The Internationale translates to Kollontai, the capital planet of the Five Suns with Isaac/Isabeau and the Postmistress on board, unaware of the kill order issued on the courier ship by mysterious mercenaries. The Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh, manned by Talasea and Qasmuna, mounts a counter-intercept. The improvised warship re-emerges into real space as the Internationale detects several missiles inbound...
They are the final arguments of sovereigns.
On Earth or on the Moon, they are called "torpedoes", in reference to the weapons used by industrial-era fleets to relentlessly kill each other under the waves. In the Traverse they are called "missiles" because why bother inventing new words or recycling old ones when perfectly adequate terms already exist. The Irenians name them "lances" because they remember that humankind has yet to invent a cheaper weapon than high-velocity sharp sticks. Of course, at the heart of Human Space, under the Earth's shadow, warships are equipped with much more powerful weapons. If wars still happened there, they'd be led with laser artillery and ultra-relativistic particle beams. But even then, missiles would remain as persistent extras, in swarms of thousand of hungry wolves heading for their targets. But on the rims of human space, far from the old megalopolises, where even communications lasers are hard to manufacture, missiles still reign supreme.
The two projectiles darting towards the Internationale at ten kilometres per second are exceedingly simple weapons. Yet, they are among the most complex tools of war one can make at the edges of the known world. They don't look like much of anything, truth be told. Thick cylinders equipped with oversized liquid fuel engines. Garage WMDs. Their targeting suite is a basic infrared guidance camera bought in some probe graveyard, trained on the Internationale's thermal profile. The weaponry is outright pathetic: a small explosive, spiting shrapnel on the target right before impact. Navigators call this "the trashcan of death". It makes up for its pitiful power by sheer velocity. At ten kilometres per second, even a handful of dirt could pulverise a ship.
There is one minute left before impact. Entangled in the interdiction bubble of the cargo vessel, the Internationale cannot translate away. It is trapped.
Bubbles is acutely aware of the problem and in no small part because the Distant Shores was also destroyed by a missile. Endless simulations told her everything there is to know about such weapons. Antimissile defence, remember Bubbles, is a bit like an onion. First layer: don't get spotted. Second layer: don't get fired at. Third and fourth layer: don't get hit and don't get killed. Bubbles is ready to act somewhere between these two layers. She knows that despite their professionalism, neither Isaac/Isabeau nor the Postmistress have the time to act. It's her job to save the ship. The plan is very simple. Three steps: disappear, divert, destroy.
Bubbles kills the Internationale's engines and retracts the radiators. She knows that she's probably going to fry some circuits doing so -- doesn't matter. She needs to reduce the Internationale's thermal signature at all costs. It is crucial for the second step.
The Internationale carries two miniature probes used to send distress signals in case the vessel would find itself unable to move. They are simplistic devices, with a hard drive disk as their only payload, but they're fast. And in space, speed -- which means delta-v -- means thrust, thus visibility. When she throws her two drone companions in space, Bubbles has no hope of them leaving the theatre of operations and alerting someone. But that is not their goal. Their function, as short-lived as it should be, is to trick the enemy. By igniting their drives a few kilometres away from the Internationale, the two sacrificial drones suddenly create a larger heat signature than that of Courier 7. It is a ridiculously simple idea and military missiles would easily foil Bubbles' plan, but the projectiles sent against the Internationale have the intelligence of a toaster. They take the bait. Bubbles is sad when she sees the drones disappear in a silent explosion. She'd almost want to salute them. Good job, little creatures. Now, on to the third step.
The problem of the missiles is solved, but the shrapnel remains. High-velocity debris now travel on the same vector as the Internationale and will soon catch up with it but Bubbles foresaw this. Courier 7's laser grid is too weak to intercept missiles but it can handle superheated shrapnel with a mean diameter of two millimetres. It was built for this. One millisecond: the close perimeter of the Internationale turns into a constellation of crimson dots. The ship enters the storm head-first. The eyes painted on its flanks lit up, reflecting the light diffracted from the lasers.
For a handful of seconds -- seven, maybe eight -- Bubbles feels something that looks like joy. She just survived a missile salvo aboard a courier ship!
And then one last cloud of fragments, faster than the others, cuts through the laser grid, impacts the hull and --
A thump. Dry. Metallic.
The lights go out.
A blue wave rippled through Talasea when the Al-Awaidh reintegrated the real world, two hundred kilometres away from the Internationale. The Irenian's screens filled with myriads of infrared spikes. It took the flight computer two seconds to filter them all out. The haptic tattoos on the back of her hand activated, covering her palms in red-hot needles, a tactile transcription of the world outside. The Internationale was surrounded by the shrapnel cloud of a dead missile.
"The Internationale is still here," whispered Qasmuna, "what happened?"
"It can't intercept a missile with its grid. Bubbles may have sacrificed a drone to bait the projectile into a trap."
Talasea realized she wasn't really thinking. She merely reacted. She could not afford to dwell on the fate that awaited both the Internationale and the Al-Awaidh. On the other side of the cockpit, Qasmuna was but a frozen ghost; and yet, even her stillness was reassuring. Lost in half-light her face was a pair of green circles, the outline of her eyes drawn by the VR displays on her helmet. Her voice was eerily steady. A buoy in the waves.
"This is Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh to cargo ship identified as EM-YT-67, we have a target solution on you. Please drop all your weaponry and ammunition, kill your drives and prepare to be boarded."
Talasea held her breath. Qasmuna was bluffing -- the cargo ship was only eight hundred kilometres away but she had yet to get a viable target solution on it. It was credible, however. The cargo ship could see them and if two ships could see each other, they could target each other. The Algorab pilot watched the LIDAR feedback on the Internationale. The messenger ship had been spared by the missiles but its behaviour was not nominal. Courier 7 was spiralling to the side. Its RCS thrusters looked inoperative and the main drive was offline. Talasea hadn't noticed. Either she was entirely captivated by the cargo ship, or she refused to think about the Internationale. In both cases, Qasmuna didn't see a point in alarming the Irenian. As long as EM-YT-67 was in the vicinity, the Al-Awaidh couldn't assist. The Yazidi reiterated her message.
"This is Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh to cargo ship identified as EM-YT-67, we have a target solution on you. Please drop all your weaponry and ammunition, kill your drives and prepare to be boarded."
This time, there was an answer.
Isaac/Isabeau punched an emergency switch. Reddish lights filled the cockpit. Electric twilight. The pilot deactivated the master alarm, finally bringing an end to the industrial drill that had been bouncing in their head for the past minute. Isaac/Isabeau checked to see if they were intact. Nothing had come through the pilot, but the cockpit had not been as lucky. Three pairs of symmetrical holes, barely larger than a thumb, now adorned the prow of the ship. Thin pillars of dust and microscopic debris linked them together in a bronze grid criss-crossing the cockpit. Two of the pillars had punched through the hull and towards the floor. The Internationale's atmosphere escaped with a gentle, moist whisper. They had ten to eleven minutes before full depressurisation.
The third pillar spawned from the Postmistress.
Shrapnel had traversed her like bullets through a ragdoll. She turned towards Isa. The hole in her chest was large enough to fit a hand. Liquid poured through the exit wound: coolant fluid for an android frame.
"Don't worry, Isa. I'm fine. At least for the next twenty minutes. Bubbles?"
The avatar on the post-it was blurry.
"We suffered multiple hull punctures. Most shrapnel overpenetrated, which spared our superstructure, but I am purging the batteries to avoid mass quenching of our SMES units. We are also leaking metastable nitrogen all around. Three cockpit impacts. Everything alright?"
The Postmistress signalled Isa not to say anything. The pilot shut their helmet tight before answering.
"Don't bother with us. Can we restart the main drives? We need to escape the interdiction bubble."
The Postmistress grabbed Isaac/Isabeau's hand.
"No. We need to remain as cold as possible. It's the only thing that can save us. You've seen that cargo ship's thermal signature. It's a nuclear vessel, probably liquid core fission. We don't have enough delta-v to outrun this thing, but if we reignite the drive, we'll be a perfect target. The Internationale is not a warship, it's a messenger, and when a messenger is attacked, they drop dead and wait for danger to pass."
"I refuse to lose another ship."
"I understand. But the best we can do is to stand still and silent."
Yet another alarm.
The Internationale's radar screen lit up like a celebration tree. There were seventy thermal spikes incoming.
The VR displays on the Al-Awaidh now showed a variety of shades of orange and red. Talasea blinked.
"Cargo ship is firing again. I count ten...correction, twenty, no, thirty missiles and they keep firing. Forty-eight. Fifty-six. Sixty-seven. Seventy-two. Seventy-two missiles incoming!"
Under normal circumstances, her mind would have been stuck trying to guess how such a small ship could contain so many missiles. Missile drums bolted to the hull? Sliding bay doors? Some other kind of engineering aberration? No matter.
"Can we survive this?"
Qasmuna's answer was disarmingly sincere.
"I don't know. Talasea, do you trust me?"
"Yes. Do you?"
"You're a Starmoth Initiative navigator. That's all I need."
Talasea nodded and sealed her helmet. Qasmuna took a deep breath and whispered a prayer.
"Very well. I will keep the Al-Awaidh on the same vector as the Internationale, but far enough to avoid collateral damage. We will engage the missiles at short range with our interceptors. Our lasers are useless against sheer mass. I will fly the ship myself. The interceptors and their mass drivers will be on autopilot. I'll manually correct if need be. Calculating so many interception solutions will push our CPU to its limits. I want you to handle counterbattery fire. Our torpedoes can track their target independently but I need a gunner to oversee their guidance and filter out decoys."
Qasmuna opened the Al-Awaidh's missile guidance window on Talasea's console. The Irenian only needed a glance to understand that the guidance system was a carbon copy of the ones used by the Starmoth Initiative on its rocketsondes. It wasn't a mere coincidence. Without access to military resources, the local Algorab syndicate had repurposed science software for its torpedoes.
"Alright. I have four torpedoes under power."
"Hey. Talasea. The goal is first and foremost to force the cargo ship to think about something else. Destruction is optional."
The Irenian approved and gazed upon her screen. Her hands found the haptic controls on their own. Her heart calmed down. Everything felt familiar. Qasmuna crossed her arms, looking at the ceiling. Her eyes were open but blind. Smooth mirrors, detached from reality.
"Tell me, Talasea. Do you love them?"
"I have told them things even the stars wouldn't hear from me."
A sweet smile curved Qasmuna's lips. Impact in two minutes, said the flight computer. Four missiles had exploded upon engine ignition. There were sixty-eight left, all inbound for the Al-Awaidh. Qasmuna gave the flight computer an order.
"Deploy interceptors. Maximal rate of fire. Auto-aim with additional manual input. Priority goes to the closest projectile."
