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Short Fiction: "Sapphire's Smugglers"

AeternisFeb 7, 2021, 4:38:12 AM
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"Wouldn't ya know it, Gus." Blake stared up at the stand of vibrantly blue, six-meter-tall growths. "It's like somethin' outta... That one story, with the girl and the rabbit." 

Gus sighed. He knew he should never have tried to introduce his partner to any classic literature, especially not thousand-year-old surrealism. Still, Blake was right – there was something almost magical in being able to look up into the ruffled underside of a mushroom cap which towered more than four meters over his head. 

In actuality, the specimen wasn't a mushroom. It was a tree, or what passed for one on mist-wreathed Lazul. Most of the local photosynthetic life was blue or bluish-purple – there was even a bluish, algae-like organism in the moist air. The mushroom-trees deviated from this color scheme only in that their "caps" were a translucent, waxy grey, and the blue, energy-capturing tissues were housed on the upper sides of ribs which looked very much like the gills of earthly mushrooms. The thick, pale trunk of the plant was as hard as Terran wood, studded with gemstone-bright azure hemispheres, which were probably hardened chunks of leaking sap. Reflections of the two explorers danced crazily in each bright, glassy sap boil, and Gus thought they looked like eyes, watching the pair as they approached. 

"See if you can pull off one of those sap globs. If they’re hard, we’ll take a few with us." Gus suggested, kneeling down to prod at the exposed root structure of the specimen with his gloved hand. Unlike the trunk, the roots were soft and pliable, like rubber hoses. Flicking out a small knife, he carefully poked the root, and a bead of bright blue fluid immediately welled out. As long as the pair was lying low on Lazul until the system authorities called off their search, they might as well pad their profit margin. 

"Souvenirs sound good ta me." Blake rubbed his suit-gloved hands together and squelched his way through the wet, spongy soil toward the alien plant’s trunk. 

Gus didn't bother to respond; Blake loved souvenirs. He would cart his favorite specimen back to the ship and into his cabin without waiting for Gus to test the substance in the ship’s analysis machinery. Perhaps a brilliant blue paperweight might become a pile of brown powder in shipboard atmosphere unless coated with protective resin – or it might emit a foul gas and drive Blake to sleeping in the ship’s tiny lounge. As much as Gus didn’t look forward to cleaning up the mess, it was better to let Blake discover these things for himself; no amount of cautionary advice would help. 

Venting his frustration on the root, Gus savagely jabbed his knife into the flexible root structure, then yanked it sideways, opening a ten-inch-long cut. Viscous blue fluid gushed out almost immediately, rolling over the dirt and stones in a syrupy rivulet. Gus moved back, to avoid getting any on his suit; even if it was harmless, and he didn't know if it was, he preferred to let Blake do the messy work. 

There was a grunt over the radio, and Gus turned to see that his partner had decided to step on one of the larger, lower sap boils in order to reach the smaller ones higher up the trunk. The glassy, hard-looking surface had given way, and now Blake was hopping back, his right boot trailing a sticky streamer of the same blue sap back to the mushroom tree. "Ain't as hard as they look, Gus." 

Gus shook his head inside his helmet and turned back to the stream of blue fluid he’d created. It was as thick as good Earth molasses he’d once smuggled, but transparent like liquid glass, and it curled quite attractively around the various detritus on the ground. The mushroom-like plant was admittedly a handsome specimen in most respects – perhaps like the bonsai trees of old Earth, miniature versions might someday become the inhabitant of desktop terrariums throughout the Core Worlds.  

Unfortunately, attractive flora which were too big to stuff into their little ship’s hold was worth nothing to Gus or to Blake. "Put some samples through the analyzer and let's move on, before you get more of a souvenir than you can handle." Perhaps the blue sap might have an interesting chemical composition that would justify harvesting a few barrels, but otherwise it was time to move on. 

“Bah.” Blake grumbled. “Why can’t anything so pretty be easy to take?" 

