Episode 1 -- Island in the Sky
Behind the Postmistress were five stars, painted in white on the dark blue wall. Their names were written in Hindi, Sanskrit and Arabic. Outrenoir, the black hole. Kollontai, the yellow dwarf. Silene, the red dwarf. Sauveterre's Respite and its trinary parent. And, finally, Rainwater station, turned towards the galactic centre. Five fragments of humankind, lost in the Perseus Arm, fifty thousand lightyears away from the Sun.
An island in the sky.
The Postmistress wore deep purple. It was the uniform of the Five Suns' postal service, marked with the triple goddess symbol. On the edges of the civilized world, postal services were more than an institution. They were a religion and the Postmistress of Rainwater Station was one of its priestesses. She glanced at the papers signed by her two new recruits. The first one was named Tali Talasea and with such a name as well as her deep blue skin she could only be an Irenian. The second one was named Isaac/Isabeau and the Postmistress smiled as she realized they had erased the entire "gender" column and added the following note: "why do you even ask that anyway."
The Postmistress gave them the sheet of paper back. Isa grabbed it, folded it into a paper plane and threw it across the room.
"You are right," conceded the Postmistress, "I shouldn't ask that. It's not appropriate. But these registering papers are old and I have yet order new ones."
The Postmistress glanced at the couple. Isaac/Isabeau wore a simple short-sleeved flight suit, dark blue, bearing the triple goddess symbol. She wondered where Isaac/Isabeau had found this, probably in the cargo ship that had brought both of them to the Five Suns. They were Terran, judging from their general silhouette. African, maybe, albeit their name was rather European-sounding. The Irenian wore a white shirt with laced sleeves and black jean pants, a strange combination that the Postmistress found absolutely ridiculous and yet very apt for the Irenian. The Postmistress considered the third paper, signed by someone named "Bubbles". Instead of answering any question, they had drawn the entirety of the Bayeux Tapestry on the sheet.
"Where's your third companion? Courier 7 needs three pilots."
The Irenian took a little post-it out of her pocket and glued it to the desk. A little e-ink triangle appeared on it. It had two blinking eyes and looked like a stylized bird. The shape waved at the Postmistress.
"Bubbles is an artificial intelligence. She was born out of an autopilot system. We partnered with her when we came to the Five Suns."
"I am not sure Courier 7's radiators and power generation are AI-rated."
"The on-board life support is powerful enough for ten crewmembers and Bubbles is a vegetal AI. She'll be fine."
The Postmistress nodded.
"Fair enough. Can I ask you two a question? You belong to the Starmoth Initiative. You're explorers and navigators, not mailpeople. You don't actually need to work. I know you've missed your ride to the Earth and the next one leaves in two years but why answer my offer with so much enthusiasm?"
"We already piloted a ship similar to Courier 7," answered Isaac/Isabeau while grabbing Bubbles' post-it back.
"Yes, it's a common ship type. We've received a small flotilla of those seven years ago. A cargo ship captain who hadn't managed to sell them and had decided what Rainwater clearly needed were twenty fast messenger vessels, free of charge. If you really want to fly one of these, you could borrow it. Or buy it. We owe that station to the Starmoth Initiative after all. We could certainly arrange something."
"We just want to be useful."
The Postmistress nodded, yet she didn't believe a single word they'd just said. The motives of her volunteers mattered little, as long as they were apt.
"Good. From tomorrow onwards, you'll have access to Courier 7. The previous team called it Internationale. Does that name suit you?"
The Postmistress nodded once again. She had hired two old students with the curriculum vitae of an entire exploration vessel, but after all, Courier 7 had never been a normal ship.
