Do Not End Their Watch

The Abaquq exited its translation wake and started burning hard to lock its velocity with that of the dusty moon two hundred thousand kilometres below. The Firebase-class ship was registered as an Algorab long range shock unit. Its livery was white with black outlines and a stylized raven underneath the central pair of radiators. Their faint glow was no match for the billions of stars in the sky. Twenty thousand lightyears away from the Earth, at the edge of a globular cluster, the galaxy was dense and luminous. The bridge was lit in dark blue. The Abaquq was on combat alert. Navigator Francesca Lazward recoiled her seat.

“Weapons?”

Tactical officer Vangelis glanced at their console.

“Ground target on south pole acquired, one hundred thousand a fifty downrange. Solid lock on missiles.”

“Hardpoints 1 to 4, fire.”

Four faster-than-light missiles detached from the Abaquq, flipped and ignited their chemical drives. The projectiles darted towards the moon, a few thousand metres ahead of their parent ship.

“Translating for target.”

The missiles disappeared with a brief glow and reintegrated reality at the edge of the moon’s exosphere, five thousand kilometres above ground. They jettisoned their manoeuvring stage and engaged their terminal approach drives.

“Target is waking up. I’ve got thermal pings. Casabas.”

Faint pillars of plasma material started appearing in the moon’s dead sky. One missile, engulfed in a rapid deployment of superheated elements, was instantly obliterated. The three others fired their complements of decoys and kept going.

“Casabas firing again. We’ve lost missiles 3 and 4. Two remaining. Cracking fairings.”

The two remaining missiles opened their fairing and deployed their warheads — ten for each vehicle — while the terminal stages careened into the black.

“Sixty seconds to impact.”

“Close-in defence systems firing. Metal shards, electromagnetically propelled. Some sort of PDC. I count four, on each side of the structure.”

The warheads kept descending. Thirty seconds.

“Two PDCs jammed. Thirty seconds to impact.”

“Twelve warheads remaining.”

“Impact in ten.”

“Five.”

“Impact.”

The surface of the moon trembled. Vast plumes of dust rose up in the razor-thin atmosphere, drawing grey flowers against the red clouds of the gas giant.

“Impacts confirmed. The structure is collapsing on two separate points. Casaba mounts and PDC domes breached and destroyed.”

“Fire hardpoint 1 for recon.”

A fifth missile left the Abaquq, then translated towards the moon and loitered for a few minutes at the edge of its gravity well. Nothing moved. The moon had fallen silent again.

“Recall 1,” said the navigator, “and prepare for drop.”

*

The Abaquq watched overhead, in geostationary orbit. A flight of five support drones and a military lander darted towards the icy moon, black against black. Inside waited a full squad of Algorab operatives. Seven soldiers in full exoatmospheric combat gear, wearing modular ihamora suits and exoskeletons. All of them wore the geometric raven in their neck, near the monad access port. Algorab operatives had a modified monad capable of storing their muscle memories and copying them to an external storage. Even in death, they would pass on their instinctive knowledge to their successors. The group’s leader was a woman of distant Chinese descent named Xiaomai Qing. Though only forty years old, she had lived many a life; when she moved, her gestures weren’t entirely hers.

“Alright, people, listen up. The facility below is a weapon system of unknown origin. Three months ago, it fired a Casaba-adjacent weapon at a Starmoth Initiative vessel and heavily damaged it. The Abaquq has cleared its weapons and external defence systems. We are to land, neutralise the rest of the facility and identify it if possible. Full drone support will be allocated to us.”

They had already been briefed, but Xiaomai Qing liked to do her little speeches before insertion.

“Do we have any idea about the ruin’s origin?” asked Serena Shanxi, their scientific liaison. The young Earthling had eyes the colour of a dead brown dwarf — a q-aug that replaced her natural irises.

“This area of space was once within projected Forgotten Traveller territory, but Casaba howitzers are way beneath their technological capabilities. Starmoth Initiative explorers report the presence of an extinct civilization in this system. Carbon-based, space age tech level, little to no ruins left behind. Pseudofish body frames. Prospective name: the Hidden Steel.”

“Randomly generated?”

“Yes.”

The lander fired its engines and began its final descent. The drones moved forwards, suspended under their sky cranes.

“Helmets,” said Qing, and the seven operatives put their helmets on in a single, synchronised move. Algorab face coverings were optimised for close combat in Sequence ruins. They were multi-faceted like a geometric insect’s head, and covered in miniature sensors.

Qing leaned forwards and whispered. Her voice came through side speakers, and was slightly distorted.

“Who will stand at the gates?” she asked, softly.

“Al-Sayf,” answered the operatives.

“Who will shield the fire?”

“Al-Sayf.”

“Who will stand upon the abyss and watch?”

“Al-Sayf!”

“Who are we?”

“Al-Sayf!”

“Who do we fight for?”

“Raven’s light!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“RAVEN’S LIGHT!”

Then the lander fell silent, and the engines went to full throttle.

The moon’s soil was mostly composed of regolith. The lander didn’t have trouble finding its balance — it was made for much harsher environments — and stabilised itself with ease, blowing a cloud of dust that quickly settled down. The sky cranes dropped the drones and ascended again, deploying decoys in their wakes but no projectile darted towards them. Twenty kilometres south, the facility remained silent.

Xiaomai Qing made landfall first, once the combat drones had scanned the area and showed it to be devoid of hostiles. They were Shilka-class combat frames, optimised for Sequence combat. Geometric, six-wheeled, they moved swiftly despite their size.

“Radio check,” announced Qing.

“Liaison Shanxi, checking in,” answered Serena.

“Weapons specialist Carter, checking in.”

“Weapons specialist Delcourt, checking in.”

“Drone operator Zhiyi, checking in.”

“Demolition specialist Alvarez, checking in.”

“Recon specialist N’Mani, checking in.”

“Ground team, fan out. We’re moving towards the structure. Weapons ready. Drones will take point. Contacts are to be met with extreme caution.”

The drones moved out, followed by the team. Their shadows were sharp and faint, cut out by the gas giant.

Surface gravity 0.2 gees, said Serena’s head-up display. External temperature minus 145°C celsius. Residual atmosphere with traces of oxygen, argon and xenon. It was a dead moon, alright. One among the billions that filled the galaxy. The regolith felt familiar under her feet, and her breath sounded harsh to her ears. She had her eyes locked on the facility to the south. The building was about fifty metres tall and half a kilometre wide. All grey, probably made of regolith, it had something of a raindrop splattered on the surface and frozen in time. The missile strike had collapsed one half of the building, revealing the internal machinery of two of the six Casaba mounts. There were hints of heavier damage inside — shattered beams of regolith, half-molten plasma pouring from the cracks.

“Hey, Serena,” asked specialist Carter on a local channel, “what’s a Casaba Howitzer, exactly? We don’t really use these weapons, do we?”

“Oh, yes. Well, it’s some sort of rather primitive beam weapon. You detonate a nuclear weapon in a specific canister where it vaporises a disk made of heavy metals, creating a high-velocity plasma burst that can reach low orbit. A good improvised weapon, though I guess a space age civilization could use it as a standard offensive device.”

The implications were rather peculiar, thought Serena as she provided the explanation. Casaba howitzers were self-contained weapons that already had their own energy source, but nukes were not eternal. They degraded over time, like any radioactive object, and had to be replaced. This meant the facility had a way to mine radioactive material and manufacture nuclear weapons.

“Serena to squad leader. How old are the Hidden Steel supposed to be?”

“Relatively recent. fifteen to ten thousand years before present.”

“How did they die?”

“Their home planet is the third world in this system. It suffered from a runaway greenhouse effect, either natural or artificial. No signs of active civilization at the surface. Choked themselves, like so many before.”

Silence came back, sharp as a blade.

The moon was relatively featureless. The gas giant captured most of the system’s asteroids, and there were few impact craters. There were two kilometres left for the squad to cross, and no cover whatsoever. Xiaomai Qing ordered the operatives to stop, and they took a knee in the regolith, at the top of a low ridge. Qing sent a Shilka drone forwards.

“Movement in the building,” said Delcourt. “One PDC still active! Veer off, Shilka!”

The drone braked and went in full reverse while firing a set of gleaming decoys. At the scale of mere human beings, a ground-based PCD cannon was a fully automatic artillery battery.

The Shilka trained its twin coilguns on the PDC.

The PDC took aim at the drone.

Then it collapsed.

“PDC jammed,” whispered Zhiyi, “the beams gave out. Whole place is falling apart.”

“What are these PDCs even made of?”

“We’ll know soon enough. Squad, loose formation, mutual cover, move in. Shilkas on the flanks. Weapons red.”

“What if something jumps out of the ruin and tries to kill us?”

She didn’t answer and they continued in silence.

Radiation levels jumped slightly near the area breached by the missiles, but the squad’s ihamoras were enough to absorb most of it. The shattered Casabas were like broken pillars. The hands of a stopped clock, right under the gas giant.

Abaquq to ground team. We have you on satellite. What do you see?”

“Transmitting.”

Qing stopped. The Shilkas took point on her sides, scanning the structure with their spherical sensor pods. The inside was remarkably simple; beneath the dome, there was nothing but a set of Casabas and the PDC systems. Artificial wells went through the moon’s soil. 3D scans showed they likely housed the facilities dedicated to the maintenance of the Casabas and their nukes. In truth, considered Serena, it felt more like a tent than a dome.

“All clear. Residual activity in the wells. Death twitches. I have four breached Casaba units. Radiation is acceptable, but everyone will need a cell-stop treatment after the sortie.”

“Noted. Abaquq out, keep us posted.”

Serena hand-launched a small drone and ordered it to start scanning the surroundings to get a full model of the facility. The walls were made of regolith, as well as most of the Casaba canisters. It was quite a feat of engineering — durable, locally manufactured and easily replaceable. The Casabas themselves were much more compact than what she would have expected for a space age civilization. Qing resumed her communications with the Abaquq.

“Begin recording. Contact with unknown technology, associated with the extinct civilisation known as the Hidden Steel. The facility seems to be an artillery platform, as expected. Seven Casaba Howitzers can be observed, all of the same make and type. Observation of a destroyed Casaba shows that the central nuke area was made to be removable, presumably for replacement. Very few metallic elements can be observed, save for the Casaba plate, which was seemingly made of tungsten. The rest of the weapon is made of regolith. The PDC systems are also built out of regolith, save for the conductive surfaces of the coilguns. The industrial processes through which local regolith was turned into such a variety of materials are unknown, though at first glance, they appear to be more advanced than ours.”

“I concur with leader Qing’s assessment,” continued Serena, “and I would add that there doesn’t seem to be any digital electronics on the weapon systems. I can only see analog computers based on mechanical apparatuses. Part of those systems are also made of regolith. This is very high-tech, though obviously divergent from our own development path. Everything here looks optimised for resilience.”

“I’m seeing two six-legged drones working on a Casaba. They’re probably part of the maintenance system, I assume they can build copies of themselves. Not hostile.”

A brief silence. The coms flickered for a while. The gas giant’s magnetosphere was finicky.

Abaquq, be advised, there is a reinforced area at the middle of the facility. Fire guidance calculators seem to be exchanging information with it. We are about to enter said reinforced area. Confirm?”

Abaquq, confirmed.”

“Alvarez, clear up the door. Cleanly, and with a drill, this is not a battlefield.”

Specialist Alvarez and their mining drill made short work of the main access to the reinforced area. The structure clearly wasn’t made to defend against ground intrusions — though Serena couldn’t tell if it was an oversight or by design.

They entered.

“Lights.”

Serena cracked a transparent stick containing a solution of bioluminescent bacteria. This was standard Algorab practice in alien ruins — light emitted by bacteria was devoid of UV emissions that could be harmful to local life or artefacts.

Abaquq. What do you see?”

“Specialist Shanxi here. The sub-structure is a reinforced dome. Aside from the side door, which is made of bricks, the superstructure itself is made from some sort of reinforced regolith. Chemical additive unknown. Analog computers litter the room, half of which appear to be somewhat functioning. There is a set of coffin-like structures in the middle of the dome. They appear to be…Abaquq, please hold on a moment.”

She blinked. There were living creatures inside the coffins. Eel-like, the size of a human being, they were covered in intricate jewels that protruded below sleeve-like void suits. Their helmets were like sacks of transparent tissue, tightly wrapped around their heads.

“Specialist Shanxi to Abaquq, resuming transmission. We have found what appears to be half a dozen individuals, presumably belonging to the species that built this place. The coffins are filled with ice. Holy Earth…specialist Alvarez is telling me that there are faint markers of biological activity inside the coffins. No life per se, but…very, very slow brain activity, even though the bodies are frozen and dessicated. Any idea how that might be possible, Abaquq?”

“Impossible to say without further study, but these creatures might be capable of desiccating themselves and remain in a state of very low activity for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. A few Earth-based species of worms are capable of such feats. Last year, they apparently managed to get a twenty thousand year old Siberian worm to come back to life. Okay, ground team. Tag the coffins for study, and potential retrieval. We might be in front of what’s left of the Hidden Steel civilization.”

“Do you see anything else?”

Qing tapped Serena’s shoulder, drawing her attention towards the carvings inscribed on the dome’s walls. They gleamed under the yellow lights emitted by bioluminescent bacteria.

“Alright, we have carvings. Ornamental, maybe ritualistic, they look too broad to be utilitarian. They’re alignments of dots, with…Abaquq, could you send me a view of the sky from your current location? Upload it to our shared HUD.”

Serena started walking around the room, as a high definition view of the starry sky appeared on her HUD, superimposed to the rest of the world.

“One of the carvings is clearly a representation of the present-day night sky, save a few hundred, maybe a thousand years. All major stars are here, just slightly misaligned. Though the medium is quite primitive, the accuracy of the star map is remarkable.”

Abaquq here. Is the other carving a map, too?”

“I think, yes. But it’s not accurate. I can only identify a few major stars, and they are all consistently offset to the right. This map may be older, and it would correspond to the natural relative motion of the Milky Way over several millennia. However, there seems to be more stars. About…I don’t know, five, ten percent more? And all the additional stars are highlighted with symbols. These stars can’t possibly have just disappeared, can they?”

There was a long silence, then Qing chimed in.

“It’s the Burn.”

She paused again.

“Fifty thousand years ago, there was one last war between the Forgotten Travellers and what remained of the Sequence. When it became clear that the cubic lifeforms could not fight the Sequence back anymore, they opted for a scorched Earth strategy. The Sequence moved slowly, under twenty percent of the speed of light, and they needed hospitable systems to set up bridgeheads in the galactic bulge as they led millennia-long offensives. The Forgotten Travellers decided to deny them these systems. They used relativistic kill vehicles and Dyson-Nicoll beams to destroy every single star system occupied by the Sequence. Out of all the visible stars in this sky, yes, that’s seven percent. Five to six million stars. The Burn.”

Serena took a minute to ponder Qing’s words.

“I think I get it. Imagine you are a space age civilisation, and you suddenly realise that the stars are just…going out. You are seeing the casualties of a war that started thousands of years ago, but you have no way of knowing it. You just understand that there’s something, out there, that’s devouring the stars. At first, just a few of them. Then hundreds. Then thousands. Then hundreds of thousands. Then millions. And it’s closing in. The sky has now become hostile. You do not have the technological level to flee, or even to understand the threat. So you build guns, and you put them towards the sky, for when the devourers comes knocking. It’s…derisory, of course. You can’t shoot down an interstellar relativistic kill vehicle with a Casaba. But this is all you have. This is all you can give to the sky.”

“And so you wait,” added Qing, “you wait and the devourer never comes, because it already died millenia ago. And while your civilisation is choking itself, you still stand guard. And in the end, that’s all you’ve got left. Fear of the sky. Forever.”

*

The Abaquq had positioned itself in a low orbit around the icy moon. Navigator Lazward had sent a messenger probe towards the nearest waystation to relay their findings. The automated vessel darted in the dark, fission drive at full thrust as it slowly matched velocity with its target destination, two thousand lightyears away. Soon, it would disappear in the night, leaving the Abaquq alone. Xiaomai Qing and Serena Shanxi rested in the observation bay, floating in zero-g. They had received preventive treatment for their radiation exposure, and the new muscle memories in their monads had been copied and uploaded. The mission was over. Serena raised her eyes from her book.

