Episode 13 -- Sequence Citadel
The first package delivery of our mailpeople after the attack on the Internationale brings them to the ancient Sequence ruins of Silene.
The Internationale now flew like an outlaw, IFF switched off, two radiators folded out of three, going through random translations in-between orbital insertions to prevent delta-v tracking. Isaac/Isabeau would have been more at ease with an armed escort but the Al-Awaidh was still in repairs and the coast guards' gunship did not have the translation capabilities to follow the Internationale in its travels. Bubbles took a marked enjoyment in moving this way, but neither Isaac/Isabeau nor Talasea found it particularly pleasant.
The pilot and the navigator were bathed in the stark blue light of Courier 7's geometry drive. The faster than light mover was installed right at the centre of gravity of the ship. Its crystalline cube rested in a harness of carbon fibre strings, with copper needles bridging the gap between the drive's carvings and the ship's navigation mainframe. The geometry drive hummed -- a low-pitched bass line that echoed between the walls of the chamber. Talasea had just finished examining the geometry drive with a laser stylus and a pair of polarizing glasses. By diffracting the light of her stylus through the geometry drive, she could make out the fine details of its seemingly smooth surface. Only an experienced navigator could read the feedback on her virtual reality screens. As the geometry drive existed in four spatial dimensions at once, it interacted with light in ways that escaped common sense.
"So? What do you say?" asked Isaac/Isabeau, watching their companion as if they were their physics teacher.
"Lots of scratches around the mainframe connexions and hairline cracks are bound to appear soon, but this kind of wear and tear isn't surprising for a twenty year old drive. It should be good for another five hundred translations, but it's in dire need of a full review."
"You mean a drive extraction?"
"Yes. Open the engine compartment, disconnect the drive, needle by needle, and perform a full nano-scale scan. About five days of work and the Internationale already spent fifteen in pressurized dock. It will be hard to make it fit in our schedule."
"Especially with two postal drones riddled with bullet holes."
Bubble's avatar suddenly appeared on the geometry drive. The silly bird had put on a chapka in honour of Courier 7's destination, Silene.
"Oi, lovebirds. Algorab just sent a laser hail."
"What are they saying?"
"They want us to state our ID, cargo and mission statement. Then to kill our drive, keep our heading and deactivate our laser grid. Non-compliance will have us shot down. I obliged. The threats aren't just for show, the coms laser doubled as a rangefinder."
"Phew. The ravens are nervous today."
"Seems justified, considering the recent events."
Isaac/Isabeau stepped against the wall and propelled themselves towards the commons, then the cockpit and ended up in their seat, ready to answer the radio.
"Courier 7 Internationale to Cordoba Port. You aren't going to shoot down the messenger, aren't you?"
"It all depends on your cargo," answered a raven.
"We have mail for Cordoba Port."
"You can drop a capsule our way. Anything else?"
"Yes. We have a priority package, in-person delivery only. For someone named Xiaomai, at Dig Site Avicenna."
"Copy. You're cleared for propulsive landing at dig site Avicenna. Watch out for inclement weather. Beaming LIDAR relief data as well as the frequency of the landing pad channel."
"Thanks. We'll be landing in three hours."
I was the queen in storms.
A long time ago, I was a sovereign. How long, such is a great question. For you, aeons; the same timespan as between your civilisation and the first steps of your homo sapiens ancestors. For me, a significant part of my life. For the Sequence, an eyeblink. Just the time for an empire to finally die. Perhaps sovereign isn't, in fact, the right word. It's not adequate. Your tongue, your very brain, aren't capable of grasping what it meant to be a Sequence sovereign. To rule over a world. To be complete, to be in absolute power; and yet, to abandon yourself.
Silene was my citadel.
