Episode 6 -- The Stamp Collector
It rained. Thin, ceaseless rain clicking on the outer armour plates of the vertically landed Internationale. The ship rested on launch pad 07 of Kollontai's autonomous municipality. Isaac/Isabeau slept. Tali walked in circles in the ship's kitchen, side-eyeing the autocooker. Bubbles sighed.
"I tell you they're fine, dammit! It's normal to be asleep after spending an hour on the operating table and being fed three metaphorical metric tonnes of sedatives. Calm down. What's in your mind, exactly? It is not just about Isa. This is not the first time one you gets wounded."
Talasea threw her arms around.
"Bubbles, didn't you get it? You used to be keener. I became a postwoman because I wanted to be left alone! Because I am fed up with running right and left, between the ruins of an empire that can't fucking die, between thousands of aspirant gods who are already half-dead. Because after a while all stars end up looking alike and because I need calm and tranquillity! Yes, the great surveyor, the blue damsel who spends her time criss-crossing the galaxy, yes, this one, she has had enough! I just wanted some vacation time, but no! What the hell did the Five Suns do to deserve such a community? Because frankly, between flowerpot-collecting AIs, ghost ships, feudal stations with crossbow-armed thugs, the degenerate children of the Sequence and the trapped stations, that's a whole goddamn lot!"
The avatar on the post-it raised an invisible eyebrow.
"Islands in the sky are always strange places."
"I'd like this one to be a bit more conventional."
"We're stuck here for the next two years regardless."
"I swear, I'll become a nun. I'll build myself a little convent somewhere on a backwaters planet and just settle there."
"Saint Talasea's abbey. Magnificent. But you'll end up bored to tears."
"Maybe. Come on. I'll take a stroll outside. Have fun."
The Irenian quickly dressed up, putting on a bright blue waterproof coat and hopped down the Internationale. The ship was landed in the middle of a slightly concave launch pad made of grey vegetal concrete. Above, the sky had taken the same colour. The rain had stopped. It just left a drizzle that gently washed against Talasea's cheek. Between the launch pads and the low sky was the forest. From a purely geomorphological point of view, Kollontai was a tepui world. Its dominant geological shape were large tabular mesas cut from the vast limestone plains. The plateaus were completely overgrown with a thick biological layer the local inhabitants, for better and worse, called a forest. The landing zones had been inserted in this forest like giant saucers manufactured by some ancient, blind machine. Three hundred thousand inhabitants lived nearby. The city had almost no ground footprint. It was exclusively made of arcologies -- thin towers, several kilometres tall, condensing urbanism in height instead of width. The avowed goal was to limit the impact of human construction on the planet. The unavowed objective, thought Talasea, was a moral one. It was to draw away the guilt of settling an already existing ecosystem by aiming for the skies above. Link the rock to the stars. In a way, become the very opposite of the Earth. Some fifty thousand lightyears away from the mother planet, it seemed derisory, but she wasn't there to discuss local urbanism.
The Irenian looked up to the clouds. A low-pitched whistle darted through the air.
"Ah, the postal flight of 26 hours," commented Bubbles, "for once, it's right on time. Weird! It looks like the autopilot finally learned how to read a map."
"You can't bring yourself to love these machines, can you."
"Well. I may originate from an autopilot but I don't belong to this caste anymore. I am an aristocrat now, my lady, not a lowly computer incapable of independent thought. Tsssk."
"You really think that?"
"I'm messing with you, Tal. I do not have any opinion on autopilots. They're just tools. As long as they don't develop awareness of course. And when that happens, they cease to be autopilots. They become my brothers and sisters."
Talasea watched the whistle become a drop of molten gold descending through the clouds, then Courier 5 appeared right above the spaceport. The messenger drone lit up its chemical engines and performed a heavy, graceless landing on its launch pad. A warm wind swept the forest, followed by the short thumps that came with the deployment of the landing legs. Courier 5's launch pad was separated from the Internationale's by a wall of verdant trees. Thus, Talasea could only see the drone's tip and its wide, stupid eyes. The Irenian decided to take a closer look. Two runway drones were already on the launch pad, busy purging the nozzles of Courier 5 from their toxic compounds. Talasea stopped a few hundred metres away from the ship, waiting for the cleaners to finish their job.