“Does Lazward plan to do anything with the coffins?”

“I don’t know,” answered Qing, half-asleep, “they contain remains of biological creatures that might still be alive in some way. Legally, we can’t move them without a Solar Envoy.”

“Do you think we may be able to revive these individuals?”

“I’m no biologist, Serena. But I remember those Siberian worms. A few minutes of exposure to warmer temperatures and they just resumed life as if nothing had happened. So who knows?”

“But…if we could revive them, do you think we should?”

Qing paused. She pondered the icy moon, perhaps trying to get a glimpse of the structure at the south pole.

“What do you think, Serena?”

“When they entered their desiccated state, they were probably the last survivors of their civilization. They still feared the sky. And now, we’d wake them up? We, people coming from the stars they were so afraid of? We, telling them that their great devourer was just a petty conflict between two dying civilizations, on a scale where the Hidden Steel was nothing but a pebble? They entered their sleep surrounded by a battlestation turned towards the sky, weapons primed and ready. That’s the only thing they had left. Standing watch. And we’d introduce them to a world showing how absurd their entire endeavour was?”

Serena sighed, then added.

“Let them sleep. This is not a watch we should end. ”

As Above, So Below

It snows.

Heavy, gentle snow, pouring from the grey sky above. The launch pads dot the valley like asteroid craters, with the railways as beams of dark ejecta. The launchers tower idle under the clouds. They’re pillars of a temple without a roof. Superheavy lift vehicles, distant derivatives of the ancestral Soyuz. Two stages to orbit and two hundred tons sent four hundred kilometres above ground. They’re white, with black solid boosters and circles of gold marking the separation between the stages. Sentences in cyrillic and arabic are inscribed on the sides. A surah from the Quran. From memory, it says:

“[the divine] is the One who has set out for you the stars, that you may guide yourselves by them through the darkness of the land and of the sea.”

The wind swirls between the launchers, carrying fragments of snow as it grazes the immaculate tips. They stand on platforms of steel and granite, above vast concrete pits meant to absorb the scorching flames of their engines. The launchers ignore the storm with the contained elegance of ice queens. Dormant, they wait for the stars.

Once, we had what I like to call the dream. Once, we thought that the outer heavens would be our salvation. Oh, how hopeful we were these days. My ancestors remember what the rich and powerful used to say — fooling themselves as much as they were fooling us. There lies humankind’s future. Reach out for the stars, spread the light of consciousness, turn us into a multiplanetary species. Build colonies. Not settlements, colonies. Move. Forwards, again and again. Build up momentum, or die. This was the great dream, the great illusion we had built for ourselves. The incredibly powerful idea that space was more than a vast desolation. That through the void we would find salvation. It was a beautiful dream, truth be told. It was a comforting illusion — the idea that there was purpose in the great beyond. That the Moon would welcome us. That Mars would flourish. That the solar system was just out there, ready for the taking. That we were a runaway species. Come; and walk over the hill. The story of the human race, we thought, and the hill was the Karman line. But that hill, we had swallowed it, churned it and returned it as nothing but a capitalist totem. The dream had to be bankable. The dream had to be monetized. The dream had to be bound, strangled and put in a box, and that box had to be a non-fungible token.

The dream failed us; or maybe we failed the dream.

That, I remember from my childhood, and my parents' childhood. The great launch centers of the world, laid bare to the biting winds. The slowness of the Low Age, after the shining rumble of the late industrial age. The awe-inspiring tales of these men and women who would walk in space, who would gaze upon the Earth from the desolate plains of the moon. Of these politicians and businessmen, whose names had been lost to time; of their words and their 3D concepts, of a dream that had strangled itself in stock market collapses even before the world had finally given up on us. I remember a large, circular lake, and on its banks was our village. I’d take a rowboat to go fishing. Sometimes, we’d drag something weird from the mud. Fragments of steel and carbon. Hulls, wings and cockpits from long-dead spaceplanes. One day, my mother told me the lake had been a launch area for an SSTO project, put forward by a company whose name she didn’t even remember.

The dream is dead.

A gust of wind. The clouds split apart for a minute. Two suns hang in the sky. They have the quiet anger of red dwarves.

And yet, here we are.

Why? That, I cannot tell. The dream is still dead. Has been for centuries, and it won’t be reignited. We cast it aside, and let it float down the river. We never wanted this. Such was the main teaching of the Low Age, such was the central tenet of the post-industrial world. The Earth is enough. It is enough for us. It is enough for our history. I was educated under this tenet, and while I could feel that it didn’t satisfy me, I understood its wisdom. The Earth was our cradle, and I could see it be our tomb. It was fine. It was orderly. It was a tired planet and we were equally battered. History had begun here, and it would end thusly.

I was thirty-one when the geometry drive entered our history. One cubic meter of hyperdimensional particles, beating light in a straight line, ten times out of ten.

I can’t say we discovered it. It was a find. A self-contained causality loop crossing the path of an exhausted humankind. I think that was the last inflexion point, the last step where the dream could have been reignited. Finally — we were on the verge of breaking the great filter, of escaping the slowness of the world. We could have been emperors.

Instead, we let go.

We let go of everything. Of the hopes of grandeur. Of the colonial illusion. Of the idea of control. Of the empire itself. Of the dream itself. We reached for the stars, not as conquerors, not as settlers, not as great explorers even, but as wanderers. Yes, we built stations, yes we settled planets here and there, yes, we kept pretending for a while, but deep down, we know it. We have no ambitions anymore. We have dreams, but the dream is gone.

One of the launchers has ignited. Its engines push against the ground. Its flames rake the snow. Gravity wields, and it flies.

Understand what the geometry drive is. On a fundamental level, it is a device capable of bending space and time by its simple existence. Faster-than-light travel is merely its main side-effect, but deep down, the geometry drive is a pen with which, given enough time, we could rewrite the world itself. We could decide to rule over baryonic matter, we could decide to settle the entire Local Cluster, we could decide to travel back and forwards in time, we could decide to create weapons capable of splitting reality in half, we could decide to do all of this at once, and yet, we opted to be mere travellers. Walk softly. Speak even softer. We received a deity, and we’re using it for sightseeing.

At least, this is what the dream would lead us to think. I have another opinion.

The galaxy is old, and we’re too late. Thousands of dead civilisations litter the spiral arms, and yet not a single one — not even the Sequence, millions of years ahead of us in the great evolutionary curve — ever mastered the geometry drive. As far as we know, there are only two existing groups of sophonts to hold this power in their hands. The Ladies That Wander are goddesses in their own right, moving the world around them with a snap of their fingers, and yet they decided to be aimless walkers, laying curious and benevolent eyes on the world. The Moths once held great plans for the baryonic world, and yet they gave up on them. Like us, they let go. And on a fundamental level, I believe that the geometry drive can only work when found and understood by a civilisation that already renounced the empire of the stars. Ask the Forgotten Travellers; they paid for the Alcubierre drive with the blood of a billion planets, because their great imperial dream was still there, gnawing at their core.

Letting go.

On a civilisational scale, this is liberating. There is no great plan. There is no grand design. There is no dream. There are thousands of individual experiences, millions of purposes, and the entire universe to bask in. In the Earth’s cradle, or far away in the stars.

As above. So below.

Unorthodox Diplomacy

Near the end of the Low Age.



Unorthodox Diplomacy came to a halt, sloped armour scratching against the dry bushes. The turret bounced up and down for a split-second, the time for the suspension to compensate. The radio crackled.

"Salamander 2, the target should be at three o'clock, about a thousand metres away. Copy?"

Rajani put her hand on Arnaud's shoulder. The gunner had his eye on the sights, prowling the darkness through his night vision apparatus. His sentences were fast, his words hard to hear over the tank's engine.

"Target reacquired, eight hundred metres downrange, bipedal."

Rajani leaned forwards.

"Fire."

Unorthodox Diplomacy's 120 mm smoothbore barrel suddenly sprang to life. Eight hundred metres and one tenth of a second later, a shell hit the side of a bipedal warmachine, shattering one of the legs and splitting the engine wide open. The knight fell in the tall grass, armour scraping against the wall of an abandoned concrete building. The autoloader rumbled in a corner of the tank, ejecting a spent casing and replacing it with a fresh shell. Rajani flicked a switch on her control panel.

"Salamander 2 to Salamander 1, the knight is down. Clean kill. I see no survivors. Do we have another walker in the area, over."

"No contacts. Rapier is reporting scattered infantry half a kilometre north of Teardrop Lake. They're retreating. They might have a few APCs with them, watch out for return fire, can't rule out a desperate action. Salamander actual, break."

There was a short silence on the radio. Arnaud briefly took his eyes away from his binoculars and swallowed a few droplets of water from a duct on his combat suit. Like all Scythes Model 5, Unorthodox Diplomacy could run quite hot in combat.

"Salamander actual to all Salamanders, we're getting new orders. We've got enemy movement towards our frontline. Estimated at bataillon-level size, gearing up for a counter-offensive. We're relocating to the western side of Teardrop Lake. Move in and prepare to engage scouting elements."

"Scouts? What are we looking at?"

"APCs with four-legged elements as close combat escorts."

"Copy. Salamander-2 moving in," answered Rajani, before gesturing towards Souleyma, their driver. The quiet woman revved up the engines, and Unorthodox Diplomacy started moving its fifty tonnes of steel through the bushes and tall grass.

There were seven kilometres between Salamander-2 and the new frontline, west of Teardrop Lake. Rajani spent most of that distance looking at her maps in the green-blue light of her nest in the turret. Teardrop Lake had another name for the locals, written in phonetic alphabet on her documents. Something with lots of accents and strange letters.

"Road straight ahead," said Souleyma, slowing the tank down.

"Départementale 4," mentioned Rajani, rising up from her tactical maps. "State-owned road, so probably abandoned for decades. No bridges, though. Usable. Wait a second. Arnaud, give me a sweep."

The gunner focused on his sights again, rotating the gimballed sensors around.

"I've got movement in the swamp. Nine, eleven hundred metres downrange. Man-sized."

Rajani started breathing more slowly.

"Souleyma, dead stop. Rapier actual, this is Salamander-2, what assets do you have in our vicinity, over."

"This is Rapier-1, we've got Rapier-6 by the tip of the lake, near the old castle, they're moving in."

"Do you have anything in the swamp, over."

"Negative, Salamander-2. Rapier actual, out."

Rajani's chest now stood still.

"Moving again," whispered Arnaud. "Eight hundred metres downrange."

"Infrared?"

"Four spots, as many legs."

Rajani took a deep breath, then resumed her stillness. Unorthodox Diplomacy was silent as a tomb, a slab of steel at the edge of the salty swamp.

"Salamander-2 to Actual, we might have hostiles in the swamp. We..."

Arnaud recoiled in his seat.

"Laser ping, laser ping, we're being illuminated!"

"Full reverse, fire smoke, engage with machine gun, eight hundred metres, tracers."

Unorthodox Diplomacy roared as it went in reverse gear, popping a full canister of multispectral smoke among the swamp grass. The grey clouds poured through the leaves like a shoal of ink-drawn fish. The black arrow of a guided missile peeked above the tank with a whistle, exploding in the trees a few metres away. Unorthodox Diplomacy's coaxial machine gun rattled in the dark, painting the night with streaks of gold. Rajani ordered Souleyma to reposition them and cover Salamander-4's right flank. The radio erupted with words as the tanks fired their weapons in unison towards the swamp. Small calibre bullets ricocheted against Unorthodox Diplomacy's hull, fired by equally confused enemies. In the midst of fire and fury, Rajani's sentences were calm and composed, even eerily so.

"Salamander-2, reporting contact with five to seven four-legged combat walkers moving eastwards, twenty millimetres and missiles. Requesting eyes overhead."

"Salamander-3, Salamander-4, move to support 2 on their flank. Watch out for prowlers. Launching a drone."

Unorthodox Diplomacy moved forwards again, firing scattered streams of suppressing fire towards the marshes. On the other side of the swamp, two kilometres away, Rapier's infantry opened fire as well. The walkers replied with twenty millimetre shells and missiles, adding their own lines to the web of deadly geometry traced over the sunken woods. A confused skirmish quickly spread across the area. Rajani was still holding her breath, like a warrior bracing for a cavalry charge, waiting for horses that had yet to be seen.

"Arnaud, cycle shells, load armour-piercing, tissue fragmentation tips."

The gunner obliged without a word.

Ten seconds later, the gods appeared on the battlefield.

A dozen creatures bulged from the water, surrounded by the screams of organic springs and high-frequency jammers. They all stood on two arched legs, strengthened by artificial muscles the size of a dead tree. Pitch black, covered in geometrical armour plates, they bore the white heraldry of EUROFRONT. Their heads were triangular and turned towards the ground, not unlike titanic beaks. When the largest mech made contact with the muddy ground, it eliminated an entire infantry squadron in a manner of seconds. The rest of the phalanx followed. Rajani was frozen in time. The only part of her body that still moved were her lips.

"Turret twenty degrees left, two thousand and fifty-three metres downrange, elevation two metres above the ditch, fire."

The 120 millimetre gun crackled. Two kilometres westwards, a tungsten-coated, deep penetration shell made contact with the belly plate of a heavy organic mech that had just recovered from its offensive jump, still glittering with water. The war-god shivered, recoiled, tried to find its footing again, but Salamander-3 fired and confirmed the kill.

Rajani started breathing again. Fast. That was it. The tension was gone, replaced by a race between her heart and her chest.

Unorthodox Diplomacy and the rest of the Salamanders accelerated alongside the road to keep their distance from the phalanx. The premature engagement of the scouts had left the war-gods exposed, and Rapier's infantry had managed to scatter in order. Souleyma felt a bout of rage rise up in her heart. Someone had missed a full phalanx moving under the cover of water. Heads would roll in the high command -- but for now, the driver had her eyes on Rajani, and the only thing she saw was the gaze of a commander with one hundred and fifty-seven confirmed combat kills.

The war-gods started running through the swamp under a hail of projectiles. All of Rapier's IFVs had gone up in flames, except Windward Sun, whose pilot had been quick enough to disengage under the cover of a wood. The war-gods had turned their immediate vicinity into a tempest of flares, point defence ammunition and multispectral smoke. They had a good five minutes, maybe even ten, before Rapier could regroup and set up its ATGM positions again. The infantry, however, had nothing to fear from the organic mechs.

The target of the charge was Salamander.

Through the swamp, they moved with unparalleled grace, artificial muscles adapting to the ground ahead over a scale measured in microseconds. As far as traversal went, they had no equals on European battlefields -- but this grace was paid for in blood. The smoothbore gun of a Model 5 USRE main battle tank fired twelve rounds a minute, and there were six of them on the old road. The night and the smoke led many shots astray, while a few others were lost to faulty ammunition, but most found their target. The war-gods paid a heavy price crossing the swamp. Shells cut through their legs; splattered the dark entrails from their bellies; sprayed eyes and nerves with armour shrapnel; turned beak-heads into altars of broken bone. Yet, the survivors kept moving.

Salamander-5 was the first to fall, when a war-god flanked it through the marsh and fired a two-shot burst of its tungsten lance. The sloped armour wasn't enough to deflect the shot, the ammunition detonated and the turret became a sudden hellscape. Salamander-4 followed short after, engine disabled by a mech prowling through the trees. Two out of the three crewmembers escaped; the commander never came out. A new voice appeared on the radio, colored by a faint western african accent.

"This is Hunter-1, moving to engage, danger close."

Through his binoculars, Arnaud caught glimpses of infrared lights, and then the low-pitched hurricane of a pair of attack helicopters rising up from the buildings by the bay. He briefly switched the light amplifiers off as rocket pods fired and scratched the night with molten stone. The gunner couldn't quite see the result of Hunter's entrance as Rajani sent another order.

"Keep moving, traverse the turret, engage the monarch, right leg."

Something clicked through Unorthodox Diplomacy -- then, a rattle.

"Misfire!"

Their target moved around, recovering from helicopter fire. The jammer was at full intensity. It buzzed akin to an erupting volcano. Arnaud attempted to fire again.

"Autoloader failure!"

