Episode 3 -- Outrenoir
As a virtual dawn swept over Rainwater Station, it became a greenhouse filled with warm colours, gifted by the central lighting tube that gave the hollow asteroid an artificial sun.
The Postmistress had given Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau two small standard size apartments located near Rainwater Station's wetlands. From her bay window, the irenian could catch the morning light as it peered through the palm trees and gorse flowers. Swarms of winged reptiles darted by, carried by the breeze. Tali had barely slept. Anti-radiation medicine given by Rainwater medics after her close encounter with the Night Flight had awoken old wounds. The pain radiated from her solar plexus in concentric waves like pale suns. With every breath came blades, searing through her belly. She had not even considered eating breakfast. She wouldn't dare imagine what even the smallest amount of nourishment could trigger in her. As she put her palm against her belly, Talasea could make out the complex geometry of her scars, running from her chest to the edge of her lower abdomen. Rivers, splattered against her ocean-coloured skin, not unlike the chaotic pattern of an electrical discharge. Pushing against her skin, Talasea felt the microscopic cysts left by shrapnel five years prior. Heavy metals had been removed from her body but some of the carbon shards had been left in place -- too close to major arteries, too close to the heart, too hard to reach. She had been fed with nothing but painkillers and filtering medicine for the better part of a year. The result had permanently affected the nerves around her digestive tract. Without her monad's neutering compounds, every flare-up would have been unbearable instead of simply agonizing.
Her gaze turned outwards, Talasea tried to forget the world war raging in her abdomen. The Rainwater Communal Library didn't have many books and Talasea was out of things to read. She was left with her old cassette Walkman, a relic having crossed the Milky Way twice already, and Bubbles' company. The avatar lived in Talasea's alarm clock. She had spent the night staring at it.
"You take care of Isa, eh?"
"Of course," answered the triangular bird, "come on, I think I'm qualified enough to help them choose clothes, right? I know there's a colour code to follow but I think I'm sophisticated enough to remind them they need purple and black."
Tali smiled between two stomach cramps.
"It's not that simple. Trust me, it's quite an important moment for them, so don't mess it up."
"Of course. Do you want me to get you something too?"
"Oh, I'd have a few ideas, but I need to make a list first."
"What kind of ideas?"
"Stupid, painkiller-infused ones."
Isaac/Isabeau had decided to take a bicycle to move across Rainwater Station's narrow streets. The idea had proven to be a disaster. Isa had no trouble walking or running in low gravity but cycling was another matter. They had lost the habit and their inner hear had yet to attune itself to Rainwater Station. Three spectacular accidents and the sorry looks of a dozen passer-bys later, Isa had abandoned their ride and limped their way to the station's community market.
"Oh, hey," said Bubbles from her post-it, "do you still have your spectacles?"
"Well then put them on, idiot."
Isaac/Isabeau obliged. They tapped the side of their glasses and Bubble's avatar appeared in a corner of their field of view.
"Gods, are you here to help me with my shopping? I told Tal I can absolutely handle myself alone."
"Isa, Isa, Isa. You're about to buy your first dress! I can't leave you alone."
"And what does an AI know about dresses?"
"I do not spend all my time as a spaceship or a container full of leaves and lichen, you know. It is even possible that I might have, one day, occupied a humanoid frame."
"Oho. You need to tell this story!"
"Later. Watch out. Twelve o'clock."
Isa stepped to the side, avoiding a four-legged drone that carried a bundle of wood from a world-tree. The one on Rainwater Station towered above a urban area, its thick canopy filtering out the artificial sunlight. Made for bigger spaces, it grew too fast and the Rainwater Commons spent most of their time pruning its branches.
One street later, Isaac/Isabeau arrived at the Rainwater Bazaar. The vast community market was spread across an entire cylindrical section, under the shadow of a minaret. In the artificial light, the mosque's tower was like the hand of a clock, pointing at the station's main lake.
