Episode 14 -- Behold, A Jester
Invited by the Algorab crew at the Avicenna dig site, our mailfolk prepare to enter an ancient Sequence citadel.
Jalil gestured towards the passage.
"We are going to move through the gate. We are almost certain that Sequence activity beyond it is residual, but it is impossible to be entirely certain. The citadel was a sovereign's throne, it is not impossible that some defence systems may still be active. You can come with us if you wish to, but it might be dangerous."
The mailpeople stared at each other for a split-second -- all it took for their curiosity to get the better of them.
"What security measures are in place?" asked Isaac/Isabeau regardless -- their past experiences with the Sequence had been rowdy enough. Jalil pointed at the six-wheeled rover parked in the icy fog.
"The archaeological team uses this rover. It's armoured and uses schock dampeners. With the ihamoras for personal protection, we'll be safe."
"I take it Qasmuna isn't coming?"
"Qasmuna is our life insurance."
"I am not certain a Lumia, even a militarized model, is fit against the Sequence," commented Isa.
"Ezrayîl is a dedicated artillery platform", answered Jalil, "it's not the vector that counts, it's the armament."
The improvised warmachine spread its manipulating arms open. Its back supported a long-range railgun artillery lance, tilted vertically in the image of a sword in its sheath. A mere glance was enough to see that it was a true weapon of war. The Lumia raised its right arm towards the monumental door. Jalil led Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau inside the six-wheeled rover, where they met the rest of the archaeological team, wearing grey-white ihamoras. A few hands were shaken, nothing more. The ravens accepted the presence of the mailfolk but did not enjoy it.
"We'd happily give you tea, but we can't safely remove our helmets," said Jalil, "Pilot, we can go."
The rover revved its electric engine and its large tires gripped the solidified snow. Ezrayîl followed behind, casting a large shadow over the wheeled vehicle, while Xiaomai flanked them, a titanic creature in the white night. As it neared the monumental door, the former Sequencer rose up on its hind legs and its prehensile tail cracked like a whip. It held the artefact high, as if looking for a keyhole.
"So it comes from Draugr..." said Talasea.
"Yes," answered Jalil, "it's part of the relics we found amidst the wrecked Sequence ships after their failed assault on Draugr station, twenty years ago. Look."
The raven displayed a three dimensional scan of the artefact on the virtual reality space of the rover. The object was strangely mundane. A dagger without a pommel, made of black metal -- iron imbued with transbiological particles. A side panel mentioned that the artefact, while superficially simple, was impossible to replicate without access to Sequence manufacturing technology.
"It was found in a ceremonial chamber. Recent studies showed that it was a key, the property of an Expedient, that is to say some sort of...let's say emissary, or perhaps tax inspector. Such a key can be used to open a Sequence citadel, under the condition that it is not older than the artefact. Technological drift can be very severe in Sequence communities, and transbiological material doesn't react well to interfaces created more than two to three dynasties prior. The key of Draugr is two million years old and the citadel was grown five hundred thousand years ago. Compatibility should be perfect.
Xiaomai inserted the artefact in the door with her prehensile tentacle. A moment passed. Then, a faint whirr echoed through the blizzard and the two wings of the door slid open, the retraction of their transbiological material leaving an opening large enough for Xiaomai, the rover and Ezrayîl.
"Do tell, Jalil, you weren't sure this would work?"
"No," conceded the Algorab technician, "and I don't know how we would have done it without the key. We ran out of ideas months ago. Attempts at digging under the citadel encountered impassable abysses. Upside teams didn't find a single usable crack in the continental dome and even mining charges won't get through the transbiological walls. Nuclear charges were considered but our projections showed the citadel was too unstable to risk destabilizing it further. It would not be fortunate for the continent to just...give out."
"So we are in unexplored territory."
Blizzard and snow flowed through the slit in the door. A white ray of light spiralled through the infinite night, quickly repelled by the abyss. Xiaomai deployed her collar. It lit up like a blue lantern. The rover's spotlights raked a dry, icy soil. Transbiological bone, flayed alive by time until nothing subsisted but the very heart of the citadel walls. A LIDAR beam pulsed through the citadel.
"The hall is ten kilometres long, one kilometre large and one kilometres tall. Exactly the dimensions of a royal Sequence hall."
"Astounding diversity, as usual," said one of the ravens.
"It's more that the Silene Sequence wasn't prestigious enough to warrant a non-standard citadel. This regal hall was probably built from a regular cell, without genetic alterations."