The community bar named the Dancing Dryad was a small establishment nestled inside the inner urban bay of Rainwater Station. The station, thirty years before, had been a pioneer, sent into deep space to serve as a relay for a large trans-galactic expedition. The expedition had never reached its destination but the relay had remained. Rainwater was a very simple thing. It was a Zanzibar-class station made of a three kilometres long hollow asteroid. Two thousand inhabitants resided in the urban-rural tissue installed alongside the inner slopes of the asteroid. The local centrifugal gravity was half of that of the Earth -- cosy for Talasea, slightly too low for Isa. The Irenian had to gauge the Coriolis force accurately to avoid spilling tea on everyone in the bar. While Isa was fairly bad at this little exercise, it was a second nature for Tali, born in an O'Neill cylinder. Her stream of tea hit their two teacups dead-on, under the amused gaze of the Tired Vriij. The tentacled creature wore a thin exosuit allowing him to survive outside of the ocean. He communicated with the outside with a vegetal computer, turning sonar clicks into a synthesized voice. With humans, the Tired Vriij identified himself as male, which wasn't entirely accurate but a good enough approximation. The creature manipulated glasses and bottles with the utmost dexterity but clients were few and far between and he found himself with too much time on his hands.
"So, he said, you're Courier 7's new crew then?"
"Not yet. We have yet to step aboard."
"Well then I hope you'll find the ship to your tastes. Messenger drones are good, of course, but for unorthodox deliveries, you can't beat human pilots."
Talasea raised an eyebrow.
"What kind of unorthodoxy are we talking about?"
"The Postmistress didn't tell you?"
"She's not very talkative."
"Never was. But don't worry, I'm not talking about illegal packages. Just that our island in the sky is full of little corners that messenger drones have trouble reaching. That's where you come in."
"Can I ask you a question?"
The Tired Vriij waved a tentacle in approval.
"What happened to the previous crew of Courier 7? The Postmistress mentioned their names, Josephine, Eglantine and Odysseus, but without further information."
"I guess that question was to come sooner or later. To be honest I have no idea. They all belonged to the Starmoth Initiative, just like you, and had missed their transport to the Earth. They were very similar to you, in a sense. I think they went away with the latest transport, the Semiramis. The one you missed. I didn't pay much attention to them, I'm afraid. I had more pressing problems."
"A real cataclysm. We were running out of tea. Don't laugh! We are fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth. A few tons of tea is all that separates us from existential dread at all times."
The docking spaces of Rainwater Station were located outside the asteroid, alongside the craters of the equatorial zone. They were reachable with a tramway that, after a few minutes of travel with a colourful crowd, led to the vast hangars dug in the minerals-rich walls of the asteroid. The hollow asteroid was full of iron and the exposed walls had taken a sweet red colour with time.
The Lunar Mechanic watched the three new pilots of Courier 7 disembark from the tramway with a tired smile. She had been a Rainwater citizen for a good decade and had come with the second wave of Starmoth Initiative cargo ships. She wore two symbols on her blue sweater. On one side, the five silver suns and, on the other, the six-tipped star and the inverted crescent of the Moon Communes from the solar system. The Lunar Mechanic had initially seen her civil service in the selenite community of Rainwater Station as punishment. With time, however, she had come to see it as a blessing. The Lunar Mechanic wanted peace above all else. When one exiled themselves to the other end of the galaxy, it was either for the love of the great void and its mysteries, or to get as much breathing space as possible. The Lunar Mechanic belonged to the second category. She couldn't stand change nor agitation. Thus, she felt every single muscle in her body tense up as she bowed to the Irenian, the Terran and their AI companion pinned to a post-it. She had already installed the AI aboard Courier 7. Bubbles' vegetal canister, at least, didn't take too much room or energy. The Lunar Mechanic appreciated it. She liked artificial intelligences, especially the ones born from autopilots or vacuum cleaners. They enjoyed peace as much as her.
"I glanced over your profiles," said the Lunar Mechanic, "and, well, I don't think I have much to teach you. You are familiar with the ship class. Courier 7 only received marginal modifications, you'll figure them out on board. Come. Let me show you the ship."
She snapped her fingers and the nearest hangar door opened.