Below the Internationale there was a stark line between night and day. On one side of the divide, the serene white and stark blue of Silene's ocean. On the other, the endless night of the dark side, one hundred degrees Celsius below zero, its atmosphere thin and sharp like a mirror. The divide cut the circular ruins of the Sequence exactly in two -- six concentric circles, the largest the size of a Terran continent. The messenger ship had entered Silene's atmosphere with a forty-five degrees tilt, exposing one third of its thermal armour to the plasma sheath. Isaac/Isabeau stared at the temperature displays. The ceramic plates went up to one thousand degree Celsius -- only one fourth of the way to the Internationale's critical temperature, yet the pilot couldn't avert their eyes from the sensors. Their behaviour wasn't normal, they knew it. The Internationale was constantly kept under watch by Bubbles during a re-entry and the AI could even decide to abort a landing on her own, according to a series of alert thresholds she had set up with Isa. The Internationale was fine and even if it hadn't been, Bubbles had it under control.
"hey, Isa," said the bird, "relax. Hull repairs will hold. I soldered the plates myself."
They nodded, weakly.
When the plasma sheath dissipated, Isaac/Isabeau switched to vertical flight for the deceleration burn.
"I've got a solid ping on Avicenna's beacon. They don't have an automated landing system, we'll have to do it by hand, on instruments," said the pilot, "we'll be one hundred and fifty kilometres inside the dark hemisphere. The landing pad will be engulfed in darkness."
"Loading the LIDAR profiles in the nav computer. Watch out for crosswinds."
Courier 7 kept descending. Brief engine burns illuminated Silene's eternal night. The concentric circles of the ruins grew ever closer. The target of the ship was a small dot in the easternmost part of the Sequencer citadel. The walls were birthed by the iceshelf like Earth mountains, scraping the skies eight thousand meters above sea level. Talasea shivered. The walls weren't buildings, not exactly. They were the bones and abandoned shells of the living civilisation that had been Silene. Billions upon billions of sophonts had lived here for millions of years and yet Silene had been nothing but a minuscule fragment of the Sequence. A galactic grain of sand. A minute later, the Internationale was swallowed by the shadow of a wall taller than the Himalayas mountains. Seven kilometres below blinked the distant lights of Dig Site Avicenna. LIDAR sensors raked the ground.
Bubbles bowed on her post-it.
"Ready for final approach."
"Thrusters throttled to fifty percent. Aligned on landing pad."
"Watch out, I see two Algorab landers and one of them is exceedingly badly parked."
"I see it, I see it. Ground contact in ten seconds. Full power to landing thrusters. Landing legs deployed."
"We're good. Ground contact confirmed. Welcome to the night side of Silene. Outside temperature is minus fifty-eight degrees Celsius and the atmosphere is so dry it hasn't snowed in two million years. Isn't this incredible?"
Talasea already had her pompom hat at the ready.
Dig Site Avicenna was at the exact centre of a circle fifty kilometres in radius. The station itself wasn't much impressive. According to Algorab registries, it accounted for fifty inhabitants. Three landing pads were located five hundred metres away from a little base made of six cylindrical habitat modules half-buried in the ice. Though a faint twilight was visible to the east, the dig site didn't receive enough sunlight for solar panels to power it. A small modular reactor hummed in a corner, emitting elongated clouds of steam in the icy night. Judging from the presence of several hydroponic stations, Dig Site Avicenna was fully self-sufficient.
"Hey, watch this," said Isaac/Isabeau while they walked on the solidified ice that carried the beams of the landing pads. Four rectangular sheaths were turned towards the black sky, soldered atop a turret. Tali shivered while answering.
"Looks like a battery of ground-to-orbit missiles."
"Under such a small package?"
"You can do a lot of things with cryogenic rocket fuel and an open mind. With four missile cells, they can interdict the entirety of the dark side and a good part of the day side.
"The ravens are indeed nervous."
"It's not a new development. Look at the layer of ice and snow on the turret. This missile mount has been here for several years at least. Algorab definitely has something to protect here."
"Indeed, we do," said someone on Avicenna's open radio channel, "the throne of a sleeping queen."
Talasea and Isaac turned towards a white spectre. The creature that walked towards them wasn't exactly human. It was two metres tall and its frame was smooth and polished, as if they had been made of ice and snow. The cold being moved in the biting wind with ease. On its chest was painted a stylized raven and the two-number identification of Silene's Algorab chapter. Its head was a heavy padded helmet, isolated from the outside world by a Kevlar cloak covering the seams of their suit. Through the visor, the mailpeople caught a glimpse of Jalil's kind eyes and well-groomed beard.
