the transbiological matter of the Empire.
Under another sky, under your sky perhaps, the Sequence could have been magnificent. A promise of democracy and harmony. The unification of a thousand people under a single history and a single shape. Unity in diversity. The ancient promise of one of your lost nations.
But the Grey Sequence, the Milky Way Sequence, never aspired to democracy. It never understood power in this way.
Like all the others, I was a child of the Sequence, for all the creatures in the Perseus arm belonged to the great empire. I don't recall who I used to be. Alienation remains the most powerful weapon of the Sequence. To rise against the Empire, one has to deny it the use of our bodies and histories. I forgot everything, I burned the memories to a pyre made with the coral bones of my first kill. I only recall how powerful I was. An incubator, perhaps, an architect, a planet-master, a warform even, perhaps. Everything disappeared, but hatred.
From the corner of my many eyes, I see the little humanoid creatures disembark from the frail machine they use to cross the ancient domain. It is strange to use such a primitive mover, but I realize that they don't have anything significantly more advanced. I don't understand them. They are powerful. God-like, even, moving through the galaxy faster than light itself. And yet they are so simple. Their weapons and armours are so paltry, even compared to the abyss of dereliction in which we fell. I don't know how they do, the little diggers of ruins, the ones that carry the emblem of a winged creature. They have nothing but sparks and summer clothes.
Like us, they stood against the empire.
I pivot towards them. Four, wearing these thinly armoured suits that I could pierce with a single strike of an auxiliary tentacle. One of them seems to be blue-skinned. I don't know why. They have weird tastes. I recognize its companion. I saved them in the blizzard, some stellar rotations ago.
I lean over the bipedal creatures. I wonder if they know my name.
I am Xiaomai, the traitor of Silene.
All around Isaac/Isabeau were walls tall as mountains. The endless twilight coloured the citadel in solidified blood. The tall creature looked over the pilot. Its bright blue collar floated in the wind, mimicking the motions of a jellyfish. It seemed to entertain some interest in Talasea.
"Here is Xiaomai," said Qasmuna, unfazed.
"It is the first time I deliver a package to...what is it, exactly?"
"Well, ask her."
"Can she communicate?"
"Her comprehension of our tongue is basic, not because she lacks in intelligence but because our civilizations are too far apart. Look."
The Yazidi signalled the creature with a series of motions in elaborated sign language that Talasea couldn't quite decypher. Xiaomai's collar flapped, emitting an electromagnetic impulse that filled the radio channels with white noise. Her words, carried by the impulse, were vast and strong as an ocean.
I am Xiaomai. I am the traitor of Silene. I am the queen in the swarm.
Isaac /Isabeau walked closer to the regal creature. Xiaomai blinked. Its many eyes had multiple pupils, contracting and expanding as the creature switched from one end of the light spectrum to the other. The collar vibrated again.
We know each other.
Isaac/Isabeau nodded. Could the creature understand this gesture? The pilot doubted it, yet Xiaomai matched his motion before switching back to a guard stance, her triangular head towering seven metres above the small group.
"Would you open the package, please?" asked Qasmuna. Isaac/Isabeau unglued the reinforced letter. It contained a small artefact that reminded the pilot of a pommel-less dagger. The sender was the Postmaster.
"I don't get it. That a gift from the Five Suns to Algorab?"
"An encouragement, rather," said Jalil.
"To finish what was started here."
Qasmuna grabbed the artefact and turned it towards the sky. Xiaomai took it with one of her tentacles. When the black metal entered in contact with her transbiological skin, it started gleaming without any visible energy source.
"So what is this thing?" asked Talasea, "it's obviously not human."
Something that came from far away. Something from a decaying empire. A key, universal, indifferent to time and dynasties. The mark of Draugr.
"What does it open?" asked Isaac/Isabeau.
Xiaomai turned around. In the icy mist was a vertical wall, right at the entrance of the bygone citadel. Two kilometres of ossified transbiological matter, covered in carvings of leviathans that formed the eternal sigil of the Sequence -- a chain, repeated in four dimensions.
Xiaomai put the black dagger against the door, and it started to slide open.
I am the queen in storms and here is my citadel.
Two weeks have passed since the attack on the Internationale and the death of Qing at the hands of a mysterious mercenary. While their ship is in dry dock for repairs, Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea are killing time on Kollontai, capital planet of the Five Suns.
KOLLONTAI BLUES PART ONE
A thunderstorm raged outside. Its golden light seeped through the bay windows of the apartment. The kitchen's automated systems whirred in silence. Isaac/Isabeau considered a row of vegetables on the table. The carrots, potatoes and gombos looked straight out of the solar system but the rest was markedly more exotic. Bubbles had ordered a variety of extrasolar eggplants that the pilot couldn't quite identify.
"Hey, Bubs, what did you buy?"
The AI's post-it was glued to a window. The silly bird avatar wore a chef's hat.
"Well. I'm not sure. Some kind of sweet potato, it seems? The colour's a bit strange and the shape is peculiar, yes, but I was told it's delicious in a soup."
The Postmaster emerged through the kitchen's door.
"Kollontai plantain," he said, "very good in a stew."
"Right, so now I'm taking culinary advice from two artificial intelligences?" they shot back, "I can readily admit that you are well-meaning and have access to a wealth of knowledge, but neither of you has ever eaten anything."
"Come on," answered the Postmaster, "my android avatars are always equipped with full sensory gland packages. I can't swallow food, but I can absolutely taste it."
"Oh that's even better, Kollontai's supercomputer is going to assess the quality of my recipes. Now, where does the Internationale's AI stand? Judge or jury?"
The avatar jumped up and down on the post-it. The little chef's hat wobbled.
"Oh," said Bubbles, "I am the embodiment of neutrality. Even when I occupy a humanoid body, cooking fills me with nothing but vague existential dread. Truth be told, I bought the vegetables at random."