Hollow asteroid stations like Rainwater could welcome small vessels inside, instead of docking them in free space. The craters had vast airlocks that allowed messenger ships and small cargo vessels to be maintained by suit-less personnel. Thus Talasea and Isa found themselves suddenly in front of Courier 7, callsign Internationale, standing upright in landing bay 24D of Rainwater Station. The ship was about forty meters long. Without the outer hull, thought Isaac/Isabeau, the Internationale would have been quite an ugly ship. It would have been made of an hexagon-shaped cockpit at the prow, of a similarly shaped central section and of an engine surrounded by propellant spheres for the main drive. A vertical miniature refinery, such was the closest comparison in Isa's mind. The ship was saved by its hull. It covered Courier 7 prow to stern. Three midsection openings revealed the rear part of the engine section, leaving room for trisymmetrical radiators, folded in the grey surface. Talasea didn't see any point to this hull. The ship wasn't fast enough for interstellar dust to be a concern and it landed vertically, thus didn't require aerodynamic surfaces. It was purely for show. And what show...Courier 7's livery was deep blue, with a white band in the centre, bearing the triple goddess symbol. It was immatriculated 7-ISI.
Against the white background of the hangar, Courier 7 was a fold of geometric paper, fallen from an ancient sky.
"Here is the beast," said the Lunar Mechanic as if she was looking at a rusty tractor, "it's made for ten crewmembers, the geometry drive is operational and the payload is about a thousand tons. The ship is equipped with a Lazward drive. Microwave-arcjet propulsion powered by superconductor batteries."
"And an auxiliary rocket drive with metastable nitrogen propellant," interrupted Talasea with a hand gesture.
"Good. I'll leave you the keys."
The Lunar Mechanic sighed.
"It's a metaphor. The biometric system will recognize you, I registered your faces in its database. I assume Courier 7 is under your responsibility now. The Five Suns Postal Service has a free maintenance agreement with Rainwater Station, within reasonable limits of course. By that I mean that if you come back with a destroyed drive I won't be able to do much but I can swap your used batteries out. Ah. While I'm at it. Your luggage is aboard and I have two deliveries for you. Here's the cargo manifest. The Postmistress told me you could handle it."
The Lunar Mechanic handed Talasea an e-ink tablet.
"One hundred tons of plants for a mining station and a single package with unknown contents for a lunar outpost that doesn't exist on any map?"
The Lunar Mechanic shrugged.
"Welcome to the postal service."
In the image of most vessels, Courier 7 had a vertical deck plan, with each compartment perpendicular to the axis of thrust. The ship was a small forty meters tall building, with a small habitable section. When they entered the cockpit, Talasea and Isa found themselves in familiar territory. The hexagon-shaped compartment had no windows, using a series of virtual reality windows instead. The seats for the pilot and copilot were mounted side by side, like on an antique airliner. The controls, noted Isa, were quite vintage compared to the modern appearance of the vessel. There were no touchscreen nor complex haptic feedback system like on some engines. Instead, there were flight sticks, switches, buttons and three-dimensional knobs. It all gave a strangely timeless impression. Isa floated to the copilot's seat. The windows came to life, displaying a three hundred and sixty degree vision of the hangar. Bubble's bird appeared in a corner.
"I think the ship is ready. It's under power and I have loaded a checklist."
"I'm coming!" said Talasea who was busy donning her flight suit. She went to the pilot's seat and went over the check-list with Isa. Then, she opened a communications channel with Rainwater Station. An angelic voice answered her query.
"Rainwater Control, we have you on the line, Courier 7. We just received your flight plan for two destinations. You are authorized to leave the station. Thrusters only. Good travels."
"Thanks, Rainwater. Hangar depressurization. Courier 7, departing."
The iris-shaped airlock opened and the magnetic clamps were disengaged. Talasea took the helm, leading the vessel outside with on RCS thrusters. Faint clouds of crystallized gas provided the ship with a single impulsion sufficient for the vessel to leave the station.