"Welcome to dig site Avicenna!"
"What are you doing in an ihamora suit?"
"Standard procedure on a dig site. We're in the immediate vicinity of Sequence ruins and of the local lifeforms that try to destroy them. And I don't feel the cold anymore. It appears you have a package for Xiaomai?"
"Indeed. No birthday card, though."
"Can we do that inside, with some hot tea?"
The central building of Dig Site Avicenna was vastly more welcoming than Port Cordoba's commons. The structure was made of inflatable walls, kept together by a slight overpressurisation. It was cheap and light -- sobriety in means was the modus operandi of Algorab on Silene. The scenery was that of an orbital laboratory : bright, comfy, made of warm colours and round curves. Without his reinforced suit, Jalil now looked entirely innocuous, almost out of place even. He wore a thick sweater and pair of ski pants that came from the darkest ages of industrial fashion. Qasmuna sat net to him, an ornate veil covering her hair. A few young ravens worked in the laboratories on the first floor. A vacuum drone rolled around the commons. Dinner was ready. The ambient feeling of peace was so complete that it was impossible to imagine the extent of the Sequence necropolis around and beneath Dig Site Avicenna. When Tali sat in front of Qasmuna, the Yazidi gave her the kindest look. Jalil nodded. He knew of their shared afternoon and did not mind.
"I didn't think I'd find you two here," said Isaac/Isabeau, hesitating between herbal tea and lavender tea.
"We're ravens first, biologist and pilot second," answered Jalil, "and our natural place in this world is amidst ruins and dead things."
"Besides, the food here is better than on Port Cordoba" added Qasmuna without a hint of irony.
"I haven't seen the Al-Awaidh in orbit, by the way."
"Still under repairs at Rainwater. Our only defences are the ground to orbit missiles, for now."
"Do you seriously think someone might want to engage Algorab? Even our researchers are armed to the teeth."
"Nothing is impossible, at this stage. I'm even surprised the Five Suns let you fly."
"Without the postal service, the commune would quickly shatter and our drones are both too stupid and too easy to hack. Deep down, I believe the Postmaster sees us as an outside element that can be readily sacrificed. I can hardly blame him. We aren't Five Suns citizens. Speaking of, do you have news of their inquiry?"
"No. The Five Suns have a lot of goodwill but they're completely out of their depth. They want to be pioneers and helpers, they can't handle ghost ships and terrorists. They are not cut out for this world. Neither are we, but we are better armed."
"Well. We have a package for someone named Xiamoai. It's a small reinforced letter. Fragile. Hands-on delivery."
"I see. Xiaomai is the, er, thinking head of Dig Site Avicenna. So to speak. She isn't at the base, however, she's away."
"We'll wait for her then."
"I think you should go meet her in person. She left very clear instructions to that effect. Of course you can't go alone, so w''re coming."
"It is quite rare for former Starmoth Initiative members to be welcomed at Algorab dig sites."
"True enough. Consider this a favour. Not to the Starmoth Initiative but to the postal service."
A hot meal later, Qasmuna and Jalil took Jalil and Isaac/Isabeau to the lower floor of Avicenna station, where the ravens stored the EVA equipment. The walls were cut in the deep ice, covered in transparent walls that kept it well below freezing temperatures. The ceilings were bright-colored, not unlike those of a medieval cathedral, bringing a strange joyfulness to the Sequence ossuary below.
"The dig site itself is twenty kilometres away, towards the outer wall. The ice wasn't stable enough to put the station closer to the ruins. The chasms below the surface reach several kilometres beneath the iceshelf. Right. You need to wear ihamora suits."
"Do we have to?" said Isaac/Isabeau, visibly tired.
"I can't let you go on a dig site without adequate protection."
The small group went to the prep room where the ihamora suits were stored and maintained. Avicenna Station kept half a dozen unmarked suits for visitors and spares. A row of polished statues, smooth as snow, whose blind eyes stared at the pilot and the navigator in utter silence.