"Talk about an aide...right, Bubbles, would you kindly set up the pressure cooker for a stew? Cooking time fifteen minutes, high pressure steam, the usual. Postmaster, could you help with the cutting?"
The state servant extended his arm to grab a knife from a cupboard, considering it as if he was about to load an armor-piercing slug into a railgun, then started peeling and chopping the carrots. Bubbles programmed the autocooker, which took her half a second. Then she gave Isaac/Isabeau a funny look.
"What's going on, Bubbles?"
"What else can I help you with?"
"Autocooker's ready and I don't have any kitchen bot you can take control of. I don't see anything else."
"I'm bored to tears."
"Don't 'ah' me, Isa. I've been stuck in this hangar with the Internationale for the past two weeks and I am entirely out of things to do. I have scoured all of Kollontai's networks, private and public. I've exhausted the content of every single MMO *and* singleplayer game I can find around here, additional content included. I'm such a prolific poster on communal forums that I'm probably going to get an IP ban because I look like a spambot. So yes. I'm bored. I'm so bored I've been thinking about arming the Internationale."
Isaac/Isabeau almost cut themselves out of surprise. The Postmaster raised an intrigued eyebrow.
"Oh, it's just some speculation on my end."
"Wait, Bubbles, I'm interested now," said the Postmaster, "if only for the mind games. How would you arm the Internationale?"
"Well. The main weakness of the Internationale is its feeble thrust, but that's also a strength, for it allows the ship to maintain a very weak thermal signature for a vessel this size. As we are mass and power limited, I don't think it's wise to count on active defences. We have to rely on an alpha strike to shake off a pursuer. It's impossible to equip the ship with a laser, our SMES batteries aren't optimized for this kind of discharge. The best option would be a missile bay, but we don't have the budget for this, I presume."
"Or the legal rights..."
"The real issue is that even Algorab's local branch doesn't have enough missiles to arm their own ships, so we couldn't count on their supplies. In any case, refitting the Internationale to carry missiles would force us to lose most of our cargo capacity, which is not ideal for a courier ship."
"No missiles, no laser, you're left with kinetics," said the Postmaster.
"Exactly. A single spine-mounted mass driver. We can sacrifice one of our drone bays to this effect, they have the same diameter as a standard mass driver turret emplacement. It'll have to be duct taped, but with enough recoil compensation it should hold. It won't swivel well and aiming will be remarkably awkward, but nothing a simple ballistic software assistant can't handle."
"And where will you find the ammunition?"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Our letter cannisters are armoured and have their own RCS. With some basic reprogramming and a payload made of sand or nails, you get semi-guided kinetic kill vehicles. I believe they're called 'soda cans of death' in Smyrnian space. Of course, this artillery wouldn't be very impressive, but who's going to suspect alpha strike capabilities from a battery-powered courier ship? Someone tries to ambush us, the Internationale snipes its geometry drive and gets out. Or we aim for the radiators and, well, have fun with your melting ship."
"The idea is somewhat sound but milspec mass drivers don't grow on trees."
"I'm pretty sure Algorab has one or two in a hangar somewhere."
"They will never agree to this."
"Then we'll find someone else. Mass drivers aren't eldritch science and we only need something that can fire once or twice. Mademoiselle Verne and her Outrenoir posse could maybe get us one. The budget won't be much of a burden."
"I really don't like the idea of arming a ship with communal taxes," said Isaac/Isabeau, "I know what you're going to say, Postmaster, but no, that's markedly different from adding a new antenna or upgrading the drives. A weapon remains a weapon. I'd like to talk with Bubbles. Alone."
The Postmaster bowed, cleaned up his knife, put it back in the cupboard and disappeared in the verdant shadow of the apartment's garden. The silly bird avatar blinked.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"Arming the Internationale...it's not a joke or an idle thought, correct? You're actually considering it. Don't pretend otherwise."
"Right. You want me to be open about my feelings, I will. I asked Qasmuna for the thermal signatures of the missiles the q-ship fired at the Al-Awaidh. You remember how the Distant Shores was destroyed by a missile as well, yes?"
"I don't see how I could forget."
"I got an exact match. Our attackers are the same. The killers of the Distant Shores are the aggressors of the Internationale."
Isaac/Isabeau crumbled in the sofa. They unfolded their spectacles and slid a finger alongside the frame to activate the virtual reality display.
"I want to see it, Bubbles."
"Of course. Sending the signatures now."
"No, you don't get it. I want you to show me your simulation of the Distant Shores' destruction."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Let's finish this once and for all."
The avatar left the post-it and reappeared in Isaac/Isabeau's field of vision. Bubbles sent them a compressed video file and the pilot opened it. A dark void filled the room, then the Distant Shores appeared. The pilot felt their heart skipping a beat as they saw the elongated frame of their old exploration vessel. Two hundred metres of aluminium, steel and carbon fibre with a rotating centrifugal gravity ring. Vast expanses of stars beyond -- calm and serene. The simulation went on for thirty seconds. The ship moved on inertia for ten seconds, then a debris defence laser lit up, firing towards an out of focus projectile. The missile struck with a blueish spark -- then chaos. The main fuselage exploded in a cloud of debris. The habitation ring snapped, broken in two by the ripples. The hull ruptured. The Distant Shores broke its trajectory. A single rescue capsule was ejected from the cockpit in the lower half of the ring. Bubbles' simulation stopped there. Everyone had survived the attack : thus, she did not care about what had happened afterwards. Isaac/Isabeau breathed deeply.
"I didn't think it would be so short."
"Why would I make it longer? I'm not simulating the attack out of morbid curiosity, Isa. I just want to understand. This is a scientific experiment, not a memento mori. How do you feel?"
"Strange. Fine. Didn't think I'd have the strength to watch it."