The bazaar's medina was sprawling and full of colours, arranged around a white limestone dome whose blue mosaics reflected the light of the hollow asteroid. The dome bore the emblems of the Five Suns commune. It had originally been built for Rainwater's cybersyn -- a complex mainframe destined to coordinate the station's economy. The project had petered out for various reasons and Rainwater Station now handled itself very well without a central CPU. The bazaar was held by a myriad of small cooperatives, most of which only had two to three members. Bubbles pointed at the nearest clothing shop with red lines on the ground. Isaac/Isabeau welcomed the help. The medina didn't have much in the way of coherent planning and it was easy to lose oneself in the sprawling chaos of fountains, stairs and inner courtyards. Rainwater wasn't made for visitors. The bazaar had never been conceived for spaceship crews seeking goods and entertainment. It was made for the locals, who knew the place by heart. Bubbles cheated; she had downloaded the station's schematics.
The clothing store was baptized "Of Linen and Wool", a name Isaac/Isabeau found quite amusing considering neither linen nor wool were available on the station. They passed through the curtains at the entrance and found themselves in the blueish light of an inner courtyard. A random thought crossed their mind: the entire station, in a sense, was nothing but a gigantic inner courtyard. The shop's owner spawned in front of Isa, as if assembled out of thin air. She was more than two metres tall and the slenderness of her frame hinted at a life spent in low gravity.
"Welcome," said the owner in Swahili, "may I ask your pronouns if it's acceptable?"
"They/them," answered Isa with a shy smile, "but sometimes she/her. Depends on the day."
"And what day is it?"
"More like a "she" day. And you?"
"She/her. Most of the time. Good. What are you looking for?"
Isaac/Isabeau considered the owner. She had something of a Stellar Couturier. Yes. It was a good nickname.
"Well, I'm looking for a dress. Or a skirt. I don't really know. First time I buy one."
"Aw. You're blushing."
"Oh yes. Good, good. What's that dress for?"
"I'm a new mailperson. It looks like I need a uniform of sorts. Black and purple. I thought a skirt and a shirt would be perfect."
"And you are right! Follow me."
Isaac/Isabeau walked through the room, following the Stellar Couturier. The shop had a great variety of tunics, dresses, flight suits and other coloured shirts.
"Nothing your size, I am afraid. Terrans are always a headache. You're either too tall or not thin enough. Terran gravity is such a mess. No offence, of course. I'll have to print the skirt. Would you please step on the little circle on the floor?"
Isaac/Isabeau obliged. A LIDAR emitter sized them up, then the Stellar Couturier unfolded a virtual reality mirror.
"Let's see. What do you want?"
"I need the skirt to be usable in zero-g and I don't really feel like showing my thighs to everyone."
"Long pleated skirt with flight pants underneath."
"I like the idea."
"And for the upper body?"
"A shirt. I have an irenian friend who wears those very well. You know, these shirts with a laced collar and falling sleeves? Purple."
The Stellar Couturier typed something on her e-ink tablet and snapped her fingers. The VR mirror immediately showed Isaac/Isabeau with a long black skirt and a purple shirt. They spun the skirt, feeling a bout of euphoria go up their spine. The Couturier smiled.
"You are gorgeous. However, there's a little issue with the shirt, if it's to be used for official matters. Tell me, if that's okay...how long have you been under HRT for?"
"A year and a half, roughly. Monad only. No outside source.Why?"
"Well, your chest...these shirts are a bit on the open side and their cleavage is a slightly, how to say this...plunging."
Isaac/Isabeau looked down and noticed that the Couturier wasn't wrong. They felt another wave of euphoria run up their belly. Years spent in deep space had detached them from the welcome changes exerted by their monad.
"Oh. Yes. Right. Maybe we could use a less revealing cut?"
"Noted," added the Couturier as she altered the shirt.
"That being said, can I also keep the original cut? That would be two shirts then."