"Are you familiar with ihamoras?" asked Jalil. Isa and Talasea answered positively before disappearing in the EVA lockers. Contrary to Starmoth Initiative exosuits, Algorab ihamoras did not require underclothes. After undressing, Isaac/Isabeau and Talasea took a shower then covered their bodies in conducting gel. The ihamoras weren't unlike medieval armours and required a long, complex dress-up process. First came the underlayer of artificial muscle tissue. It felt cold and slimy at first, then quickly became as natural and form-fitting as a second skin. Above this underlayer came a thermal regulation suit made of artificial veins filled with heat conducting fluid. Finally, the suit was completed by a third underlayer for kinetic protection, with pouches of memory foam that hardened in response to physical trauma.
The ihamora itself was accessed from the back, which unfolded like a shuttle airlock. Entering it felt like disappearing in a sarcophagus. The wearer found themselves in pitch black and absolute silence for ninety seconds. Then, as the ihamora recognized the wearer's monad and linked up to it, the armour came to life. Every move of the wearer was matched and amplified by the armour -- one had to always keep in mind that the ihamora multiplied natural strength fivefold. The helmet displayed a 270° window on the outside world in virtual reality. Audio and tactile feedback came a short while later, relayed by the skin-level sensors of the ihamora. In many regards, it was closer to a diving suit than a space suit and, once inside, the world became muted and distant. It was a small price to pay for the sheer feeling of power and safety the suit gave to its host. The ihamora was thick enough to survive blows and temperatures that would have been immediately deadly for a regular human being. The polished, full-cover silhouette protected the miniaturized engines demultiplicating the strength and speed of the host. Inside, an archaeologist became a true actor of their environment and not only a passive victim of the Sequence and its ancient ghosts.
It took half an hour for Isaac/Isabeau to escape the locker. Tali spent ten more minutes dressing up, as her Pleiades-made monad had difficulties linking up to the suit.
"Well," commented Qasmuna, that was acceptably fast. "Jalil?"
Qasmuna's husband already wore his ihamora. He nodded.
"You won't suit up?" asked Isaac/Isabeau, noticing that Qasmuna only had a light exosuit.
"I don't need an ihamora, you'll see why. The tram is just over here."
Two tunnels below, the warehouses led to a small tram station, fifty metres underneath the iceshelf. A train made of two carriages linked the station to the dig site. Qasmuna brought everyone inside and the train left in silence.
The night swallowed it.
Isaac/Isabeau secured their package against their chest.
"Relax," smiled Qasmuna, "it won't explode."
"What are you doing on that dig site, exactly?"
"You know what Silene used to be, correct?"
"Incubator-worlds of the Sequence were all led by a Sovereign, that is to say the incarnation of the imperialist will of the great chain itself. The dig site is the throne of that sovereign. The throne of the queen in storms."
The tunnel suddenly turned into a bridge, suspended in-between mythologically tall pillars that plunged into a bottomless chasm. Far away in that void gleamed scattered stars that Talasea assumed to be remanent dots of transbiological activity. Elongated cables installed by the ravens linked the track to lone beacons, resting on the bedrock six thousand metres below.
"Here rested the heart of Silene," whispered Jalil as the carriage passed by arches of fossilized coral like ghost heart lobes.
Less than a kilometre before the dig site.
Out of this world the queen made a garden and out of this garden we rose like decadent grass. Out of this world she made a cathedral and of this cathedral we ensured the desecration. From your little planet lost in the Milky Way, from this peculiar miniature you call the Earth, you cannot begin to comprehend what the Sequence was. You can search for as long as you wish, you can study our ruins until your eyes turn to ash, but you will never understand it. You had kings, you had queens, you had dictators, you had empires, but you did not have the Empire. You cannot understand because you have the ability to move faster than light at your leisure, linking your scattered worlds together in mere months. We never had this freedom. This power. Twenty million years and we never broke the mystery of the geometry drive. The Sequence wanted power, harmony, empire, but it lived between stars we took centuries to travel to and from. Even if death was but a game we had solved aeons prior, the only solution to holding our civilization together was harmony in all things. The ultimate alienation, where the servant forgets they even have a master.
For such was the Sequence. Such was the Empire. Not a machine that enslaved, not a machine that conquered, but a machine that built. It built worlds. It built paradises. It destroyed and rebuilt histories to make other civilisations believe they had always been part of the Sequence. It manipulated the very flesh of a billion species to have it blend and meld in a single crucible -- in the transbiological matter of the Empire.