"Do you want me to re-run it?"
"No. I just wanted to face it once and for all, before any further discussion. What you said about the signatures...are you certain?"
"Yes. As I rewinded the black box's recordings, I noticed our sensors had noticed an infrared spike right before the impact. It matched the ignition of a missile stage, and look at the infrared spectrum -- it's identical to the missiles fired at the Al-Awaidh. So we're either dealing with the same people, or they have the same supplier."
"Whoever they could be, the Al-Awaidh took them down."
"Yes. And the owner of the ship killed the last accomplice. The q-ship's crew merely carried out orders, Isa, I'm certain of it. They're still somewhere out there, prowling the Five Suns."
"So it's about revenge."
"It's about self-defence. Think, Isa. Our attackers also tried to kill Qasmuna and she's an Algorab member. The ravens aren't as mild-mannered as we are. They hold grudges, far and deep, and they know how to hunt someone down. They'll try to follow the trail of the q-ship and it may escalate even further. I just want to protect the Internationale from the fallout. That's all".
"You won't go far with a duct taped mass driver."
"They went pretty far with a duct taped missile. I want to cease being a passive target."
"Bubbles. I'm an explorer and a mailperson, not a combatant. An armed mailwoman, that's a soldier. An armed explorer, that's a colonizer. I don't want to be neither."
"It's got nothing to do with war or colonialism. It's the opposite, actually. Some unknown but very human force wants to kill us. I'm just shooting back."
Isaac/Isabeau sighed for the third time. They wondered if Bubbles kept count. Probably. She kept count of everything.
"My grand-grandmother was a fighter pilot," they uttered.
"Yes. She taught me how to fly when I was fifteen. She's two hundred years old and still flying around in her biplane. She fought in the last years of the war against Eurofront. That was before the interstellar age."
"So she bombed Fortress Europe?"
"She did. She flew for the socialist republic of Al-Andalus, before it got subsumed by the USRE. That was before we could import hydrocarbons from Jupiter's moons, and before we had high-performance biofuels. They had a handful of jet fighters that spent their time as hangar queens or mid-flight explosions waiting to happen. Do you know what they used in combat? Postal planes. The old things would guzzle anything that vaguely looked like kerosene. Little prop planes armed with anti-tank missiles. And the funniest part is that it worked. The postal planes could carry up to two tons of ammunition, the pilots employed them as standoff missile trucks. They'd fly through the Pyrenees, drop their payload and retreat under USRE anti-air coverage. My grand-grandmother even got a French jet like this. Sheer, dumb luck. Your ideas for the Internationale reminded me of her, in her hangar, glueing missiles under the wings of decades-old planes."
"And you're telling yourself that in a sense, we're not that different from her, and she wasn't the herald of a colonialist state."
"I hate you."
"I hate you because you got me. Come on. We've got a mass driver to budget."
KOLLONTAI BLUES -- PART TWO
The blue waves of the thunderstorm ebbed and flowed against the bay windows of the Blue Whale, a bar nestled in the lower area of Kollontai's arcology, near the dark canopy. The Blue Whale was managed by a cooperative that came from Xango, a rogue gas giant in the Traverse named after a deity in Yoruba cults. Xango was famous for its endless storms and for being the birth place of interstellar rave culture. These two characteristics were intimately linked: in order not to die of boredom in their windy, dark world, the local inhabitants had developed their own style of electronic music. Xango electronica used the planet itself as a base, translating lightning strikes and hailstorms into audio signals. On Kollontai, the Xangian method of music-making gave peculiar results. The original Xango dance music made *noise*. Xango's claim to the throne of interstellar hardcore house was very legitimate. Most of this energy, however, came from the sheer power of the rogue planet's thunderstorms. Kollontai's weather was calmer and sweeter, which in turn influenced the music. The Blue Whale was filled with low-pitched drones, interrupted from time to time by vivid eruptions of strings and synth riffs.
"That's when the lightning strikes connect with the forest and trigger a fire," explained Qasmuna while stirring her tea, "the software doesn't really know what to do, so it summons the whole orchestra. I like the effect."
"I have to admit I prefer Xango's original music," replied Talasea while looking at Qasmuna pouring milk in her tea like a decadent variety of barbarian queen.
"Really? You're into rave parties?"
"No. I like Xango's musical scene but not its parties. They're made for one to lose control and I don't enjoy this. This is not our way of celebrating."
"Are you talking about the Starmoth Initiative or Irenians?"
"Irenians. You have no idea how decadent shore leaves can be when you've spent six months in a tin can darting through deep space. I couldn't even keep track of all the drugs and sexual fantasies I've seen in my years as an explorer, and I'm a blue lady from outer space, so I have quite the starting experience in both areas. Do the ravens ever party?"
Qasmuna raised an eyebrow.
"I can't answer. Algorab parties belong to the same clearance level as the true extent of our war against the Sequence."
"Tell me, Qasmuna...why did you join Algorab?"
"Why would someone join the ravens, according to you?"
"Out of personal beliefs, I'd say. Most of the Algorab members I know adhere to the idea that humankind must preserve its collective survival instinct. That we, as a species, must be cherished and protected at all costs. That the night is dark and full of terrors. That survival always justifies the means. That perhaps this is the price for utopia."
"Tal. Look at me. Don't you see something unusual in me? Like my age?"
"You're still young."
"Perhaps but Algorab is rarely a commune where one stays. Enthusiasm and idealism aren't inexhaustible, even in a community of minds like ours. We lead gloryless wars that don't even officially exist against empires that don't have a name anymore, while the rest of human space watches us with caution at best, disgust at worst. This is not conductive to one's well-being. Our members keep their raven wings for five, maybe ten years, and then they sail for better shores. Some of them are physically wounded, others shell-shocked, but the majority is just exhausted. Only artificial intelligences remain, not because they're more resilient but because their lives are longer and they can afford to waste more years in service of an ungrateful cause."
