Episode 12 -- Kollontai Blues
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.
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