Four utility bays opened on the flanks of the gunship, revealing the electromagnetic tracks of its mass drivers. They started pumping out antimissile ammunition at the rate of ten cannisters per second.
Six clusters of thermal flares and radar beacons spiralled in the wake of the Al-Awaidh. A ring of confusion spread around the vessel.
"Hardpoints one to four, fire."
Four torpedoes were ejected through the sliding bays of the Al-Awaidh. They ignited their first stage, darting towards the cargo ship. Talasea overtook them on her console.
Six seconds later, the Al-Awaidh entered the storm.
Missiles are the final arguments of sovereigns. Interceptors are the antithesis.
They are as simple as their targets. A plate of reactive armour that propels a cloud of high velocity shrapnel. Six RCS thrusters for all-aspect manoeuvres. A single infrared sensor aligned on the thermal signature of the incoming projectiles. The caricature of a missile, made to kill its own kind. The power of a swarm of kinetic plates lies in sheer numbers. A drone plate weighs about three kilograms, against several hundred for the lightest missiles. Space to space projectiles have to find their targets across hundreds of kilometres of vacuum and keep enough delta-v to keep up with a manoeuvring ship, all the while carrying enough shrapnel to ensure a kill on impact. A kinetic plate fired through a mass driver only has to match the lateral velocity of its target. A one thousand tonnes wave of missiles can be dealt with by sixty tons of interceptors.
If the target solutions are good enough.
At this stage, the ride is on and Qasmuna can't do anything but basic corrections. The survival of the Al-Awaidh relies on the five hundred reactive plates that fly alongside the gunship. Their RCS thrusters fill the void with cold gas streams. Kinetic plates attempt to target the missiles. In return, the projectiles try to evade while keeping enough delta-v to catch up with the gunship. The missiles have it harder than the plates, as they need to consider every single angle of attack. In fact, they cannot do this. They do not have the computing power for active evasion. Instead, they have to resort to random manoeuvres, hoping that their swarm will be enough to get through. Many plates miss their targets. Some of them end up on a vector to nowhere after a failed intercept. Sometimes, an RCS thruster breaks up and the kinetic plate spirals away from the battlefield. Once or twice per second, sensor confusion leads to a friendly kill. There are many losses but numbers still favour the defender.
Sixty tons against a thousand.
A tempest of steel and fire rages around the Al-Awaidh. Every second a flurry of luminous impacts punctuates the void. Shrapnel grids the sheer blackness of space, missile debris and reactive plate buckshot blending in the same continuous stream of metal. The Al-Awaidh's laser grid operates at full power, disintegrating debris as they close in. The smallest ones get through unmolested. They aren't fast enough to puncture the outer armour, but they pepper it like a million needles.
Qasmuna watches her remaining plates, then the missile swarm. She estimates their chances at around fifty percent.
Away from the chaos, Talasea's torpedoes cruise in perfect silence, the Irenian focused on their trajectory. Two hundred kilometres until impact. Talasea orders the torpedoes to drop their main propulsion stage, following the computer's instructions. Suddenly, the screen lights up. The cargo ship just dropped a formation of flares. The computer should be able to sort them out from the target, but it is entirely focused on the kinetic plates. Talasea tenses up. She has about ten seconds to discriminate. The navigator spent weeks gazing at telescopes and identification screens -- in her former life as an explorer, and in another one as an air controller. She knows exactly what a liquid core fission drive looks like on infrared. The Irenian eliminates two signatures right away. The third one follows a second later. The sensor returns on the radiators were incorrect. Two signatures left and one of them is the cargo ship. Five seconds. There. The closest thermal spike. It peaks too early on the sine wave display. Decoy. Talasea removes it from the screens and directs the four torpedoes towards the last thermal ping. One hundred kilometres left.
"Torpedoes on final approach. Ready for early detonation."
Talasea adds this because she is not a soldier and she things that she can't bring herself to destroy a ship. Implicitly, she's asking Qasmuna to take back control. But another answer comes.
"Right side mass driver jammed. Twenty-six missiles incoming. I'm putting us into a spin to equalize coverage."
Something snaps in Talasea's mind. So that is Qasmuna's state of mind, she thinks: death has a work hazard.
"Torpedoes entering active kinetic defence perimeter."
The screens fill with gold. The cargo ship opens fire with short-range electromagnetic machine guns. Tracers outshine the stars. Two torpedoes fall victim to the tungsten shells.
A thump goes through the Al-Awaidh.
"Fifteen missiles. Left side mass driver jammed."
"Fifty kilometres before torpedo impact. Missile decoys away."
She doesn't even consider cancelling the shot, now. Talasea has chosen her side. If she has to die right now -- a thought she is strangely at ease with -- then the cargo ship will go with her. The machine guns keep raking the void but to no avail. They're made for ship to ship combat at exceedingly close range. Not torpedo interception.
"Eight missiles incoming. Five per cent of interceptors left."
A torpedo explodes -- RCS failure. Talasea arms the last one.
"Five missiles. Out of interceptors."
"All power to laser grid."
The consoles switch off. The Al-Awaidh erupts and creaks like a rowboat in a tsunami. The master alarm comes to life and Qasmuna punches a button to shut it up. Her voice is unfazed.
"We are hit. Losing atmospheric pressure in cockpit. Losing reaction mass in reactor section. Losing coolant in the main loop. Scramming reactor. We'll survive. Ablative armor got the brunt of the impact."
"I just hit myself. That's all. Watch out for loss of thrust gravity, I'm taking the reactor down. Switching to battery power."
Thrust disappeared. Microgravity came back.
"My screens are dead."
"Switch to auxiliary displays. Second row above you, the old-looking switch. The one with duct tape."
Talasea's hand shook like leaves in the wind. Qasmuna had to flick the switch herself. It took the Irenian half a minute to undersrand what she was seeing through the orange grids of the auxiliary CRT displays. The rapidly expanding, radioactive crown of a heavy debris cloud. Algorab torpedoes were equipped with low-yield nuclear warheads instead of shrapnel charges. The impact had pulverized the target, leaving nothing behind.
Qasmuna blinked for the first time since the beginning of the engagement. The radio lit up. Emergency channel.
"Al-Awaidh, Al-Awaidh, this is the Internationale. We are alive, but damaged. Requesting assistance, if you can still move."
"Al-Awaidh, solid copy. We are bringing you home."
Rainwater Station had entered Typhoon's long shadow. The night had swallowed its craterized surface. Ships and satellites gleamed as white fireflies. Two hundred metres below a crater was a VR room bathed in dark blue lighting. It was habitually used by passing navigators to plan out their travels beyond the Five Suns. That night, the upper seats were occupied the crew of the Internationale and the Al-Awaidh. Down in the amphitheatre were the Postmistress and the Mortician who had examined the corpses. Hundreds of colourful spheres were lit on the other seats -- the avatars of the Rainwater Syndicate administrators who attended the reunion through videocall. A sharply dressed woman sat in the shade, near the exit door. Maria Villaverde -- the private investigator had come all the way from Outrenoir for the occasion.
The Lunar Mechanic was a five minutes late. She still wore her work suit, splattered with oil and coolant. No one seemed to mind.
"Excuses" she said, walking on the stage, "I had to deal with a rebellious engine."
The Selenite snapped her fingers and Isa glanced at the stage, waiting for something that didn't come. They realized they had forgotten to put their VR spectacles on. Once they had fixed their mistake, they saw the Hammurabi appear in the middle of the stage. VASIMR engine block, counterweight, hab module. A tomb.
"You already know the Hammurabi's frame as well as its broad profile. I have been able to link it to an existing ship model. It is indeed based on a pre-interstellar rescue engine, modified to house a geometry drive. These ships are very rare, even as hangar queens, but they can still be of use. I guess the odd exploration or cargo ship could have one of these on board. That is, sadly, all I can say about the Hammurabi. The flight computer self-destructed after murdering the crew by ordering the depressurisation of the hab module and trying to start a meltdown of the nuclear engine, which failed, ironically, due to a technical issue. The geometry drive was purged into space: I only found empty scaffolds. I thus can't use it to ID the vessel."
A Rainwater citizen intervened through their avatar.
"How can we explain this behaviour from the flight computer? Aren't those supposed to preserve the lives of their crew at all costs?"
"Only if they are programmed to do so. Some flight computers might be hardcoded to try and sabotage their ship if it is stolen or hijacked. It is illegal in most jurisdictions, including the Five Suns, but it does exist."
"Sabotage...to the point of murdering the crew?"
"One thing is certain: between the ejection of the geometry drive and the death of the crew, the owner of this vessel clearly didn't want anyone to be able to determine its identification and point of origin, even if two spacers had to die in the process. I have no idea who would be that ruthless, but this is the most credible hypothesis. I cross-referenced all the ships that docked to Rainwater Station in the past three months with equipment lists: none of them had a long-range escape pod similar to the Hammurabi. We'll have to check with the other Five Suns stations, however. The investigation has just begun."
Another avatar blinked.
"And the passengers? Who were they?"
The Mortician took the stage. She erased the Hammurabi's 3D plan and replaced it by a photograph of the two bodies -- the one Jalil had taken upon entering the module. The crowd was audibly shaken.
"The two casualties aboard the Hammurabi were perfectly healthy. The cause of death was established as multiple strokes and cardiac arrest due to the acceleration sustained by the hab module. They are between thirty-five and forty years old. Bone structure and muscle growth shows they've been living in standard gravity for most of their life. Pollutants recovered from their lungs indicate a life spent in an enclosed environment, like a spaceship, a station or a para-terraforming dome. I personally favour the hypothesis of a planetary dome or centrifugal station. The most peculiar element is the absence of a monad. It wasn't removed or neutered: rather, it was never implanted in the first place. These two individuals belong to the two per cent of humankind that doesn't have an active monad. A few communities are known to refuse implants. Most of them are Earthbound. Such an absence is utterly incomprehensible for spacers."
The Mortician stopped for a short while, gauging the reactions of the crowd. There was mostly silence.
"Finally, the two victims bore rudimentary q-augs on their left shoulder. Tattoos, with no interface with the circulatory and nerve systems. They remind me of the barcodes given to industrial workers at the end of the Low Age. it might just be a fashion accessory, however, as cross-referencing with our own q-aug databases doesn't give anything. That's all I can say."
The Mortician removed the photographs from the VR space and the entire room suddenly burst into a storm of questions. The Postmistress didn't leave Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau the luxury of indulging in a game of back and forth with the crowd. She gave them two cups of hot tea and led them to the old projection room that oversaw the VR stage. She locked the door behind her. In the half-light, her purple shirt had taken a sinister shade. The state servant hadn't slept well. Her voice was dry as a lost river.