"And you're different?"
"No. I am as damaged as the others, but I haven't burned all my winters yet. I've only been a raven for five years, Tal. This is just another life for me. I've played many roles and all of them had to do with war. I first entered the stage as a ship captain in the USRE High Fleet. First battles."
"With a missile, just like you. Missiles are the real killers. Lasers don't really kill. They neutralize, they melt, they vaporize...missiles kill. I left the High Fleet when I was forty-five and was at the end of my operational career. That how it works in the USRE. After a while, when you are considered unfit for the harsh realities of active service aboard a ship, you get a choice. You're either promoted to a desk assignment, or sent back to the civilian world with a beatiful letter of recommendation and the third tier of a Terran lifetime salary. I wasn't fit for commanding a squadron, let alone a task force, but space wasn't done with me, so I knocked at the door of the Lebanese Space Interests. They don't have enough ships to assemble a single squadron so I didn't run any risk of failing upwards. It was very different from the High Fleet. Lebanon is quite liked among independent systems. They have the same capacities as Terran superpowers, but without the neocolonialism and without the ambitions, which is very appealing for minor space powers. Everyone wants them as allies. I spent more time escorting diplomats than fighting, but I enjoyed playing on a smaller stage. I was fired after a political disagreement. And then, I wondered what I was going to do with my life. I was fifty-two, one third of the way into my adult life, I guess I could have retired. But I was concerned..."
"Afraid of getting bored?"
"No. One doesn't join Algorab out of boredom. I wanted to face non-human opponents. I wanted to test my mettle. This cold calmness I enjoy in combat, would it also appear against the Sequence? Would I get to keep it against a power that's not only infinitely superior to ours, but doesn't even consider us as sophonts?"
"And what answer did you get?"
"None. So far I've only traded blows with a hastily put together q-ship trying to take down a courier ship and its charming blue navigator."
"I feel obliged to tell my story now."
"Why? You don't have anything to justify to me. I don't share the disdain some of my brethren have for explorers. I fought alongside you, this is all I need. Speaking of, how do you feel?"
"Fine. Sincerely fine. For now, at least. A bit of respite. How is your wound?"
"Healing well. I told you, monofilament blade wounds are simple to treat. If you don't die right away, your chances of survival aren't bad. That being said...I think we should consider what was said that day."
Qasmuna gently caressed the back of Talasea's hand.
"The feeling was sincere, Tal."
"And it is mutual. But Qasmuna, you're married. Which does mean something."
"I'm not asking for your hand, Talasea. Merely for an afternoon."
Qasmuna left the Blue Whale in silence, waiting for Talasea to follow. The Yazidi led the Irenian to her small apartment, hanging just below the dancing treeline. Qasmuna told Talasea to wait as she performed her morning prayer.
Walking out of the prayer room, Qasmuna removed her veil. Her long, curly hair cascaded in her back. With a swift gesture of her wrist, like an ancient queen foregoing her crown, she removed her glasses and folded them in a box made of precious Earth gems. Then, she gave Talasea her hand. The Irenian caressed it with the tip of her fingers. A feeling of warm rain on her skin ran up her forearm as their haptic tattoos tried to link up to each other. Talasea stepped to the side, without breaking eye contact with Qasmuna, and their q-augs interlaced again. She had imagined a violent contact between them. Qasmuna was a combatant, Talasea a mailwoman, the fight wasn't equal -- yet, their bodies were. They were both navigators, capable of commanding their ships with a mere flick of their wrist, and their q-augs reflected this latent power. They held each other at their fingertips -- like two vessels exchanging hails, finding themselves an equal. Talasea briefly broke contact, turned around and took Qasmuna's hand again. The raven's dark robe ebbed against the Irenian's tunic. Talasea didn't feel like there was anything to say. Their love was short-lived, they both knew it -- just an afternoon, had said Qasmuna. Just a rainy afternoon on Kollontai. The Irenian side-stepped around the Yazidi and their silent dance continued. Talasea gauged her soon-to-be lover. There was desire in her eyes, yes, but it wasn't exactly lust -- and it troubled Talasea more than she cared to admit. She wasn't used to being watched and grazed this way. Her lovers often projected their own fantasies on her. She was, after all, the perfect incarnation of Irenian hedonism and exoticism. Though it could be exhausting, such was a game she enjoyed playing, but Qasmuna did not engage with it. The old ship captain had seen to many stars and too many planets for this mirage to have an effect on her. Qasmuna's gaze reminded Talasea of Isaac/Isabeau's. Elegant, detached, deliciously haughty -- a provocation.
Talasea halted her steps in Qasmuna's back. She opened the collar of her robe, as if it had been the petals of a black lotus, then kissed the raven in the neck and, without a word, gently sank her teeth in her pale skin. Qasmuna caressed the Irenian's cheek, drawing a drop of blood with her nails. So, thought Talasea, it was a war. She'd match her move for move, and it was a dance she would consent to. Their hands met and Talasea faced Qasmuna. The Irenian reached under Qasmuna's tunic, finding her belly, then the gentle slopes of her chest. The Yazidi unbuttoned her dress with a deliberate, laser-accurate slowness that could have appeared cold but, to Talasea, was sweet as Vyirangan coral. Talasea found an old wound between her lover's breasts and followed it all the way to her hips. A rough line of meteoritic ejecta, memory of an ancient war. In response, the Yazidi caressed the carbon-infused scars on Talasea's sea-colored skin, with enough gentleness as to not hurt the Irenian. And thus, she thought, in this exchange of stories past, Qasmuna fully accepted her as an equal.