The empty asteroid orbited in silence, followed by a wake of wire radiators. In the background, Talasea and Isa could see the half-lit blue crescent of Typhoon, Rainwater Station's parent gas giant. There were few spaceships in the vicinity and most of them were just small dots of light, several hundred kilometres away. Traffic around Rainwater Station was minimal. The station was almost autarkic and only imported minerals and ecosystemic goods. Bubbles stood in a corner of the screens, under the e-ink avatar of a lady in a pilot jacket, legs dangling above a radar screen. She waved her arms and spawned a map of Typhoon and its sixty-seven moons, centred around the small golden circle of Rainwater Station.
"The destination of our plants is a station named Titania Port, orbiting a small planetoid. I suggest a direct trajectory. One hour of thrust for the translation."
"Perfect, Bubbles," answered Isa, "how are things down here?"
"I'm adapting. The ship is comfy. On-board systems are a bit cramped but I'll get used to it. It's kind of you to allow me to live in a ship again."
Tali approved with a smile and flicked a switch. The three radiators slowly unfolded like rectangular wings. Courier 7 was still cold. The heat sinks gleamed ever so slightly, like bronze under sunlight.
Beyond them, space was serene.
Tal moved her seat back a few inches and turned towards Isaac/Isabeau. The pilot was absorbed by a window describing the technical parameters of the drive.
"How long has it been since we were last together in a cockpit?"
"I don't know. A few years?"
"Ten years, Isa. Ten years."
Isaac/Isabeau closed the window and shook their head, as if they had just realized something.
"We...we should have kept in touch."
"Yes. We should have."
The Irenian had a faint smile. Bubbles announced the Internationale was far enough to start its burn. Talasea oriented the ship towards Titania Port.
At the beginning of the second space age, two centuries before, it would have taken several days for Courier 7 to bridge the five million kilometres of void between Rainwater Station and Titania Port, even with a fusion drive. The Internationale had nothing of the sort. While very elegant, its drive wasn't very powerful and would have taken weeks to bring it to its destination. Courier 7, however, had a tool its distant ancestors didn't possess. The weird miracle that had given humankind the stars. At the heart of the ship rested a geometry drive capable of teleporting Courier 7 towards its destination and sparing it most of the journey. All the Internationale had to do was to switch its engines on and match the relative velocity of Titania Port.
Isa pushed the throttle. Twenty metres behind the cockpit the Lazward drive ignited. The propellant tanks started pumping liquid hydrogen in the engine. The Internationale stored several hundred compact batteries, under the shape of superconducting toroids coils the size of a handbook. One of the coils was engaged in the drive and started discharging the energy stored in its magnetic field to supply a powerful microwave chamber. Rapidly superheated, the hydrogen propellant was expelled by the ship's nozzles, creating a large blue bell in its wake. Courier 7 moved forwards.
Talasea and Isa felt a faint pressure against their chests. It had nothing of the violence of a fusion drive. Lazward drives were sweeter engines.
One hour and several empty batteries later, Courier 7 had reached the same relative speed as Titania Port. Isa announced the ship could start translating. Talasea opened a screen.
"Geometry drive under power."
Right above the engine, a thousand blue hexagons started gleaming, traversed by alternative current.
The navigation computer of Courier 7 started clicking. The radiators gleamed slightly more as they absorbed the heat generated by the motherboards. The economy of faster than light travel relied on computing power and Courier 7 wasn't lacking in that department. The result came to Tali a few minutes later as a complex equation the Irenian could read without difficulty. Isa glanced at it sideways. Everything seemed in order.
"The navigator asks the copilot for translation approval."
"The copilot approves. Engaging safeties."
Isa flicked an entire row of switches and disconnected most of the ship's systems, keeping only the drive online. The cockpit switched to blue ambient lights. Talasea opened the safety cap of the geometry drive button and uttered a silent prayer, followed by Isa.