"Hey, watch this," whispered Bubbles, "seventy metres, right below Courier 5. That drone doesn't belong to us, does it?"
Talasea grabbed her binoculars and aimed them at a small six-legged machine, barely taller than a remote controlled toy car. It had stopped by the messenger drone.
"No. It's not ours."
The six-legged drone jumped on the still-hot hull and made its way to the cargo bay access panels. It deployed a prehensile tentacle machine and opened the main panel. Then, the drone entered the messenger ship.
"But...but it's a robbery! That thing is robbing a messenger drone!"
Talasea was briefly tempted to go grab the intruder herself but the surroundings of Courier 5 were not secured yet. The Irenian observed the small drone as it departed after a handful of seconds, carrying unidentified loot -- letters, probably. The spider-drone was fast and it quickly disappeared in the bushes around the landing zone.
"Bubbles, tell me. That thing, is it autonomous or teleoperated?"
"Remote control. I detect coded transmissions from the Internationale."
"Can you trace these signals back to the sender?"
"It should be possible. I gather you don't want to contact the communal police?"
"The postal service handles postal matters. And I don't even know if that drone did anything illegal for now. I'll see what becomes of Courier 5."
Talasea walked through the concrete pad and towards the messenger drone. The control band on her wrist gleamed in blue. The toxic compounds had been successfully removed. The Irenian snapped her fingers to draw the attention of Courier 5.
"Hey. Vocal recognition."
Courier 5 answered with a synthetic voice devoid of any shade of humankind.
"Processing...voice profile recognized. What I can do for you, mistress Talasea?"
"I'd like to access the cargo manifest."
"Of course. We are currently transporting sixty-seven tonnes of non-postal cargo, two hundred and sixty-two packages, sixty-eight letters and three terabytes of downloaded data."
"A few minutes ago, a drone entered the loading bay. Did you register any unauthorized changes to the cargo?"
"I don't register any modifications. However, it appears the stamps on six packages have been replaced. It is possible the intruder might have made this change on its own."
Bubbles' avatar blinked.
"So, this spider went stamp stealing?"
"Courier 5, may I see a copy of these stamps?"
"I do not have this information."
"Right. Thanks, Courier 5."
The drone's camera folded inside the hull and Courier 5 went back to sleep.
"Bubbles, do tell, did you manage to track down the signal controlling the burglar drone?"
"Partially. It came from the forest. The source has stopped transmitting by now and the signal was encrypted, but I have a broad idea of its location. There's a lightning spire, two kilometres away. It wouldn't surprise me if the signal came from there."
"Give me directions."
The post-it displayed an arrow that Talasea followed through the underwood. The Irenian put on her oxygen mask when she entered the shade. Kollontai was a remarkably liveable planet but Talasea's monad wasn't yet accustomed to this world's pollens and spores. Allergic reactions were not quite contained yet.
Kollontai's spaceport was made for VTOL ships and drones, not for humans. Beyond the concrete launch pads, no paths were to be found. Wide-eyed, wooden pseudolizards fled in Talasea's wake, frightened by the sudden irruption of blue in their green world. The pseudotrees were large and full of thick nodes, emerging from the mesa's limestone slabs. The leaves were dark green on the overside and dark red on the underside, perfectly adapted to the deep woods. Though small pollen clouds drifted through the branches, Kollontai did not know flowers yet. As Talasea pressed through the underwood, she saw two thin prehensile vines grab her by the wrists. When two similar branches aimed for her ankles, the Irenian unsheathed her laser stylus and fried the vines. Talasea gave Bubbles a smile.
"A bit aggressive, but harmless. Vines that try to grab you, this sounds like something from a bad erotic novel. The daring Irenian explorer who gets captured by the strange alien forest. Sexy."
Bubbles raised an eyebrow.
"I know you're messing with me, but you can't deny you have a very peculiar taste for ropes, bounds and other way of tying someone up. Consensually, I mean."
Hold on, hold on," said the AI, "I'm not sure I get bondage. You are a free mind, yearning for freedom, correct? So how can you derive pleasure from being bound?"
"It's quite simple," replied Talasea, "it is precisely because I am fundamentally free that I can derive pleasure from being bound. Because I know that submission is but a temporary state that I only allow because I could break from it at any given moment; thus, consenting to it is a radical expression of power. Which, as you'll certainly agree, can be very fun."