"How are you two holding up?"
The faces of Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea did not call for an audible answer.
"Right. This is too big for Rainwater alone. Two first-degree murders and a mysterious ship...either we are dealing with the fallout of an illegal operation from inside our communal space, or this involves an external ship. In any case, it is serious. Thus, I need our findings to reach Kollontai as fast as possible. The communal syndicate must be involved."
"Courier 3 is leaving in two days."
"That is not enough. We need an immediate rotation. With a true ship, not a drone."
Talasea grimaced. The Irenian had taken the colour of pale ice under the constant assault of pain, stress and mild sleep deprivation.
"I can't fly. I don't know what's happening, might be stress, or maybe my monad is acting up, but my belly aches are almost unbearable. I'd be a liability to the ship."
The Postmistress shook her head.
"Isa. Can you go?"
"Good. I'm qualified to pilot the Internationale. Can you be my navigator? Very well. We depart in two hours. Direct line to Kollontai, I'll ask for emergency refuelling of the auxiliary drive."
Even if she wasn't a believer, Talasea had always enjoyed the proximity of mosques. The one on Rainwater Station was a dome covered in geometrical ornaments, while the inside was taken by a dark, blue night traversed with streaks of gold. In the centre was the mihrab, turned not towards the Earth but in the direction of the crystalline cube of a geometry drive, kept in levitation by a circle of magnets. According to interstellar Islam, the superluminal drive was a divine symbol. The constant reminder of the power of Allah. For all the stars, all the planets in the galaxy were the jewels of divine creation and the geometry drive was the tool that would reveal them. It existed outside of time and space. Paracausal. Unreachable by science. For the geometry drive had not been invented, no, it had been discovered. Rani Spengler's great work remained inscrutable. if the "how" of the geometry drive was understood, the "why" was still mysterious. Navigators such as Talasea knew every single detail of their drives and yet even they couldn't break the enigma. In a sense, the geometry drive was magical. Or divine. Yes, even though Talasea wasn't a Muslim, she could see why modern Islam saw in the geometry drive the most palpable evidence of God's existence. She did not fully accept the argument, but she was perceptive of its beauty.
"Good evening, Talasea. Were you waiting for me?"
The Irenian turned towards the veiled shape that had manifested itself under the shadow of a pair of sycamore trees. The golden veins on her garments had turned dark red with the artificial twilight.
"Hey. Qasmuna. I don't really know. I wondered...I don't even know what I wondered. I like standing near mosques. They reassure me. It's silly. I'm an agnostic."
"I don't find it silly. Have you ever thought about converting to Islam? Or is this merely a matter of aesthetics?"
"Isa was a Muslim in their youth. They left religion altogether right before we first met. I never asked them why. One day, maybe, I'll dig it up. But I've never considered a conversion. I'm an Irenian. I am, by definition, profane and depraved. And blue."
"Ah! You have a peculiar opinion of your own people."
"Oh, I suppose there are wise and chaste Irenians, but sadly, I fit the stereotype well."
"I don't see why you wouldn't have your place in a mosque, though, whatever your lifestyle might be. However, I might not be the best person to answer your conundrum, considering I am not a Muslim."
"Just like you, I love mosques, and I like wearing a veil, both out of fashion and cultural matters. And also because it allows me to elude questions. But I am a Yazidi."
"I didn't think you had reached the stars."
"I'm probably the only Yazidi spacer. That's the problem of being part of a strictly endogamic religious community."
"But, Jalil...he's a Muslim, correct? Aren't you supposed to convert to the religion of your spouse if they're not Yazidi?"
"In theory, yes. But the Earth is far away and so are the Sheiks."
"Speaking of, where's Jalil?"
"Went back to Cordoba Port, slipped into Sequence ruins once again. I stayed for the Al-Awaidh. I've been meaning to upgrade its communications module for months and Silene doesn't have the right facilities for this."
"Doesn't your gunship need a pilot?"
"All military craft can run with a single crewmember, even half-improvised vessels like this one. But I didn't want to spend the evening alone with my ship and the chief mechanic. She is highly skilled but a bit..."
"Selenite, I was going to say. But I forget you don't have the same perception of selenites than us Earthborn. We almost went to war, eighty years ago. And maybe they were right, wanting to get rid of Earth's influence and all that. But the fact remains that for a while, their electromagnetic artillery was aimed at Terran cities and our missiles were aimed at the Moon. Our relationship is still uneasy. Even today. Even here."
"Isa often mentions it."
"Hey, Talasea, you're sure you're okay? You're pale."
"Nothing serious. Pain flare. Old flight wound. Will go away."
"Do you feel like taking a stroll in the equatorial rings? I like to hang out in the docking bays. Lots of weird ships on Rainwater."
"Sure. Let's go."
The Internationale gently accelerated on her microwave engines, cutting through the constellations of maintenance drones. The orbital night was fading away. The Postmistress had taken her place near Isaac/Isabeau, who for once stood in Talasea's seat as navigator. Bubbles sat on Typhoon's blue crescent.
"Welcome to our cockpit, madam Postmistress. Can I keep calling you that or do you have a name?"
"Postmistress will be fine, Bubbles. Thanks."
"I see even your flight suit is purple. I admire the regularity in fashion."
The Postmistress smiled as she fastened her seatbelt. Her hands instinctively rested on the direction and thrust controls. Isaac/Isabeau recognized the reflexes of an experimented pilot.
"Isa, I leave the radio to you. If you do not mind."
"No issues. Actually, I have someone to call right now. That cargo ship is a bit too close for comfort and I don't like the way Rainwater control tolerates such reckless flying. Hello, hello, cargo ship EM-YT-67, I'd like you to increase the distance margin with us. Can you go to one hundred and sixty kilometres? Thanks in advance. Over"
Only static answered. A solar storm was raging and interfered with radio coms around Rainwater. Isaac/Isabeau reiterated.
"Cargo ship EM-YT-67, do you copy? Over."
A voice hashed with white noise finally answered.
"Solid copy, Internationale. We're raising our margin to two hundred kilometres."
"Thanks. Good travels."
"Good travels to you too."
That was the last radio communication between the Internationale and cargo ship EM-YT-67.
A vertically landed chisel, yes, the Al-Awaidh had more than a passing resemblance with this. Though when she squinted hard enough, Talasea could still see the vestigial shape of the exploration/light transport ship it had been assembled from. The Irenian had bought a plate of cream tea from the bazaar. She looked like a tourist, fascinated by the sight of a retired warmachine.
"I can't believe the Al-Awaidh is even legal."
Qasmuna shrugged. She nibbled on dark brown fruits.
"Algorab is Algorab. Many things are forgiven when it's the raven that does them. Though it is also your case, no? I don't know many cooperatives that are allowed to mount nuclear fusion drives on their civilian ships."
"I don't work for the Starmoth Initiative anymore."
"Once an explorer, always an explorer. You don't shake such an ethos easily."
"And Algorab pilot, is that something you shake easily?"
"But it's a beautiful engine you've got there. Based on a Mérinoé-class cargo ship if I am not mistaken? I used to fly one of these, back in the solar system. Feels like it was a lifetime ago. I do hope you've changed the fission drive, however. They were...not very good. Really mired what would have otherwise been a great vessel."
"Oh, believe me I know. I spent three years under stem cell therapy after a leak in my old cargo ship. We replaced everything on this unit with a gas-core drive. No radioactive fallout in the wake and the thrust isn't far from that of a fusion drive. A real marvel of engineering, albeit the maintenance would give a headache to even our dear chief mechanic."
Talasea took a sip from her cream tea.
"If you want, I can show you our messenger drones. I recently repainted Courier 6."
"Well I'm very curious about your microwave drives. But I didn't dare asking."
"Follow the guide!"
Talasea threw her cup and plate in a compactor then led Qasmuna through a hallway that circled the external docking ring, linking the Al-Awaidh's docking bay to the hangar used by the postal service.
"Uh," said Qasmuna, unprompted, "that station really has holes everywhere. Do you truly need such thin walls?"
"I'm not responsible for Rainwater's design, alas. Granted, these hallways are quite poorly placed but they are practical. You can circle the entire ring without having to go through the public tramway stations. Very handy for secret rendezvous at night."
"I won't even ask."
Talasea winked. She stopped by the airlock that connected the hallway with the postal hangar and waved to open it. Nothing came.
"Well. The motion sensor must be dead. I should have replaced it."
The Irenian typed an unlock code on a side panel and the door slid open. The postal hangar was all dark -- it wasn't the dark blue of night lights, but a true night, barely troubled by the red safety beacons of five messenger drones. Qasmuna clenched her fists, slowly, while her muscles bulged under the tunic. Such darkness was not normal and neither Talasea nor Qasmuna needed to vocalise their sudden concern. The Irenian swiftly filled a mental checklist. Felt temperature: within normal range. Smells of hot plastic and vacuum ceramic plates -- nominal for a docking bay. No whistling sound, which meant no dangerous air leak -- if there was a hull breach, it was microscopic and thus of no immediate concern. Fans buzzing in a corner -- the hangar was under power, yet the motion sensors were offline. What about voice commands?
"Hangar controls: light on" said Talasea out loud.
A white, stark LED light filled the hangar. It cast no shadow, even near the messenger drones.
Talasea and Qasmuna were not alone. Two intruders had dismantled the engine access hatch of Courier 2 and had established a wire connection to the flight computer. They wore black exosuits and balaclavas. One of them was armed with a compact submachine gun worn in a holster. A weapon made for use in confined spaces, like a spaceship...or a docking bay. The intruder grabbed his weapon. Qasmuna was faster. During the time it took for the attacker to unfold the weapon's stock, the Yazidi reached for a pistol wrapped in a holster under her ceremonial tunic. The gunshots echoed almost simultaneously. Qasmuna's golden tracers impacted the gunner's torso. There was a muffled crack: she had hit a ballistic armour plate. The five-round burst from the submachine gun hit the side of Courier 4, spraying carbon splinters and burning sparks on the walls. Talasea ran away, seeking cover behind the closest messenger drone. Qasmuna kept firing while side-stepping towards Courier 3, then engaged a new magazine in her pistol.
"Stop shooting!" yelled Talasea, "you're going to depressurize the hangar!"
Her remark was completely lost in the shootout.
"Flank them!" shouted the gunner while laying down suppressive fire towards Courier 3 to keep Qasmuna from returning his shots. His acolyte moved through the packages, seeking for a good flanking angle. Talasea slapped the drone's hull twice.
"Courier 4, voice recognition, mailwoman Talasea. Immediate order: activate laser grid. Interception threshold set to maximal value. Range five hundred metres. Execute."
The drone answered, predictably unfazed.