Then she pushed the translation throttle.
Three-dimensional space folded around Courier 7. The ship disappeared, leaving nothing but a wake of disappearing fragments of light. Isa and Talasea felt something strange; on their tongue, the salty taste of an ocean that did not exist. Four million kilometres and a millisecond later, Courier 7 reappeared on the same orbit as Titania Port in a brief influx of blueshifted light.
Isa looked away from their dashboard. Typhoon filled the entirety of the background and the vast storms on its north pole honoured the gas giant's name. Facing the gas giant was the planetoid mined by Titania Port, a shapeless mass of regolith pierced by extraction moholes. Titania Port itself was half a kilometre large. It was built around a transparent sphere filled with greenery, surrounded by two rings where small ships came and went. Numerous radiators and solar panels extended from the equator of the sphere and they made the station look like a gigantic flower in Talasea's eyes.
"Titania, the queen of fairies," beeped Bubbles from her post-it, "I wonder if we'll meet Oberon as well."
The Internationale came across a handful of spacecoaches that minded their business around Titania Port. These mining ships were incredibly simple. They were mostly made of water ice. Their drives were microwave electrothermal engines, using little chambers to heat up water propellant. Practically made of water, spacecoaches were the ideal mining vessel for deep space endeavours. None of them would beat the Internationale in a straight run but Bubbles assumed it wasn't their main design requirement.
"No crew, judging from the size of the spacecoaches and no one answers my calls on the radio," indicated Talasea, "but Titania Port seems to be in perfect working order."
"I do not know. Maybe everyone is on holidays."
"Right. Some random algorithm just gave me the greenlight for docking. Proceeding."
Isaac/Isabeau nodded and took the controls of Courier 7 for the final approach. They led the ship with utmost accuracy, bringing it to the outer docking ring of Titania Port. Two magnetic clamps stabilized the ship and a foldable airlock linked Courier 7 to the station. Talasea waited for a message authorizing them to get in but in vain. Bubbles sighed.
"We could just throw them the plants."
"I mean she's right. Every single one of our containers is pressurized and has its own RCS thrusters. We could just drop them under their windows and let them handle the scooping."
"No," cut Talasea, "it's obvious that whoever gave this package to the Postmistress wanted a human to come to their door. Otherwise, they would have just requested a mass driver to shoot them the goods. Come."
Bubbles shrugged and turned her avatar into a gardener.
After donning a shawl above their light flight suit, Isa and Talasea left Courier 7 for the station. Something trembled in the distance. A mass driver had just launched a payload of minerals towards Rainwater Station. Titania did not bother with sending transport ships to its homeworld. It was content with merely hurling its daily production at the station. The containers accelerated towards a parking orbit, matching the velocity of Rainwater Station that just had to catch them. Straightforward, if not fast -- a delivery took up to two months. It was obvious that the inhabitants of Titania Port had no desire to interact with anyone. An airlock opened in front of Talasea and Isa. They entered a decontamination chamber, then a long industrial hallway that led to Titania's main microgravity chamber.
The centre of Titania Port was a forest. The vast transparent sphere nestled between the petal-shaped heat sinks was traversed by a two hundred metres long world-tree. Its roots were inserted in the station's geological glass. A living watermark, filtering out the cold light from Typhoon's distant sun. The leaves were dark red and yet the monumental tree did not know autumn nor winter. Red was its natural colour, allowing it to draw energy from weak dwarf stars. Talasea pushed against the hallway's exit and darted through the spaceborne greenhouse. The Irenian moved like a serpent in microgravity. She grabbed a branch and stabilized herself in the first quarter of the world-tree. A lone blue bird. Isa rejoined Talasea with more difficulty, gliding through the canopy. A lukewarm breeze flowed through the greenhouse, pumped by the air recycling systems. Isa put their hand against the wood. The bark was filled with myriads of microscopic creaks. Mountain ranges for amoeba.