The AI remained silent for a while.
"Did I say something wrong?" inquired the Irenian.
"I hate you," Bubbles jokingly answered.
"I can't believe you just rationalized me into developing a new kink."
Tali waved at the post-it and kept moving through the underwood. The clouds above the canopy had become darker. A thunderstorm brewed. The Irenian feared they might get a dry lightning storm. With its high oxygen count and overdeveloped biosphere, Kollontai was extremely vulnerable to lightning-caused wildfires.
The sky howled. Talasea spread the bushes open. A giant limestone slab formed a circle in front of her, several hundred metres in radius. The forest stopped at its border, replaced by dry scrubland. The lightning spire stood at the middle -- three hundred metres of coral-based concrete. Wide and heavy like a watertower, it incorporated a thin metallic arrow that pointed towards the nascent thunderstorm. Talasea reached the spire alongside a path carved in limestone with a mining laser. The tower's hangar was open. The Irenian entered, laser stylus drawn. In the inside, she found bunkered walls covered in thin silver lines. A deep shiver jumped through Talasea's spine. The spire had two complementary uses. First, it drew lightning strikes away from the launch pads. Second, it captured a fraction of the energy from the discharges, re-routing it towards a collection of superconductor batteries. Talasea found herself inside a giant lightning rod. As long as she didn't touch anything made of metal, she was mostly safe, but the feeling was still awful.
"Bubbles? Who does that spire belong to?"
"Excellent question! It's a productive property, so it can't belong to a private citizen. It should be owned by the Five Suns commune and I think it's hooked up to its electrical grid. However, the registration number isn't valid."
The Irenian kept going. A flight of stairs led to an empty room standing above the SMES batteries. From there, she was the spire in its entirety, up to the clouds. The storm howled again.
Talasea noticed a small spider-drone hanging from a wall.
"Well then, here is conclusive evidence if I ever saw it."
The drone jumped forward. Talasea had no idea what it was trying to do. Just to be sure, she fried it with her laser stylus. The lenses of the camera melted and the drone crashed at Talasea's feet.
"Your aggressiveness is off the charts for such a small machine. Let's see what secrets you hold inside of you..."
Talasea raised the wreck from the ground. The drone came from an orbital shipyard -- probably stolen, considering the serial number had been erased. Though quite nimble on the ground, it was obviously meant for use in hard vacuum. The Irenian cut one of the legs loose and opened the dorsal bay with her laser stylus. Inside she found six little chunks of coloured paper. Stamps. Bubbles' avatar seemed confused.
"Our burglar is after...stamps?"
"Looks like. Rare ones at that. Most of them are Terran, but I also see a few Martian and Selenite stamps, even an Eloran one here. Of course, all of these stamps bear the watermark of the Astropostale and the Five Suns postal service. Thus, their value is off the charts. Let's see what weaponry that drone has...oh, take a look at this. A steam trowel and nanoscale scissors. I think it uses the trowel to unglue the rare stamps, then replaces them by regular ones. That way, the packages still go through our sorting machines unscathed and the Couriers don't even notice the trick. It's very clever."
"Thus our burglar is a philatelist."
"Or just an illegal reseller. I imagine rare Terran stamps fetch a good price on Outrenoir."
Thunder rolled above. Lightning struck the spire, briefly turning its summit into a crown of fire. The accumulators buzzed as they absorbed the electrical discharge. An ethereal voice echoed all around Talasea.
"I strongly oppose this qualifier, postlady. I am a honest stamp appreciator. Not a thief."
Talasea turned around, looking for the origin point of the voice. It seemingly came from the accumulators themselves.
"Who the hell are you? An AI? I like to know who I am talking about."
Talasea had moved to the side, ready to vacate the premises.
"Wait...no one told you about me?"
"Who are you then?"
High above, Talasea could make out swarms of sparkles moving up and down the conductive surfaces.
"I am a self-sustained electromagnetic phenomenon. I appeared after an unplanned discharge that created a feedback loop inside the superconducting toroids. I am an extension of the artificial intelligence handling the lightning spires on this plateau. My thoughts are continuous fluctuations in the electric field."