Talasea approved with a nod. On the VR screens had appeared an army of fantastical creatures standing alongside the walls, slowly emerging from the icy fog as the RADAR and LIDAR feedbacks bounced towards the rover. Legions of statues, frozen in the bone-cracking cold of the citadel. They were two to three hundred metres tall. Their shapes, alternatively abstract and grotesque, were not clearly understandable for the human mind. Contacts with the regal art of the Sequence were always disorienting, especially if one did not take into account the fact that none of what the away team could see matched the appearance of the citadel hall at the apex of the Sequence. All that was left were ossified shadows left by the slow decomposition of external surfaces. Trying to understand these remains was akin to guessing the shape of a spaceship from a single piece of machinery. With her surface-level knowledge of the Sequence, Talasea could try to figure out what this place could have looked like, half a million years ago.
The full statues, celebrating the staggering diversity of Sequence sophonts on Silene. The light, golden, vibrant, emanating from swarms of biological lanterns. The long queues of various creatures, coming to the sovereign, offering her tribute and seeking immemorial wisdom. Some of the lines were so long that they had spawned small camps scattered amidst the golden forests. Further towards the throne, the royal guardians, frozen in their corallian splendour, multiple hands wrapped around gigantic blades with an edge barely thicker than a single atom. Tapestries the size of cities, telling the romance of the sovereign and that of the Sequence, blending in a metaphor running over ten kilometres. And far, far away in the coloured forests, the gold and red light of the sovereign's cocoon, as she slumbered in her industrious sleep.
Or, maybe, none of that, because it was just a fever dream, because the Sequence remained obscured in time, nothing but an army of ghosts and guesses, broken down by a million years.
"What are you seeking for here, exactly?" asked Talasea in the eerie silence of the rover, "I doubt the sovereign is more than a fossil, considering the derelict state of the citadel. The rest will not be of much use, not with such a small team. You'll need years to study even the statues."
"We are looking for death," answered Jalil, stone-cold.
"You know the Perseus arm better than I, navigator. There isn't a single planet with an active biosphere in a one hundred lightyears radius around the Five Suns. Most of these devastated worlds bear signs of voluntary destruction."
"That, I know. This is why the Five Suns exist in the first place. And you think the Silene sovereign might be responsible for this bubble of dead worlds?"
"It is the only Sequence sovereign in a thousand lightyears radius. I don't believe in randomness when they are involved and neither does Algorab. And if something, anything remains of this queen, we could get answers."
The engine whisper ceased, shaking up the passengers. Talasea swept across the virtual reality displays. The small convoy now found itself five kilometres away from the entrance. The light seeping from the outside was invisible.
"What's happening?" asked Isaac/Isabeau.
"Look. Xiaomai stopped."
Talasea looked to the right. The rebel Sequencer had deployed its collar to the fullest and looked around like a sentry.
"What is she doing?"
"I am unsure. Xiaomai seems capable of using her collar like a radar receiver, while the dorsal organs work as an emitter."
Suddenly, Xiaomai filled the radio channels with a short string of words.
BEHOLD, A JESTER.
Jalil leaned towards one of the ravens that Talasea assumed to be a linguist or an exobiologist.
"What does she mean?"
"I don't know. Qasmuna, do you see something?"
Ezrayîl covered the rover. Its targeting laser pulsed through the royal hall.
"I have strange LIDAR returns," said Qasmuna, "looks like a statue but its position isn't fixed. Doesn't appear to be a Sequence warform but I can't rule out an unknown model."
Xiaomai turned back and beamed a signal towards her swarm. A booming echo rippled in the night. On her sensor screens, Qasmuna saw a wide mass of small creatures running on the ceiling, a kilometre above the Lumia, as if they were forming up to flank a distant target. The continental hall lit up with bright blue beams as the organic swarm engaged an invisible object with their organic arbalests. The Yazidi aimed her tracking radar at the convergence point of the attacks and finally got a glimpse of the creature.
It was bipedal -- a very rare trait in the Sequence. Four arms and no head, fifty metres tall. The colossus only held thanks to the sheer ductile strength of transbiological frames. Its skin was made of bone coral; it looked as if it was made of thousands of human chests glued together. In the center of a gaping belly were four sensor mounts and a line of sharp bas-reliefs that gave it an eerily human face frozen in a wide smile. The upper arms held a pair of monofilament whips. The creature used them to spread atom-thin death in a five hundred metres radius around its massive frame. The lower arms had been hastily converted into weapon mounts for high-power laser emitters that mercilessly cauterized the hordes reaching towards the warform. The bipedal Sequencer moved with a heavy, stumped kind of grace. It never stopped. Never caught a break. Each of its moves annihilated a small army of Xiaomai's minions. As it fought, the Jester started running towards Ezrayîl and the rover. The transbiological muscles of its grotesque body allowed it to run at more than a hundred kilometres per hour.