"That's a Martian world-tree," deducted Isa, "it's surprising to find one that far away from the solar system. Hard to transport. Takes some dedication."
"The inhabitants of Titania probably only took the seeds."
"I don't think so. Look at how the roots are embedded in the station with no substratum nor humus layer. This tree didn't grow here. It was transplanted directly during its adult stage. It was probably smaller back then, but still, quite an achievement."
One of the branches bended towards Talasea as if to salute her.
"Hey...could it be that the world-tree *is* Titania's crew? What do you think, Bubbles?"
The AI answered through a post-it glued on Isa's sleeve.
"I have never heard of a world-tree housing artificial intelligences. Trees, even geoscaled ones, have too slow of a metabolism to allow for the emergence of consciousness fast enough to handle the day to day operations of a mining station. But let's not presume of any...oh. Look up."
Talasea and Isa raised their gaze, even though "up" was a confused notion in zero gravity environments. A constellation of flower pots, primed for plantations, was drifting towards them. Each of the flower pots was equipped with small RCS thrusters preventing group collisions.
"I think we've just found the destination of our hundred ton of orchids."
"But why?" asked Bubbles.
"I am unsure the question means anything," answered Isa, "after all, we find ourselves in a station where someone imported an entire world-tree from the Earth, probably for no other reason than the fact that it looks stunning. So why not..."
"About forty thousand orchids, I'd say," computed Bubbles.
Talasea contemplated the greenhouse. The world-tree's canopy undulated in unison with the back and forth of mining drones outside. Without birds or other animals, the spherical forest was eerily serene. Such a silent wood should be terrifying, thought Talasea, but in microgravity she could watch every angle of approach. No predator was hiding around her. There was nothing but the wind and purer air than on a Terran mountaintop. Isa drifted towards a flowerpot that moved away with a short RCS burst.
"Well," said the pilot of Courier 7, "no one came to see us."
"Maybe the inhabitants have no desire of seeing us. Maybe the only thing that mattered was that we would *see* these thousands of flowerpots. That we could witness the mining station that is trying to grow orchids in the Five Suns. It feels like no one but the postal service comes here in person."
"Can we leave now?"
"I'll put a word on the world-tree. Just to tell whoever lives in Titania that we have been here. Isa? Give me a post-it please. And one without Bubbles on it, this time."
Talasea and Isa floated back through the empty hallways to get back to the Internationale. The ship had been carefully unloaded by Titania Port's drones. The personnel was still nowhere to be seen. The zero gravity hangars were only populated by the yellow eyes of semi-sapient djinn maintenance drones. Someone had glued a post-it on the hull to thank the crew.
"Well," joked Isa, "that must be the local mode of communication."
Courier 7 detached from the station and Isa lit up the engines as soon as they had passed the safety distance. The small package was destined to one of the largest moons of Typhoon. Al-Bayda was very deep in the gas giant's gravity well. Its relative velocity was rather low, just a few kilometres per second, the equivalent of a few tens of minutes of acceleration. Talasea was slightly nervous. Al-Bayda was very close to the gas giant, so close that the reintegration point would skim the edge of the inner gravity well. The navigator hated "raking the surface" as she used to say, and risking reintegration in a low orbit wasn't something she was keen on.
"I don't even know why the Postmistress is sending us down there. Al-Bayda is empty. There's not even an automated relay station. Hey, Bubbles. What's in that package?"
"I have no idea."
"You can't scan it?"
The avatar looked positively scandalized.
"A mailperson doesn't take peeks at their own cargo, come on! All I know is that it's about ten kilograms heavy and the density isn't high enough for it to be a nuclear bomb."
"But it's in the adequate range to be a normal bomb!"
"Isa, this isn't funny," cut Talasea as she engaged the geometry drive.