"Of course. I'll print the clothes as soon as possible, let's say this afternoon. Technically, these are work-related expenses, right? I'll see with the Postmistress."
In a corner of Isa's eyes, Bubbles' avatar winked.
The AI's high-pitched voice hummed in the apartment.
"Do you feel better, blue?"
Talasea raised an eyebrow. She had found the strength to sit sideways in her old sofa.
"Somewhat. I guess. How's Isa?"
"They found a very beautiful skirt and are jumping up and down in joy."
"Gender euphoria. Good!"
"I ordered some food. Rice and falafels. Today's community menu."
"Go to hell."
"I also filed a printing request for your clothes. I quite amused by the contrast between the two sets, by the way. Between the mundane sweater and the extremely revealing bustier...you don't seriously intend to wear the latter to hand out letters?"
"I don't see what you are talking about. It doesn't show a single centimetre of skin."
"Yes...technically speaking...this is not wrong."
"Hey, Bubbles. What's up with the sudden puritanism?"
"It's not puritanism, I can't physically grasp the concept. I'm just wondering if the Postmistress would approve of this, er, uniform."
"I do whatever the hell I want with my body, Bubbles, if I want to show it, I show it. Of course, what would you know of this..."
"You're very flippant today."
"I know. I always say stupid things when my belly is a warzone. But keep these clothes."
"Oh, they won't move. Do you feel like flying the Internationale? We have letters to hand out."
"Ah. Let's not make the postal service wait."
For a short while: the stars take the colour of blood.
The cockpit's VR windows flickered while the ship adapted to the moody light of the Outrenoir system. It was located fifteen lightyears away from Rainwater Station and only harboured two natural objects: a stellar black hole and a brown dwarf, captured several million years before by the powerful gravity well. Planets had ceased to inhabit the surroundings of Outrenoir for billions of years. The supernova had swept everything away, swallowing the system in a storm of heat and light. The reintegration of Courier 7 had placed it within a few astronomical units of the black hole, far enough to avoid any time dilation effects. The black hole gleamed in visible light and X-rays. Seen through the sensors of the Internationale, it looked like a minuscule black and orange sphere, with an inverted accretion dome looming over it. Much closer to the vessel was the brown dwarf, Outrenoir's only companion. A vast orange eye gleaming very slightly against the cosmic background.
Though it was spread between a dead star and an unborn one, Outrenoir was far from empty. Talasea saw many infrared signatures, corresponding to a variety of spaceships moving in and out of the area. Their profiles showed exploration vessels, cargo ships, messenger craft and even a few military engines. Every trajectory pointed away or towards the same object, a station on an elongated orbit between the black hole and the brown dwarf.
Outrenoir Harbour had a peculiar appearance. It was a Zanzibar station, much like Rainwater. The Harbour was built around a hollowed-out asteroid which had been polished to create a long, all-white cylinder. Two radiator arrays adorned the prow and stern of the station, forming straight, symmetrical lines of gleaming bronze. Around the kilometre-long asteroid orbited a large golden ring where ships and shuttles would anchor themselves. As it rotated, the orbital station slowly revealed complex Art Deco style geometrical ornaments inspired by lunar complexes back in the solar system. Isa switched the engines of Courier 7 off and concluded their approach on RCS thrusters, aiming for the postal birth on the outer ring. A drone called Courier 2 was already there, lodged in its nest. A swarm of little djinn drones rushed to unload the containers. The majority of Courier 7's letters were non-priority and would be dispatched by the postal service of Outrenoir Station at a later date. Talasea and Isa only had two priority letters remaining -- stamped with the Postmistress' emblem, in-person delivery only. There were many reasons for a Five Suns citizen to pay extra and benefit from this service: a desire for discretion, a lack of trust in the postal drones, legally dubious cargo or words -- none of this mattered to the Postmistress and her mailpeople. The postal service of the Five Suns did not discriminate.
Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau dressed in black and purple then took a shuttle to the station. Six Inyanga-class ships were moored to the ring. The ships were affiliated to the Starmoth Initiative. Their one hundred and eighty crewmembers had spent more than a year in deep space and Outrenoir Harbour was a welcome respite. If Rainwater Station was the origin point of the Five Suns and Kollontai its capital city, Outrenoir Harbour was its free port. A place set aside from the normal world, where crews could seek respite and pleasures.
"The dress is a very good choice," commented Talasea while the shuttle flew through Outrenoir's main airlock, under the watchful gaze of two Babylonian lions made of sculpted regolith.
Centrifugal gravity inside Outrenoir Harbour was equivalent to half a gee, like on Rainwater Station. The postal service airlock led to a small hallway whose walls were covered in Simurgh bird shaped, black and purple mosaics. The legendary creatures of ancient Persia felt perfectly at home in this environment, thought Isaac/Isabeau, even though they didn't really feel like a messenger of the gods. A humanoid frame intercepted them at the end of the hallway. Isa sized them up. Spherical, multifaceted helmet. Black and dark red suit with an armour plate protecting the chest. Byzantine-inspired shapes on the sides. Composite crossbow in hand. It was a member of the station's security. Isaac/Isabeau decided to call them Cataphract.
"I'll need your IDs", said the Cataphract in Arabic, voice muted by the helmet.
Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau showed them their silver brooches. The Cataphract used their glove to scan the markings, then gestured them to come in.
"Isn't Outrenoir supposed to be a free harbour?" asked Talasea with a smile.
"Free harbour only means we don't discriminate when it comes to outside visitors. Five Suns state servants, now that's another story. It's for your own good."
"Such concern for our well-being is touching, but I warn you, I'm not gonna open my mail for you."
The Cataphract had something one could have mistaken for a laugh.
"There are things way worse than letters going through this station. Come in. I'll warn Mademoiselle Verne of your arrival."
"Good. We've got mail for her."
The tunnel with Simurgh birds led to a decontamination area, that itself opened on the inside of Outrenoir Harbour. The station was a pagan ode to crowds and pleasures. Unlike Rainwater Station, it wasn't lit by a central sun-tube but by an army of luminous minarets -- a sea of candles, bathing the station in an endless golden twilight. Outrenoir Harbour was made of a single city, spread across seven hundred metres of habitable length. The rare wetlands were deep mangroves whose lakes seemed to draw the light in. The rest of the architecture resulted from the unfiltered output of an artificial intelligence trained on the aesthetic history of Babylon, Carthage and Baghdad together. Flamboyant lions loomed over Andalusian mosques. Fac similes of Toledo gardens blossomed amidst large streets adorned with Islamic mosaics. In the distant fog towered dark blue Moloch statues, above the golden domes of byzantine temples. Scents of incense and recreational drugs floated in the streets populated by a staggering diversity of crewmembers impressed by Outrenoir's strange promises.
Isaac/Isabeau felt a gust of sweet vertigo rise up in their lower abdomen, nourished by the low-pitched thumps of music that came from the establishments under the twin lions. Talasea side-eyed them and Isaac/Isabeau suddenly remembered some of their most memorable nights out in Elora's underbelly. A fragment of romantic tenderness briefly seized them. Talasea took Isa's hand.
"Right," said the pilot, "our first letter is for a citizen named Maria Villaverde. Some sort of private eye, I think. Well, I supposed. She belongs to a cooperative that looks a lot like a private investigation firm. Adress unclear. Bubbles?"
The stupid bird manifested itself in a corner of Talasea's post-it.
"I have access to station data. Follow the guide!"
Bubbles' guidance led Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea towards a district made of coloured medinas built under the shadow of the gigantic Moloch statue guarding the Harbour's fusion core. The crowd was sparser and less amenable.
"Tell me, Bubbles," asked Isaac/Isabeau, "how's the crime rate on Outrenoir Harbour?"