Rajani tapped on Souleyma's shoulder and Unorthodox Diplomacy left the road, diving under the leafy cover of the bushes, then finding shelter in a small depression. The war-god moved swiftly, trying to get away from the helicopter's gaze while seeking the trail of Salamander-2.

"Salamander-2 to Salamander-1, we've got a misfire, I'm getting someone out, keep the monarch away!"

Silence.

"Salamander-1, please acknowledge!"

Silence.

Rajani took off her headset and climbed out of Unorthodox Diplomacy, jumping down on the sand. Outside, it smelled of hot metal, ignited gunpowder, burning transbiological blood and pine sap. The scent from the trees was what briefly filled Rajani's mind, before she snapped back to the battle. Home. Distant, far and battered, at the other end of her odyssey. Then, she started working on the breech to pry open the stuck casing that prevented the next shell from being loaded. She was well-aware of how exposed she was, but Souleyma was not as good a mechanic as her, and Arnaud had little experience with Model 5 autoloaders.

Halfway through her work, she felt the ground tremble. Regardless of wounds, regardless of pain and death, the war-god still moved. When the creature appeared over the small hill, she had just managed to unstuck the breech. The spent casing rang as it was ejected into the sand. The war-god screamed. Rajani rolled away and tasted blood when she fell in the bushes.

"Fire!" she yelled.

The war-god struck. It was out of regular ammunition and wanted to preserve its precious armour-piercing rounds. Thus, it decided to use a weapon cruder and more complex in equal measure. A monofilament whip, carried in its monstrous hands. A weapon made to kill and terrorize the poor and the disposessed as they tried to cross the borders of fortress Europe, to cut through improvised vehicles and cull masses of civilians. But Unorthodox Diplomacy was a Model 5 USRE main battle tank with thirty millimetres of composite armour, a warmachine having bridged the continent between Kandahar and Paris. The monofilament whip bounced on the armour, shaking the crew and turning the inside of the hull into a self-contained cataclysm of sound and fury.

Arnaud fired.

Pointblank.

The war-god exploded from the inside out in a continuous stream of dark blood and hydraulic fluid.


The wind rustled in the pine trees and ochre bushes. The marshes felt as if they were a world away; here, everything was calm, sandy and dry. Rajani sat over the turret, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“Salamander actual, what’s the situation, over.”

“This is Salamander-3. Salamander-5 is lost, Salamander-1 and Salamander-6 have been damaged.. Salamander-4 reports heavy damage to tracks and suspension. I’ve lost my driver.”

“Sitrep on the mechs?”

“The Phalanx has retreated with near-complete losses. Hunter is going after the survivors.”

Rajani sighed.

“What do they say?” asked Arnaud, rummaging through the already rotting remnants of the bipedal war-god.

“We took casualties."

Arnaud kicked a transbiological muscle. It twitched, spraying dark fluid on the sand.

"Why won't they fucking quit?"

Souleyma raised her head from the turret.

"They already have. If they're sending border units on the main frontline, that's because they've exhausted all other options. Fortress Europe is dying. That's the swan's song."

"A swan's song that killed thirty soldiers in fifteen minutes!"

"Their strength only comes from sheer inertia. Their mechs are unusable on a strategic scale."

"Thirty soldiers!"

Souleyma climbed out of the turret and sat by the 120 mm gun, legs dangling over the bushes. She lit up a cigarette, then said, softly.

"We should have nuked Europe when we had the chance."

Arnaud walked through the decaying remains and towards the tank. He looked exhausted.

"That's my continent you are talking about. I was born fifty kilometres from there, for the Stars' sake!" he gestured vaguely to the north.

"You've spent twenty-five years in Istanbul, Arnaud. Europe is not your home. That's just a vague thing you remember. We should have scorched the land, and you know why? Because if they still had ICBMs, they would have struck first."

"Just as America would have. It doesn't make Europe worthy of nuclear holocaust."

"But AUSCOM is a fucking machine, a mindless brain, it doesn't love and it doesn't hate, it's not even an AI, we can just leave it to rot and die. Fortress Europe is helmed by real, breathing, thinking people. It's too old to change them and now millions will have to die to extinguish this folly. We should have sent the nukes loose. It would have been quicker."

"You're just bitter, Souleyma."

"Bitter? Because my ancestors died trying to cross the borders? Because my other ancestors died inside fortress Europe as they did not have the right way to speak and the right way to believe? That's not bitterness, Arnaud, that's rage."

"Enough," interjected Rajani. "Enough. Souleyma, could you check the breech again? And Arnaud, please, the war-god is rotting, we need to move."

The commander leaned against the cold hull and drew two more crosses on her notebook.

One hundred and fifty-nine.

It rained. Thin droplets sprayed over the countryside, turning the concrete building by the seaside into blurry grey shadows. Unorthodox Diplomacy moved through the countryside at a leisurely pace, flanked by USRE infantry. In the morning, Salamander-2 had received news from the rest of the war. The USRE offensive had breached the inner circle of Fortress Europe in Italy, Spain, Northern Germany and Sweden. Behind the great walls of the Old World, USRE armoured spearheads had found feeble resistance, and their tendrils were converging towards the main offensive. The war was nearing its conclusion, but the end wasn't quite there. Fortress Europe had ceased to be a coherent system decades prior to the invasion. There was no capital to take, no centralised AI to destroy, no main army group to eradicate. The invasion would end with USRE tanks on the shores of western Europe, tracks bathed by the salty waters of the Atlantic.

Fifty kilometres to go, thought Rajani.

Sometimes near ten in the morning, shots started rifling through the woods. Infantry took cover against the hull of Unorthodox Diplomacy and Arnaud started surveying their surroundings for enemy positions. Rajani ordered to lay down suppressing fire in the treeline. By half past ten, the shots had ceased, and Rapier started moving again. By two in the afternoon, another series of detonations raked the banks of the river. Mortar fire, followed by the scattered thumps of heavy machine guns, then the distant rumble of Hunter's helicopters. Neither Salamander nor Rapier were asked to intervene, as the situation was, in the words of Hunter-2, "firmly under control." One quarter of an hour later, Salamander-1 broke down again, and Rajani sent her crew to lend a hand. The rest of the unit deployed in a defensive formation, and watched the fireworks. Hunter and the mechanised infantry had cornered a bataillon of EUROFRONT auxiliaries; it wasn't really a battle. It wasn't much of anything. Rapier-2 set up a nest by the bank, between the aspen trees and took potshots at the ruined village. By half past four, the shots had mostly ceased, save for isolated sniper fire. A medevac helicopter buzzed over their heads and circled back after a quick landing, wounded soldiers in its hull. Rajani had a quick exchange on the radio with Hunter-1, during which the crew learned that they had lost a weapons specialist during the initial attack. A stray bullet, hitting a lone soldier through two buildings.

"You knew him?" asked Souleyma. The commander tapped her notebook.

"Specialist Ramasiya enlisted when we reached Kandahar. I knew her, yes."

Arnaud sighed.

"Kandahar? So she went all the way here, five thousand kilometres, just to die here, for the last fight."

"First fight, last fight, whatever in-between, I don't think the dead give a fuck, Arnaud."

"That brand of cynicism doesn't suit you, Souleyma."

"It doesn't suit any of you," chimed in Rajani. "Now, move on, and let's ensure our last fight is the one we just witnessed."

When the night fell, what was left of Salamander came to a halt. The tanks stopped to refuel, and the men to get rest. A hundred kilometres to the south, strategist Catarina had started her main push towards the last remaining harbour on the shore. The ultimate offensive of the war, said many. The people from Rapier-1 had found a deserted farm and brought some vegetables to complement the unit's reheated rations. Arnaud, Souleyma and Rajani had lit up a small fire under the cover of a destroyed hangar, flames concealed from snipers. Through the collapsed roof, they saw beams of steel and the half-erased symbols of ancient corporations.

"I wonder what kind of building that was," asked Souleyma while stirring her pot of soup. "Do the symbols ring a bell, Arnaud?"

"Eurgh. It used to say something like French Tech. I guess a startup or something. Making applications, phone games or some sort of high-tech gizmo that required the blood of a dozen african children to be cost-competitive."

"Apps and phones, man, you're talking about archeotech."

"Not in Europe. Remember when we entered Lyon? The billboards, the towers, the corporate androids, the illuminated dams on the Rhône, the stock exchange and the slums where they left the auxiliaries in the mud? The Collapse never really came for Fortress Europe. It weathered the brunt of the tidal wave with the bones of the poor and then just sort of...kept going through sheer inertia. Phantom state."

"Like AUSCOM, then?"

"No. AUSCOM has a will, no matter how simplistic and ill-conceived. It just wants us out of his bloody lawn. Fortress Europe just existed. Nothing more. Nothing less."

"We should have nuked it."

"I was born here!"

Rajani raised her hand, as if trying to school unruly children.

"Ahem. Arnaud, there's a rooster on the wall. Why?"

"It's the gallic rooster, an old symbol of France. French Tech, France, so they painted a rooster holding a smartphone. Don't laugh. You're in front of the last sigil of the French state."

"Nuke," whispered Souleyma, "nuke."

Rajani sighed and stood up to squash a little spy drone that had found its way inside the hangar. The dragonfly-shaped machine twitched as it fell on the ground, transparent wings buzzing helplessly under the commander's boot.

She opened her notebook.

One hundred and sixty?

No.

Still one hundred and fifty-nine.


By eleven in the evening, Arnaud and Souleya had fallen asleep, wrapped in insulating blankets. Rajani hadn't. She stood in the shade of the hangar, leaning against the half-painted rooster. Faint moonlight fell over a light cavalry horse. A small mount. Prejwalski, probably; it came from the great steppes beyond Fortress Europe. It wore a flexible barding of carbon-based armour and its rider bore the emblems of the second USRE cavalry division, second regiment, light scout battalion, horse-mounted special operations. Their uniform was grey, covered in the faint hexagons of an active camouflage layer. They were remarkably unremarkable.

"So you need a tank, Rossignol. Fair enough, but why me?"

"Salamander-1 is falling apart and I need something that moves fast. Unorthodox Diplomacy is certainly not my first choice, but Rapier's IFVs don't have enough firepower for what I have in mind. Your commanding officer already gave the greenlight."

"Then why are you asking?"

"Because I like you."

"Last time you needed heavy escort, ten thousand people died."

Rossignol smiled. One of their eyes was artificial. As it tracked Rajain's face, the small engines whirred in unison.

"There is no nuclear bomb involved this time."

"Alright. What is your deal?"

"There's a place I need to check out. Beaurecourt Manor, it's about thirty kilometres away. We suspect that it houses a pre-Collapse vault built by the super-rich. It's a smash and grab."


They reached the old village a few hours after dawn. A handful of locals watched as they drove through, perched on the buildings. They wore very well-made, but obviously artisanal clothes. The outcast of Fortress Europe, finally free to roam the land of the all-powerful. Arnaud wondered what they saw in their little formation rolling down the river. A grey tank, adorned with the inverted triangle of an USRE armoured division, hull paint scratched and damaged by five thousand kilometres and seven years of combat; and six war-horses, mounted by camouflaged soldiers. They didn't belong to the same world. To the same universe, even.

The fog fell by midday. The horses scattered. Unorthodox Diplomacy kept to the road. Beaurecourt Manor was two kilometres away, at the end of a valley that Arnaud briefly imagined in the heart of summer, drenched in sunlight, vineyards undulating under the wind.

"Genghis-1 and Genghis-2, in position over the hill. Setting up ATGM nests."

"Genghis-3 moving through the vineyards. Salamander, you've got overwatch."

The tank stopped and the turret traversed very slowly as Arnaud peered through the fog on various wavelengths.

"Gunner?"

"I can't see crap. It's too easy to hide in the vineyard, especially with the fog."

Souleyma cursed.

"Fucking wine-drinkers."

"No religious squabbles in my tank," interjected Rajani.

"It has nothing to do with religion. I hate what vineyards do to a landscape. They erode the ground, break lines of sight and the castes are just atrocious. I mean come on, what is even that thing? Neoclassical-my-bottom?"

"Corporate classical, actually. Commander?"

"Gunner."

"Something moved on the right side of the manor. Can't get a clear view on it."

"Salamander-2 to all Genghis units, reporting visual contact by the manor, right side."

"Genghis-3 confirming contact, but unable to determine its nature. Weird interference on the rangefinder, but I have nothing on the drone."

"Genghis-3, this is Genghis-1, get me some smoke on this signature. It could be a camouflaged unit. Salamander, move above the hill and take point."

"Salamander-2, copy th"

The tank shook and rang like a bell.

Rajani started breathing slowly.

Hit. Shell. Turret flank, bad angle, ricochet.

“Full reverse, go down the hill, move to the flank, reacquire.”

"This is Genghis-2, we're being engaged, I repeat, we're being engaged by a camouflaged armoured vehicle, signature says it's a prowler!"

"Genghis-1, prowler contact confirmed! Incoming mortar rounds, scatter, scatter, scatter!"

Souleyma drove the tank down the hill, under the cover of the trees, trying to reposition itself around Beaurecourt Manor. A hail of explosions shook the hill.

"Genghis-1, missile away!"

A round fell closer to Unorthodox Diplomacy.

"Genghis-3, man down, I repeat, we've got a man down!"

The tank stopped and peeked through the trees. Arnaud caught a brief glimpse of the prowler. Now fully decloaked, it stood by the manor, black six-legged shape with a geometric turred and the twin lances of a rapid-fire, double-barreled mortar.

Rajani had stopped breathing.

"Take the shot."

Unorthodox Diplomacy fired. Arnaud has slightly misjudged the readings from his rangefinder and the shell grazed the prowler, bouncing towards the countryside with a screeching howl. The six-legged machine replied with its main gun. Unorthodox Diplomacy was showered by mud and splinters of wood. It slithered away in the fog.

"Genghis-1, no effect on missile, relocating!"

"Genghis-2, we've got casualties! Genghis actual, requesting medevac to Breaubecourt manor!"

"Genghis-1, we've lost our ATGM team!"

Unorthodox Diplomacy moved to the side of the river, relocating itself to flank the prowler under the manor's cover.

Rajani's plan was simple but good, and it almost succeeded. When the tank emerged from the side of the hill, the six-legged machine was already tracking it through the fog.

They fired at the same split-second.

Unorthodox Diplomacy's 120 millimetre shell penetrated the prowler at the seame between the leg joints and the main hull. The crew was killed instantly, then the ammunition reserve detonated. The prowler's high-velocity 90 millimetre projectile hit Unorthodox Diplomacy sideways. Something broke in the engine compartment and the tank's rear caught fire. Souleyma cried in pain. Rajani snapped.

"Crew, evacuate!"

Arnaud hoisted himself through the turret first, then came back to the tank to help Rajani carry Souleyma outside. They dragged her to safety, leaving Unorthodox Diplomacy in flames behind the treeline. Souleyma leaned against a rock and collapsed.

"Broken leg," she whispered. "Not even the shrapnel. Just the shock."

Rajani tapped her shoulder and gave her driver a smile.

"You'll be fine. There's a medevac on the way, they should be here within ten minutes. I'm giving you a green flare. When the helicopter circles above, light it up and do not move. Arnaud, radio them to report a casualty. The tank should not detonate but if it does, you'll be sheltered here."

Rajani grabbed her sidearm and engaged a bullet in the chamber.

"Now stay put, you two. I have something to take care of."

One hundred and sixty.


She found Rossignol at the entrance of the manor. They sat against a bench in the park, blood pouring on their optical camouflage. Birds hopped in the fog, waiting for someone to give them breadcrumbs. Rajani sat alongside the operator. The prowler burned in a corner of the park.

"That thing wasn't supposed to be here. Where the hell did it come from? They don't even have enough fuel to keep a single armoured division going. When will they quit?"

"They already have."

"What?"

"Nevermind. Can you walk?"

"No."

"Will you need help?"

"No."

"Do you have any explosives?"

"Two demolition charges."

"I'll need those."

When the doors of Beaurecourt manor closed behind the commander, she found herself in complete darkness. Then, the lights flickered and the main hall was filled with clarity. It was all white. Sterile corners of neo-classical architecture, complete with gold linings and abstract statues. There were no asperities, nothing to notice, nothing to remark. It was polished and neutral.