In half-light, they waged war on each other. The Irenian used her hands, her lips, her mouth and the geometric lines of her monad on her lover's body, magnified by a thousand suns. Qasmuna met her every move. Her kisses, her tongue between Talasea's thighs, her hands around her face, against her breasts and her heart she heard in silence. Few had been the lovers Talasea had desired in so many ways. She wanted to be mistress and slave, queen and subject, leader and follower. Their dance was without respite and without mercy. The link that tied them together ebbed and flowed, inverted itself again and again, but neither of them wanted to concede victory. Sometimes, Qasmuna's lips kissed Talasea's old wounds, birthing fragments of pleasure where the Irenian had not thought possible. In return, she gave Qasmuna all of her art and all of her dedication, initiating her to the depths of her own ocean.
Twilight danced on the sheets. Half-asleep against each other, Qasmuna and Talasea held hands in clear, white silence. The Yazidi breathed calmly, calm after the storm. The Irenian floated in a joyful serenity she had only ever felt with Isaac/Isabeau. It wasn't just carnal satisfaction, albeit she knew she would never forget Qasmnuna's touch -- it was something else. A pact, fulfilled. Absolute trust, fully given and never betrayed. Talasea contemplated Qasmuna. She was a painting. Diffracted sunlight undulated on her curly hair, on the shade between her legs, on the ink-drawn lines of her q-augs.
"Hey. Qasmuna," whispered Talasea.
"Yes?" she answered, her voice smooth as silk.
"Now we know what happens when ravens and starmoths find each other."
The Yazidi smiled, peacefully.
"If only all our diplomatic efforts could be similar..."
"It would be exhausting."
"This afternoon will be a memory I'll always cherish, Tal."
She kissed her on the forehead and resumed listening to her heart.
After their encounter with a q-ship, the crew of the Internationale is resting on Kollontai, the capital city of the Five Suns. In the meantime, a conspiracy is brewing: the mysterious organizers of the ambush are preparing for a strike.
Rainy night over Kollontai's communal arcology.
The small apartment assigned to the mailpersons was bathed in half-light that seeped from the bay window. Talasea's wooden staff whistled in the darkness, stopping mere inches away from the VR targets she used for practice. Kollontai's gravity was close to that of the Earth and higher than what she was used to. It wasn't only a disadvantage. About thirty percent heavier, the Irenian felt better anchored to the ground. A few weeks on Kollontai would be enough to regrow the missing muscle mass -- her spacer metabolism was accustomed to this back and forth. The Irenian moved with swiftness and accuracy, focused on her footwork. Pleiadians like her learned several martial arts in their space stations, using bare hands or close contact weapons. The most well-known forms of their martial traditions arts were also the most elegant and the most ceremonial. They were closer to dances than combat, requiring mutual consent from the combatants. Their inspirations were multiple but mainly Terran. The weapons were hunting spears, shamshirs and two-handed medieval swords. Tali had often practised these artistic forms for herself, sometimes for an audience. Martial dances were a crucial part of Irenian culture and they were a distraction.
Because there was a version of Irenian dances that was meant for actual combat. It shared the same premises but not the same ends. It used the same weapons but not with the same spirit. It wasn't a ballet, it was a manoeuvre. Here lay one of the secrets of the Pleiades. While Irenians learned to dance, they learned to kill.
Talasea was in the middle of moving from ballet to manoeuvre. Her parries became counter-attacks in the making. Her slashing attacks became thrusting motions, fast and accurate enough to pierce ballistic armour with the right blade. The staff became a monofilament blade. It wasn't about spectacle any longer, it was about survival.
When the door opened behind her, Talasea took a moment to swing back into a low guard, then shook her sweat-soaked hair. The Irenian noticed that her legs shivered. She had underestimated the effects of Kollontai's gravity on her muscles. Isaac/Isabeau leaned closer to her and grabbed the training staff.
"Hey. Do you know that it's four in the morning, Tal?"
"I couldn't go back to sleep. Did I wake you up?"
"No. I was in the middle of a panic attack. I assume it's normal after...hell, I feel stupid. I almost said after getting shot at. It would have been senselessly trivial."
"Death is always trivial. You can say we almost got shot at. You can alternatively say that we almost got turned into human soup by debris moving at several kilometres per second. That twenty-seven kilometres to the left and you'd have lost your heart. Or your head. Like this. Gone."
Talasea grabbed the staff back and turned it around with a flick of her wrist. It stopped right under Isa's nose. The pilot looked up towards her. They had always found Talasea incredibly attractive as a combatant, but right there, right now, all they could see was a statue of steel, as sharp as a blade.
"I killed two men yesterday," she said, calmly, "at least. Qasmuna managed the Al-Awaidh's missile defences. I handled torpedo guidance. The software was the same used on atmospheric probes and rocketsondes. Easy to handle. I hit the target. It's not Qasmuna who killed that q-ship. It's me. And you know the worst? I can't feel guilty. I simply woke up wanting to hit something with a staff."
"Tal...you said that since the destruction of the Distant Shores, you had trouble feeling fear. Were you afraid, aboard the Al-Awaidh?"
"Why are you asking me this?"
"I'm trying to determine your mental state."
"No. I wasn't afraid. But you know how adrenaline works. Fear always comes late."
"Did it come, in the end?"
"No. Isa...you're not a psychologist, until I missed something lately."
"Weren't you supposed to see one on Rainwater?"
"Didn't have time. And she was busy. The mental health of explorers and Algorab members isn't stellar, you know. I managed to get an appointment right before we had to rescue the Night Flight. Awful planning. And honestly, I'm not sure if it'd be useful. I know this feeling. Remember the Gondwana expedition? hen I almost got dismembered by a Sequence warform? I had a similar feeling for a few weeks. Having been millimetres away from death made me fearless. Utterly unable to envision my own death for a good few months. I was lucky not to do anything reckless in the meantime. And you, when you got trapped in that crevice, on Tyra? Did you feel the same?"
"No. Don't you remember? I had nightmares for a year. I didn't even dare going on EVA without you."