"Significantly higher than in the rest of the Five Suns," calmly answered the AI, "which is not surprising for a free port. That being said, this rate is relatively low regardless. The local administration must be quite competent. To the right, kids. Villaverde's office is there."
Isaac/Isabeau crossed the boulevard, passed by a yellow-eyed tramway, then under the stylized lions of a medina and finally entered the courtyard of a community apartment complex. Villaverde lived on the second floor. There was no mailbox. Villaverde's office had a beautiful Art Deco door. A panel said: "Maria Villaverde, Intel and Investigations". There was no doorbell. Talasea knocked. Once. Twice. Nobody answered. Isaac/Isabeau entered and found themselves face to face with the tip of a bolt, engaged in a carbon composite crossbow. It was held by a goon wearing a plain shirt and cargo pants, complemented by a kevlar-sewn flack jacket. Isaac/Isabeau grabbed the crossbow and planted the bolt in the thin wall. There had been no conscious thought on their end; merely a reflex. The mercenary -- there was no way it was an official combatant, judging from the equipment -- drew a combat knife. Talasea intercepted it with a curved dagger. The goon watched them in disbelief. Isaac/Isabeau neutralized the crossbow by removing the bolt while Talasea kept pressing against the knife with her own dagger. The Earth-made weapon was an antique, but perfectly capable of penetrating a flack jacket.
"Oh, hey, it's the mail! I think I have a letter to get, if you do not mind." said a voice coloured by a slight Spanish accent. It came from the other end of the office. Maria Villaverde, wearing a sweater and blue jean pants, faced a mercenary in a squared shirt and bulletproof vest. They both held each other at gunpoint -- Villaverde with an old revolver and the goon with a high-tech spec ops crossbow.
"Hell. We're out of here," said the other mercenary before darting out of the office, followed by his morally wounded comrade. Isaac/Isabeau noticed that none of the two henchmen carried any ID number or communal heraldry with them. Villaverde deposited her revolver on the table and told the two mailpeople to come in.
"You have a letter, Maria Villaverde," whispered Talasea. She took out a handwritten letter from her pocket, "I need a signature for the receipt."
Villaverde fixed her gray hair and signed the paper. In return, the irenian gave her the letter. Judging from the stamps, it came from the other side of the Milky Way.
"Beautiful thing", commented Bubbles, the arrows on her post-it pointing at the revolver, "I didn't know the Five Suns allowed the personal possession of firearms."
"They don't. It's an old weapon, dates back to the Low Age. It's never been marked or registered anywhere."
"Do you often happen to be held at gunpoint by soldier to hire?"
Villaverde raised an eyebrow.
"I don't know. Do you often happen to disarm people in close combat? Is that a thing you learn in mail school?"
"I won't answer that question," smiled Isaac/Isabeau.
"Well then I won't answer yours. The hazards of my profession aren't your concern, I think."
"That's fair," conceded Talasea with a very professional smile, "good day, mistress detective, with the compliments of the Five Suns and its postal service."
Isaac/Isabeau climbed down the stairs and found no one waiting for them. They decided to blend in with the crowd and walk back towards the station's main streets. The pilot massaged their sore elbow.
"I didn't know you'd kept that jambiya."
Talasea had carefully sheathed the blade. It was almost invisible in the folds of her shirt.
"It's always in my luggage. And I thought, hey, we're going to Outrenoir, that may be useful. I think I was right. Great reflex, by the way."
"Some things aren't so easily forgotten. Hey, Bubbles, do you have any idea who these people were? Do their clothes remind you of something?"
"Why ask me?"
"I don't know."
The stupid bird did a loop on its post-it.
