Episode 11 -- Nightingale
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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