Talasea threw the staff away and sat down next to Isaac/Isabeau, tilting her head against her lover's shoulder.
"We are stupid, aren't we? Two idiots who can't sleep, nurturing their fears."
The cargo shuttle darted through Kollontai's stratosphere, cutting through its thick clouds without the faintest hint of elegance. The engine was heavy and powerful, equipped with a pair of air-breathing nuclear drives.
The ship was named Trabzon. Its cockpit was comically small compared to the volume reserved to the cargo containers. The Trabzon belonged to Florin, a Terran cooperative specialized in short-range interstellar logistics. Both its origins and funding were obscure, but several independent exploration communes had sponsored it in the Five Suns. For the past few months, the Trabzon had been transporting minerals and liquid hydrogen between Kollontai and its asteroids. Its pilots were still registered as USRE citizens and as such could not be members of the Five Suns. The Trabzon's cockpit was three-seated : it housed a pilot, a copilot and a mechanic. This crew setup was archaic and in truth the modernized cargo ship could do with a single crewmember. The pilot was the only person in the cockpit to wear a flight suit. It was dark blue, with grey stripes on the sleeves and a single name on the chest: Mandrin. He led his nuclear rowboat with accuracy but without any excess of talent, visibly focused on other problems than his mundane approach trajectory. The two crewmembers standing behind him wore combat vests with dark green digital camouflage. High-mobility infantry harnesses were sewn to their full-body suits.
"Drop point in five minutes," said Mandrin. Rossignol gave him a thumbs up. Suarez tapped the magazine of her assault rifle.
"You aren't obliged to do it," said Rossignol while reviewing the flight parameters on her harness, "I can take your biometric tracker and do it solo."
The young Terran woman shook her head while her hand instinctively moved to the barcode on her shoulder.
"No. Remember when Kalu and Saurat tried to game our employer when she was sick? The old man saw right through it. And I really don't want to end up like Saurat. Out of credits and dying of thirst, that's a nasty way to go. So I go."
"Fair. Just, remember to take into account the modifications I implemented on the delta wing. You need to overcompensate on the right and undercompensate on the left."
"It infuriates me that we can't properly repair this suit."
"I know. Not my fault if our 3D printers are dying one after the other. Come on. Mandrin?"
"Two minutes. Maintaining trajectory."
Rossignol holstered her pistol and sheathed her monofilament carbon sword. The employee didn't enjoy hand-to-hand combat, but between the three of them, there were only two working firearms and fifty bullets left. And Moran and Qing had been captured with a revolver, a submachine gun and a hundred bullets...morons.
"One minute to drop. Ready?"
"Ready. Opening bay doors."
The Trabzon's rear loading bay slid open with a whistle. Warm, rainy air entered the nuclear shuttle. Rossignol and Suarez sealed their flight helmets shut. The forest beneath them was a dark green blur. Kollontai's main arcology was a pin through the night, ten kilometres away.
"Go for drop!" announced Mandrin.
Rossignol and Suarez dove through the loading bay.
Talasea thought that Qasmuna likely took her for the prototype of the depraved Irenian. There she was, keeping the apartment door open, half-naked, still covered in Isaac/Isabeau's perfume, black lipstick marks in her neck. Yet, Qasmuna didn't seem to mind.
"Hey. Did I interrupt something important?"
"Twenty minutes ago, you would have had. Don't worry, Isa fell asleep. What's going on?"
"I just received news from the hospital. Rainwater transferred the two hangar saboteurs here. Couldn't do anything for the man I shot down, he was already dead when he came in. The other only had light chest trauma and oxygen deprivation induced coma. He came back to his senses. Social services want to interrogate him."
"Yes. The Postmaster insisted. He fears someone might try to silence them."
"We don't even know if anyone else but these two is involved."
"But we don't have evidence of the contrary. They need us two for the interrogation. Are you coming?"
"Yes, yes. Let me put something on."
Rossignol and Suarez unfolded their Kevlar wings in the biting wind. Their high mobility harnesses allowed them to perform course corrections using basic impulse thrusters that gleamed like ephemeral fireflies. The wind howled all around Rossignol -- a beast that harassed her even through the helmet. She was familiar with aggressive airborne insertions on Earth, and Kollontai was remarkably similar to her homeworld. She kept an eye on her speed and trajectory displays, the other on her wing's HUD. Everything was nominal. In French, Rossignol meant "nightingale". She felt like her avian callsign wasn't entirely undeserved. Suarez, however, worried her. The operator wasn't as experimented as she was and her trajectory showed signs of hesitation. Above them, the storm had yet to start but the thundercloud was already filled with lightning strikes. With more time to plan out the operation, Rossignol would have had waited for the skies to clear, but she didn't have had the choice. And thus here they were, Rossignol and Suarez, two human aircraft flying above a forest twice older than the Earth itself.
"Suarez, raise your altitude, you need more air. We have to hit the arcology right below the two hundredth floor."
"Trying. I have issues with my impulse thrusters. They're out of sync."
"Then compensate harder on the faulty side."
Rossignol pinged the arcology with a targeting laser. Seven hundred meters tall, one kilometre away. Windspeed had increased. Still doable, but ever riskier.
"Contact in five minutes. Suarez, you're losing too much altitude. Do you read me?"
"I'm losing my thrusters!"
"Copy. You can't reach the arcology on unpowered glide alone. Bank right fifteen degrees. Do you see the limestone formation? Try to land there."
"I can hardly control my trajectory. Hydraulics are dropping."
"Switch to emergency controls."
"The wing is bent!"
Rossignol followed Suarez on her HUD. Her companion wasn't too far from the plateau -- and then she saw a limestone needle emerge from the fog.
"Suarez! Evade, evade!"