Under another sky, under your sky perhaps, the Sequence could have been magnificent. A promise of democracy and harmony. The unification of a thousand people under a single history and a single shape. Unity in diversity. The ancient promise of one of your lost nations.
But the Grey Sequence, the Milky Way Sequence, never aspired to democracy. It never understood power in this way.
Like all the others, I was a child of the Sequence, for all the creatures in the Perseus arm belonged to the great empire. I don't recall who I used to be. Alienation remains the most powerful weapon of the Sequence. To rise against the Empire, one has to deny it the use of our bodies and histories. I forgot everything, I burned the memories to a pyre made with the coral bones of my first kill. I only recall how powerful I was. An incubator, perhaps, an architect, a planet-master, a warform even, perhaps. Everything disappeared, but hatred.
From the corner of my many eyes, I see the little humanoid creatures disembark from the frail machine they use to cross the ancient domain. It is strange to use such a primitive mover, but I realize that they don't have anything significantly more advanced. I don't understand them. They are powerful. God-like, even, moving through the galaxy faster than light itself. And yet they are so simple. Their weapons and armours are so paltry, even compared to the abyss of dereliction in which we fell. I don't know how they do, the little diggers of ruins, the ones that carry the emblem of a winged creature. They have nothing but sparks and summer clothes.
Like us, they stood against the empire.
I pivot towards them. Four, wearing these thinly armoured suits that I could pierce with a single strike of an auxiliary tentacle. One of them seems to be blue-skinned. I don't know why. They have weird tastes. I recognize its companion. I saved them in the blizzard, some stellar rotations ago.
I lean over the bipedal creatures. I wonder if they know my name.
I am Xiaomai, the traitor of Silene.
All around Isaac/Isabeau were walls tall as mountains. The endless twilight coloured the citadel in solidified blood. The tall creature looked over the pilot. Its bright blue collar floated in the wind, mimicking the motions of a jellyfish. It seemed to entertain some interest in Talasea.
"Here is Xiaomai," said Qasmuna, unfazed.
"It is the first time I deliver a package to...what is it, exactly?"
"Well, ask her."
"Can she communicate?"
"Her comprehension of our tongue is basic, not because she lacks in intelligence but because our civilizations are too far apart. Look."
The Yazidi signalled the creature with a series of motions in elaborated sign language that Talasea couldn't quite decypher. Xiaomai's collar flapped, emitting an electromagnetic impulse that filled the radio channels with white noise. Her words, carried by the impulse, were vast and strong as an ocean.
I am Xiaomai. I am the traitor of Silene. I am the queen in the swarm.
Isaac /Isabeau walked closer to the regal creature. Xiaomai blinked. Its many eyes had multiple pupils, contracting and expanding as the creature switched from one end of the light spectrum to the other. The collar vibrated again.
We know each other.
Isaac/Isabeau nodded. Could the creature understand this gesture? The pilot doubted it, yet Xiaomai matched his motion before switching back to a guard stance, her triangular head towering seven metres above the small group.
"Would you open the package, please?" asked Qasmuna. Isaac/Isabeau unglued the reinforced letter. It contained a small artefact that reminded the pilot of a pommel-less dagger. The sender was the Postmaster.
"I don't get it. That a gift from the Five Suns to Algorab?"
"An encouragement, rather," said Jalil.
"To finish what was started here."
Qasmuna grabbed the artefact and turned it towards the sky. Xiaomai took it with one of her tentacles. When the black metal entered in contact with her transbiological skin, it started gleaming without any visible energy source.
"So what is this thing?" asked Talasea, "it's obviously not human."
Something that came from far away. Something from a decaying empire. A key, universal, indifferent to time and dynasties. The mark of Draugr.
"What does it open?" asked Isaac/Isabeau.
Xiaomai turned around. In the icy mist was a vertical wall, right at the entrance of the bygone citadel. Two kilometres of ossified transbiological matter, covered in carvings of leviathans that formed the eternal sigil of the Sequence -- a chain, repeated in four dimensions.
Xiaomai put the black dagger against the door, and it started to slide open.
I am the queen in storms and here is my citadel.
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