"Order: received. Warning:pressurized area detected. Warning: ground personnel detected. High risk of ocular damage. Do you confirm?"
The Irenian gestured Qasmuna to close her eyes, hoping she'd understand. The submachine gunner opened fire again. Courier 4 saw the projectiles and interpreted them as space debris about to impact the hull. In consequence, the drone ship triggered its laser grid. The bullets had been fired from too short a distance to allow for efficient interception but Talasea's intent had not been to stop the projectiles. In order to disintegrate hard vacuum debris before impact, a civilian laser grid fired for only a few milliseconds at a time, but at very high intensity. The hangar's dense atmosphere scattered the laser immediately. Talasea did not see the flashes but she heard their effects. The gunner staggered, temporarily blinded. Qasmuna peeked from her cover and shot twice, aiming for the head. The first bullet punched a hole in Courier 5's empty fuel tank. The second found her way to the gunner's forehead. He collapsed like a ragdoll. The Algorab pilot took aim at the second intruder, who did the same.
"Let go of that," ordered Qasmuna. The intruder strengthened his grip on his antique revolver. Though his face was inscrutable under the balaclava, Talasea recognized the man from Villaverde's office on Outrenoir.
"Let me out."
"There is no way our shootout went unnoticed."
"You must be the only armed person aboard that station. I don't give a shit about the local social workers. I need a ship and a vector out of Rainwater."
Talasea moved out of cover and approached the intruder.
"Stay where you are or I shoot your friend down."
The Irenian breathed in, deeply.
"Qasmuna, can you keep your pistol trained on our attacker, whatever happens?"
The Yazidi nodded.
"Hangar controls," said Talasea, "inner airlock depressurisation."
"Warning: ground personnel detected. Requiring confirmation."
The hangar's light became red and the inner airlock opened, venting the atmosphere. A cold wind swirled through the docking bay. It took only a few seconds for Talasea to feel her breathing becoming harder.
"What are you doing? What the hell are you doing?" panicked the intruder, who couldn't put his exosuit helmet back on without letting go of his revolver.
"I am a Starmoth Initiative navigator," answered the Irenian, eerily calm, "and I have been implanted with several q-augs that allow me to survive in oxygen-poor environments. Judging from the pace at which our atmosphere is escaping and your heartrate, I'd say you have between one to two minutes before passing out. I can remain conscious for five. Thus, the question becomes: how much damage can I inflict to you during these three minutes?"
Talasea trained her eyes on the gunner, frightened by her own audacity. Qasmuna remained unmoved.
"Let me out!"
"What were you doing with our drones and their flight computers?"
"Let me out or I shoot!"
Talasea addressed the hangar again.
"Hangar controls: stop depressurisation."
The gunner's stance was weakening by the second, and so was Qasmuna's.
"One word from me and I stop the depressurisation. What are you doing here and who are you?"
"Ok, ok. We were paid to extract information from the drones. I don't know by whom. Everything was anonymized."
"Which flight plans?"
"The Internationale's. We needed a flight schedule for it and your drones' data dumps are the easiest way to access it."
"What do you want with the Internationale? Answer me!"
"I don't know! I think they want to intercept it, alright!"
Gasping for air, the intruder had relaxed his stance to much. Qasmuna seized the opportunity. She pulled the trigger twice, hammering the armour plates on the exosuit. The impact pushed the gunner back and he let go of his weapon.
"Confirm interrupt, repressurize hangar!" ordered Talasea before rushing to the gunner, "what do you mean, intercept?"
"The...the cargo...the q-ship. They want to destroy the Internationale."
The Postmistress pulled the throttle control to a rest position. The engine's whisper ceased.
"End of acceleration. We have matched velocity and vector with Kollontai."
Isaac/Isabeau pushed a button.
"Main engine cutoff. Rainwater station, this is the Internationale. We are ready to translate to Kollontai."
"Rainwater to Internationale, good copy and good travels."
"Auxiliary power generators offline. Bubbles?"
"Computing translation. That'll be slightly longer than usual, without Talasea. Give me five minutes."
The Postmistress side-eyed Isa.
"I need to tell you something, now that we are alone on this ship. The Night Flight. Station Four. Those weren't accidents. For the past two years, someone or something has been trying to destroy our communication systems. Stations One to Eight are part of a long-range antennae network that allows planetary bases to establish high-bandwith connections with postal drones. And the Night Flight was filled to the brim with letters. That's why I insisted for the Internationale to rush to Kollontai. I am intimately convinced that your discovery is connected to this hostile endeavour. We need support. I have been nagging Algorab and the Starmoths for help, but I have yet to get answers."
"Who could be trying to get at the Five Suns?"
"I don't know. What I do know is that we are fifty thousand lightyears from the Earth and transgalactic cargo ships take two years to reach us. If someone managed to isolate us from the rest of human space, they would have free reign for at least several months. We do not have armed forces, not even a citizen's militia. If the letters don't go through, we are defenceless."
Isaac/Isabeau didn't know what to answer. Bubbles announced translation was possible. The pilot uncovered the switch and brought the geometry drive under power.
For a millisecond: the air smells like desert dust.
The Al-Awaidh moved away from Rainwater Station at several hundred metres per second, forcing drones to veer away. The gunship had not even bothered with retracting its docking arms. Qasmuna had removed her veil and sealed her reinforced flight suit. Talasea set aside the painkiller syringe she had injected in her arm.
"If you can't fly, say it, Talasea."
"It'll be fine. I know my limits."
"I have no plan beyond this point, I have to warn you."
"The plan is to save three friends and a ship. And also, as an auxiliary measure, to prevent you from getting arrested as soon as you dock back."
Talasea switched her suit's UHF radio on.
"Rainwater, Rainwater, this is mailwoman Talasea aboard the Al-Awaidh. I have requisitioned this ship for a critical rescue operation. It is linked to the two wounded I have signalled in hangar D24. I am acting with the approval of the Postmistress. Any damage will be covered by the postal service. Algorab authorities are not involved in this decision. Talasea, out."
The Irenian cut her radio channel and didn't bother with listening to the answer.
"Good. Talasea, are you familiar with this ship's subsystems?"
Talasea put her hands on the Al-Awaidh's high-tech controls. The henna tattoos on her hands blinked, establishing an RFID link with the haptic dashboard. She felt the reassuring whirr of the nuclear reactor run up her fingers -- the smooth surface of a volcanic stone. It felt exactly like a Starmoth Initiative's fusion-powered scout. Familiar territory.
"I can handle the piloting."
"Very well. I'll handle missiles and sensors. Kinetic point defence is on automatic tracking. Do exactly as I say, okay? I am the navigator, you are the pilot."
Qasmuna switched to battle lighting, blue cast against grey. Talasea lowered the visor of her helmet. The Yazidi shared her main sensor screen on the Al-Awaidh's VR space. The close environment of Rainwater Station appeared as a cloud of coloured dots projected on the armoured cockpit's geometric angles. A dotted line marked the Internationale's trajectory. The ship had just disappeared from sensors after its translation.
"So the attacker is a cargo ship. Could have given a name or an IFF number before passing out, this son of...oh, hey. Qasmuna, look at this one. Gleaming all over in infrared. IFF says it's called EM-YT-67, no registered owner."
"That's not rare around Rainwater, even for trade ships."
"Maybe but this one is following the exact same vector as the Internationale. Same angle, same acceleration. Judging from their delta-v, they must have one minute of thrust remaining before translation. It's them. It has to be. Can we catch up?"
"Not before they jump out but we'll be right behind them."
Qasmuna pushed the gunship's nuclear engine to maximal power. The gas core reacted immediately. Rising to twenty-two thousand degrees Celsius, the nuclear lightbulb vaporized several hundred tons of hydrogen in a few minutes. A white blade spawned at the stern of the Al-Awaidh. An elephant chose that moment to stand on Talasea's belly -- one to three gravities in a blink. The suit inflated pouches of air pressing against her legs, pushing blood towards her brain. The Irenian forced herself to breathe harder, keeping her eyes aimed at the displays. The interception vector was a golden line shaking in unison with the reactor.
"Cargo ship EM-YT-67, this is Algorab gunship Al-Awaidh. Please state your identity and destination!" kept repeating Qasmuna on the radio, with no answer in return.
"Their thermal signature just spiked! The cargo ship is about to translate. We'll be five minutes late to the interception point."
Lights flickered and came back. Bubbles' avatar smiled.
"Reintegration. Our margin of error is below one tenth of a percent. Kollontai is ten million kilometres away."
"Matching vector for final translation. Pilot, twenty degrees to the side, please."
"Aye, aye, captain," shot the Postmistress back.
"Many thanks. Bubbles?"
"Translation computed. Ready to...hold. Problem."
An alarm rang in the cockpit, followed by a blinking red light.
"Code 807-B," read the Postmistress, "critical error, can't engage geometry drive."
"A ship just reintegrated itself under five hundred kilometres of our position. We can't translate out until the margin between us is raised to one thousand kilometres and beyond."
"There aren't that many approach vectors to Kollontai at this stage of its orbital period. Probably a coincidence."
Isaac/Isabeau set the radio to the universal ship-to-ship contact frequency.
"Courier 7 Internationale to cargo ship, er, EM-YT-67, you are currently within the influence sphere of our geometry drive and preventing us from disintegrating. Can you move away to one thousand kilometres? Thanks."
Thirty seconds passed.
One minute and a half.
"This is Courier 7 Internationale to cargo ship EM-YT-67, you are currently inside the influence sphere of our geometry drive. Do you read us? Over."
Another alarm. Orange.
"Code 771-A. I don't know this one."
"Laser scattering on the hull. The cargo ship just blinked a targeting laser at us. What is that? They can't see us?"
Yet another alarm. Bright red.
Code 000. High velocity projectile on interception vector.
Part 1 in a 3-episode series.
Most human ships kept a strict colour code. Yellow-white lighting was for the artificial day. Red lighting was for the artificial night. Blue lightning was for these exceptional moments when everyone aboard was expected to perform at the apex of their abilities. On warships, blue was the colour that called for battlestations. On civilian vessels, it meant imminent danger, either for the ship itself or for another engine in the vicinity.