There was no answer. Suarez tried to veer away from the limestone needle but it was too late. She hit the rock head-first, at full speed, like a leaf pushed against a wall by the wind. Suarez slid to the side, then dove towards the forest in a flat spin. The trees swallowed her as if she had never existed.
Kollontai's main arcology was built to minimize ground footprint as much as possible. It followed the same design as Eloran coral towers: a blade cutting through the cloudy sky. Eloran arcologies, however, were designed to house a million inhabitants each, while Kollontai's tower was home to merely ten thousand. Living spaces were spread alongside the inner walls, while the inside of the arcology was hollow, except for an anti-seismic spring running from the ground to the tip of the arcology. Talasea glanced over the railing. From the vantage point of her floor, she saw markets, commons, gardens, miniature plazas, communal apartments and world-trees. Bridges and streams of small drones linked the various districts of the arcology together. Near the base of the coral tower, the forest grew freely, extending its leaves towards the solar bays.
"That's quite different from Port Cordoba, isn't it?" she said to Qasmuna.
"I've been to Elora once," sneered the Yazidi, "and it was enough. Arcologies give me vertigo. Come on. Let's go."
"Yes. Where do they keep our intruder?"
"The hospital is located in the mid-level floors. I feel bad for the man I shot down. I think he could have survived with access to a modern trauma unit. A bullet in the head is something a milspec surgical robot can treat."
"And Kollontai doesn't have one?"
"No. Kollontai can't manufacture high-tech medical equipment. An arcology is easy to assemble with in-situ resources, but a surgical unit capable of dealing with deep brain trauma, that's another story. It has to be imported from human space. In the past ten years, there were only two shipments of medical supplies and the communes had to set its priorities straight. It favoured chronic and auto-immune disease treatments over trauma units. Makes sense on an unknown planet. Entire outposts had to be evacuated because of deadly allergies in the initial settlement efforts. The lesson lingered."
"Doesn't Algorab have milspec surgery units?"
"Not on Silene. The Five Suns is a peaceful region, the Sequence isn't too active. And Port Cordoba doesn't have unlimited resources."
"I don't think the Five Suns would appreciate us having a proper forward base on Silene."
"Right. On we go."
They climbed up the stairs leading to the arcology's midsection floors, walked through a hallway painted with colourful effigies of Hindu deities then entered the main hall of Kollontai Communal Hospital. The inside had been decorated with mosaics. Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, watched upon Talasea and Qasmuna from her golden throne. Two social workers welcomed them. Their eyes were golden; they came from Saturn and Jupiter. Qasmuna and Talasea saluted them with a bow.
"We're coming on behalf of Kollontai's social services."
"Oh, yes, of course. The Postmaster is already here. Second floor, room 508."
They bowed again and walked towards the left wing of the second floor. This side of the hospital, the rooms faced outwards. Through the bay windows, Talasea could see the rainy horizons of Kollontai. The planetary rings were invisible, the thunderclouds black as night silk.
Rossignol blinked twice to engage her infrared vision. She didn't think. She was just the autopilot of a human glider. Her engines were off, except for the thrusters that controlled her lateral velocity. Two hundred meters. One hundred. Fifty meters. She opened her hands, palms towards the wall. The outer layer of her gloves was made of a biomimetic artificial skin, inspired by the scales of a gecko. It was the most high-tech element of her antediluvian combat suit. Twenty-five meters.
The surface of the arcology was both smooth and harsh, impossible to apprehend through the gloves. A song of coral surging towards the sky and Rossignol was a starfish glued to its outer wall thanks to the ghost of a small Terran lizard. Five seconds passed. Her high-mobility suit took the whitish colour of the arcology wall. Perfect. The camouflage worked, at least. She glanced downwards. Room 508 was right below. Rossignol reached for her belt. The monofilament blade was here, resting silent in its sheath.
Rossignol blinked again.
In another world, in another time, she would have used milspec sensors to scan the room. But that ship had sailed. Her sister-in-arms had just died because their employer couldn't even maintain a pair of impulse thrusters in working order. Thus, Rossignol used the old-school method of peeking through the window. Qing was alone, in his bed, reading. He wasn't handcuffed or restrained in any way. What a circus. The Five Suns communals couldn't care less about their prisoners. Then, Rossignol realized, what was the point ? The only exit other than the locked door was the bay window and it opened on five hundred meters of nothingness. Rossignol took a shatter charge from her belt and glued it to the rain-soaked window. The side of the suit that faced the thunderstorm had become pitch-black. One, two, three. The charge detonated with a whimper. The window shattered. Half the shards rang on the ground, while the rest disappeared in the wind. Rossignol jumped into the room.
"Hello, Qing," she said, unsheathing her blade.
The Postmaster paced the floor in the hallway, hands behind his back. Talasea wouldn't have said he was nervous, but it was pretty close -- the closest an android frame could be to actually displaying anxiety.
"Are we waiting for someone?" asked Qasmuna.
"Yes, we can't begin the interrogation without a senior social worker, and she's late. I don't know how you handle such things in Algorab but this man is suspected of sabotage and attempted murder. We can't talk to him without oversight."
"Algorab doesn't entertain the habit of imprisoning terrorists and assassins, we just extradite them to other jurisdictions. We treat our criminals according to communal regulations but we do not have experience in solving criminal cases. Try to charge a Sequencer with murder and you'll get what I mean. I am, however, wondering about the complete absence of anything resembling a security detail around this room."
"What do you mean?"
"Come on. We got attacked by a cargo ship modified to carry a payload of missiles. And before that, we were ambushed by two hangar rats with firearms. Of course, you could wager that all the protagonists of this miserable affair have been neutralized, between the destruction of the q-ship and the firefight in the hangar. But if it's not the case? Then the remaining accomplices might want to remove an embarrassing witness."
The Postmaster looked at Qasmuna with intrigued interest.
"I didn't consider this."