To Rajani, it was incredibly brutal. The art style of a polite monster.

A door opened in front of her, leading to a staircase spiralling towards the lower levels. She climbed down and found herself in a circular room, buried deep beneath the main hall. It was the same colour as the rest of the manor. In the middle of the room, there was a pod-shaped bed and, inside, the silhouette of a human being. They spoke hindi with a thick, gravely accent.

"Good afternoon," said a kind voice. "I am Paul-Jacques de Beaurecourt, owner of Beaurecourt castle and holder of its archives."

"He-him, I assume?"

"Yes. Who are you?"

Rajani answered in French. It was perfect, barely accented and remarkably spiteful.

"Rajani Singh. Staff sergeant. USRE armour."

"I was expecting someone of a higher rank."

"I have a major outside, if you're so inclined. You'll have to drag them inside yourself."

"You'll do. You may approach."

Rajani went closer to the bed. Its occupant was old, to a point he couldn't even really be recognized as such. His face was sharp, his eyes grey, his hair white and long. He wore a simple embroidered tunic; Rajani could see his life support systems bubbling away behind and beneath the bed.

"What is this place, Paul-Jacques de Beaurecourt? I suppose you do not use a prowler to defend a random manor, especially one decorated with such...taste."

"I, sadly, can't control the whims and desires of EUROFRONT. If it had only been for me, you would have found an open path to the manor. Now, behold." He snapped his skeletal fingers. Seven hexagonal structures rose up from the ground, bearing strands of DNA memories like artificial gills.

"What do you have stored here?"

"The name might not ring a bell to you, but my family used to control one of the most powerful conglomerates in Europe. Attica reached everywhere, from pharmaceutics to defence procurement. What you are looking at is the essence of our patents, the cutting-edge of the technology we developed. There were three repositories like this one in continental Europe, built after the fall and dismantlement of Attica. I am ready to pass this knowledge on to the USRE. Without conditions, except my own survival."

"What makes you think we would need it?"

The old spectre smiled, trying to straighten himself in his bed.

"You have to understand. Before Fortress Europe was sealed, we were very, very close to greatness. Sapient artificial intelligence. Transhumanism. Large scale geo-engineering. Nuclear fusion. Widespread human augmentation. Consciousness transfer. Virtual immortality. We pioneered advances in every single one of these fields. We had working prototypes in every single one of them. Everything is here. Think about it. The world, at your fingertips. Look at me, Rajani Singh. I am two hundred and fifty-seven years old."

Rajani leaned over the old man.

"I know Attica. It helped create EUROFRONT. Built machines for it. Augmented its soldiers. Assembled the walls. Provided the network infrastructure. Made hundreds of billions."

"Then it was betrayed."

"The genocides and the forced displacements started before this betrayal. You are fully complicit in them."

"I see you know your history."

"I know my enemy."

He sighed. Coughed. The machines beneath him buzzed, then came back to their idle state.

"Despite the marvels of Attica's technology, what you have in front of you is just an old, decrepit man. I am not your enemy. Nothing in this room is. My world is collapsing, staff sergeant. All I want is peace, and for my legacy not to vanish in history."

She didn't answer.

"The patents," he continued. "They're all usable and readable. A world at your fingertips. With this, you could rebuild the Earth. You could prevent the ice caps from melting. You could stop pandemics dead in their tracks. You could establish cities on Mars. You could offer cheap fusion power to everyone. You could make thinking computers. You could send spaceships to the outer solar system and beyond, if you want to go there. All you need is here. There isn't a single more comprehensive database in the entire world. Attica's world. For you."

Rajani's breath died in her chest.

"I was there when we breached the gates of the Yggdrasil Complex in Sweden. Built on Attica funds. Two thousand people in suspended animation, preserved for after the nuclear apocalypse, or the last revolution. A thousand men, old and young, all white, all heterosexual, selected for their wealth and their diplomas. A thousand women, all young, all white, specifically selected for their fertility, because of course they'd have to carry the future children of humanity and not much more. All white, the children. And the best part -- it wasn't even racism. It was just the algorithm. Trained on the fantasies of white old men. Outputting the fantasies of white old men. This is Attica's world. This is what your patents are built upon. This is their endpoint. You cannot shake that."

He sighed.

"I understand the anger, but the world has changed. In me, you see one of the people who built EUROFRONT, and I understand it. I even accept it. But my legacy, Attica's legacy...patents do not have an opinion on the world, staff sergeant."

Rajani nodded. She started breathing more rapidly.

"The most terrifying part," she said softly, "is that you almost convinced me."

She then put two bullets in the man's head.


When the explosions shook the manor, a flock of birds flew away in the fog and Rossignol raised their head towards Rajani. Arnaud and Souleyma's green flare had been picked up by the helicopter circling above the vineyard. Unorthodox Diplomacy was still burning. Fragments of blue sky poured through the clouds.

"So," said Rossignol, calmly. "What was inside?"

"Old files. Budget records, mostly. The archives were booby-trapped. There was a man inside, too. He was already dead when I came in."

"I got word on the radio that the front has reached the harbor. EUROFRONT's trapped forces have surrendered. The war is over, Rajani."

"Yeah. I know."

She opened her notebook and drew one last cross.

One hundred and sixty-one.

Ecological Equilibrium

I poured tea from the teapot. For once, I had eyeballed the coriolis force quite well. The stream of dark liquid curved to the right, following a gentle arc that connected the mass-produced teapot given by the Solar Sea commune with my ornate teacup. I lowered the teapot and turned towards Villaverde.

"Tea?"

The young officer shook her head, and I put the teapot back on the reheater. Villaverde sat down. Her dark blue jacket bore the inverted white triangle signalling her function as a community worker tasked with security and safety. Her voice crackled.

"I can't realize Aguilar is dead. Sorry. Before you say anything, yes, I already have an appointment scheduled with my counsellor. It's just...it happened so quickly. We were surveying the inner garden on ring D for minor defects, I left to get lunch at Charlotte's, and when I came back, his heart had stopped beating."

I nodded. I didn't feel like there was anything else to do -- I didn't know Villaverde, I didn't know Aguilar, and while the station was still a familiar sight for me, I was a stranger to its people. All I felt entitled to give her was a kind smile.

"How close were you?" I asked. "Feel free not to answer, if my question is inappropriate."

"We were just colleagues. Aguilar was a rather lonely person, I don't think he had many friends on that station, but I feel like I was among them. Do you have...it feels so strange to ask it that way but...do you have any idea how he died? I couldn't...find any visible wounds on him."

I took another sip of tea. It wasn't bad for space-grown tea. More bitter than I was used to, but acceptable.

"We are still investigating it."

"We?"

"Many solar envoys travel alone, but that is not my case. I brought a ship with me. It is equipped with a full bio-analysis suite, among other things, far more powerful than whatever you have aboard this station. You said you recovered a small dart on Aguilar's body?"

"Yes. Do you think it was poisoned?"

"Possibly. I have Leaves examining it for contaminants."

"Leaves? That's your AI?"

"Yes." I glanced at my open lectern. "Ah, here we are. I've just received your report. I don't think I will bother you further, officer Villaverde. I can handle it from there.”


Music Playback…
New track selected.
Title: Subterranean Waters (reprise).
Genre: Neo-electro ambient.
Artist: Low Earth Orbit.
Release date: 0.87 Interstellar.

Illapa station had changed. The air smelled different. Gone was the scent of mud, filtered wastewater and recent soldering. It had been replaced by a fragrance of hot plastic, pure water and pollen. I would have called it "Mature Space Station, Number 5". It was the smell of an old habitat, having reached its ecological equilibrium. As I walked down the hallways of Habitat Ring A -- the oldest one, assembled ten years and five months ago, an eternity for a space station -- I started looking for the signs of Old Illapa in my surroundings. They were few and far between, scattered among recent renovation works and newly built sections. Here and there, I could see yellow-orange warning signs, eroded by the passing years like shells on the seaside. They dated back to the initial assembly of Illapa Station and I suddenly remembered glueing a fair share of them to the ring's hull to mark the perimeter within which construction drones would solder the inner panel. At that time, Ring A had not been pressurised or even primed for rotation, and I could still feel the eerie thrill of moving in microgravity between the beams, under the vast shadow of the station's central skeleton.

Lost in my thoughts of a time past, I felt something bump against my shoulder, scraping the ultramarine blue of my flight jacket. The tip of a pair of gardening scissors.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't see you coming!" said a young operator who wore a green suit with yellow stripes. Ecological control, I recognized. They worked in Ring B, the historical hydroponics section turned into a forest. "Are you alright? You're bleeding!"

I massaged my shoulder a bit. A faint line of red liquid poured from the whole in my jacket.

"Ah. Your scissors are sharp."

"Sorry again."

"No, no, it was my fault. I haven't been in that station for ten solid years. I got lost in my thoughts."

"You gotta patch that up before going back to your ship, zero-g can have nasty effects on wounds like that."

"How do you know I've got a ship?"

"I saw you disembark this morning, your jacket is unmistakable. It's Eloran, right? Ateliers Beauclair. I have the same one, but in orange. Blue's for security here, though I guess that suits you. That's what solar envoys do, right? Security?"

"It's slightly more complex than that, but you're not entirely wrong."

"What are you doing on our little station in the middle of nowhere?"

"Transiting."

They smiled.

"Uh. Well I guess I'll let you transit, then. Good day to you, solar envoy!"


Music Playback…
New track selected.
Title: Adagio for a Lost Moon.
Genre: Eloran neo-classical.
Artist: Sawadi Mambé.
Release date: 0.59 Interstellar.

My ship, the Sleeping Owl, was a small q-drive runner, a cross between a racing ship and a personal yacht, befitting of a solar envoy perpetually on the metaphorical stellar roads. I couldn’t call it large, but it was cosy, and the small nest I had made for myself in the cockpit wasn’t too different from the apartment I had owned in my first years on Illapa Station. As it was devoid of a nuclear drive and had approached the station on chemical thrusters, the Sleeping Owl had been allowed to dock right underneath the station’s mainframe. From there, I could see the four rings through the ship’s virtual reality displays, as if my hull had been made of transparent glass. They rotated in unison like the gears of a kilometer-long pocket watch. Ring A and C rotated clockwise and through their bay windows I caught glimpses of lively hallways, neon streets and inner gardens. Ring B and D rotated anticlockwise. They were almost entirely transparent and showed a million shades of grey and purple as the forests and hydroponic fields prospered under the watchful gaze of the local star. A few local vessels moved around the station, emitting short bursts from their RCS thrusters. I recognized one of them, the mining vessel Rocks and Hard Places, with its cylindrical hull and folded radiators. Two hundred kilometers away from Illapa Station, only visible through reflections on its massive hull, the Farseer-class Transporter No Dawn Like Twilight awaited refuelling. It came from the Earth, by way of the Traverse stars. Its destination was Gondwana Station and the Silenian Cloud, seven thousand lightyears away, at the edge of the spiral arms. Illapa Station was the last oasis before the desert. The ultimate pit stop before the great beyond. The last pebble of civilization before fifty billion uncharted stars. Once, a frontier. Now, a lighthouse in the darkness. A lone fragment of humankind, at the very end of Orion’s Arm.

I leaned in my chair in zero gravity, waiting for the multicooker to take care of my rice rolls. Illapa Station was as far as the Sleeping Owl would get. Maybe it wasn’t the edge of all civilization anymore, but it was certainly the edge of mine, and I welcomed this idea with a peculiar feeling of cosiness. Standing at the border of the desert was more romantic than most people gave it credit for.

The multicooker rang and sent a rice roll my way, ejecting it with a loud ping as if it had been a railgun slug. I caught my dinner in midair, then woke Leaves up. She lived in the ship’s vegetal mainframe and her avatar was a six-legged cat, happily strolling on my screens.

“Hey there, Leaves. How are you today?”

Her voice was warm and reassuring.

“Pretty fine. I’ve been examining our dead security officer. It seems that senior operator Aguilar was well-liked by the station’s crew. He was very popular in rings C and D, judging from the commotion his death caused among the population. This will, no doubt, be exacerbated when station authorities reveal the cause of death.”

“How so?”

“I have examined the so-called dart operator Villaverde retrieved on Aguilar’s body. It is made of wood and seems to be some sort of thorn, albeit I cannot identify which plant produced it. The thorn was coated with a toxic compound. I wasn’t able to find traces of that compound inside Aguilar’s blood. I suspect that it has a very low life expectancy in a human body. I could only perform a summary analysis on the samples but I think it is a very potent neurotoxin, targeting brain and heart functions. This is coherent with the cause of death, identified as a stroke-like loss of brain functions, followed by cardiac arrest.”

“I assume you confronted the molecular structure to our databases?”

“Of course I did. I couldn’t find any matches. It might be something obscure, or a custom, locally produced compound. May I know what you intend to do with this knowledge?”

“What would you do?”

The feline avatar stopped and gathered its legs.

“Hard to say. Considering how popular Aguilar was on the station, I believe the people deserve to know their beloved security officer was likely assassinated. On the other hand, as long as we do not have a culprit, or at the very least a clear idea of where this dart came from, it might be premature. Station authorities mentioned that Aguilar died of a heart attack, without any further mention. It’s only a lie by omission, at this point.”

“Do they have the means to figure out he was poisoned?”

“No. Illapa Station does not have the equipment to perform a complex molecular analysis of an unknown compound like we do.”

“Stations like Illapa are microcosms, Leaves. There are two hundred people on this space station and I can assure you that everyone knows everyone. It is wise to be cautious. This is why I am here, after all. A foreigner. A pièce rapportée.


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Whiskey Blues
Genre: slow space rock
Artist: The Wiltham Orchestral Band
Release date: 0.25 Interstellar

I moved cautiously through the hallways of ring D. They ran alongside the external beam, with nothing but a few centimeters of steel and carbon coating separating the passersby from hard vacuum. I could hear the fans whispering in the background, a familiar presence on any self-respecting space station. The lights in the hallway were red, the universal sign that the station had entered a night cycle. Illapa Station was located at a Lagrange point and didn’t have a parent planet that could occluse the sun at regular intervals. There was no natural night and day cycle, except for the short moment — five, six minutes maybe — when a bay window found itself in the shade of Illapa’s central beam. The twelve hour long night cycle was purely arbitrary, much like on a spaceship. I felt cold. The Sleeping Owl was a small, hot vessel and I briefly wished I had brought a pull-over to withstand the contrast with Illapa Station. I came across two maintenance drones, sweeping the hallway. One of them carried a space lightbulb like a bayonet. I saluted them. You never know when a drone might become sapient, after all. I kept going through the hallways, until I reached the main entrance to the inner garden where Aguilar had been killed — only to find it locked.

“Your pass isn’t going to work here I’m afraid. Brought pincers?” sneered Leaves over the music playing in the background. I sighed. The airlock had been sealed with a padlock, linking two steel plates together over the thick blast doors.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” asked someone behind me. I lowered the volume and turned around. I recognized the green and yellow jacket instantly and raised my hands in the air, under the threat of a pair of pointy scissors.

“I’m transiting.”

The gardener sighed and folded the scissors in their pocket.

“Look, solar envoy, I don’t know what you’re doing on our station and I don’t want to know, but next time you’re prowling in ring D, please leave me a note or something.”

“Speaking of...isn’t the inner garden supposed to be a communal space?”

“Supposed to, yes, but I’ve got jackasses interfering with my plants, so I’m putting the whole place under lockdown at night.”

“Interfering? How?”

The gardener waved.

“I’ve been finding trace contaminants in the garden’s waste water for a good year now. Advanced fertilisers, the plant equivalent of performance enhancing drugs, and poison for vermin. Nothing that I use in the inner garden, so it means someone is growing their own little hydroponic field somewhere in the vicinity, hijacking my water supply network in the process. Haven’t been able to find it, but when I do, someone’s head will roll.”

In truth, I had no problem imagining this pair of scissors cutting through other things than plants. No one would tamper with their little microcosm.

“May I see the garden?” I asked, cautiously. They nodded and opened the airlock with a key.

“Sure. Follow me.”