Xiaomai lunged forwards with a high-pitched scream.
The swarm queen was impulsive and resentful, but it was also an organic warmachine trained through the crucible of a rebellion against its former masters. It unfolded its prehensile tentacle and struck as soon as she had entered within combat range of the attacker. The blue filament cracked in the abyss, slashing across the bone coral skin, pulverising the glued chests and drawing a spray of black and gold blood -- a baroque painting in motion.
The Sequencer buckled then rose up with a scream so strident that Talasea heard it through the rover and the ihamora.
Another scream followed, saturating the radio.
BEHOLD, THE JESTER!
The creature's whips cracked and swung back towards Xiaomai, piercing through her armoured skin. Qasmuna's displays repeatedly failed to identify the type or origin of that Sequencer. The Lumia's algorithms ran in circles.
"Move out of the way!" she ordered the rover while displacing Ezrayîl in front of the six-wheeled vehicle. Two kilometres inwards, Xiaomai called her swarm back around her to form a shield against the Jester's laser weapons. In the dusty, eternal twilight, they looked like two luminous swords cutting through the organic mass with disconcerting ease. A reaper amidst a field of ripe wheat, thought Isaac/Isabeau.
The bipedal creature howled again. Qasmuna's algorithms translated immediately.
I AM THE SOVEREIGN'S JESTER! I AM THE SOVEREIGN'S JESTER! AND I WANT TO KNOW THE NAME OF WHAT I KILL!
Xiaomai recoiled, intercepting one of the whips with her tentacle. The moire material held for a handful of seconds before Xiaomai's member was cut in half. Her white-hot transbiological blood sprayed electric blue across the hall. Xiaomai didn't answer the Jester. Perhaps, speculated Qasmuna, she didn't want to offer the Sequence her new name.
The Jester kept striking at her. Every hit exposed Xiaomai's internal organs a bit further under the fractured skin. It howled for a third time. Qasmuna felt one its eyes resting on the Lumia.
WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU?
The Yazidi saw no reply to this meaningless harangue. Even if she had wanted to, the question was hard to answer. She was one in two. Qasmuna and Ezrayîl, linked by an umbilical cord made of optic fibre, a perfect two-headed warrior. And for the split-second during which the Jester had exposed its colossal torso, Ezrayîl's radar had painted something. It was almost nothing. A patch of weakened material, two metres below the chest eyes. A scar from an old fight, perhaps, or a growth defect. No matter. Qasmuna seized the opportunity. She deployed Ezrayîl's electromagnetic lance, took aim and opened fire.
The railgun surged and cracked like an arbalest breaking under excessive torsion. A single sabot shell whistled through the darkness. In the eyes of the Sequence creature, it was nothing but a minuscule needle, a vague inconvenience they could sweep away with a flick of their wrist. The Jester didn't even compute the existence of Ezrayîl's projectile.
Then it felt pain for the first time in its life.
The sabot wasn't a pure penetrating projectile. It carried a miniscule warhead made of a dark substance harvested from the symbiotic forest organism of Draugr. Algorab didn't give this compound a name, merely a string of numbers. It was a bacteriological weapon improvised by the anarchist Draugr hivemind and for which the ravens were nothing but vectors. Qasmuna was convinced the refusal to name the substance had a pragmatic reason. The power of the Sequence was also that of the Verb. By imposing its way to name things, the ancient empire dominated them. A nameless compound was also devoid of history and context, robbing the Sequence of its favourite vectors of control.
On impact, the flechette was crushed, transferring its kinetic energy to the transbiological skin. Algorab knew that the largest Sequence creatures were impervious to conventional kinetic weaponry -- but that was irrelevant.
The sphere exploded a split-second after the flechette, spreading its contents over the transbiological skin as it bounced back to a normal state. The Draugr compound poured into the microscopic breach opened by the sabot round. A powerful exothermic reaction followed. Instead of stitching itself back together, the small wound stabilized and remained open, as the compound temporarily suppressed the regenerative abilities of Sequence warforms.
It was enough for Xiaomai. She struck. A newly regrown tentacle surged through the breach, reaching inside the Jester before the creature had the time to understand what happened. Xiaomai quickly got to its multiple hearts and cut them loose.
When the swarm queen pulled her tentacle back, a powerful stream of golden blood flowed through the wound.
The Jester stumbled, then fell down.
The vehicles slowly moved closer to the colossal corpse. The swarm queen had disappeared in the night, licking its deep wounds amidst the rest of her minions. Qasmuna trained Ezrayîl's guns on the Jester, ready to finish it off if it was to come back from the dead -- but the Jester was already cold.
The monster had fallen.
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