The Al-Awaidh had been under blue lighting for the past six hours. Qasmuna watched her screens, an empty coffee thermos in her. The Algorab navigator was sixty-two years old, including twenty-two years spent in the USRE High Fleet and fifteen in the militant branch of the Lebanese Space Interests. She had six combat engagements and two confirmed ship destructions under her belt. The first one had been an unregistered Martian corsair, shot down during a rescue mission at the edge of Oort's cloud. The second one, well, only the stars knew their identity now. A hijacked mining vessel turned into an improvised missile aimed at one of Saturn's moons. In total, estimated Qasmuna, she had killed between ten to thirty-two people, depending on the state of the mining ship's crew prior to its destruction. A military navigator was the highest authority aboard her ship. Of course, the missiles had been fired by a weapons specialist and guided by the ship's sensors, but in the end, the order originated in her. Qasmuna had never felt anything close to remorse, even though each time, she could have had taken another path. The corsair, she often thought, could have been neutralized by a laser shot aiming for its radiators. The spinal mounts on her Luciole interceptor would have had been up to the task. As for the hijacked mining ship, it would have been possible to catch up with it and slow it down, yes. But both options would have had required to gamble the lives of a cargo ship's crew and a lunar outpost's population. Missiles were more reliable. Ninety-seven percent of effective target neutralisation after acquisition, not accounting for active defences. Against a middle-sized improvised combat vessel, this percentage neared one hundred. Qasmuna had spent days reliving these two encounters over and over, in simulations and live exercises. And every single time, her decision had been the same. Yes, she had underestimated her crew and her ship. Yes, the missile had never been necessary. Thirty-two people had been fruitlessly killed by her hand.
Yet, Qasmuna had never found it a moral problem. Many ship commanders spent the rest of their lives rationalizing the decisions taken in the heat of combat. They said it was war, and at war people died. They said it was bad luck. They said it was fate. They said many things that provoked nothing but deep ennui in Qasmuna's mind. She had killed thirty-two spacers. Fine. What had happened, had happened. She wasn't cold, nor flippant, nor even a sociopath as she had long believed. No, it was just the way the universe was made. The way she watched it through her spectacles. Dancing screen lights on her empty thermos.
"Qas. I think I've got it."
Qasmuna leaned towards Jalil. Her husband was the Al-Awaidh's pilot.
"What do you see?"
"Look here. On the axial sensor. It is too steady to be a sensor fluke and too weak to be a routine emission from a space station or satellite. I think we are looking at backscatter from the communications laser of the Hammurabi."
"Can you determine an origin point?"
"Yes. I need two antennas on the same side relative to the sun. Can you give me a twenty degrees clockwise rotation?"
The navigator nodded and anchored her thermos on a magnetic pad. The Al-Awaidh's cockpit hearkened back to the stealth bombers of the industrial age -- sharp, geometrical angles. Qasmuna rolled a control sphere and the Al-Awaidh fired its RCS thrusters.
"Twenty degrees clockwise. Done."
"Getting the signal on two antennae...there. I have the backscatter source. Target in infrared. Weak but steady signature. That's the Hammurabi alright. Two hundred thousand kilometres downrange. Main engines cold. Auxiliary engines cold. Radiators cold. There's just the emergency laser emitter. I have no idea who that ship is broadcasting to, but it's not us. A true ghost ship...I'm afraid the rescue mission is about to turn into a salvage mission. Hang on a second. What's that?"
"I have a second heat signature, ten kilometres away from the Hammurabi, stable trajectory. Even weaker. I think that's Courier 7. The hell is the postal service doing here?"
The Internationale was on the same vector as the Hammurabi, radiators folded and engines off. Isaac/Isabeau watched the unknown ship with a sore heart. The engine that, according to its IFF, was named ICS Hammurabi looked like it belonged to another historical era. It moved through hard vacuum at about ten kilometres per second, having apparently reached an orbital approach vector to Typhoon via geometry translation, two to three days prior. The Hammurabi was made of three modules. At the centre lay a VASIMR propulsion unit organized around a nuclear reactor and two rows of radiators. Two cables, a hundred metres long, extended away from the engine module, linking it to two separated sections. The first one was a launcher stage acting as a counterweight, while the second was a habitation module made of white cylinders. The entire structure was rotating, with the nuclear reactor acting as a center of movement. The Hammurabi was an old-fashioned centrifugal gravity ship. Most modern engines were fast enough to avoid the problem of living in zero-g -- either by thrust gravity, or simply because they travelled in FTL fast enough that long stays in microgravity were not a concern -- but this one didn't even have a proper fission drive. The design was antique; yet, the ship was pristine. A historical error and a vessel in distress -- and now, Isaac/Isabeau understood why the Hammurabi had sent it.
"The centrifugal rotation is fast, way too fast" said Bubbles, audibly terrified, "the simulated gravity inside the ship must be close to six times standard."
Isaac/Isabeau had already put on an EVA suit.
"Still no contact with the crew?"
"No. But 6 sustained gees..it's not survivable for more than a few tens of minutes. An hour or two, for trained personnel, maybe? And as far as I can tell that ship has been drifting away for days."
"I'll believe it when I see the corpses. Can you raise an autopilot?"
"Negative. A true ghost ship, like the Night Flight."
"We need to find a way to dock with one of the side modules. Then we'll be able to slow the rotation down to manageable levels with engine thrust."
Isaac/Isabeau's hands tightened around the three-dimensional controls of the Internationale's thrusters.
"Can't do. I cannot maintain such a circular acceleration and trajectory with the Internationale on our current RCS. And these two outer modules are like high-speed hammers. If we drift away and they smash into us..."
"Our best option," intervened Bubbles, "is to dock with the nuclear module then send a drone alongside the cable after having it match the clockwise movement. Once the drone is docked to the outer modules, it can thrust with its engines to slow down the hab module down."
"Do we have a drone that can operate at six gees?"
"Our djinns can do it. The problem is that they don't have enough fuel to significantly slow the Hammurabi down, not by a very long shot. We need to get back to Rainwater Station."
"Wait, Bubbles. I have a thermal ping. Translation exit, one thousand kilometres away. Small ship on an interception vector with the Hammurabi. Identifies itself as Al-Awaidh."
"What is an Algorab vessel doing in Rainwater space?"
"Probably answering the Hammurabi's distress call, just like us. Opening a coms channel. Al-Awaidh, this is Courier 7 Internationale, registered as ISI-7, Five Suns postal service. I am navigator Tali Talasea. Do you read?"
A low-pitched, sweet voice answered in Sanskrit.
"Internationale, this is gunship Al-Awaidh, attached to the Algorab outpost of Cordoba Port on Silene. I am ship navigator Qasmuna bint Fatima Al-Yasamin. I assume you're answering the Hammurabi's distress call?"
"We are. I can't get an answer from the crew or from the on-board systems. It appears the ship suffered from a catastrophic failure of its centrifugal gravity systems. We plan on trying to slow it down with a drone but we do not have any vehicle that would be powerful enough."
"We do. Hold tight, Internationale. We are coming."
Isa contemplated the expanse of space through their helmet visor. On one side, there was Typhoon. A gigantic eye aimed at Rainwater station, two million kilometres away. On the other side, a starless blackness. The pilot stood on the outer hull of the Hammurabi's central module. Above and below them, the cables turned the ship into a mad clock. Yes, they thought. There is no way this hab module is not a tomb.
The Internationale had moved to the direct proximity of the ship, a mere hundred metres away. The Al-Awaidh followed right behind. The gunship was painted in black, white and grey, with the stylized raven at the prow and symmetrical lines of azulejos at the stern. The front-facing part of the fuselage was shaped like a chisel to protect against laser fire. The midsection was home to four blade-shaped heat sinks. The rear section was all white, a short cylinder with six nozzles. In stark contrast with the Internationale, the Al-Awaidh used a powerful, high thrust gas-core nuclear drive. But even with that much power at her disposal, its navigator had deemed rendezvous with the hab module too risky.
A faint thump spread through the hull when Jalil anchored himself to the VASIMR module.
"Hey. Isa. Happy to see you again. I'd like to thank you once more for the birthday letter. It's amusing that we are both looking after the same distress signal."
"You're a bit too relaxed, aren't you? The Hammurabi's crew is probably dead by now."
Jalil remained unfazed, but he did give Isaac/Isabeau a sorry smile.
"Alas, I am accustomed to boarding derelicts."
"And what kind of drone are you going to use?"
"It's not exactly a drone. It's a little less refined."
A torpedo-shaped object drifted towards the VASIMR module, escorted by two EVA djinns.
"A space to space missile?"
"It has enough delta-v to slow the module down and safely operating at six gees is within its basic specs."
"So, the plan is to match the motion of the cables with the missile, then to have it climb down towards the hab module and fire its engines to stop the rotation? You have such fine control over a torpedo?"
"Most missiles can perform millimetre-accurate course corrections," answered Talasea on the radio, "and the EVA djinns will remain docked to facilitate precision manoeuvring. I am more doubtful of the missile's ability to match the relative motion of the cable."
"Qasmuna ensured me it would work and I'd trust her with my life."
Jalil signalled his navigator she could start the motion matching burn. The missile drifted by Isaac/Isabeau, then used its RCS thrusters to position itself upright, relative to Jalil and Isa. The torpedo was eerie. It moved like a djinn drone but with the speed and accuracy of an apex predator. The missile started rotating clockwise, steadily accelerating. After a minute of uninterrupted RCS thrust, the projectile had become the hand of a frenzied clock, matching the motion of the cables like a star-cast shadow.
"Contact," said Qasmuna.
The djinns pushed the missile against the cable. The projectile attached itself to the carbon rope with a prehensile tentacle and gave a very slight RCS burst to travel towards the habitation module. The closer the missile went to the cable's outer end and the more powerful centrifugal gravity was. Qasmuna gave the torpedo its halt order a few metres away from the habitation module. The torpedo moved into an horizontal position then moored with the hull.
"Qas, how are we looking?" asked Jalil.
"Six gravities is a bit much for the djinns, but the missile feels at home. Igniting main drive."
A white flame followed the ignition of the missile's metastable hydrogen engine. Qasmuna kept the torpedo on moderate thrust, in order to limit the stresses on the hab module as much as possible. Isaac/Isabeau switched their visor to vector mode to visualise the slow counter-rotating motion the missile imposed upon the module. They could clearly see the various forces at play -- including the ever-increasing stress put on the Hammurabi's structure. And suddenly --
"Jalil! The cable!"
The Algorab pilot looked up, just in time to see the Hammurabi's cable snap. The missile's thrust had finished what several hours of high-speed centrifugal rotation had started. The missile and the module were ejected in opposite directions. Isaac/Isabeau and Jalil left the VASIMR module on voidsuit thrusters, retreating towards the ships. The missile drifted for several kilometres before Qasmuna could regain control of it. In the meantime, the habitation module had been sent on an outwards trajectory. Its relative velocity had greatly diminished but it still moved at almost fifty metres per second.
"Qas! Can you intercept?"
"Negative! I am not going to lit up a nuclear lightbulb with EVA personnel nearby!"
"The Internationale has an auxiliary rocket drive. Bubbles?"