The air inside was wet and cool. A variety of flowers and leaves rustled in the artificial wind created by a vast array of well-disguised fans. Yellow starlight fell through the bay windows, and the ring’s support beams cast short windows on the ground. The gardener asked that I remove my shoes and I obliged, stepping barefoot in the grass and moss. The plants and fungi swirled all around me, complemented by a small colony of colourful moths. Oxygen levels were higher than in the rest of the station and I could feel the beginning of a bout of euphoria. I spotted oasis trees from Tyra; long-roses and pseudo lavender from Elora; oaks and olive trees from the Earth; water flowers and algae from Vyiranga, floating away in the streams; and even a miniature world-tree, whose massive roots pinned the inner garden to the ground. I took a very deep breath and felt a wave of anxiety wash away from me. I reached for my intra-auricular earpieces and disconnected them.

Music playback stopped.
Standby.

Silence came. The world was in order. The garden protected me. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last, that in a few minutes fear would come back and my mind would start racing against darkness once again, but for now I was at peace. The gardener didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to comment for me to grasp the marvels of this place. A true microcosm, perfected during the last ten years until it worked on its own, secluded from the rest of the station and yet integrated to it. An island of greenery in the void. A coherent ecosystem, having reached its ecological equilibrium. I took a few steps towards the world-tree. I was more familiar with its Eloran brethren, towering several kilometres above the ground, embedded deep within the central beam of our arcologies, and I suddenly realised that I had never seen a small world-tree. They weren’t born gigantic, after all.

I looked down.

Under my feet, I could feel the touch of silvery filaments, smooth and delicate like strings of dry algae on Eloran beaches. They protruded from the moss, minuscule tentacles reaching out for the surface. As I walked, they moved slightly, as if undulating under a nonexistent wind.

“Oh. Is that a weave?”

“Indeed,” smiled the gardener. “I wanted to avoid using one, but it’s just so effective at creating a substrate for my plants. Engineering really wanted a world-tree, for some reason, and they need weaves to thrive away from Elora. Symbiotic relationships are amazing, aren’t they?”

“I think, yes. I’ve never seen a silvery weave. Is that an indigenous species?”

The gardener had a small laugh. The only indigenous species that could populate Illapa Station were a few strains of bacteria. Everything else was a pièce rapportée.

“Not quite, but it’s a very rare species, indeed. It comes from Smyrnia. Brought by a passing ship. It’s rather resilient, I like it. Grows like hell, though, I have to keep it on a very tight leash or it will clog my fans.”

“Does it have a name?”

“No. Aguilar calls it Bob. Ah. Called it. Sorry.”

They didn’t seem particularly disturbed. Perhaps they preferred the company of plants to that of people. Or rather, they just didn’t feel like emoting in front of a solar envoy. I couldn’t really blame them for it.

“Did he spend time here?”

“Sort of. I think he appreciated the place. He and Villaverde are quite familiar with my weave, they’re the ones warning me about its incursions in the ring’s vents.” We walked towards a secluded patch of moss, right underneath the world-tree’s shadow. “This is where Villaverde found him. Between the roots.”

I nodded and looked around. There was a path going through the patch of moss. I couldn’t see any entrance nearby, other than the two airlocks that led to the inner garden. Through the vines on the wall, I distinguished the yellow markings of a maintenance panel. Right under the golden flowers of Eloran trees. Not a bad place to die, but certainly a peculiar one. The branches of a world-tree, dangling in the wind — this might have been Aguilar’s last sight in this world, I thought, though something told me his death had not been serene.

“Tell me, gardener. Are any of your plants dangerous?”

“No. Well, I would advise against gnawing on my pseudo roses, but the worst you’d get would be an upset stomach. I can’t allow toxic plants to grow on a space station. Even the world-tree has been neutered, because I can’t afford getting the vents clogged by pollen. I guess the weave could be dangerous if you really pushed it, but you’d have to go quite far.”

“Weaves can be dangerous?”

“Well, they are extremely good at adapting to their environment. I’ve seen weaves literally choke plants that tried to poison them. But I’ve never seen a weave threaten a human being. You’d have to be exceedingly cruel to one of them to trigger such a reaction. And it would take years.”

“I see. I see. Thank you, gardener. Good night.”

I put my earpieces back on.


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: A Lighthouse on Mars
Genre: pop-rock
Artist: Garage Aerospace
Release date: 0.48 Interstellar

I left ring D and took the central hallways in zero-g towards ring B, crashing at Charlotte’s. The small bar was installed alongside the largest bay window on this ring, and gave a beautiful view on agricultural ring C, hydroponic fields gleaming under the distant sun. The place was fairly different from what I remembered: it was larger, having turned a nearby hangar into a stage used by Illapa’s local bands to perform on saturday nights. The owner had changed. Charlotte herself had left for Elora three years after my own departure from the station, and had been replaced by a pair of former deep space pilots. The drinks were better, the music was poorer. Balance in all things, I guess. After ordering a cup of tea, I phoned Villaverde.

“Good evening, officer. Am I interrupting anything?”

I heard a rustling sound in the background and a male voice. I knew that she had two husbands, but no children.

“It’s fine.”

“Tell me, was Aguilar investigating someone or something in particular before his death?”

“Yes. There was a guy, but he was away for the day...I could arrange a meeting tomorrow, if you want?”

“That would be great. Thanks, Villaverde. And good night.”


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Hard Burn
Genre: heavy metal.
Artist: Fusion Drive Monkey Band
Release date: 1.27 Interstellar.

Another day on Illapa Station. Dawn Like Twilight was still refuelling, and another blip had appeared in the sky — an Inyanga-class vessel en route to the Serene Sea, nicknamed All Along the Watchtower. The rings rotated in harmony. Purple leaves dangled through the windows of ring B. Everything was normal in the heavens. Someone had plastered posters all along the hallways, announcing that the secular and religious tribute to the late José Aguilar would be held in two days, in the Omphal temple on ring A. His official portrait showed him with his security officer uniform, smiling at the camera. Villaverde kept avoiding the posters, eyes locked on the ceiling.

“It doesn’t feel right. We don’t even know how he died and they’re already burying him.”

“Why, Villaverde? You think it wasn’t an accident?”

She shrugged. Her hand reached for her shoulder, putting her insignia back in place. She hadn’t slept much.

“I don’t think anything, solar envoy. I can only note that you’re here, and one doesn’t send a solar envoy for a security officer who had a heart attack, even in the line of duty.”

“I’m transiting, Villaverde. Station authorities just wanted me to take a look.”

“Stop this charade, will you? We’re both adults. So tell me. Was he murdered?”

I paused.

“Likely.”

She nodded, silently. The woman known as Maria Villaverde had disappeared. The security officer had taken hold of her.

“Right. I’ll show you the guy.”


Ambient music detected…
Music playback stopped.
Analysing track…
Title: Ba Ba Bam! (spacer remix)
Genre: electro-pop
Artist: The Great Interstellar Swing Band, feat. Cherry’s Girls.
Release date: 1.18 Interstellar.

The Winking Jellyfish was the closest Illapa Station had to an underground bar. Located in the old storage section of ring B, it was mostly populated by passersby, and reminded me of the Crimson River in Elora. Dim, colourful, populated by music, lust and drugs, not necessarily in that order. A place for spacers coming back from the void, or gearing up to face it. We stood at the entrance, in front of the lazy security drone that passed for a bouncer. Villaverde took her officer jacket off and replaced it with a plain sweater.

“Not welcome here?” I asked.

“Most clients are spacers. They don’t know my face, and I don’t want to scare them with my jacket. Before you ask, no, there’s nothing dangerous in the Winking Jellyfish. The worst case of drug trafficking we have is an informal circle of Vyirangan lichen resellers. Nothing I can really do anything against, and mostly harmless.”

Caloplaca Vyirangana — Vyiranga’s golden lichen. A pseudo-plant native from a Traverse planet, capable of inducing lucid dreams when consumed before sleep. Not exactly a drug. Its prohibition beyond Vyirangan borders had more to do with communal lobbies than with the substance itself. Vyirangan lichen trafficking was a victimless offence. Villaverde was right not to be concerned by a small contraband operation on her station.

We entered the bar, and my earpieces let the music flow in. Many patrons wore plain dark green flight suits with a flower symbol in the back. The crew from the Dawn Like Twilight, I assumed. There was a pair of Algorab operatives, too, black sweaters and the raven on their sleeves. They came from the All Along the Watchtower. I avoided them. Villaverde ordered two drinks and I clung to my glass of tea like a lost ship to a lighthouse. My claustrophobia would have already kicked in without the music. I took a deep breath.

“You alright?” said Villaverde with a compassionate smile.

“I’m fine. I’m just not a great fan of cramped spaces.”

Villaverde moved her glass towards the backroom, scattering red and purple lights in her tea.

“Here is our guy,” she whispered, pointing at a twenty-something, masculine person who wore a bright yellow pull-over. “Name’s Odysseus. He’s from maintenance. A resourceful man. He supplements his lifetime salary with sales of Vyirangan lichen, which he exchanges for various electronic components and plant seeds. I never saw any reason to annoy him. His business is quiet and he donates half his “revenue” to the station.”

“Any idea why Aguilar investigated him, then?”

“No. José kept a lot of things secret, even for me. He used to work for Algorab, I guess that’s where the habit comes from.”

“How do you suggest we approach him?”

“Kindly.”

I gathered my mental strength and crossed the room, cutting through a small crowd of spacers who shared a tajine of fried rice, tomato sauce and jellyfish filaments.

“Hey,” said Villaverde while approaching the man with the yellow pull-over. He raised his gaze on us, gave the officer a nod, then gave me a long glance. Odysseus was very pretty, I thought, and he was aware of it. It had been a while since I hadn’t felt seen that way. I didn’t know if he was consciously trying to seduce me, but in any other circumstances, I would have considered staring back.

“Hello,” I simply answered.

“What a sight you are,” he winked. “And who are you, diving in the underbelly of Illapa Station with the prettiest security officer out there?”

Villaverde rolled her eyes. I raised my hand and the q-augs on my palm swirled to outline the complex seal of a solar envoy license, adorned with the stylized rose of the Eloran Ekumen, Illapa Station’s distant owner. I expected Odysseus to melt on the spot, but, after a brief hesitation, he settled with scratching his beard in vague disbelief.

“Oh. I assume you’re not here for the Vyirangan lichen, unless you’re a buyer?”

“I have a solar trader licence, I’m legally allowed to buy and sell it, but I’ll pass. I’m here for Aguilar.”

Odysseus took a brief look at Villaverde, then at me, then at the ceiling.

“We need to talk about it in private. Follow me.”

He led us through the bar and towards a small door shadowed by the entrance to a storage room. It led to a cramped but well-organised hydroponics section full of canisters filled with Vyirangan Gold Lichen. The bar’s music didn’t reach us here, so I tapped my earpieces again, sending another track at a low volume.


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Life, Under the Old Stars
Genre: ambient prog rock
Artist: Fusion Drive Monkey Band
Release date: 1.30 Interstellar

I examined the canisters and the gleaming lifeforms bubbling away in artificial currents. Fragments of Vyiranga, transported to an island in the sky, thousands of lightyears away from the Traverse.

“What an operation,” I said. “Villaverde didn’t tell me you had a farm.”

Odysseus bowed proudly.

“It’s not exactly a farm, I can’t grow lichen in this environment. It’s more of a storage area. It took quite a lot of work to bring these aquariums to the station, but now I can sell fresh lichen instead of dried filaments.”

“Where does your original material come from?”

“Vyiranga, by way of various ships. I only keep the highest quality lichen. We’re in the middle of nowhere, solar envoy; people need to dream. I merely provide the means. You sell lichen; you know that it’s innocuous.”

“You don’t have to feel guilty of anything,” I answered. “I am the last person who would blame you for filling this niche.”

He smiled, then his face became more serious. Odysseus reached for a small locker under his desk, from which he extracted a sealed test tube. There was a golden substance inside it, not unlike the lichen filaments, but more luminous. I recognized it instantly. It was dreaming dust. A generous name for a refined byproduct of the Vyirangan lichen that, contrary to the “natural” product, was highly addictive. A drug, rather than a gentle dreaming aid. My lips froze. I gave Odysseus a distressed look.

“Where does this shit come from?”

“I’ve been spotting it on the station for about a year and a half now. At first I thought it came from some ships, but the supply was too steady and it only ever seemed to come from the station, not towards it. Someone is manufacturing dreaming dust and selling it on this very space station, and it sure as hell isn’t me.”

“What does this have to do with Aguilar?” asked Villaverde, who seemed increasingly worried.

“Aguilar knew of my discovery. Been in the know for a week or two, ever since I mustered the courage to mention it to him. I don’t want to have an airlock accident, you see. The market for Vyirangan Lichen is a peaceful one, but the one for oniric dust? Not the same thing.”

I nodded.

“And there’s something else,” continued Odysseus. “I performed an analysis on the fungal strains used to make that drug. It’s a native variety. Someone introduced Vyirangan Lichen on Illapa Station and is growing it somewhere.”

“Didn’t you say it was impossible?”

“Indeed, Vyirangan Lichen can’t live outside of its native planet without some serious environmental support. The only ecological asset that could support the growth of Vyirangan Lichen on this space station...I’d say it’s ring D’s weave.”


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: A Vriij I Knew
Genre: space blues
Artist: Ledah Hallway
Release date: 0.58 Interstellar

We drifted through the station’s central beam, waiting for a tramway ahead of a pair of small cargo drones bubbling from one side of the superstructure to the other. Illapa Station hummed all around us. I could feel the tension in Villaverde’s heart and mind. Barely contained, a furnace underneath her blue t-shirt.

“It could make sense,” she said as a tramway pod slowed down towards us and opened its door with a hiss. “José decided to investigate whatever is happening in ring D, he stumbles upon something that’s way above our pay grade and gets himself killed. What I don’t get it is...why didn’t he tell me anything? It’s absurd! We’re colleagues! Friends, even!”

“If whoever is manufacturing this drug is ready to kill a security officer, I’m afraid they would have seen no issue with killing a second one.”

She sighed. Her right hand slowly moved towards the handgun at her side. Samira and Keller model 12, loaded with plastic bullets and fragmentation tips, specifically made for use in enclosed and pressurised environments. I was armed, too, but didn’t feel the need to show it to the world.

“You’re making things worse, solar envoy. I bet you’re familiar with such things, but I’m just a security officer, damnit! The worst incident I ever dealt with was a bar fight!”

“Not all solar envoys go to warzones. I never killed anyone, or even witnessed someone’s death. I’m just a trader and a courier.”

That was a lie, but it felt morally acceptable. Villaverde sighed.

“There’s an access to the inner garden and its weave even the gardeners don’t know about. It dates back to the construction of the station. An access tunnel for drones, large enough for a person to fit through. Hasn’t been used in years and is marked as sealed on public maps. There is a grand total of five, maybe six persons who know about it on the station, at least as far as I know. If someone is using the weave for personal purposes, they’re using this route to reach it. It’s the only way to avoid the gardener.”

“And you don’t suspect them?”

“No. I have my reasons.”

I didn’t ask further, for I shared the same opinion, even though I couldn’t quite say why. The idea just felt out of place. The tramway started slowing down. We were close to ring D.

“May I ask you a question?” she said.

“Go ahead.”

“Why are you always listening to music?”

“It keeps the anxiety at bay. Fills the world with something to think about.”

We fell silent for a minute, then the tramway came to a halt.

“And why do you have two husbands?”

She shrugged.

“I couldn’t choose.”


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Gondwana
Genre: ambient
Artist: Blue Moth Records
Release date: 0.15 Interstellar

The tunnel was carved right underneath the station’s skin. I could feel the vague embrace of space beyond a thin layer of armour. Cold metal, then almost nothing. We crawled in ring D’s bowels. The air was moist, filled with the scent of decaying leaves and fresh air filters. The inner garden cast a long shadow. I could hear Villaverde, a few metres ahead of me. She grunted as she contorted in the tight duct. We were snakes, slithering away in the entrails of a space station. It was an eternity before we reached what looked like an exit. A small maintenance hallway, forgotten by time. Villaverde hoisted herself in the hallway and I quickly followed. Inside, we were welcomed by the sprawling vines of the weave. They surrounded us like a vast nest of small silvery snakes, growing over the panels on the roof and ceiling, but not inside, I noted — the weave was well-educated, and saw the station not as a mere nest, but as a reactive environment it would not risk endangering.