"Unsure. Don't think they belong to a prominent military commune. Certainly not Algorab operatives, they never go out without the raven on their suits. Not Sahaak either. They had no tattoos and intimidating someone in broad daylight isn't exactly their modus operandi. We're too far from Mars for them to be Reds...USRE black ops operatives, maybe? The clothing style would match, at least. No idea what Terran secret services would do here, however. And Isa wouldn't have disarmed a spec ops soldier like this. I don't know. Local goons, maybe? No firearms, no IDs, plain clothes, they could be a particularly aggressive sample of the Outrenoir fauna."
"This station is a riot."
"I'd expect it, Tal. Outrenoir Harbour is a safety valve for crews that have seen nothing but the hull of their ship for months on end. Villaverde's line of work tends to attract...radical reactions. Especially among spaceship crews."
"These men did not seem like they were explorers or cargo ship crew."
"Ah! You've never been aboard a deep space cargo ship and it shows. These crews are like family. Or, sometimes, old Terran mafias. You don't want to push people like that over the edge. Regardless, I don't think it's our role to interfere with Outrenoir's criminal underworld. We can't discriminate between honest citizens and the rest. All mail..."
"Is worth delivering, I know."
The second priority letter was addressed to a certain Aline Verne. It was none other than the only surviving letter from the Night Flight. Isaac/Isabeau felt the cannister's odd presence in the back of their satchel as they entered the Singularity, Outrenoir's main night club. The building had been named in reference to the nearby black hole, of course, but Isaac/Isabeau wondered if it didn't refer to its geometrical complexity as well. Once past the ornate doors, the postwomen found themselves under a vast dome, bathed in a dark, sweet light -- night blue under the shade of golden Simurgh birds. The Singularity was a temple for the weary traveller, dedicated to the pleasures of the mind and spirit. Most of the services offered by the Singularity took place in the inner gardens and their theaters of greenery. One could pay for their stay with local Five Suns currency, but the Singularity also accepted knowledge: stellar maps, archaeological discoveries, or even crew stories. Isaac/Isabeau stopped in front of a clearwater pool, surrounded by dozens of jewel-covered doors, leading to gardens and lakes arranged as a whole array of parallel worlds. A Cataphract stepped out of the emerald shadows and asked the mailwomen what they were doing here. Talasea answered they had a hands-on delivery for Mademoiselle Aline Verne. The Cataphract nodded, confiscated Talasea's curved dagger, then allowed them to enter the main night club.
The world beyond was blood-red.
"Night club" was quite the demeaning term for the heart of the Singularity, thought Isaac/Isabeau. The very name had something trivial in their eyes. It reminded them of the Terran bars from their youth, before Isaac had become Isaac/Isabeau. This kaleidoscope of red lights and enthralling music was not just a place for entertainment. It was a mosque-sized airlock, a decompression chamber where spaceship crews, after months in deep space, could forget the strict discipline of long-range vessels. The vast red room was not unlike the combustion chamber of a fusion drive. The lights and bass were lasers, focused on the fuel pellets that were the crowd. The diversity on display was astonishing, from Terrans with tall, powerful frames to thin and delicate Selenites, and all the shades in-between. All skin colours were represented; pale grey of spacers, luxurious irenian blue, black and bronze from the Earth. Some wore flight suits bearing the emblems of a hundred communes. Some had shirts, dresses and tunics. Some were almost naked, their skin only covered in q-augs and tattoos. The ambience was both serene and electric. At any moment, considered Isaac/Isabeau, the dances could turn into orgies and yet sex was carefully reserved to private alcoves, separated from the rest of the fusion chambers by heavy curtains. Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau found the contrast between their very official garments and the pagan chaos of the night club fairly amusing. Their glances met and Talasea flaunted her eyes at Isaac/Isabeau. The two mailpersons were no stranger to such places and shared cherished memories of the Crimson River, Elora's counterpart to the Singularity. Sweet, confused, carnal memories -- and Talasea giggled when she saw Isa blush.
Then their eyes turned to the centre of the fusion chamber. There was Mademoiselle Aline Verne.