Al-Bayda suddenly appeared like the perfectly smooth skull of a fallen goddess. The planet was so close to the gas giant that the tidal forces were enough to put the core under constant stress, allowing the planet to maintain liveable, if arctically low temperatures. Without this geothermal activity, Al-Bayda would have been a vitrified desert, too cold to keep its atmosphere from outgassing. The planet was tidally locked, presenting the same face to the gas giant for all eternity.
It took Isa a bit of time to adjust the sensors of Courier 7 to the powerful magnetic field of Typhoon, strong enough to jam the instruments. The short-range radio clicked. A text message that Bubbles traced back to an unregistered satellite on a polar orbit. The transmission carried nothing but the coordinates of a ground station. Isa and Talasea exchanged a glance.
"Bubbles, you've often travelled in isolated places like the Five Suns. Is it normal to send packages to unregistered locations?"
"No. Al-Bayda is isolated. The locals might not be thrilled at the idea of displaying their adress to the Five Suns at large. I guess we could decline the delivery but in that case I doubt the Postmistress would keep us. And we need to..."
"I know. Isa, is the landing zone usable?"
The pilot opened a window displaying one of the planet's hemispheres.
"Rainwater's databanks are parcellar but it looks like a mountain valley. We have enough room to land. The weather is quite bad, however. There's a storm forming up above the valley."
"Can we fly through this?"
"Well we have to, because we can't just drop the package. The wind seems to peak at a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. However the atmospheric pressure is only one third of the Earth baseline. Such a storm isn't as mean as it looks. With folded radiators and antennae, we'll get through."
"I'm with you."
Talasea flipped the ship around so that the engines would face the planet. Then Isa launched Courier 7 on an atmospheric re-entry trajectory. Bubbles and Isaac/Isabeau made some tea while Talasea prepared a meal for after the landing. Right before entering Al-Bayda's atmosphere, Isa folded the radiators and retracted the antennae. The beginning of the descent was rather peaceful. Without the heat sinks, Courier 7 penetrated through the rarefied air like a teardrop. Isa had the engines at their fingertips, using short impulses from the auxiliary chemical rockets to control their descent. When Courier 7 left its plasma sheath, it had only had a few minutes of respite before being engulfed by the storm. Isa felt the ship tremble under the wind. They flew blind, following Bubbles' radar guidance. Talasea watched the engine, getting ready to fire the main chemical engines for an emergency abort. The roles had been assigned without a word.
Two thousand metres above ground, Courier 7 shook and drifted sideways. Isa tried to compensate with the flight stick but the ship kept closing the gap with the mountains.
"I lost an RCS thruster," said Isa while trying to compensate again. The rocky wall was only a kilometre away and Courier 7 kept drifting.
"I can't restart it!"
"It's engulfed in ice," answered Bubbles, "I'll try to purge it with a short burst at full power. Compensate on my mark."
Isa approved. Bubbles ignited the faulty RCS thrusters at full power and Isa did the same with the opposite one to avoid sending Courier 7 into deadly spiral. The AI reiterated the manoeuvre three times. The ice cap was only ejected after last attempt. Isa wrangled control back from the Internationale a mere two hundred metres away from a blade-sharp mountaintop. Talasea had her hand on the cockpit ejection control, ready to trigger a violent abort.
"It's alright, it's alright. Resuming nominal descent."
Courier 7 realigned itself with the landing zone, a few hundred metres below. Isa pushed the chemical thrusters at full power and the ship found itself in nigh-stationary flight. There was a landing pad below, half-covered in snow. Bubbles pinged it with a communications laser and the pad allowed them to land. Fifty metres above the snowy ground, a ring of stabilizing thrusters was triggered for the final approach and Courier 7 hit the ground in a large puddle of molten snow.
"Engines offline. External temperature is minus twenty-eight degrees Celsius. We'll have to spray the RCS thrusters with antifreeze before taking off again. I thought they were temperature-controlled by electric heating?"
"They are, but it is obviously not enough. We'll have to mention it in the maintenance logs."