“Someone came here recently,” mentioned Villaverde. She was right. The lights on the ceiling were warm to the touch, as if they’d been on for days. They poured through the pseudo-vegetal, transbiological tissue of the weave. Eels in direct sunlight, I thought. There was a door, right in front of us, half-open. It led to a small room, but I couldn’t make out its details through the opening. We weren’t far from the inner garden.

“Do you smell that?”

“Indeed. Lichen dust.”

Villaverde drew her weapon, set to taser mode, and came in first. I followed, close behind.

The room was devoid of human presence, but not empty. A massive branch of the weave grew here, linking the floor and the ceiling together like a pillar of silver. It pulsed slowly, to the pace of sap running through the transbiological creature whose roots the inner garden was built upon. This branch was half-severed from the rest of the weave. It received nutrients and water from the rest of the organism, but did not send any inputs — hence, it was entirely possible the gardener ignored the existence of this branch entirely, as it escaped the monitoring systems they had likely hooked to their weave. Ash-like artefacts were scattered on the ground, like leaves falling from a dead tree, but skinnier and thinner. Just like Vyirangan Lichen. Gold dots covered one side of the branch, small colonies of juvenile lichen battling with the weave. Small monitoring tentacles were attached to the colonies, and linked to a lectern open on the table. There were a few test tubes, a miniaturised distillation apparatus and a centrifugal filter. The little drug maker’s arsenal.

And then, we noticed the thorns.

They had grown through the most flexible tentacles of the weaves, small needle-like objects, attached to little sacks of compressed air. Transbiological muscles enabled the weave to move the needles around, but also hide them in the shadows of the ceiling. As we had entered the room, the weave had taken aim at us, but had not fired. One of the thorns protruded from the weave’s surface. I could see a layer of transparent mucus on the tip, and had little doubt it was the neurotoxin responsible for Aguilar’s death.

Villaverde gave me a silent stare.

“This is impressive,” I answered. “I knew that weaves were capable of incredible feats of adaptation, but I had no idea they could produce ad hoc neurotoxins to protect themselves. It might be a peculiar property of this specific species of weave, or just an ill-documented capacity of the generic weave. To be fair...I don’t think we have any examples of someone trying to grow Vyirangan Lichen inside a weave. That is insane.”

“It looks...ill.”

“That’s because it is. Remember what Odysseus said? Ecological asset? Well here it is. Whoever set this up grew the lichen inside the weave, bypassing its sub-branches to nourish their improvised crop. Weaves are the kindest of transbiological creatures, but they do not take kindly to threats. I think it first tried to fight off the lichen colonies, then decided it was more fruitful to get rid of the drug maker. Weaves have a form of decentralised intelligence. This one just set up an ambush. And it succeeded.”

We stared at each other for a while.

“I can believe it,” answered the security officer. “I’ve been on Vyiranga herself. I know what feral weaves are capable of. I can easily buy that a manufactured one can do better. But, solar envoy, you do realise what it means, right?”

“I do.”


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Night Atop The Pillar
Genre: ambient
Artist: Dancing Regolith
Release date: 0.05 Interstellar

It took us half an hour to get through the lectern on the table, after Leaves had broken the encryption. The evidence was damning. Aguilar’s name and ID were everywhere, from CCTV camera footage in the tunnel to various orders of chemistry and experimental biology furniture. And sales of dreaming dust. Tens of sales. Hundreds, even, spread across the past two years. Sales to spacers, mostly. Just a few going to station dwellers — names I did not know. Growth patterns, too. Data pertaining to the best way to manipulate the weave and use it as a framework for the lichen. And deep, deep down in the files, there was a motive. An old debt, slowly repaid in increments, though not completely. A debt he owed to the meta-queen of Smyrnia herself. A debt he could not escape.

I expected Villaverde to swear, to cry perhaps, to refuse, to lash out at the lectern, but she just kept staring at it. Then, she took out a small storage disk and copied the entirety of the lectern’s drive, before scanning the room in three dimensions and taking a sample of the weave’s mucus.

Professional to the end.

Music playback…
Stopped.

My earpieces fell in my hand. We were back in the inner garden, through the maintenance hatch. The gardener wasn’t here. There was a neat variety of silence that night. Serene and calm, barely troubled by the wind in the world-tree. Villaverde’s face was closed, like that of a well-polished statue.

“I’ll file an inquiry right away. There is enough evidence to open one without…”

I took her hand. The sound of our voices felt weird without the music.

“Villaverde. Maria. No.”

Her eyes went bland.

“What do you mean, no?

“Maria. You’ve seen it like me. Someone built an illegal laboratory in close proximity to the weave, using it as a framework to grow Vyirangan Lichen. Stressed and threatened by the crop, the weave evolved neurotoxin-infused thorns, which scared the drug dealer away. An undefined amount of time later, Aguilar, who was investigating the case, stumbled upon the laboratory and the weave killed him.”

There. She understood.

“Why, solar envoy? What is your motive?”

I took a long, deep breath.

“I don’t know José Aguilar personally, but I have known many like him. He was a pillar of the community, wasn’t he? A warm and reassuring presence on Illapa Station, an architect of your little microcosm. We cannot break this.”

“We can and I will. He lied to me, solar envoy, he lied to the station, he would have lied to you! He was my friend and my colleague, for the stars’ sake! And for two straight years, he bloody lied to me! He can’t get away with this!”

“He’s dead.”

“It doesn’t matter!”

“Maria, listen to me. I’ve seen this station in its infancy. I’ve seen ring A and B as skeletons, and I’ve drifted through the central beam of this place you call home. It was a lifetime ago, and your station has changed for the better. It has evolved, and much like its garden, it has reached its ecological equilibrium. We cannot break it. The weave is healing, the thorns will disappear, and José Aguilar died in service to the people.”

Villaverde slowly let go of my hand. She blinked.

“So this is what you do.”

She blinked again.

“This is what you do, solar envoy. You tell lies, to preserve things as they are. How many times? How many times have you lied to the people, to a commune, to an entire planet?”

“Many. I won’t justify it, Maria. This is what I am. A solar envoy who keeps small worlds quiet and happy. Like space stations at the edge of the known world.”

“What happens if I decide I should ignore you? If I decide I should go ahead and start that public inquiry regardless?”

“I am a solar envoy. Make of that what you will. You are a clever person, Villaverde.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned towards the world-tree.

“I do not want to see you on Illapa Station ever again. Is it clear?”

“Yes. It is.”


Music playback…
New track selected.
Title: Space Lion.
Artist: Yoko Kanno, feat. the Seatbelts.
Genre: good question
Release date: 1998

The Sleeping Owl had detached from Illapa Station. All I needed was a snap of my fingers to deploy the magnetic tether of my q-drive and put the ship under thrust — but I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep Illapa Station on my screens for as long as possible, I wanted to keep that little, four-ringed thing in a corner of my eye. Odysseus had left a message for me. It was a proposal, both direct and charming. I had not followed suit — but one day, I thought, I might.

Leaves floated in a corner of the haptic screens.

“I’m tired, dear,” I whispered. “Even when I go to solve a random crime on a small station, I end up doing exactly what I’ve been doing for years. It’s exhausting.”

“You should take a few months off.”

“I guess I should."

"Do you have any destination in mind?”

“Elora, Smyrnia, Vyiranga, whatever. I’d even accept the Pale Path. Oh, and Leaves? I’d like you to erase an expression from your vocabulary.”

“What is it?”

“Ecological equilibrium.”











Flower Ghosts


PHALANX


The old city burned under the hot summer sun.

Summers...they had always been too long. Heatwaves extending from late may to early November, turning the bricks and ancient concrete buildings red with warmth, while the waves washed against the shore, coruscant waters under the steel-blue sky.

The car rolled in silence down the street. It was an antique, a luxury automobile equipped with modern electric engines, a wasteful and mostly useless machine, part of a vast theater play the city was an integral part of. The car bore the emblems of the Open Hand, the USRE office tasked with enforcing the laws of the Union, when the socialist republics did not or could not do so. In this case, the Open Hand official carried by the old vehicle wasn't an enforcer, a judge or a field agent, but a Pale Referee, a Flower War arbiter, as the white poppy on their grey suit indicated. Their face was one of serene certainty, as was the case for every referee ever sent by the USRE. Sometimes, Eshe Kollontai wondered if they weren't androids, or clones — a funny idle thought, of course, considering that human cloning was strictly forbidden by most polities in Communal Space. She was also experienced enough in matters of robotics to determine who was an android and who wasn't, even when dealing with very life-like avatars. Still, it felt weird to find herself in the presence of a person that looked exactly like the referee she had met decades ago during her first Flower War, far away under the dying sun of a lone icy planet at the edge of known space. As she turned towards Amin, who sat right next to her in the car, she wondered if he felt the same. Amin Aqsa, sometimes known as the Asp, independent mercenary with a preference for small, neatly contained Flower Wars and a marked taste for spectacular melee engagements. His mech was a Type 117 — a simple, fast bipedal design whose radiator array had been modelled to look like one of these flags carried by samurais in ancient times. Eshe had yet to face him in this specific war, and while she did not really look forward to it, she knew it would be quite interesting, as always.

"I've seen your records." smiled the referee, hands crossed above a little haptic display. "You are, and by very far, the most experienced dogs of war in this Flower Conflict. Honestly, isn't such a squabble a little bit above your pay grade?"

One of the bird-shaped q-augs on Amin's forehead spread its wings in answer.

"What are you insinuating?"

"Oh, nothing demeaning, trust me. I am just quite surprised that the Socialist Republic of Occitania and the Solar Sea dedicated the funds and time to drag you both from Elora."

"What if we just enjoyed being here?"

Eshe tilted her head to the side. She knew very well that the arbiter was concerned with the possibility of their confrontation stealing the show from the rest of the mercenaries engaged in this Flower War. The pretend conflicts were a serious matter and they rightfully feared that the two high-profile fighters would rob the other belligerents of their catharsis. It was, after all, the real point of a Flower War.

SLITHER AND SURGE


The car came to a halt on the scattered pavement.

"Why did we stop?" asked the arbiter. The car's quasi-AI answered in a deliciously neutral, seraphic voice.

"It appears we are dealing with construction drones."

"Construction drones? Who schedules renovation works in the middle of a Flower War? I issued safety orders six months ago. Could you identify these drones, please?"

A small beep answered.

"Their ID hasn't been renewed in two years. I can't trace it to an active commune."

Eshe and Amin exchanged a gaze. They did not need to vocalize their fears: this looked like the perfect setup for an ambush. Of course, they both thought at the same time, no one would ambush an arbiter in a Flower War. It would not bring anything to any of the parties involved, but a swift exclusion from the conflict and an USRE-mandated defeat.

"Tell these drones to move."

"Already done. They won't bulge. Transponders are offline. They look very old and battered. Rogue units, perhaps? The city still maintains an automated plant for minor repairs."

Now, evidently, considered Eshe, if it was an ambush, such a setup was incredibly crude...though precisely, the crudeness combined with the context would have made it a rather great move. Too obvious and too meaningless to be considered as a possibility. Yes, she had used similar tactics in the past.

And then, the sea trembled.

At first it was just a rumble shaking the street, then the car itself, and finally a large dome of water bulged through the surface of the Mediterranean. When it burst, the dome revealed the bipedal shape of a semi-organic combat machine. Its legs were shaped like those of a bird, arched against the ground as it compensated for its jump on the paved shore. The cockpit was triangular, reminiscent of a spearhead, and a pair of multipurpose limbs emerged from its rubber-like surface, halfway between the animal and artificial reigns. Two weapon pods bearing rapid-fire coilguns deployed as the machine stabilized itself between two buildings. The referee told the car to accelerate, but Eshe could very well see that the old vehicle did not stand a chance in a race. A series of scattered sounds echoed across the street, like droplets sprayed against a warm wall. Coilgun shells, realized Eshe and Amin at the same time when they saw how effortlessly the badly adjusted shots had pierced a brick wall, missing the car by a few meters. She saw the bipedal mech jump above a house block, using its bird legs as gigantic springs, before firing another burst. Eshe switched her pencil on.

"Saiph, bring yourself over here, now!"

THE SWORD OF ESHE


Another six-shot burst followed. Eshe caught the blue-ish sparks in the corner of her eyes. This time, the projectiles hit the back of the car, piercing through a tire and disabling the rear batteries. The vehicle came to a screeching halt against the main wall of an old hangar by the sea, and Amin quickly grabbed the referee by the hand to pull them outside. Eshe opened the door and rolled outside, hurting her shoulder on the pavement but dodging a third burst that — she had little doubt about it, now — was specifically destined to kill them. The hangar door was open; Amin rushed inside with the referee, trying to put as many centimeters of heavy bricks between them and the attacker. The mech fired another burst, but found it hard to get a clear angle, so decided to jump again to relocate itself. Eshe could clearly hear the screeching sound from the biological spring-legs. In any other context, it would have been ridiculous. Here, it felt terrifying.

"Eshe!" yelled Amin while trying to keep as low of a profile as possible. "Are you armed? I don't have anything bigger than a knife!"

Eshe looked at the opposite door, the one that led to the inner city. The pencil in her pocket buzzed twice.

Another burst was fired by the mech, probably a random shot, as it was way too high to hit the humans in the hangar. One of the flechettes went right through the wall, then a steel pole, and finally pierced the city-facing door. This time, however, it wasn't followed by the metallic sound of a projectile bouncing against the pavement, but by the muted echo of a flechette deflected by medium mech armor. A second later, the door burst open and Eshe's own Flower Mech entered the hangar. Saiph was her main Earth-based mech, a medium-sized bipedal machine calibrated for terran gravity and conditions. It looked quite archaic to the untrained eye, with its heavy arched legs, grey plate armour with ballistic coating, droplet cockpit reminiscent of an industrial Mi-24 helicopter and paired weapon mounts. Much like a lot of what defined Eshe's public Flower War persona, it was a carefully crafted deception. She ran towards the mech, and the machine extended one of its streamlined arms to grab Eshe and pull her towards the cockpit. As soon as her q-augs established a remote connection with the controls, she ordered Saiph to surge forwards, putting itself in-between the referee and another hail of flechettes. She felt their impact on the armor, like rain on warm concrete. Then she fired her mech's coloured smoke canisters, putting a cloud of infrared-blocking particles between the hangar and the attacker — just enough to get a bit of headroom. While the armoured canopy lowered down and the mech secured its pilot in her seat, Eshe considered her options. Saiph was fresh out of the container where she had put it to rest between two engagements. Its equipment was minimal — smoke canisters, a few thousand rounds of low lethality shells and a regular combat blade. Just enough to ward off a few drones, or for a sparring match.

EXCHANGE


The hangar's roof exploded, shattered by the spring legs of the attacker. Stepping on the enemy. Crude, but very effective, she noted — Amin and the referee had almost been crushed, but the mercenary had been fast enough to pull the arbiter to safety. Saiph itself had balanced itself automatically, but Eshe still felt the ground tremble under her. In a single thought, she ordered her mech to unsheathe its blade and struck. At the scale of a Flower Mech, it was a simple combat knife — two meters of heavy steel and carbon fibre that she used to give the attacker a vicious slash, aiming for the centre of mass.

Several litres of fluid immediately sprayed the front plates of Saiph. Red. Blood.

The machine fired its twin coilguns, point-blank into Saiph's armor. Eshe felt the impacts in her chest and recoiled slightly in her cockpit.

"Right leg, exposed joints!" said Amin on the local radio. Yes, thought Eshe. Good suggestion. The attacker pushed against her mech, trying to block its knife-carrying hand. She didn't bother trying to free it, instead throwing the blade into Saiph's right effector. She moved to the side, using the attacker's weight against itself, then struck deep inside the leg, looking for tissue to cut. Saiph's hydraulics surged with power, and the attacker's leg finally gave out. The semi-biological machine collapsed to the side, spraying high-pressure blood all across the hangar. Eshe disengaged the blade and finished the machine off by disabling its second leg, then ripping the coilgun pods off. The attacker fell on the ground with a strange organic sound, like leaves rustled away by a storm.

