Episode 8 -- Sink the Internationale
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.
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