Courier 7 ignited its metastable nitrogen drive and lunged forwards. Bubble's piloting skills were less sharp than Isa's but they were perfectly serviceable and it took her only a handful of seconds to match the movement vector and velocity of the habitation module. The AI used the Internationale's manipulating arms to intercept the crew section and thrusted back towards the Al-Awaidh, holding the module like a bird bringing an egg back to the nest.
"Hammurabi, Hammurabi..." whispered Jalil, "what are you hiding?"
The Hammurabi's outer airlock was sealed like an industrial-era bunker. Its unwilling union with the Internationale was almost grotesque: a two-bodied abyssal creature. Even Isaac/Isabeau's breathing felt strange to them, imprisoned in the little self-contained universe of their space suit. The white hull moved towards them with unnerving regularity. Right before making contact, Isa lit up their RCS thrusters and activated the magnetic anchors on their gloves.
"Contact with the Hammurabi."
"Contact with the airlock confirmed," added Jalil.
The Algorab pilot drifted for a few metres, glancing through the main porthole of the hab module.
"I see a body. Looks like it's been here for a few days at least. Isa? Are you alright?"
They forced the outer airlock open without answering. The Internationale first sent a drone in to make sure the airlock hadn't been booby-trapped, then Isa entered, followed by Jalil.
"Isa, talk to me," said Talasea on the radio, "what do you see?"
"The inner airlock is in good shape. I see two empty vacuum suits, ready for use. The airlock door is intact. Inside is not pressurized. We are about to enter. Bubbles?"
The AI had deployed a fibre optic cable to connect with the Hammurabi from her Internationale-based mainframe. Her bird avatar was now displayed by a screen in the airlock.
"Ah. It looks like the inside of the module has been physically separated from the outside circuits. I can't open the inner airlock door. You'll have to manually unscrew the whole thing. I need to warn you: I was able to access the engines controlling the centrifugal rotation and got troubling data. The Hammurabi didn't start spinning at six gees due to a human mistake or technical failure. The on-board computer sent a direct order. It was murder."
The silly bird disappeared, replaced by a simple icon. Jalil unfolded an electric drill that he used to carefully unscrew the bolts keeping the inner airlock door in place. Isaac/Isabeau could perfectly feel that his apparent serenity was an illusion. The man was angry. Cold, razor-sharp rage, nourished by what Bubbles had just said, and what he had seen through the porthole.
"Hey, Isa..." whispered Talasea in Isa's helmet, "I think I know what you are thinking about. Calm down. Breathe in."
"And what am I thinking about?"
"You are picturing yourself as the crew of the Hammurabi. You are telling yourself that you may have ended up like this on the Distant Shores, that we could have ended up like this. And I have the very same thought. But please, try to keep these considerations for later, when we will be back together on the Internationale. You are about to enter a derelict. Breathe in, breathe out, calm down and watch out for yourself and Jalil. I am here. Bubbles is here."
The pilot didn't answer. Jalil unscrewed the last bolt, unhinged the airlock door and signalled Isa it was time to enter the Hammurabi. Here we are, thought Isaac/Isabeau. I am arriving on my first murder scene and the only thing I can think about is me -- Talasea, Bubbles and me, dessicated corpses in a drifting wreck no one will ever find. Jalil entered first, helping Isaac/Isabeau through the module. The Hammurabi was small and cramped -- it wasn't made to bridge between stars, even with a geometry drive.
"I believe I know what kind of ship the Hammurabi is", commented Jalil, "it is a pinnace. A medium-range lifeboat made for mining stations, from before we had geometry drives. From before we could just snap our fingers and travel across lightyears. At the time, in the solar system, a ship could take months to reach the closest settlement. And a crew of asteroid miners can't spend that much in zero gravity."
"That was one and a half century ago, Jalil. And the Hammurabi does have a geometry drive."
"I have no idea. Even the poorest communes, the cooperatives that only have one geometry drive for fifteen ships...even these ones, I don't see using such a contraption. I don't have a lead on the owner. I'm just telling you what I'm seeing."
"Why is the inside depressurized anyway? Bubbles, the Hammurabi isn't damaged, right? No impact hole nor hull leak?"
"No, and I can confirm it. The ship's atmosphere was purged by the flight computer."
"It was the first murder attempt. It failed, probably because the crew had their suits on. Thus, the flight computer decided to escalate and triggered the deadly rotation."
"So what? We're dealing with a killer AI?"
"Isa, flight computers are not sapient. They can't even understand their own environment. This one couldn't possibly take the decision to kill the crew. It was hardcoded. Whoever built this ship didn't want it to be stolen. That's the only possibility I see."
Jalil turned around.
"Hey, Isa. Do you feel capable of entering the crew quarters? I fear the corpses are right behind this door."
Isaac/Isabeau nodded. Their monad activated, pumping very light sedatives into their blood. Jalil slid the door open. The pilot pushed against the opposite wall and drifted through the Hammurabi's crew quarters. The main cabin was all-white, a caricature of ancient space stations. The interior looked intact, save for the damage caused by the centrifugal rotation -- crevices in the ceiling, broken glass on the ground, bent steel beams. In the image of the rest of the ship, the hab module looked ancient but the make was modern. An ahistorical ghost. The black box lay in a corner, its data erased. Isa finally garnered the courage to look at the bodies.
There were two of them. Huddled against each other, holding hands, they drifted in zero-g, their bodies twisted by the acceleration. Their vacuum suits were white and anonymized; they reminded Isa of the space clothes used aboard old corporate stations. Their faces were difformed by pain. Eyes closed, they had put their visors against each other, as if they had wanted to get as close as possible in their last minutes. Jalil remained silent and just took a few photographs of the bodies.
"How did they die?" asked Isa, their voice strained. Bubbles' answer took a good minute.
"A stroke, consecutive to a six gees acceleration sustained for at least several hours. Their death was painless. I...I think."
"Right. Right. Jalil. We need to get the bodies to the Internationale. With the flight computers."
Isaac/Isabeau watched the two white shrouds as they drifted in the direction of Courier 7's cargo bay, guided by the EVA djinns. Their hair and forehead were gleaming with sweat that glittered against the lights of the screens. Blissful were the djinns that dragged the bodies towards the Internationale, ignorant of what they carried in their pincers. Bubbles was nowhere to be found. Her post-it avatar was frozen, leaving questions and requests hanging. The AI had started a full diagnosis of Courier 7's mainframe. She had escaped into mindless work. A luxury, considered Isa -- the only kind of mindless work they could carry out was the displacement of the bodies between the Hammurabi and the Internationale.
"Isa, I'm taking control of the djinns. Go take a shower and some rest."
The pilot had not even heard Talasea enter the cockpit. The Irenian had just materialized herself out of sheer will. She was pale. A blue spectre against the VR displays.
"Shit, Tal. I think I'm crying."
Talasea caressed their cheek, gently.
"Yes. Zero-g tears are dangerous. Salty drops get in the computers, in the fans, everywhere...come on. Let go. Take some rest. I'll take it from here. Ah. Don't say anything. That's an order, navigator to pilot. Out."
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.
Courier 7 moved on inertia alone, under the blue light of a gas giant. Neither Talasea nor Isaac/Isabeau saw any of that. They had dived in the depths of their ship to perform routine repairs. Courier 7 did not require complex maintenance -- its systems were simple and streamlined -- but the crew still had to go glue loose things from time to time. Bubbles and her little zero-gravity djinn drones was perfectly capable of handling it but Isa and Talasea liked to keep in physical touch with their ship. They both considered that it could, one day, save their life to know the innards of their vessels in person. Isaac/Isabeau contorted to slip in the interstitial spaces separating the battery cannisters from the engine itself. They always felt a bit ill-at-ease when they had to hang around the SMES emplacements, aligned like little tungsten soldiers in their carbon composite nets. It wasn't fear, not quite. Merely concern. Between the superconducting toroids and the metastable nitrogen tanks, this section of the Internationale was a bomb waiting to happen. Though Isaac/Isabeau knew that this concentration of energy sources was in fact a safety measure, allowing for the ship to be purged of all its dangerous compounds in one go, the pilot couldn't shake the idea that they were somersaulting through a minefield.
Isaac/Isabeau's shoulder radio crackled.
"Hey, Isa, how are you down there?"
"Fine, I guess. You know how much I love superconducting batteries. Wait a sec, I'll have to use my stylus. Goggles on."
Isaac/Isabeau stabilized themselves in microgravity and lit up their laser stylus to seal a small hole in the auxiliary cooling system. Laser styli were a pilot's best secret trick. The size of a pen, they emitted a focalised laser beam on adjustable wavelengths. By switching the tips, the operator could turn the stylus into various tools. A round tip created a lamp. A sharp tip a blade, a large tip a short-range sweeper...and with the beam at full power, one would get a soldering appliance. Isaac/Isabeau pulled the trigger of their stylus. A bright light gleamed on the protection goggles, then the pilot recoiled to admire their work. Tali drifted closer to Isa, coming from the hallway that circled around the engine.
"Is it repaired?" asked the Irenian.
"I think. Bubbles, can you put the cooling system back online, please? Minimal power. I don't want it to..."
Bubbles reactivated the auxiliary coolant pump. Something clicked and Isaac/Isabeau covered their eyes as a small transparent stream of cooling oil was ejected at high pressure from another hole, just a few centimeters away from the freshly welded area.
"...spurt on my face. Very well. What are these pipes made of? Lace?"
"That's what I have been saying from the beginning. The problem doesn't only lie in the pipes, there's also an issue with the coolant pump and the pressure it's applying on the circuits. Bubbles, can you check the pressure sensors again?"
"Overpressure or not, coolant pipes are not supposed to casually break like this. Especially considering it only happens in this specific part of the circuit."
Bubbles' bird suddenly appeared on a wall, displayed by passing drone.
"If the problem is with a specific pipe, we can just bring it offline. All our cooling circuits are twice redundant, and even three times around the SMES units."
"I still don't like it. Why is it so fragile?"
"No idea. The pipe is made of organic compounds printed on demand. Printings may sometimes not be perfect. A station like Rainwater can produce tens of thousands of ship parts per year. Statistically, we might very well have a defective part."
"I'll change the whole circuit."
"Isa, it'll take you hours and we have a delivery to make. Don't worry. I told you, the coolant pipes are redundant. Come on, Isa, what do you think they're doing on cargo ships, with thousands of kilometres of coolant pipes? When a circuit breaks, they switch to an auxiliary system and they forget about it until the next scheduled maintenance."
"I can't leave a broken pipe in my ship!"
"And why not? It's an auxiliary coolant pipe, not even a main one! Besides I don't even know if the pipe itself is the problem. Maybe it's the pumps that are over-pressuring it."
"I have to fix it."
"No you don't. I need you to pilot that ship and you aren't going to manually check every single micropump. I have djinns for that."