HANGAR 17B, SEASIDE BOULEVARD


The afternoon light poured over Saiph’s ablative armor, casting colored shadows in the hangar. The semi-organic attacker had only inflicted minor damage on the mech, and Eshe was busy calibrating the hydraulics again — some of the systems still had to be adapted to the Earth’s gravity, she could feel it. With time, she could catch minute problems in Saiph’s systems way before even her mechanic djinns could spot them. The Pale Referee looked at her from a rocking chair they had seemingly conjured out of thin air. They had recovered from the attack just fine, despite — as Saiph’s recorded battle data had proven later in the afternoon — coilgun flechettes having split the air open just a mere centimetre above their head.

“Considering what you can do with this machine, I am quite eager to see what you may achieve with a proper Flower Mech.”

“Hey. Don’t trash-talk my old Lumia like this. It’s fast and reliable.”

“I know! I was merely making an observation. Sorry. It’s obvious this mech has been through quite a lot of adventures. Anyway. You will be thrilled to know that I may have a positive identification on the mech that attacked us. It wasn’t manned.”

“I noticed. Strange features, too. It seemed both outdated and cutting-edge to me, if that makes any sense.”

“That is correct. Genetic sampling from the outer organic shell shows that you disposed of a Type 05 urban combat bipedal drone. If the denomination isn’t familiar to you, it’s normal. We are dealing with an early Low Age war machine. A historical piece, I might add. There were no genetic markers correlated to modern manufacturing processes.”

“So it is at least three centuries old...I don’t know many machines that are still usable after three hundred years.”

“Biomechanical mechs are quite different from regular ones. Their muscle parts can be frozen and kept in storage for a long time. This could very well be from the AUSCOM arsenals, for example. A pure hypothesis, of course. I do not have the beginning of the idea of an owner. Both your employer and the Solar Fields deny any involvement, and considering the political and legal price attached to an attack on an arbiter, I trust them.”

“Right. Will you be taking additional security measures?”

“Of course.”

“What are they?”

“None of your concern at present. Trust me, it is not the first time a referee is threatened by a third party. I suppose I am going to receive an anonymous letter shortly, either an offer of corruption or a threat, or maybe both. It is a fact of life.” The referee smiled and stood up from their rocking chair. “You may carry on with your work, Kollontai. And do not steal the show too early!” The arbiter left the hangar, and Eshe turned the music back on.

BATTLESHIP LUMIA


Eshe checked the pressure indicator on her cockpit, then made sure the hydraulics worked correctly. Underwater operations were not her forte, but she could not deny that they had a certain allure, especially in the wreck-ridden bay of the old city. Saiph’s twin headlights rested on the iron wall of a Low Age battleship, sunk during one of the numerous wars for the Mediterranean. In a few hours, Occitania would formally ask the Solar Fields for an additional engagement in the bay, with the battleship used as the main defensive point over which the score would be settled. The skirmish would be quite a sight, especially with her mech thrown into the fray. The cold water made most ranged weapons useless due to how fast they’d lose velocity, and the battle would favour close range duels. Regardless of the winner, it would be quite the spectacle.

A diffracted laser pinged Saiph, and Amin’s face appeared in a corner of Eshe’s screens.

“Hey there, siren.”

“I don’t feel that I really look like one.”

“No, you don’t. Except when you’re wearing that ugly sweater with a dolphin, like on Smyrnia.”

“Indeed. I’m mildly concerned that you remember details like that, however.”

“I am merely gathering data on my enemies.” He winked. Eshe wasn’t really sure the word was appropriate, despite the relationship they had in the public eye. “We’ll have that duel, one day.”

“As promised, and in due time. Hey. Did you pick that up?”

“Indeed. Faint heat signature, coming from the continental shelf. Climbing?”

“Definitely climbing. Towards us. I have no clear IFF, so I am going to classify this one as neutral.”

In the corner of her eye, she saw Amin’s mech, Condottiere, ready a two-handed sword. Yes. Neutral. Her q-augs strengthened and she ordered Saiph to take a step backwards, leaving the dark mud to position itself on a rocky shoal. She loaded a micromissile burst and made sure her spear was ready. Eshe preferred it to Amin’s sword — it did not have quite the same symbolic appeal, but she liked the spear’s subdued nature better.

DUELLIST


When the incoming machine appeared, Eshe felt her heart skip a beat. It was a good five meters taller than both of their mechs, and had a strikingly human appearance. Its outer skin was pitch-black, barely distinguishable in the darkness of the bay. It carried a single, high frequency sword in its large, elongated hands. The machine’s head was triangular — it likely contained the sensor package.

“Duellist,” uttered Amin, moving slightly closer to Eshe and the battleship wreck.

The organic mech rushed forwards. Its steps made the salty mud tremble, filling the water with heavy, dark clouds. Amin moved first. His strike was clean and straight to the point — the duelist parried it effortlessly and moved to the side of the battleship. Eshe moved in a combat stance, spear tracking the duelist, and entered the fray. Normally, a two on one duel against pilots such as Amin and Eshe would have been a quick, bloody affair, but the duelist was faster and more powerful than both of them combined. It moved in a quasi-unnatural way, thought Eshe, as if its hydraulics were capable of twisting in ways her own systems couldn’t — and in fact, if they were fully organic, it was the case.

“It’s bleeding energy” commented Amin, his mech reeling after a vicious counter-strike. “I can see its sugar pouches drying up with the naked eye. Ten minutes, tops.”

“We won’t hold that long.”

Eshe and Amin circled the duellist for a combined attack, but the machine saw it coming. Its parry was brutally effective, and Saiph lost its footing. Amin struck and his zweihander cut through the duellist's triangular head, spraying a strain of blood in the cold water. No effect, noticed Eshe — either it was a decoy or the duelist had more than one sensory suite. The organic machine raised its sword, trying to get at Saiph’s left arm. Eshe did not bother to parry. Instead, she left the duelist cut her arm’s hydraulics, bleeding thick black fluid, and lunged her spear through its chest. The tip encountered more resistance than she anticipated, deflected by the bone pillar that formed the duellist's main central structure. Had Amin not been there, the organic machine would have had enough time to swing back and shatter the cockpit — but the zweihander struck a second time, and severed the duellist's spinal stack. The machine froze, then slowly collapsed, leaving Saiph pinned on the seabed, its disabled arm twitching while losing long strains of hydrocarbon fluid.

HANGAR 117, SEASIDE BOULEVARD, REPRISE


Saiph stood upright in the hangar, afternoon lights gleaming on the colourful strands of ablative armour that covered its shoulders like a cape. The severed arm’s stump was a mess of quasi-organic hydraulic veins and carbon scaffolding. Seen from the side, it had something of a space station, left unfinished by the collapse of some ancient empire. The referee observed the mech with a keen eye; Eshe could see that they knew what a wounded war machine looked like.

“How long will the repairs take?” they asked, and Eshe answered with a tired sigh.

“Two weeks at best. Lumias are ancient tech, spare parts have to be imported from Mars or Luna. And I don’t have another mech on this planet.”

“I’m sure you could use someone else’s.”

“It doesn’t work that way. The neural link alone would take months to properly set up.”

“Well, you’re also a wardancer.”

“But Occitania hired me to pilot a mech, not to waltz between them. This is not the same role, and this is not the same responsibility. You should know that, of all people.”

“Well, in any case, this is mostly irrelevant. The USRE has taken the decision to postpone this Flower War for at least a month, as the Open Hand investigates the third party that got the jump on you. No one claimed responsibility, so our leads are pretty rare.”

“These mechs were fairly peculiar in their design. Fully organic combat forms are not exactly common.”

“In the Traverse, perhaps, but this is a different story on Earth. Organic mechs were somewhat common during the early years of the Low Age; weapons of intimidation, the heralds of ancient superpowers that thought they could rule the post-apocalyptic world as gods. Many of them were destroyed, but a few remain. Hidden. Hibernating. Waiting for a good fairy to wake them from their slumber. Such is the Earth, Eshe. The gods have fallen; and yet, they persist.”

“So whoever decided to disturb this Flower War is...what? One of your ancient gods?”

“The gods aren’t here anymore, mercenary. The gods have failed. The gods are dead. They came, they ran, and they burned. But some of their tools remain, ready for the taking. This is the Earth! Dig for a while, anywhere, anytime: ruins will come up, and some of them can still be awakened. It could be anyone, really, playing with the ghosts of the industrial age. Random mercenaries looking for a pretend fight. A bored AI. A Solar Envoy with grudges to settle. You. Me. Anyone.”

“I hate your planet.”

“Oh, trust me, she hates herself way more.”

THE SKY WAS THE COLOUR OF TELEVISION, TUNED TO A DEAD CHANNEL


...and the sea below sent its waves against the meaningless remnants of a seawall, once built to protect the megalopolis from the ever-encroaching ocean. It now lay here, led bare to the storms; seagulls nested in the cracks of the concrete slabs, adding layers of guano to the grey structures of sea-torn pillars. Coral-grown towers surged towards the sky in the east, sovereigns presiding over an assembly of colourful districts and small terran world-trees gathered in leafy urban courts. The new city had been built much further inland, sheltered from the undying rage of the ocean. Between the seawall and the outer layer of world-trees, there were the ruins of what had once been one of the jewels of the western European shore: now a liminal space, frozen in condensed time. There were tilted columns of steel, shattered glass and concrete, dead skyscrapers under the afternoon sun. Floating buildings were anchored between them, displaying the striking colours of a myriad of local communes. Between the buildings were thousands of small bridges made of transbiological ropes sewn out of algae and q-augmented linen, and Eshe found herself sitting on one of these contraptions, legs dangling over the troubled water. In her hands she held a cup of local tea, brewed from the golden-leaved algae she could see undulating under the foam and sand. Small winged creatures slithered between the rocks and ruins — recycling djinns, masquerading as legit lifeforms. There was an AI’s avatar — an anima, in terran parlance — sitting next to her. Black and white clothes, hair like gills breathing in the wind and, on the back of her hand, a q-aug tattoo. It was a raven, wings folded, head turned to the left, blind. Callista worked for Ur-Algorab — the lesser raven, the one that dwelt on planets and concerned itself with the trivial matters of humankind.

“Where did you get that tissue sample, Eshe?”

The AI’s voice was like honey, poured on hot sand.

“It doesn’t really matter and you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I just need to know where it comes from. Algorab owes me for that time on Smyrnia, so I’d like a straight answer.”

The AI blinked.

“Of course. I have forwarded your sample to one of our labs on Luna. The original DNA belonged to an organic combat drone, a Type 04, 05 or 06 — more specifically, artificial muscle grown from stem cells gathered on several species of bovines. That, you probably already know, but we’ve been able to identify a potential manufacturer. Cross-analysis with USRE databases showed that this organic mech was built at the height of the collapse by a pan european military conglomerate. It was a lesser god, made to safeguard borders with holy terror and the wanton slaughter of immigrants. A silhouette emerging from the sea at night, blade in hand, taller than a house.”

Eshe nodded, and didn’t ask how they had accessed classified USRE data. Algorab knew. Algorab provided. In exchange, Algorab only asked for silence.

“What conglomerate was that?”

“The name is irrelevant and I am afraid it would not ring any bells to you. What is more interesting is that we also know where this drone and its brethren were manufactured, judging from the environmental markers in their DNA.”

“I don’t see how that helps me.”

“Well, consider that organic mechs are closer to wild creatures than war machines. They aren’t piloted or programmed, they’re tamed. In order to initiate one of these drones to a new mission — and remember they were originally created for terror and crowd control, nothing more — you need to recondition them, and there is no better place for that than the facility where they were first assembled, and probably spent centuries in hibernation. Of course, USRE or Laniakea laboratories could also recondition an organic drone, but if they had done it, we would be aware of that fact.”

“Right. Where is that facility?”

“Do you like sand, Eshe Kollontai?”

RULES OF NATURE


The Type-67 advanced recon drone was a semi-organic flying machine that, in the depths of the industrial era, would have been effectively invisible to military radar. In the interstellar age, it was still hard to detect for civilian equipment — or, and it was the reason why Eshe had chosen one of these to cross the Mediterranean, outdated military sensors. The drone’s simple AI talked to the flower pilot through her q-augs. Its voice sounded like sand on dead rock.

“Reaching drop point in 15 seconds.”

She blinked in response. It felt strange to be back in the belly of a Type 67, lying prone in the drop bay of the drone. Hot combat drops weren’t rare in Flower Wars, but it was quite unusual to let out a single soldier. Most of the time, Eshe would be dropped from orbit with her mech, or in the middle of a phalanx formation, and certainly not under the cover of the night. Combat drops in a Flower War didn’t have a tactical role: they were a purely aesthetic tool, colored thrusters firing in unison above the theater of war.

“How are we, 67?”

All Type 67 were named 67. They had no individuality — they were sub-sentient, and their perception of the world was purely utilitarian.

“We are alright. Our radar signature is minimal. USRE deep sky drones painted us with a laser two seconds ago, but did not scramble. I sight a passive radar over the target area. Detection is unlikely. Drop point in 5 seconds. Are you ready?”

“I guess.”

The Type 67 didn’t blink. Catching doubt or sarcasm was way above its pay grade.

“Greenlight for drop.”

The cargo bay opened, and Eshe saw droplets of rain splatter on her helmet for a second, until the cameras started clearing up her field of view with interference-suppressing algorithms. She let go of the Type 67 and hurled herself towards the ground, a thousand meters below.

The rain and the wind engulfed her almost immediately. She didn’t have to think, as her wardancer suit corrected her trajectory before she even formulated a thought. The neural link at the back of her neck gave her full control over the semi-organic exoskeleton embedded within the suit and the impulse thrusters of her enhanced mobility harness, but she preferred leaving flight controls to the autopilot. That way, she could focus on the target ahead: a concrete structure, shaped like a series of triangles embedded within the white, flat-roofed buildings and exotic gardens of an ancient resort station by the sea. It wasn’t a ruin, yet wasn’t populated either. There were many facilities like this one alongside the northern shores of the Maghreb region. The majority of them were USRE property and were dedicated to water treatment, sealife monitoring or shallow sea mining, but some of the facilities did not belong to the same time and space. They came from the Low Age. Concrete shadows of the ancient world, left alone out of boredom rather than fear.

Five hundred meters above ground, Eshe fired a short burst from her impulse thrusters, then deployed her parachute. She glided for a few minutes, suspended under the pouring rain. The Type 67 had left the drop zone, ascending towards a stratospheric orbit above the Mediterranean sea. The facility below had something of an abandoned amusement park, albeit Eshe could guess that its true purpose had been — still was? — different. The trees looked artificial, made of painted steel and plastic. The resort’s buildings were well-maintained but empty, their windows showing shadowy hallways and staircases as a meaningless fac-simile of human settlement. The concrete triangles gleamed very slightly in infrared, where heat sinks protruded in the shallow water by the sea. There was nothing on ultraviolet, but her false colour composite showed concentration of lichen and algae alongside the seams on the sea-facing side of the bunkers. Hangar doors, perhaps.

Seventy meters above ground, Eshe let go of her parachute and fired her impulse thrusters, bracing for touchdown. In a Flower War, she would have considered doing a good old superhero landing — bending one knee, arms extended like wings — but there were no spectators here. Her mind was focused on her surroundings on the beach, ready to fire flares or deploy micromissiles. Drop-killing flower pilots or wardancers wasn’t very polite, but she couldn’t vouch for the politeness of Low Age ghosts. Eshe stood up, feeling her exoskeleton move in unison below her combat jacket. In a Flower War, she would have deployed her colourful flag and donned a cape or a scarf bearing the emblems of her employer — but right here, right now, her role was different. She didn’t wear a wardancer’s attire, but an Enhanced Mobility Infantry combat suit, not unlike that of an USRE commando. Eshe looked around in several wavelengths. Aside from the heat sinks, the dead station was cold and empty, except from a slight surge underneath the grey waves by the beach. She braced, getting ready for a confrontation — and, suddenly, a massive organic shape bulged from the water, screaming on several radio channels. An organic combat drone, the same model as the one that had attacked them on the other side of the sea. When the machine touched down on the beach with a heavy, muffled thump, Eshe had already moved. The state of flux kicked in a split-second later, as her neural link gathered the various inputs from her combat suit and turned them into semi-conscious perceptions, to the point her thoughts and the machine’s complex analyses were one and the same. She fired a cloud of multispectral flares, then switched on her impulse thrusters, using the closest concrete wall to gain vertical momentum. The organic drone tracked her with its railgun pods, but the multispectral flares prevented the machine from getting a clear lock, while Eshe’s shoulder-mounted laser emitter kept blinding its sight. The flower pilot ordered her suit to launch two pairs of micromissiles in quick succession. The dagger-sized projectiles left the pods in her back and surged towards the drone. Two dome-shaped close-in defence systems ignited, pulverizing the first pair of missiles with superheated shrapnel. The second pair moved around the drone, preceded by another cloud of projectiles.