She wore a late 20th century black dress and a white shirt with a 19th century Terran tie -- a summit of well-studied nonchalance. She swung in a hammock as if she was in the courtyard of a family house, somewhere in the European colonies of the Low Age. The scene only lacked an old oak and the clicking noises of a medieval android. Verne was ageless, though somewhere between forty and sixty years old. Through her tinted glasses, she watched over the kingdom at her feet. Isaac/Isabeau could not say if Verne was incredibly vain or a phenomenal actress but the reality of her power made little doubt. It came from the base, from the syndicalist structures that had elected her as the head representative of the Singularity. That was to say, Outrenoir's grand mistress, for there was no one else to challenge her. And in this world of Babylonian lions and open-sky luxury, a syndicalist representative could not afford to stay in her office. She had to stand in broad daylight, a sovereign in her empire.
With a regal gesture of her hand, Mademoiselle Aline Verne told the two mailpersons to come closer. Talasea and Isaac/Isabeau walked through the crowd and towards the queen of Outrenoir. A Cataphract side-eyed them and reached for his taser but Verne stopped him with a glance. From up close, Isaac/Isabeau found Verne to be incredibly beautiful. The wrinkles around her lips curved like the waves of an ocean world.
"You have mail," said Talasea, "it's from the Earth, priority letter. I'd like you to sign here and there, please."
"I wasn't expecting anything from the Earth..." answered Verne, taking the letter with a smile that vanished as soon as she noticed the sender's address on the back of the envelope. She opened it and started reading. Halfway through the letter, her voice broke.
"What are you two still doing here?"
Talasea held her notebook like a shield.
"I...I need you to sign the receipt, please."
Verne wiped a tear on her cheek, signed the receipt as asked then signalled a Cataphract to escort them outside the Singularity. The armed goon proceeded unceremoniously, leaving the two mailpersons alone in the dark street.
The walk back to the ship wasn't glorious. Talasea checked Outrenoir's mailbox, leaving with a hundred letters. Isaac/Isabeau sent a drone to grab the packages left by the locals. Both tasks took them about half an hour. When they came back to Courier 7, they found Verne waiting for them. She was alone, a flight suit above her royal garments. Verne had calmed down but it was obvious she had cried. Talasea raised her hands as if to clear herself from an offence she hadn't committed.
"We cannot be held responsible for the content of our letters."
Verne's voice had become raspy.
"I know, but you are responsible for the manner in which you deliver them. You should have warned me. I don't like appearing vulnerable in public. Outrenoir isn't exactly a democracy, little mailwoman. We are a feudal regime. Reputation matters..."
"And the queen can't be seen crying," whispered Isa, attracting a sombre look from Verne.
"I see that even fifty thousand lightyears away from the Earth, Terrans can't help but patronize spacers."
"It wasn't my intent."
"I imagine. But next time, don't take so many liberties with me. Postal service or not."
Talasea wanted to answer but was interrupted by Bubbles.
"Do you know where this letter comes from, Aline Verne? We recovered it from a ship darting towards its star, melting in a plasma storm and spewing radiation at us. Look through the bay window. See the little circle over there? The paler one. That's the entry point of the cannister that contained your letter. With the velocities involved, five metres above and it would have decapitated Talasea or Isa. Two metres below and I was the one biting it. It was a week ago. So you'll pardon us for not having minds clear enough to think about preserving your little aura of majesty. Thanks."
Heavy silence fell on the loading bay.
"I see," whispered Verne, "I see. You three are intriguing and sorrow makes me forget what I'm saying. But I maintain my warning. Be careful. Not everyone is waiting for their mail with childlike enthusiasm, standing next to their little mailbox. Some letters should have never arrived. Good travels, ladies."
Isaac/Isabeau didn't correct Verne. Under the black sun of Outrenoir Harbour, in her purple dress, Isa truly felt as a woman and it was the only good memory she'd keep of that day.
Stamp illustration: Joyce Maureira for Stars Without Numbers, released as part of a free use license.
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