Isaac/Isabeau sighed and folded their laser stylus.
"Yes, yes, I know Bubbles...but I have to fix that pipe."
"You aren't going to do anything."
"You know what happened last time I neglected to repair something that, and I am quoting you directly, could wait?"
Silent fell in the hallway. The AI's avatar blinked. Talasea gave Isa a distraught stare and, finally, Bubbles shot an answer back.
"Damn, Isa. You very well know that one more laser emitter wouldn't have changed anything to our fate. We were lit up by a missile, for the stars' sake! The Distant Shores did not have the capacity to intercept it, even with its laser grid entirely intact. An exploration ship simply does not have the firepower for this. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. So shut the fuck up. Thank you."
"I'm working. Not listening. Shut up."
Isaac/Isabeau didn't answer further. They drifted away from the wall, against the hull section that separated them from the engine that hummed in their back. Isa removed their glasses and rubbed their eyes, as if waiting for tears that would never come. Talasea floated towards them, putting their hand on the pilot's shoulder.
"Hey," whispered the Irenian, "hey, hey, hey. It wasn't your fault, it wasn't mine, it wasn't Bubbles'. Now don't say anything and give me a hug."
Isaac/Isabeau obliged with a detached smile.
The Internationale dives through the atmosphere of Sauveterre's Respite at high speed. A plasma sheath trails behind. Bubbles is nervous. Atmospheric re-entries are by far the harshest events Courier 7 can be submitted to. There are so many things that can break, melt, explode and immediately kill the crew -- Bubbles doesn't want to think about it. But she can't not think about it, because she *is* the Internationale. However, she is also a vegetal AI and she can think in parallel. Thus, Bubbles grabs that thought, relegates it to one of her mental hallways and slithers towards vastly more interesting ideas. In a corner of her mind, the simulation of the Distant Shores' last seconds keeps running on a loop. If she was certain they'd withstand it, she'd show it to Isa. She'd force the pilot to admit they are wrong. Because here is the truth, or at least the truth as reconstructed in her virtual world and as far as she's concerned, there is no difference. The Distant Shores detected the incoming missile thirty-seven seconds before impact. Even if all the laser emitters had been active and ready to target the projectile, the laser grid would have had no chance of melting enough material to destroy or send the missile astray. The mathematics are cold and merciless. The logic is crystal-clear. Nothing could have saved the Distant Shores. Nothing. Bubbles finds this strangely reassuring.
The Internationale stops shaking. The plasma bubble spreads like a flower in the dying wind. The descent nears its end.
Isaac/Isabeau had learned piloting on a small prop plane, taking off and landing on post-apocalyptic runways in the desolate plains of Old Europe. Their first view of space had been through the canopy of a hypersonic vehicle launched on a parabolic trajectory above the Indian ocean. Even if their daily job was now fundamentally different, they had kept this taste for planes. Vertical landings with a rocket drive had always felt abnormal. The sentiment always came back, regardless of the years. To vertically land the Internationale, with only a few tons of metastable nitrogen to avoid a flaming disaster -- that was troubling. Talasea, a spacer through and through, always found Isaac/Isabeau's opinion amusing. The pilot, after all, was precisely known for the accuracy of their vertical landings. Even on the harsh terrain of Sauveterre's Respite, with powerful cross-winds, Isaac/Isabeau only deviated from the target designated by Bubbles by twenty-two centimetres. Once the ship was properly secured, Talasea ran through the landing checklist and Isa closed their eyes.
"Everything alright?" asked Talasea, intrigued by their silence.
"Listening to the wind," whispered the pilot, smiling.
The Irenian had never really paid attention to the sounds of the rain and wind, contrary to Isaac/Isabeau. She was it as the luxury of an Earth-born person. This time, however, she lent an hear. The breeze ran around Courier 7, whistling against the ship's superstructures. It was hot and powerful -- the wind of a planet with a real atmosphere, unlike Silene and Al-Bayda. Isaac/Isabeau opened their eyes again after a few minutes. They stretched, then left their seat.
"We need to go. I'm sure Bubbles wont appreciate us leaving the Internationale in the wind for too long. The dust must play a number on the outer hull."
"The Internationale is a sturdy ship and was made for this," answered the avatar, "but I appreciated the sentiment regardless. What worries me more is that I can't appear to link up with the coms station for which we have priority packages."
"How original. Tal?"
Isaac/Isabeau always felt strange when stepping foot on a planet for the first time -- yet, Sauveterre's Respite wasn't an unknown world. It had been the first planet to be discovered in the Five Suns. Seventy years prior, the Laniakea Expedition, led by Elodie Sauveterre, had reached this small temperate world lost in the Perseus arm. After five years spent cataloguing Sequence stars, this planet sure had felt like a haven, thought Isa. Yet, Sauveterre's Respite wasn't a very welcoming world. Here, at the heart of the main continent, the external temperature neared forty degrees Celsius. Isaac/Isabeau left elongated footsteps in coarse sand, made from the shells and fish cartilage of a recently diseased ocean. The planet's parent blue giant filled a third of the sky. Three suns occupied the rest. Their light left a peculiar impression on Isaac/Isabeau's cheeks, like blood drops falling from the sky. Talasea sighed. Once again, she wished for the blue waves of her dear Pleiades. Vast mesas spread towards the horizon, separated by deep canyons old rivers had carved millions of years ago. Sauveterre's respite was a dying world. Its moisture levels slowly went down with each new, ever-closer orbit. Elodie Sauveterre's landing site, near the poles, had targeted one of the planet's last forested areas, but this coms station lived in the desert. The region's dominant lifeform was some kind of orange lichen, living in the crevices of limestone slabs emerging from the desert.
"It's funny," commented Talasea on the radio, "this lichen is an invasive species."
"Yes. It's a local subspecies of Vyirangan golden lichen, accidentally imported from Sauveterre's ship seven decades ago. I don't know what niche it occupies, but I'd wager it's been empty for quite long."
"That, or our lichen hunted down another species by accident and damaged a dying ecosystem even further."
"It's possible. It's even possible that our little Caloplaca Vyirangana becomes the last surviving species on Sauveterre's Respite in a few million years. What happens, happens. Alas."
The two mailpersons stopped at the edge of the mesa where an old automated landing pad had welcomed Courier 7. The coms station was located just below; a broken elevator and steep stone stairs led to the canyon. The outpost was made of a few vehicle hangars, a farming dome, a bunker and a large ground-to-space antenna. It was named STATION SIX. Isaac/Isabeau tapped their radio.
"Looks empty. I don't even get an automated answer. The address is correct, though."
"Yeah, I know, I have checked it three times. The coordinates are accurate but the packages were sent from the Earth five years ago. Many thinks can happen in half a decade."
Talasea observed the outpost with her binoculars. The gas giant's light gleamed on the antenna.
"It looks empty. But empty doesn't mean abandoned. A few vehicles are still in their hangars. The farming dome is out of service but the plants aren't all dead. I see a crane above the hangar. Seems quite unstable."
"And the antenna?"
"The structure looks intact still but it's obvious the parabola doesn't work any longer."
"What's the outpost powered by?"
"I see no solar panels nor windmills. A small fission reactor, I suppose. No dice on active cooling circuits, even in infrared."
Isaac/Isabeau took a little firefly drone from their belt and let it fly down the valley. The miniature machine deployed its transparent wings and glided towards the canyon. The pilot opened a VR window on their helmet to keep tracking the camera feed from the drone.
"Ground radiations are at planetary baseline. The station wasn't abandoned after a nuclear accident. I don't see any other contaminants either."
"Are we going down?"
Isa nodded. They were perhaps overstepping their role as mailpersons but the Five Suns weren't their only allegiance. As retired Starmoth Initiative explorers, they couldn't leave a good mystery standing.
The descent was slow and difficult -- there was no other way but the stairs. The cliff shielded them from the wind and someone had left a rope to be used as an improvised railing but the path was still precarious. Bubbles assumed control of the firefly drone and used it to mark the stairs, examining them to determine if they could bear the weight of Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea. Whoever had carved these stairs had used high-quality mining equipment -- probably a cutting laser. Despite the wind, the dust and the radiation from the three suns, the stairs allowed Isa and Talasea to reach the bottom of the valley.
Isaac/Isabeau touched free ground first, their breath short and their knees painful. Talasea followed.
"You alright?" asked Isa.
"Yes. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You used to be afraid of heights."
"Yes. Before the Distant Shores was destroyed. Since then...I don't know. That fear disappeared like the others."
Isaac/Isabeau considered the elongated shape of the Internationale, whose tip emerged from the edge of the cliff.
"Hey, Bubbles. Can you see us from your nest?"
"Indeed. I can even light you up with my laser grid."
"Please don't. I enjoy my eyes."
The mailpersons cautiously approached the buildings. The ground beneath their feet was made of bone dust.
"Station Six. That's a weird name. Neither the Initiative nor Algorab use such identifications. It might be a generic name, but we already found a Station Four on Al-Bayda and a Station Two on Silene. If it's a local custom, we'll have to ask the Postmistress."
Talasea stopped by the main hangar. She ran her hand around the main airlock, prying solidified dust from the hull with a sampling hammer.
"Yes. That airlock was burst open. I see traces of explosives around the hinges."
"What kind of explosives?"
The Irenian unfolded her laser stylus and vaporized a sample under a multispectral camera to analyse its compounds.
"Cordite, or a derivative thereof. Mining charge, perhaps. Not military, in any case."
"Could the locals have done this themselves?"
"Maybe, but why for? No, I think it's an intrusion attempt. An old and successful one."
Isa couldn't argue against Talasea. They entered the hangar together. There was room for two large six-wheeled rovers. One of them had been neutralized -- tyres pierced and engine destroyed by an improvised charge. The second rover was gone. Isa didn't see any tyre marks pointing outside. The vehicle had maybe never been here, or had been gone for too long to have left any trace of its presence. The rest of the hangar was filled with second-hand equipment that left no clear indication as to the function of Station Four. Empty batteries, laser diggers, observation drones. Nothing of note. Isa found the hangar's inner doors at the top of a flight of metal stairs. Flicking a switch did not provide any light. The complex was even out of battery power.
"So?" asked Bubbles while the mailpersons cautiously moved through the hallway leading to the main building.
"Nothing," answered Talasea. She was but a torchlight in a pitch-black night.
"Looks like the place was properly abandoned but it doesn't really match with the explosives used on the airlock. The commons have been emptied, save some furniture and emergency rations. And you Bubbles? See anything we might have missed?"
"No. I have a few sparse infrared signals but nothing of note. Probably a few still active heat exchangers. Can't you try to find a terminal or something?"
Talasea had already reached the administrative section perched above the atrium.
