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Episode 15 -- The Queen In Storms

After defeating a strange creature -- the self-proclaimed jester of a bygone queen -- the Algorab team, accompanied by the mailpeople, reaches the throne of a fallen Sequence sovereign.

Talasea's breath echoed faintly inside her ihamora. Six hours had passed since the entrance of Algorab forward teams in the queen's chamber. Two heavy rovers had joined the first one, forming a small forward operating camp delineated by a circle of red beacons in the night. Thirty-odd Algorab scientists were gathered here. The jester's body was illuminated by the stark white beams of spotlights dangling over the transbiological frame. Exobiologists in dark blue suits worked on the fallen titan. They had opened its thick skin with a mining laser and Talasea could see them from afar, small dots taking samples from the creature. The preliminary results of the analyses painted a most peculiar image of the self-proclaimed jester. It appeared that the titan wasn't a warform but a creature initially destined to ceremonial functions. This explained why Ezrayîl and Xiaomai had managed to take down the jester with such ease. A true warform would have required much heavier weaponry, like the Lumia's tactical nuclear missiles. Through her infrared visor, Talasea could now see the humanoid frames of the queen's true guardians. Statues, a hundred metres tall, still and silent, hands wrapped around nuclear swords. They were reduced to bone. A lifeform had gnawed at the sleeping bodies of the guardians to subsist inside the enclosed dome and Talasea assumed it was the jester. The last survivor of the royal court had devoured its brethren to survive. A miserable existence amidst the cold ruins of a monumental hall -- all of that to be finished off by a modified Lumia and a rebel swarm queen.

Talasea turned towards the fourth rover, parked two kilometres away from the basecamp. Xiaomai's swarm stood around the beacons, barely visible in the darkness. Xiaomai herself was nowhere to be seen, hidden under her disciples. Jalil gestured in the direction of a raven. Qasmuna put Ezrayîl in a nuclear bombardment stance.

"Ready for illumination," said Jalil.

A small flare rose up in the night, climbing a thousand metres above ground before deploying a parachute, casting a white dawn over the throne room. Talasea blinked. The world became blade-clear. The millennial throne of the queen in storms bloomed in bright colours. Baroque waterfalls surged across a kilometre, watched over by the skeletal angels above. The centre of the hall contained a monumental flight of stairs that looked like a throne, yes, but a throne taller than a small mountain, an impossible throne, whose golden slopes seeped with limestone and marble. It was as if a gigantic hourglass had been shattered on the planet. As if the court itself was frozen in time, impervious to the aeons. One kilometre and a thousand metres, the focal point of Silene's Sequence heritage. An echo of an empire, of the Empire, for there ever only had been one, in all the orbits of the Milky Way, in all the circles of its eight arms around the galactic centre. The majesty of the Sequence on Silene was focused upon this singular point.

Upon the queen in storms.

It hung in a precarious balance, right above the tip of the throne, held by a forest of cables so thin they were almost invisible. The queen was a hundred metres tall. In Talasea's eyes, it was a teardrop of black water, frozen in time and smooth as glass.The Irenian waved at Isaac/Isabeau to reassure them. The swarm hummed around the ravens, arranged in a half-circle, eyes gleaming. Ezrayîl's nuclear missiles were primed and ready.

"How...did we miss the queen?" asked Jalil.

"I had a radar and infrared contact," answered Qasmuna, "but I thought it was just a statue. It appears this sovereign is covered in a stealth coating that is unlike anything we've found on Sequencers. The hull-shell curves radar waves, rendering it almost invisible to our sensors, and the heat signature is obscured. It's strange. It is very rare for Sequence sovereigns to be this stealthy, even when they intend to fight in person. A creature like the queen in storms is meant to project the aura of the Sequence, even on a battlefield. Hiding is only good for assassins and warforms. A Sovereign faces the storm head-on."

"Qas," said a raven on the radio, "I spot a local temperature elevation on the queen!"