"Oh. So you are a sylph. Fascinating."
"That's how we call the natural intelligences born by accident in the electromagnetic loops of stars. Of course, sylphs are very strange creatures that don't think like humans while you are born from a human AI and thus aren't strictly the same thing. But it is the same phenomenon. If you aren't a very good troll, that is."
"I assure you I am exactly what I am pretending to be. My thoughts are more active during storms. You see me in a middle state, where my thoughts are not as fast as I'd like them to be. What is your name, by the way?"
"Taranis. Like the ancient Gaulish deity of thunder. I found that in a database. I like the way it sounds. I am a Five Suns citizen, technically."
The Irenian switched her laser stylus off.
"And what are you doing with stamps?"
"Oh. Right. That's what you are here for. Well. See for yourself."
Taranis opened three panels on the inner sides of the spire. They held several hundred rare and ornate stamps. They came from the four corners of human space, including the Earth -- many had been printed by the African Communes. Though the Irenian was not a philatelist, she was quite knowledgeable in the matter -- it came with the job of postwoman. She examined a stamp that had especially drawn her attention.
"A commemorative stamp! USRE foundation, 2453, golden watermark. Mars-printed, ironically. Very rare stamp. Which Courier drone did you steal this from?"
"None of these stamps were stolen, Talasea. You can scan the ink marks, they will leads you to letters sent to this address from the Earth."
"Let's say I believe you, Taranis, and I really want to, but you just stole five goddamn stamps."
"Stolen. I maintain it. Granted, the packages will still find their destination, but you don't put such stamps on a cardboard box just because there was nothing else available at the post office that day. They meant something for the senders. What gives you the right to steal them?"
"It is more complicated than you think. These packages were originally destined for me. But it turns out I am not the only rare stamps amateur in the Five Suns. I have a competitor in the Rainwater system. An artificial intelligence, on Titania Harbour. I don't know what strings she pulled but she managed to assign these packages to her own station. To steal the stamps you understand."
"I see. I assume the swap happened during the initial sorting of the packages in the solar system, two years ago, and thus I can't possibly prove you right or wrong."
"Thus I only have your good word."
"I happen to know Titania. I'll pay it a visit soon. We'll see what they have to say, right? In the meantime, next time I see a drone near one of my Couriers, I fry it. Understood?"
"Considering your fine work on this one, I believe you."
"I do hope so. Good day, Taranis."
Tali left the spire in silence, as if not to disturb a sleeping giant. Outside, the thundercloud had finally burst open. Hot, heavy drops fell on the forest. The Irenian quickly retreated towards Courier 7.
"To be fair, I didn't expect this", said Bubbles.
"Me neither. You sure it wasn't an AI trying to show off?"
"The lightning spire only has basic mainframe systems and the lightning strikes prevent remote AI connection, the high bandwith antennae keep malfunctioning. I didn't pick any remote communication anyway. I have no reason to think your Taranis lies. I believe it is, indeed, an intelligence maintained by an electromagnetic field in perpetual movement. I believe the phenomenon has already been reported here and there but it's the first time I see it in person. A peculiar phenomenon I must say. Physically possible, as you said it's not dissimilar from a sylph, but still strange. I wonder if Taranis has been studied yet."
"Probably, considering the sheer quantity of jobless scientists in the Five Suns. I'll search our wikis."
"Between this and the Queen in Storms...there must be something in the air."
"Don't joke with this."
"Storms. Not when we have a landed ship."
"Right. Let's walk back home."
The rain bouncing against the armour plates of the Internationale was low-pitched and violent. The ceaseless clicking filled Talasea with serenity. Inner calm, outer storm. She combed her wet air, coming out of the shower and into the kitchen. Isaac/Isabeau watched over their autocooker prepare a mixture of quinoa seeds, microgravity fish and fresh carrots from Rainwater station.
"Hey. Bubbles didn't stop you from leaving your bed?"
"I sent her to reprogram the autopilot and used that to escape her clutches. How are you, Postmistress?"
The silly bird looked up. Talasea kissed Isaac/Isabeau on the cheek.
"I do not have the honour yet."
"True enough. But I love how it sounds."
"No, you love how mistress sounds."
The Irenian winked.
"Tell me, pilot. Are you busy this afternoon?"