Eshe jumped, combining a push from her exoskeleton and an impulse from her mobility harness. Thanks to her micromissiles, the close-in cannons now faced the other way; she touched down on the head — a complex sensor pod — of the organic mech a millisecond later. She anchored a proximity mine to the carbon-protected layer of transbiological material, armed it and jumped down. The shaped charge exploded a second later, turning the upper half of the drone in a flower of dark red artificial blood and carbon nanotubes. The machine stumbled, tapping its arched legs to keep its balance while a flurry of subroutines activated to try and compensate for the sudden loss of sensory inputs. The mech’s sharp tail slashed in the rain, missing Eshe by a good meter. She didn’t leave the machine time to reorganize. Reaching for another charge, she ran at the mech’s left leg, then glued a third mine to the right limb before impulsing away. As Eshe dropped down in the shallow water, two flashes of light hissed and the mech collapsed on a nearby building, legs instantly severed. It twitched; tried to stand up; then finally gave up as it ran out of blood, pouring on the sand at the rate of several tens of litres per second.

Eshe took a deep breath and reloaded her flares.

The engagement had lasted eight seconds and a half.

EUROFRONT


Eshe looked around, like a predator seeking another victim, but there was nothing else to witness. The sea was silent. Eshe walked towards the concrete triangles. It was hard to give them an age. The polished layer of concrete at the top of the bunker was the work of centuries — but how many of them? One? Three? Five? There were emblems on the sides of the buildings. Carved, not painted, and thus they had been spared by the storms. They said EUROFRONT, or something to that effect. Historical references appeared in Eshe’s mind. Some sort of coast guard agency, tasked with protecting the borders of Fortress Europe. At some point in the collapse, it had turned into an autonomous defence system, a smaller AUSCOM. At which point had EUROFRONT decided to churn out biological mechs to prowl its long-gone borders, Eshe had no idea, but she suspected it was a leftover of its original intent. EUROFRONT had not been created to wage a war, but to crush insects under an iron fist: gods prowling the shore were well-fitted for this task.

Eshe walked closer to the hangar.

The door opened.

Another mech hissed and slithered its way outside. Its frame was familiar, but the overall shape was weaker and leaner. It was only half-finished. Skeletal structures appeared underneath its flexible, armoured skin. In truth, it looked as if it was in pain. Eshe moved in a combat stance, ready to drop flares, but didn’t even have to follow suit. Something surged beneath the drone; a vague presence, only made manifest by the synchronized detonation of two shaped charges, cutting right through the legs and ending the machine’s brief, agonizing life. Eshe reached for her sidearm and locked her gaze on the human shape that appeared a few meters away from her, still draped in the vanishing visual patterns of their optical camouflage. The dust settled around the mech’s already rotting body, and the silhouette stepped forwards.

“Amin,” she said. He wore a grey combat suit not unlike hers, that had traded the micromissile launchers for a full-body cloaking surface.

“Eshe. What an entrance.”

“I reckon that’s my speciality.”

“Indeed. How did you come here?”

“I borrowed a Type 67. You brought a mech?”

“An old Lumia, yes. Did Occitania send you to hunt me down?”

“No.”

“So I guess we’re here for the same reason, then.”

“Likely. What put you on this trail?”

“I collected a blood sample from my mech and sent it to a friend for analysis. She’s an Omphal sister. They know their way around ancient things. The DNA sent me to this EUROFRONT ruin.”

“I went through Algorab, but aside from that...same story for me. What did you find inside?”

“Follow me.”

The concrete bunker was old and decrepit — even more so than the mock resort station surrounding it — but Eshe could easily identify its nature. It was in equal parts a hangar and an incubation chamber. Beyond a blast door and a storage room, she found six mech-sized tanks. Four of them were filled with sand and dust, and she could make out the eerie shape of giant skeletons underneath the dirt. The other two contained a buffer solution, colourless and odourless. Blood plasma, or maybe artificial sap.

“Suspended animation chambers,” commented Amin. “The superstructures date back to the Low Age — I can tell that from the manufacturing quality — but the fluid inside is evidently much more recent. I think the facility was originally capable of breeding new mechs, but the reactivated chambers don’t contain the nutrients and raw biological material to build an organic walker. They’ve only been used as storage, either for new individuals or old mechs kept in suspended life.”

“I didn’t know you were versed in historical mechs.”

“My nun gave me a crash course. Sadly, I wasn’t able to extract more information from those chambers and the rest of the facility is not usable. It seems we’re at a dead-end.”

Eshe opened a direct channel with her Type 67 drone. The aircraft had stabilized itself on a stratospheric orbit, observation pods turned towards the ground. USRE air defense satellites had pinged it once again, without any further action. They didn’t seem to mind its presence.

“67’s cameras tell me there’s another facility, about twenty kilometers south of our current location. My maps only mention generic Collapse ruins. Could it be the origin point of our drones?”

“These ruins are located right inside the old EUROFRONT border. Twenty kilometers with the Lumia, that’s half an hour away. Can’t hurt to check.”

“Let’s go. This place makes me nauseous.”

WIND, SANDS AND STARS


Three shapes moved in the rocky desert, under the afternoon sun peeking through the scattered clouds. Amin’s Lumia drone towered over the arid plain, giant walking among the stones. Amin and Eshe were perched on the mech’s shoulders, turned towards the faint black line they saw in the south — an ancient tower, standing in the yellow winds. The mech’s joints whispered, its steps muffled by the dust.

“None of this makes sense,” whispered Eshe.

“Hmmm?”

“I don’t see why you’d use antiquated bio-mechs to disrupt a Flower War. You’ve seen it yourself: these things are useless. We’ve been able to vanquish their duelist with nothing more than Flower War weapons, and we just ran circles around these drones at the beach. Even in their prime, they were more like intimidation devices than weapons of war. You don’t need to be combat-efficient to stand guard at the edge of a bunkered border.”

“Could be an impoverished commune.”

“Come on,” she slapped the Lumia’s outer armor. “You got this thing in exchange for a rusty spacecoach, one ton of whitewood and a long night of love and I’m ready to bet it’s vastly more efficient than any Low Age mech. It’s not worth the trouble.”

“Maybe a rogue Low Age intelligence? A very lame AUSCOM, if you will.”

“And it would cross a sea to engage random Flower War mechs with duellists? I know ancient minds are arcane, but they’re not that illogical.”

“Alright, the best option I have is someone trying to cover their tracks. You can’t hack a biological drone and we do not have the knowledge required to question one of them, if it’s even possible.”

“Cover their tracks with mechs that can be tracked by an Omphal nun? With all due respect, of course.”

“Fair enough.”

“I feel like I’m part of a theatre play where I don’t know the scenario in advance. It’s been a while. I find it quite refreshing.”

Amin smiled.

“It is.”

ANUBIS


The concrete shard towered three hundred meters above the desert. For a good minute now, the Lumia had stepped on semi-buried panels of steel and silicon — it was obvious the building had once been a solar tower, dedicated to powering an underground facility. In infrared, she could see several heat sources underneath the sands — full-fledged incubators, maybe, or perhaps a power source, or both. Several kilometers beyond the tower, following the rose-coloured horizon, there was a wall. A thin black line, cutting the world in two. The southernmost limit of Fortress Europe, built half a millennium ago. On their side, there was the ruins of what had once been the global North; on the other side, there was the heart of the USRE, and a space elevator reaching for the stars. Eshe felt a painful shard emerge somewhere deep in her belly. Her ancestors had suffered and died alongside this black line, against the borders of Fortress Europe, against the inane carelessness of the western world.

Then, the sands started to sing.

The mechs attacked.

Four of them. Two-legged, but strangely animal-looking; black and muscular, armed with giant biomechanical bows. Type 08-A, codenamed ANUBIS, told them the Lumia’s basic AI. Advanced EUROFRONT warform, wardens of the border, designed by a man from Paris who’d thought what would stop the desperate and dispossessed would be the echoes of an even older world.

The Anubis drones fired their bows in unison. The arrows shattered mid-flight in a swarm of micromissiles, a hail of projectiles zooming through the cold twilight. Eshe tapped Amin’s shoulder and they jumped in unison behind his Lumia. The bipedal mech activated its close-in defence systems, then leaned towards Eshe and Amin, protecting them with its bulky frame. Eshe heard a flurry of metallic raindrops all around her as the few micromissiles that had survived the active defenses shattered on the Lumia’s armor. The mech shrugged off the impacts and stood up, combat knife in one hand, 40 millimeter cannon in the other. The Anubis drones howled and moved in unison, single-bladed khepesh in their inhuman hands. Amin snapped his fingers and activated his optical cloak before lunging forwards. Eshe fired her impulse thrusters to relocate herself before launching three pairs of micromissiles. The Lumia turned its back to the wardancers and its belly towards two of the four Anubis drones, bracing for impact. Everything connected seamlessly. Amin decloaked in-between his two targets, arming his shaped charges on their legs. Eshe detonated her micromissiles in the belly of the two other Anubis mechs, stopping them mid-run. The Lumia took a step backwards, finishing off the mechs with four shots from its cannons, aimed at the sugar pouches in their backs, splattering the sands with black entrails.

Eshe and Amin exchanged a smile. The Lumia seemed to look around, then bowed.

The fight had taken six seconds to unravel.

THE KING IN BLACK


At the base of the tower, they found a fallen king.

The mech was a duellist. Thirty meters tall, it was the biggest mech Eshe and Amin had ever seen, and yet it was entirely unable to hurt them. It rested against the concrete wall, sitting with its blind face turned towards the north. Its three-fingered hands were locked around the pommel of a sword, seven meters in length. The weapon itself was buried in the sand. Eshe briefly felt like an ant facing Excalibur. She covered her nose. The mech, however majestic, was rotting. Its artificial muscles and sugar pouches had started to melt and disintegrate, drenching the sand with a thick, black liquid. Grey, metallic bones were visible underneath, protruding from the holes in the skin. The stench was almost unbearable. The king was decomposing.

“Mother of Kadija…” cursed Amin, voice muffled by his atmospheric filters.

“The head is strange. Are those protrusions pheromone emitters?”

“They are. It’s a coordinator. A pack leader, in a sense. Well. Was.”

“The brain is already melted. It’s a dead end.”

Another voice echoed in the wind.

The referee’s.

They stood atop a small dune, next to the fallen king, having just deactivated their full-spectrum cloak and jamming suite. They clapped. Slowly, and there was a kind smile on their lips.

“Dead end? I call this a wonderful conclusion!”

THE ART OF DECOYS


Twenty kilometers away, the tower pierced the dying sky.

The fire crackled in the cold night, nested between two dunes and a concrete slab. Far above the desert, the stars gleamed as distant snowflakes. The Lumia stood guard above the three humans sitting around the fire. It was busy oiling its 40 millimetre cannon, its large armoured fingers moving in a delicate, precise way. The two wardancers had abandoned their combat suits. They now wore the colourful clothes of Eloran immigrants, gleaming under the faint starlight. Amin held a bowl of instant noodles above the fire, while Eshe prepared three rice rolls to go with them. The referee watched over the two mercenaries, their lips still curved in a smile.

“So you restarted the flower war without our presence...how did the communes take the sudden absence of their two main pilots?”

“Not too badly. It took a bit of talking, and lots of legalese, but I could convince them to keep going with the Flower War without you. Officially, you have been taken into custody by the Open Hand for your own protection, alongside the referee who had been originally assigned to this war. The strange circumstances surrounding these mysterious mech attacks justified such exceptional measures. Your contracts will be maintained, and paid in full by the USRE. It wouldn’t have been very nice of us to force the communes to pay for pilots who do not fight for them any longer, wouldn’t it.”

Amin nodded while stirring his noodles. Eshe considered her rice rolls, then the referee, then the rice rolls again.

“How did you reactivate these mechs?”

The referee shrugged and answered with a simple, plain honesty.

“We — the USRE, I mean — have spent the last century and a half rebuilding the planet we could once call home. All the ruins, all the ghosts, are familiar figures in our eyes. We even consider one of them as our equal: AUSCOM, the spectre of America. We know the remnants by heart. We know how to access them and how to manipulate them if need be. We are the gardeners. They are the flowers.”

Eshe grinned.

“Spiky, ugly flowers.”

“EUROFRONT is dead and buried, and with it the world it had tasked itself with guarding. Good riddance. The organic mechs are convenient. Easy to build, easy to manipulate.”

“If the goal was to lure us here and away from the Flower War, why not use regular flower drones, or a mercenary team?”

“Well, first because these mechs are utterly useless, and I couldn’t risk hurting you. No offence, I think very highly of your martial abilities — even outside of a pretend war — but while the threat needed to be credible, it had to be weak. Mercenaries holding back in battle could have made you suspect something. Ancient organic drones were perfect in the role of the elusive threat. They were also easy to track down due to their very nature.”

“Perfect pawns, then?”

“Perfect actors in the play I wanted to stage, rather.”

Amin passed her the noodles and grabbed a rice roll.

“Fair enough, but there’s one last question: why did you want to remove us from this Flower War?”

“Ah, Eshe, Amin...you’re very good pilots, and I think you’ll be remembered as some of the best flower war actors of all time, but you’re not exactly businesspeople, aren’t you? You never considered that medium-sized communes like the Solar Sea and Occitania finding enough funds to hire you and a full complement of Flower Mechs for their little war was slightly hard to believe? The reality is that an unknown actor influenced the communes into purchasing your services, providing resources and incentives through sleeper agents. The objective was clear: disrupt and ridicule this Flower War by turning the political clash between the communes into a duel between two of the most famous flower pilots in human space. Rob Occitania and the Solar Sea of their catharsis by relegating it behind your own fight, your own story. Send the narrative off the rails.” The referee took a bite from her rice roll. “The Open Hand is still unsure as to the reason for this manipulation. Occitania and the Solar Sea are nothing in the grand scheme of Earth affairs. It might be a simple joke. It might be an act of protest. It might be an idle bet. It might be an exploration of a new attack vector against Flower Wars. Whatever it is, we had to stop it, if only to show that Flower Wars are, indeed, a serious matter and not just a glorified bar fight.”

“You could have talked with us.”

“I could. But...you travelled five hundred lightyears for this Flower War and it’s wasn’t only for terran money. I didn’t want to rob you of the thrill of a tale of war and destruction. Thus, I gave you one. It was bit rushed, and I understand your opponents were a bit lacking, but I hope it was entertaining, at the very least.”

Amin and Eshe exchanged a gaze. Then, they both smiled.

“Considering the circumstances...yes. We’ve known worse.”

“And now, what will become of the ruins?”

The referee only answered after having finished their noodles.

“EUROFRONT has outlived its final purpose.”

BRING THE CURTAIN DOWN


The referee stood up and snapped their fingers. Four hundred kilometers above, the Luciole-class Interceptor And Thus, Lights Went Out fired a single orbit-to-surface missile. Amin and Eshe looked in silence as the projectile entered the Earth’s atmosphere, trailing a faint line of gold in its wake. When it made contact with the tower, the missile shattered the concrete structure as if it had been made of paper. Eshe and Amin saw it crumble in the sand, blown away by a will falling from space, a message from the new world to the old one.

Amin leaned towards Eshe.

“Hey. Don’t you owe me a duel?”

“Aye. You’re up?”

“Yes.”

“Pick your weapons.”

“You first.”

“I don’t have my mech, and combat suits are too dangerous.”

“Aw. You’re right.”

“How about a game of tic-tac-toe?”

“Fine by me.”

History doesn’t recall who won.












Show more posts

All content in the Starmoth Blog is © Isilanka
Written content on Starmoth is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 4.0 license