"It's waking up. Prepare to evacuate."

A low-pitched sound echoed all around the sunken continent, vibrating through the helmet of Talasea's ihamora. Isaac/Isabeau moved closer to her. A golden light appeared at the surface of the queen -- a tint that surprised Talasea. If she associated the Sequence with black and copper like everyone else, bright gold was rare in Sequence tech. She was familiar with the black and silver beams of the warforms, the red-copper gleam of high-frequency blades and the stark blue of ultra-relativistic self-defence systems. But gold -- molten gold, warming her cheeks under the helmet, she didn't know it. In the light, Talasea saw swarms of black dots swimming around, like radiation crackling through the atmosphere of a dying planet. Then the black dots became Sequence ideograms. It took a handful of seconds for the suit's algorithms to identify the script used by the queen in storms. It was a local variant of the main Sequence tongue in the Perseus arm. The on-board computer could reconstruct it. Sentences danced on the visor.

**[individual mark, pronoun = I?] am the [individual entity capable of projecting power = sovereign?] of [violent weather phenomenon] --> adopting the most likely translation solution --> I AM THE QUEEN IN STORMS.**

Tali ordered the ihamora to give her the best solutions directly, without displaying the entire translation process.

**I hope the spectacle was to your tastes**
--> trust 85%.

The irenian had never accustomed herself to the idea that Algorab could decipher Sequence script on the fly. She felt like a seer, reading the messages of an old deity.

**Who are you?**
--> trust 98%.

One of Jalil's ravens had lit up two flares and proceeded to answer in sign language, drawing Sequence ideograms in the darkness.

**We are children of the sun. Two-legged mammals. Our lives are short. We travel between stars. We come in peace.**

Tali smiled upon realizing that the suit only gave a trust rating of 86% to its interpretation of stereotyped human-drawn ideograms. Xiaomai didn't share her diplomatic precautions. She raised her prehensile tentacles and positioned herself in front of Ezrayîl as if to cover it. Qasmuna armed the four tactical nuclear missiles of her mech. Behind the rovers, a few teams of ravens had established anti-armour firing positions.

A new string of ideograms flashed from the queen.

**XIAOMAI. Here you are. The most gifted of my workers. Thus should my reign end, then. Make of Silene a garden. THIS PLANET IS YOURS NOW.**
--> trust 76%.

On her VR display, Qasmuna perceived the opening of the dome a split-second before the transbiological muscles of the dome flexed like a petal torn by the wind. The transparent cables keeping the queen in place snapped. Four insect-like limbs unfolded from the teardrop-shaped frame, stabilizing her on the pyramidal throne. Ezrayîl's systems detected another sudden rise in the temperature of the queen. It tried to interpret the signature and concluded the queen in storms was about to light up its ground to space engines. Qasmuna flicked a switch on her radio, broadcasting on all channels.

"Qasmuna to everyone, we have a main engine ignition! Find shelter immediately! Talasea, Isa, Jalil and the rover teams, converge towards Ezrayîl."

Xiaomai's swarm moved around the rovers to shield them with their bodies. Isaac/Isabeau remained still amidst the chaos. Talasea could see they were terrified.

"Tal...we're all dead. The queen will ignite its engine. Heat and radiation will kill us all."

The Irenian ran towards Isaac/Isabeau, tried to grasp them by the hip to bring them to shelter. The ihamora was too smooth to afford a proper grip but Qasmuna rushed to her help, using Ezrayîl's free arm to get a hold of Isa and shielding them with her mech's frame. Talasea ran behind the Lumia. The ground quaked. A bright light suddenly appeared above the throne, seeping from the icy sky, casting white shadows on the bone court. Talasea huddled against Isaac/Isabeau, putting her hand against the ihamora's chest.

"Isa, we are dead only if the queen in storms uses a fusion or antimatter drive. The former isn't worthy of a Sequence sovereign, the latter is too risky to use in a confined space."