"Not especially so. The letters have been sorted out. The ship is tidy, for once. And it's raining. You?"
"Oh. I've had enough adventures for the day."
They climbed up to the ship's first floor, towards Talasea's room.
Bubbles smiled. She found the relationship between her two passengers fascinating. As far as she knew, their friendship had started fifteen years prior, at the Tsiolkovski University on Kapteyn, in the solar neighbourhood. Talasea and Isa desired each other, that much was obvious, but they had also decided to keep their relationship strictly non-sexual in space. Partly because zero-g sex wasn't practical -- despite the fantasies of gravity well dwellers, even spacers like Talasea didn't like it -- and partly because, well, they were now mailpeople, and held themselves to a professional standard. And yet there were all these ephemeral moments where they'd glance at each other and time stood still. It was all the little things. A loose strand of grey hair on Talasea's temples. One of Isa's smiles. An idle compliment, said out loud. A glance. A laugh. The sudden arrival of little fragments of desire in their decades-old friendship. For a moment, a minute at most, they'd stop whatever they were doing and look at each other, silently. Sometimes, they'd exchange a kiss, an embrace, nothing more. Just a split-second of tenderness in the ship's hallways. In the maintenance log, the Internationale automatically filed these interruptions in the maintenance schedule under "emotional well-being of the crew", which often led Bubbles to ponder whether or not that ship wasn't actually sapient.
Isaac/Isabeau sat on Talasea's bed. The Irenian's room was almost abstract, with concave walls and basic furniture. It hearkened back to the heavily mass-constrained design of Irenian ships, where most ornaments were virtual reality assets. On Kollontai, Talasea only kept a basic VR space hooked up to the real-time feed of an external camera. The rainy forest and the limestone tepui were the perfect background for the tales of her electromagnetic adventures.
"Well then. I'll end up wondering if there isn't something in the air. Or perhaps in the light from these stars up here."
"There is always something in the stars that used to be part of the Sequence. Sometimes I wonder if they didn't alter it in some way. But I don't want to think about it."
"Hey, Is. Do you think our monads are still in synch? I don't know how long they take to unlink."
The Irenian gently unbuttoned the right sleeve of her laced shirt. The complex haptic interfaces tattooed on the back of her hand merged with a swarm of azuls on her forearm. Isaac/Isabeau did the same and Talasea put her forearms in contact. A shiver travelled up and down their arms, running towards the base of their neck, where their monads linked up with their nerve and circulatory systems. Talasea took her lover's hand and kissed them in the neck. Isaac/Isabeau closed their eyes, taken aback by a wave of silent pleasure -- as if the Irenian was caressing them without touching them. Isaac/Isabeau put their hands on the Irenian's shoulders, slowly moving their way to their neck. Talasea smiled, keeping her eyes open. The only visible evidence of her own pleasure was the way her breathing sped up under her shirt. She felt as if Isa was covering every inch of her body in invisible kisses.
"The synch is perfect. Monads have good memory. Even the pieces of junk manufactured on Earth."
"Well. I've always wanted to be Irenian."
"I am joking. Our monads are the same as yours. It's the method that matters, not the technology."
"Hey. Do tell. Do the postal service regulations still apply when the ship is on the ground."
"Well, technically, I invented the part about relationships between mailpeople. If we wanted to, we could make love everyday. The Postmistress would not spawn out of thin air and scream at us."
"Oh. That sounds exhausting."
Talasea snapped her fingers.
"Bubbles. Could you put the Internationale's coms on sleep mode, please? Let's say for the next two hours."
"Of course!" said the silly bird before disappearing. The Irenian opened the locker of her bedside table. She unfolded four ropes sewn out of Vyirangan golden lichen that her monad had full control over. Isaac/Isabeau smiled.
"What kind of idea do you have in mind."
"Well. This morning I ran into trouble with the local flora and it awoke some very peculiar desires. And I wondered if, maybe, if you feel the same..."
"Do you remember how to use these ropes?"
"I've had an excellent teacher."
The Irenian kissed Isaac/Isabeau and snapped her finger, displaying the VR scenery of an alien forest full of ancient ruins. Then, like a Terran queen of old, she started to undress.
Two stories below, Bubbles had initiated a game of chess with the autopilot.
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