"And I don't blame you for it. The Five Suns are too peaceful for such thoughts. Or used to."
The Postmaster nodded, then a sound coming from the room startled them. Something like a gargled shout.
Rossignol cursed while sheathing her monofilament sword. A shiv, the bastard had a shiv. A carbon needle, twenty centimeters long and thin as a human hair, stored right under the skin. Kollontai's imbecilic social workers had probably mistook it for a tattoo or q-aug. Qing had tried to stab her with the shiv when she had moved in for the coup-de-grâce. The needle hadn't pierced the Kevlar vest but it had been enough to deflect her strike. The execution had turned into a swift massacre. The blade meant for his spine had pierced his heart. Qing had died screaming.
The door opens. The first thing Rossignol notices is the blue skin of the first woman to enter room 508. Irenian. Doesn't look very dangerous but Rossignol remembers what the CCTV cameras showed her after the hangar debacle. It's the woman who made Qing spill out their plans for the Internationale. Rossignol's brain switches to reflex mode. She is nothing more but a target sorting machine. Discriminate, identify, engage. The pistol appears in her hand. She pulls the trigger three times. Rossignol still shakes under the tremendous strain her glide required. Her aim is sloppy. Another woman managed to slip in front of the Irenian, taking the shots in her stead. Her tunic lights up, golden veins blinking from the impact points. The veiled woman wears a ballistic shawl -- spider silk and Kevlar, superconducting layers allowing to turn kinetic energy into electricity. It's more of a threat than the Irenian. Rossignol's blade rushes out of the sheath. She strikes. The monofilament sword cuts through the ballistic tunic, then sears in the flesh beneath. The tip punches a hole in the wall. Rossignol steps back and repositions herself, aiming for the chest. An object blinks in her field of vision. The Irenian has a knife. A strange recurved thing that intercepts her blade with unexpected strength. Rossignol feels the edge of the blade cut a corner in the dagger. Monofilament carbon against Damascus steel, the duel isn't fair but she is out of time.
When she fights, Rossignol often feels like that tenths of seconds are replaced by years. She sees the veiled woman slide against the wall, leaving blood in her wake. She sees the Irenian pushing her own sword away. Her guard is wide open, but Rossignol is wary of the strength she perceives in her slender body. And she witnesses a third person run through the door -- a very good imitation of a human frame, but this is an android. AI avatar. A dangerous unknown. Rossignol isn't aware of its specifications, strength and capabilities.
Another tenth of a second. Rossignol thinks she could either finish off the veiled woman or get rid of the Irenian. Two possibilities, not two certainties.
Rossignol swiftly disengages her blade and side-steps towards the broken window, before hurling herself at the rainy void.
Ten meters below, her Kevlar wing unfolds and she disappears in the storm.
Talasea ran towards Qasmuna. The slash hadn't killed the Yazidi. The opening in her ballistic tunic was deep and well-defined. The blade hadn't penetrated any vital organ but Talasea knew she couldn't trust her eyes. Monofilament swords could open an adult woman in two with a single slash. Wounds caused by such weapons were almost always worse than they looked and Talasea acted instinctively. At this very moment in time, the Irenian wasn't exactly a woman anymore, but a spaceship navigator in crisis response mode, a simple logical function dedicated to the survival of the crew. She took her shawl off and used it to apply pressure on the wound -- limiting blood loss was the first order of business.
"Call for an emergency," she said to the Postmaster, hastily, "and go get me a coagulant spray. I've seen a first aid kit on this floor, by the stairs we took. The spray is packaged in a dark blue cylinder with a white ring on the side, it's standardized, you can't miss it. Qasmuna, do you hear me? Can you keep the pressure on this wound for a minute?"
The Yazidi nodded. She was eerily serene -- in shock, assumed Talasea.
"I'm right back."
The Irenian dashed towards Qing and his blood-soaked bed. No breathing motions; no pulse. Talasea put her hand against the back of Qing's neck, trying to determine if his monad was still active but, under the skin, the artificial gland was cold and inert. Qasmuna raised her voice. It was cold and composed.
"Tal. Don't bother. He's dead."
"The wound isn't even..."
"The killer ran their blade through the thorax, piercing the heart. Military execution. Monofilament blade wounds are always like this. The cut is so accurate it barely looks like a graze but trust me, he is dead. Even milspec q-augs couldn't save him. Could you...come back, please? I'm weakening."
Talasea ran back to Qasmuna, setting her hand aside and applying pressure herself again. The Postmaster darted through the door.
"Help's on the way with a medical drone. Catch."
Talasea grabbed the blue bottle, tore off Qasmuna's shirt and sprayed a thin layer of transparent liquid on the wound. The Yazidi winced as the artificial mucus solidified, blocking the outbound flow of blood and creating a temporary stitch. Qasmuna took Talasea's hand.
"Hey, Tal. I'm fine."
"You're not, you've lost about a litre of blood."
"I would say a litre and a half. But there's no internal bleeding and the cut is as clean as it could be. I'm fine, really. Drowned in painkillers and adrenaline by my monad, but fine."
"Qasmuna, you're sixty-two!"
"Yeah, and you?"
"Thirty-eight, but that's not the point."
"It very much is. I'm not the fossil you seem to think, however, I've been wounded in combat almost a dozen times. I know my body and its limits better than you do. I'm fine. I just need a bit more pressure on this wound. Here. Hey, Talasea. Look at me. Breathe."
"Don't tell me what I should do. You're the one with a monofilament blade wound, don't invert our roles."
"I think I love you."
"This is neither the time nor the place, despite..."
"I am overdosing with endorphins. I get to say whatever I want."
"That drone can't get here sooner. Now we've got delirium to deal with..."
Qasmuna laughed, drenched in blood. Outside the door, the drone crawled towards the Yazidi with a gentle whirr, blind to the chaos and confusion around it.
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