"What is she going to use then?"

"I don't know. But we will not die."

The small earthquakes intensified. The shadows disappeared in pearlescent light. The Irenian could feel the take-off even through Ezrayîl's armoured hull. A powerful shockwave propagated through the ihamora, while her visor blinked in crimson red as it absorbed a massive dose of radiations that without the armour would have been deadly. The light gained in intensity until the surrounding world became nothing but marble and pearl. Isaac/Isabeau met Talasea's gaze -- they found her so serene in the heart of the storm that it manage to appease them for a short while.

"See? If it was a nuclear drive," she said, softly, "we'd already be stardust."

Isaac/Isabeau sighed. In the enclosed world of the ihamora, her heart beat with a violence they weren't familiar with. Isaac/Isabeau switched to Bubbles' radio channel.

"Hey. You hear me?"

The silly bird appeared on the visor.


"Do you have eyes on the continental dome?"

"Yes. Don't move."

"Can't. What do you see?"

The AI projected a compressed video on Isaac/Isabeau's virtual reality space. The continental dome was wrapped in cold clouds, the tip open like a titanic daisy flower. The queen had just left the building. It pushed towards the sky, followed by a trail of incandescent light. The snow followed in its wake. The queen's trajectory was smooth and light -- as if its engines, weak engines, so weak they couldn't even vaporize the humans in the enclosed space, were as immaterial as Silene's very atmosphere. Ten seconds later, the queen in storms ignited her main drive and the white light became a pillar of focused power. Freed from Silene's gravity, the queen accelerated towards low orbit and Bubbles finally lost it.

Inside the continental hall, silence reigned once again. The light had disappeared, yet it left its imprint on the world. It seemed to Talasea that she could see them still: the blade-sharp shadows cast by the queen, shrapnel of a self-contained star.

For a short while the Irenian felt alone, abandoned by the bright light of the sovereign. Then, Isaac/Isabeau's touch reassured her and she let this thought sweep over her like the molten snow on Ezrayîl.

When Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau left the tramway that brought them back from the continental hall, they were exhausted and could barely stand up. Even with their endoskeleton assist, ihamoras put a huge strain on their wearer, both mental and physical. It took Talasea a massive effort to wake up from her nap, extirpate herself from her cocoon of coral and transbiological muscle, clean up the heat exchanger fluid and get back into her clothes. Neither her nor Isaac/Isabeau found the strength to walk back to the Internationale. They collapsed on a sofa in a small observation room that faced the twilight-soaked plains of Silene. Algorab's raven didn't object. Talasea fell asleep, holding Isaac/Isabeau's hand. She felt as if a warm snow was pouring over her through the bay window.

When the two companions emerged from their sleep, two hours had passed. Red night lights filled the hallways. Talasea found four cups of tea on the table in front of the sofa, as well as meal that came right from Avicenna's kitchens. Jalil strolled in with a plate of sugary cakes, while Qasmuna lay on the other sofa. The Yazidi looked even more tired than the mailpeople.

"Everything alright?" asked the Irenian, still dizzy. Jalil answered with a soft voice.

"No one is wounded, but everyone in the continental hall received their yearly radiation exposure allowance in a minute. I asked our medics to perform additional tests and you should get a full check-up as well. Ihamoras are sturdy but only up to a point. Our monads show non-negligible chances of light radiation poisoning."

"We'll get examined at Outrenoir. I still can't realize what happened. It's the first time I see a Sequence sovereign from up close."

"Likewise," answered Isaac/Isabeau. Qasmuna nodded.

"Same as well, but I think Jalil is more experienced in this domain."

Qasmuna's husband nodded.

"True. I was part of the boarding team that seized a captured Orrery after the failed assault on Draugr, that was ten years ago. I saw a sovereign there, yes, but it had been devoured by its crew. Never truly saw such a creature in its majesty."

"You seem to hold Sequence sovereigns in high regard."