Talasea oriented one of the external cameras to get a quick view of the buildings around the landing pad. Through the biting wind she could make out the outlines of a handful of buildings, an hydroponic dome with broken windows and a ground to space antenna. In the infrared spectrum, the Irenian could see a few dots of heat, corresponding to the heat sinks of a small-sized nuclear reactor. The station was inhabited, yet no one had answered Courier 7's hails.
"I don't see any mailbox," commented Isa while straightening up their suit's collar.
"Let's climb down. Bubbles, you have the ship."
The avatar on the screen waved her hand in approval. Bubbles had donned a virtual arctic suit and had put a penguin on her shoulder. Talasea did not find it amusing at all.
Talasea and Isa left the ship in full exosuits. The air contained a sizeable fraction of oxygen but it was too spare to breathe in and with the cold they preferred using fully enclosed helmets. Starmoth Initiative suits were comfy and rather light for the level of environmental protection they offered. All-white, they were identified by dark blue lines on the flanks, arms and legs, completed by the moth emblem on the chest and in the back.
"It's cold," commented Talasea. Her threshold for "freezing" was somewhere near fifteen degrees Celsius. The wind had calmed down. A string of red lights marked the path between the landing pad and the station. Talasea and Isa walked towards it, holding on to the lifelines that linked the beacons together. Courier 7 disappeared behind them, swallowed by the snow and fog. For a long moment -- ten minutes, perhaps -- Talasea and Isa found themselves lost in the world, abandoned to a sea of textureless white.
Further ahead, the path widened and the station appeared all around them. The snow formed a plaza, flattened by the wind. The hangars and the dome were mired in frost. The parabolic antenna was silent. Some of the panels had fallen, leaving empty squares behind. Talasea brushed the snow away from a nearby sign. The black letters said STATION FOUR. Talasea thought it was way too mundane of a word for the station not to have something to hide. Isa considered that it meant, at least, that there were a station one, two and three.
Then they saw her.
She walked towards them, unfazed by the wind, wearing a dark purple suit. Through the helmet visor they could make out the unmistakable face of the Postmistress. Isa gave her the package. The Postmistress bowed as she retrieved it. The Postmistress opened the package and a stream of sand poured into the wind until the cardboard box was empty.
"I assume it means we've passed the job interview," commented the Irenian on the local radio.
The Postmistress bowed once again.
"I am wondering. You dived head-first into a storm with a light ship, on an unknown planet, all of that to deliver a package. Why? Answer thruthfully. Don't give me platitudes about public duties. You don't know the Five Suns. You have no link with our commune. So what? You don't strike me as adrenaline junkies. No one is listening on this planet, there's just you and me. So. Why?"
"Why do you care?"
"I like to know why my pilots fly."
The Irenian stepped forwards. She signalled the Postmistress to switch her radio off then started talking to her visor against visor, so that they could communicate through vibrations in Plexiglas, without any risk of radio interception.
"We need to lay low for a while."
"Are you fugitives?"
"No. We just need some calm and quiet."
"Why not seek it in the immensity of space?"
"That far from human space we wouldn't get very deep in the galaxy and a long-range exploration ship is not exactly stealthy. It can only resupply at islands in the sky like the Five Suns. So it's best to stay in these places and make ourselves useful."
"Why the postal service?"
"Because we know how to man a messenger ship. And because there is nothing better than the normalcy of such a line of work to blend in."
"If you consider the postal service of the Five Suns as normal, I have very bad news for you."
"You know very well what I mean."
The Postmistress deposited three silver insignas in Talasea's hand. They bore five stars, surrounded by stylized wings.
The Postmistress waved at her newfound crew and walked in the snow, towards a courier ship lost in the frozen mist. The Irenian looked up. Through the clouds gleamed the blue cyclones of Typhoon.
A thousand eyes, waiting for something to come.
Cover illustrated by Kruger.
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