"All personal computers and lecterns have been destroyed," commented the Irenian, "and I am intrigued. On the one hand, everything's been pulverized with hammers and crowbars. Primitive. On the other hand, whoever did this knew exactly where to hit. The hard drives are unusable."
"No network access?"
"I just get empty login pages. The main server is offline."
"Can you patch me through?"
"No way I'm connecting you to the mainframe of a potentially compromised station, Bubbles."
The radio switched to another channel. Isaac/Isabeau, one floor below, had found something that had made their voice crackle.
"Please, do NOT tell me you have found a corpse."
"Not exactly. Transmitting."
Isa shared the view from their firefly on the Talasea's virtual space. The Irenian saw a wall pierced by a circle of impacts, surrounding what looked like a trail of dry blood. There was no body to be found but it made little doubt that the projectiles had reached their target.
"Someone was either killed or grievously wounded here. I see traces of blood pointing towards the rover hangar. The body was removed after the shootout."
"What kind of ammunition was used?"
Isa was surprised by Talasea's serenity in the face of their discovery. They tried to pry one of the projectiles stuck in the wall, to no avail, and could only sample it with their laser stylus.
"Looks like a kinetic fléchette or maybe a caseless bullet. I can't be more precise."
"Other traces of combat?"
"Yes. Six circles of impacts in the commons. Same projectiles and the bodies were also removed each time. I can't find any impact without debris and traces of blood. Looks like the shootout was pretty one-sided."
"Unsurprising. That station feels more like a scientific outpost than a paramilitary bunker. I fear the crew was just slaughtered."
"There must be a way to identify the station!"
"How so? Administratively speaking it's just a mailbox. We are fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth, on a planet that follows no regulations except those of a commune whose seat of power is an entire star system away. This station could belong to anyone. A vehicle hangar, a space to ground antenna, a farming dome, it could be anything but I'd bet on a scientific outpost. There isn't enough mining equipment for a resource operation, no signs of military presence and the hydroponics section is too small to be an actual attempt at settling this world."
"And who would strike an independent research outpost?"
"Come on, Isa. Knowledge is dangerous, always has been. That's why organisations like the Starmoth Initiative exist. Without a communal safety net, an isolated research station is at the mercy of anyone who finds it more practical to steal a discovery rather than actually make it."
Isaac/Isabeau climbed up the stairs to link up with Talasea on the upper floor, leaving the battle-ravaged commons behind. While the Irenian didn't look alarmed, Isa had spent enough time with her to notice that her entire body had tensed up. She wasn't at the stage where she'd start actually worrying, but she was preparing to.
"Think Algorab could have attacked that station?" asked Isa. It was an idle thought. They didn't actually believe it -- what would have been the point? Algorab wasn't a band of thugs.
"You've already seen Algorab operations, right? They don't look like this. The airlock opened with improvised explosives, shots scattered around the targets. It's the job of amateurs. Criminals, not spec ops."
"I agree, but I also don't see thugs remove the bodies like this. It's too much work."
"You have no evidence the station's inhabitants are dead."
"Then why evacuate the people you just wounded."
"I don't know. Remove evidence. Interrogation. Sow doubt regarding their ultimate fate."
"Why not just destroy the station?"
"It's much harder than to pop an airlock open. You don't blow up a station with improvised explosives. Speaking of airlock, any idea what's behind this one?"
Talasea put her hand against the heavy armoured door that barred the hallway on the first floor.
"The antenna, I assume."
Isaac/Isabeau carefully opened the door -- it wasn't locked. The attackers had used the same cordite charges to destroy the hinges. Talasea entered first. Her laser stylus flashed the square walls of a maintenance room. A thick beam of fibre optic and alimentation cables. They had been cut clean with a pair of industrial pincers. Wherever they caught the light, the fiber optic cables reflected it like a miniature kaleidoscope, cloned a million times.
"That's the main link to the ground to space antenna. Clean and radically effective work. The whole system is completely neutralized, without having to deal with the hassle of destroying the parabola. And it will likely be as hard to repair than a busted antenna."
"Wait, if the fibre optic cables are accessible, I'd like to try something."
Talasea woke up her e-ink lectern and opened a virtual machine on it. She then reached for the beam, trying to get a connection with the station's networks. To her own surprise, it succeeded. Using the lectern's battery as an improvised power bank, she managed to put an auxiliary server unit under power. The attackers hadn't destroyed this one -- an involuntary omission, surely.
"Let's see...I don't have much. Of course I don't have access to the station's logs. Oh, interesting. Looks like they scrammed the reactor. It was completely unplanned, they removed the rods like brutes. It won't start back again. It will have to be replaced."
"Why not push the reactor into meltdown if destruction was the objective?"
"It is very hard to meltdown a modern fission reactor. Besides, the result is the same regardless, as far as the station's usability is concerned. Between the antenna and the reactor, that place will require several months, perhaps a year, to come back to any sort of normal operation. You see, Isa, you don't need to blow an outpost up to destroy it."
"Can you get anything on the research they did here? Or the owners?"
"Nothing solid. One thing is clear, though. The file architecture and naming standards don't belong to Algorab nor to the Starmoth Initiative. Looks like independents. I don't know. There aren't that many organisations capable of building an outpost in the Five Suns, but that's still quite a lot of communes and cooperatives with that capability."
"And the research?"
"They were studying Sequence ruins on Sauveterre's Respite."
Isaac/Isabeau gritted their teeth. An isolated station getting attacked by unknown thugs, on a terminally isolated planet, fine. These things happened. By that point, a century and a half after the beginning of the third space age, Isa couldn't but consider independent explorers as cheaters. They did not follow any rules or guidelines -- especially when it came to the ethical aspect of their discoveries or the scientific value of their studies. And because these cheaters did not enjoy the protection of great interstellar organisations, it wasn't surprising that they would attract the attention of other people, equally ignorant of the law. Isaac/Isabeau didn't feel like they had any right to involve themselves in such matters. But if Sequence ruins were involved...now it was different.
There was an aura of death around the defunct empire. And the privileged few who had seen it from up close like Talasea and Isa knew that it wasn't only because there was nothing left of it but ruins.
"Tal, tell me, can you access to station's inventory? I'd like to know what kind of stuff they had in there. The hangar might have not been the only storage area."
The Irenian sifted through her VR windows and shot back at Isa.
"Nothing interesting. Lots of drones, which means the station didn't have many permanent inhabitants, but we already know that. Two mining djinns for archaeological digs. Five remote sensing drones for GIS purposes. And a security drone."
"What kind of security drone?"
"Spider model. Lethal weaponry. Loaded and ready for deployment. These independents were waiting for someone."
"So why didn't they use it to repel the attackers?"
"No idea. Perhaps they didn't have time to activate it. Or...hell. I have a problem. The drone just started up. Target-seeking mode, free fire engaged, all safeties off. And I can't stop it, neither can I register us as non-hostile. Isa! It's coming towards us, it saw my local network access port! We're out!"
The Irenian ripped the cord out, splashing the nearby wall with sparks. Isaac/Isabeau kicked the door open and Talasea rushed outside.
"To the right!" yelled the Irenian as she bolted down the stars. They heard the spider drone before they saw it. Heavy, metallic steps clicked on the ground, following a mechanically accurate rhythm. Steel rain before a storm would start, thought Isa before finally seeing the drone. The machine intercepted them by the kitchen. It moved with the supernatural grace of a well-tuned combat machine. Its eight legs practised a shaking, accurate and frenetic dance. The spider shot immediately, without even making sure it had a clear targeting solution. Six kinetic fléchettes impacted the wall, two centimetres above Isa's head. Talasea brutally pulled the pilot to the side and ordered them to run towards the hangar door. The spider drone followed and fired a longer, more accurate burst. One of the fléchettes pierced through the wall between the commons and the hangar, ricocheted against a pillar and ended in Isa's thigh. The pilot grinned in pain. Talasea caught her companion and dragged them outside. Somewhere behind the mailpeople, the drone clicked. Slug thrower jammed.
Isaac/Isabeau stumbled in the dust. The fléchette had cut a perfect hole through their leg. The exosuit burst an artificial vein open to drown the wound in painkillers, disinfectants and coagulants. The pain was maintained to an acceptable level -- for now -- but Isa was losing a lot of blood. The spider drone rushed through the hangar door. Its slug thrower rattled, unable to unjam itself. Two nightmare weapons now hung from the sides of the drone. Close combat blades, gleaming like bones under the sun. Isaac/Isabeau watched in horror was the drone got ready to strike. The sabre teeth of an ancient tiger. What a last sight, they thought.
"Close you eyes and look at the ground!" yelled Bubbles on the radio.
Courier 7's laser grid activated a second later. Bubbles could only have one third of its emitters face the spider drone and the two hundred metres of atmosphere between the ship and the station were enough to scatter the laser beam to the stars and back. The Internationale's laser grid was made to vaporize debris and interstellar dust, not to engage war machines. However, Bubbles did not aim for the drone's armour -- she knew she did not have the time to damage it. Instead, she focused the beams on the crane that oversaw the hangar, cutting through the cables keeping the counterweight in place. The crane seemed relieved of being finally allowed to lower its guard. It collapsed on the hangar, trapping the spider drone between the bent airlock and the dusty ground. The machine tried to break free. Its actuators whined, to no avail. The spider finally gave up. The blades burrowed in the dust. The camera blinked and went offline. Silence fell on the canyon.
Talasea opened her eyes again and rushed towards Isaac/Isabeau who had managed to drag themselves towards the closest wall.
"Bubbles! I'm going to need your medical drone!"
"Sending it right now. Isa? You're still with us?"
A low-pitched voice answered. Isaac/Isabeau was still conscious but half-lost to the painkillers.
"I'm here. Hey, Tal, what's that? I see lights in the rock."
"Calm down. Breathe, slowly."
"No, no, it's not the painkillers. Look at the cliff."
Talasea turned to the side of the canyon. Thousands of lines carved into the rock had lit up. Geometrical shapes filled the night over three hundred metres of naked limestone. A raindrop in the night. Isaac/Isabeau felt a dark blade rummage in their spine.
"Pleiades," cursed Talasea, "those look like vegetal structures. Like lichen. The light scattered from the laser might have activated them."
"These symbols look like Sequence ideograms."
"That is the case. The central shape is a stylized portrait. The square below it is a capital cartridge. The abridged name of a Sequence Sovereigns."
"And...how is this one named?"
"I don't know them, but I can try to decipher the name. Let's see. Water, descended from above. A discharge of energy, within an atmospheric cloud cell. I..."
"The Queen In Storms. I don't know, that's just the name that spontaneously came to mind."
"That's a beautiful name."
A raindrop fell in the dust.
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