"Why wouldn't I? They're fascinating creatures. Some of them are older than humankind and yet we can communicate with them as if we were just distant cousins. It is tragic that the Sequence is such an antithesis to us. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened had we managed to find a common ground."

Qasmuna approved and kissed Jalil on the forehead.

"That sovereign is different from the rest. It abdicated. Gave its planet to rebellious workers."

Jalil shrugged. Outside, the blizzard raged on, drowning the forward base in a sea of white, dancing fog. The continental wall had disappeared again.

"What planet, Qas? Silene is dead. It's not an abdication. The queen in storms only got rid of a graveyard. Of her graveyard."

"She could have killed us all, yet she spared us."

"Why kill us? It's the first time it encounters a human being. When I stumble upon an unknown microbe, my first reflex is not to sterilize it. Yet I don't spare it because I care, I spare it because I can't be bothered to destroy it. Same here. But I see Isaac/Isabeau fell asleep again..."

Talasea smiled, stroking Isa's hair with the back of her hand.

"Oh. Indeed."

Jalil stood up.

"Dame Talasea, may I carry Isa to one of our spare rooms? They'll be better than in a sofa."

"Please do."

Jalil leaned over Isaac/Isabeau and, kindly, took them in his arms. He left in silence, walking through the commons and disappearing in the maze of Avicenna's rooms. Talasea finished her plate of cakes, then whispered:

"Qasmuna, you said you wanted to measure up to the Sequence. Here you are. You took down a warform with Ezrayîl."

"A pathetic comedian sacrificed by the queen to hold a devastated, ruin-filled hall. It's not something I'm going to celebrate. So my quest is still ongoing, I fear. But, tell me, Tal...what did you feel when this creature moved towards us, ready to fight?"

The Irenian met Qasmuna's eyes. They gleamed in gold -- just like when they had made love on Kollontai. Once again, Qasmuna gauged Talasea's soul. The Irenian probed her own feelings and did not find anything of note.

"I didn't feel different than how I would have felt facing an avalanche or a nuclear reactor on meltdown."

"This is not uncommon among explorers. Our war upon the Sequence is nothing more than yet another event on the road for you. But you are not just an explorer, Tal, you're an Irenian. And thus, you learned how to fight. Doesn't this change anything to your experience?"

"I didn't learn how to fight, I learned how to dance with a blade, which isn't the same. That my swords can kill is merely tangential."

"You know that I used to be a ship captain and thus I think I have a good grasp on people and their soul. And I also think one learns a lot about someone when making love with them. Yet, I can't see through you and I find this intriguing. You are an excellent navigator, a good pilot, an admirable woman, but it seems like you're merely grazing the surface of the world, as if you were afraid of making an impression on it. And I do not get it."

The Irenian finally stared back at Qasmuna.

"So...we made love only so that you could get to understand me?"

"No. I truly desired you and it is still the case. But yes, I also want to grasp who you are, before you take it to the void again."

"I am not going anywhere, Qasmuna."

"Look. I am a married woman. We allow us to have occasional lovers, but Jalil and I are sworn to each other and this is an oath we truly take to heart. And you are not a free heart either."

"Isa and I aren't exactly together."

"Oh, I do believe you are. In an unusual way, perhaps, but you too are soulmates. You and Isa are entwined, Tal. And one day, yes, you will leave. So yes, I fear you will remain a mystery to me. But here I am, talking about me. What are you thinking about, little blue lady?"

The Irenian smiled and blushed ever so slightly.

"I am thinking about you, I am thinking that if we were alone, without Avicenna, without anything else, just us and the blizzard, I'd kiss you until you'd beg for mercy. And I realize that's the soppiest thing I've ever said."

"Well, it is a well-known fact that Irenians are deliciously perverted, all the while running on tea and corny love letters."

And, right before Jalil came back, Qasmuna pressed her lips against Talasea's. The Irenian long considered this kiss as the best she had ever received from another woman.

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