Gus continued to watch the flow of sap he'd released, not bothering to turn and see whether his suggestion was being followed. The fluid's leisurely, almost joyful crawl across the ground seemed oddly satisfying. As far as he knew, the substance was the tree’s lifeblood; it was strange that wounding even an unfeeling photosynthesizer could create something so satisfying. The substance certainly looked like liquid sapphires, and he hoped it was worth something to match its appearance. Given that having his boot covered in the stuff hadn't seemed to cause Blake any distress, Gus cautiously dipped his gloved finger into the edge of the flow, pulling up a sticky streamer to catch the light. 

Gus didn't notice the strand connecting his gloved finger to the flow thickening from the bottom up until it was almost as big around as his wrist. Hurriedly yanking his hand back, Gus parted the tenuous connection, but the azure tendril remained there, lifted into the air. 

Gus meant to cry out a warning to his partner, but he saw the eyes behind the outstretched appendage, and his voice died in a quiet exclamation that the radio didn't bother to transmit. Those eyes, hard blue gemstones within the flow of liquid, seemed oddly human. Nothing else on the planet had eyes like that – Gus knew, without having any evidence to back it up, that the puddle was mimicking his own eyes, even though they were hidden behind his reflective faceplate. 

Even as he watched, he realized the entity was not merely copying his own appearance. As if springing forth from his own mind, the oozing liquid produced a face, a neck, and shoulders, carving the visage of a beautiful woman from liquid amber to a set of specifications drawn from Gus's own tastes. The outstretched appendage became an elfin hand smaller than Gus's own, its translucent fingers ending in delicately rendered fingernails. 

"Gus?" Blake asked, alarmed. At the sound of the other explorer's voice, the figure half-emerged from the stream of sap drew back, its translucent face twisting in a perfect picture of human alarm and concern. 

Gus made what he hoped was a calming gesture, though he already guessed that the creature was reading his mind, not his motions. There was no other explanation for the perfection of its assumed appearance. "Blake..." He said quietly. "Go get the sled. We’re taking her with us." 

- - - - - - -

“Mom, I’m serious.” Junia's tone became strained. 

“You’re fifteen T-years old, Junia.” Faye tried not to sound like she was scolding her daughter, and was not entirely sure she succeeded. Every day, she forced herself to remember that for Junia, who’d never known any world but Planet at Centauri, months confined to the spartan passenger liner were a new and unwelcome experience. Her owns service as a spacer tech on long-haul Navy logistics haulers which ferried supplies to the outposts on the Hegemony border had more than prepared Faye for the relatively minor discomforts of a second-class passenger’s berth. “There are no monsters under your bunk or anywhere else in your cabin.” 

“I heard what I heard, Mom. He was talking to someone… talking about a shipment. What sort of cargo needs someone to keep it quiet, anyway?” 

“A shipment? The monster was talking about cargo?” Faye frowned, now legitimately confused. 

“You never listen, do you?” Junia tossed her head back and clapped her hands dramatically to her face. “Not a monster. A mobster, like in those old vid-shows you like so much. He talks at night, and I can’t sleep. He’s got a gun, he said so.” 

“A mobster.” Faye paused to try to make sense out what Junia meant by the archaic term. Clearly, she was comparing what she heard – or thought she heard – to the old 24th century crime dramas which Faye had been watching to pass the idle time on the long journey to Maribel. There were no mobsters anymore in the sense the term was used in that context – it was even probable that nobody had used the term for organized crime when the dramas were produced. “Under your bunk. On a passenger liner.” 

“Yeah.” Junia, her voice incredulous, replied, standing up, her breakfast barely touched. “Forget it. I hate this ship. I’m going to the gaming lounge.” 

Faye made no move to stop Junia. The liner was safe enough; the computer authorization system and the crew wouldn’t let a passenger go anywhere even remotely dangerous. Faye didn’t like the look of some of their fellow passengers, but most were, like Faye and Junia, permanently emigrating to the Frontier, chasing rumors of work, even for those with only marginal skills, on newly settled worlds. There were even a few other teenagers, dragged along with their parents like Junia herself – but it had been clear very early in the voyage that Junia would have nothing to do with them. She seemed to think that, by being miserable, she could make Faye book a ticket back to Planet at Centauri as soon as the liner arrived at Maribel. The fifteen-year-old was, by a combination of her own and her mother’s efforts, largely alone on the whole ship – and the voyage was less than half over. 

With a heavy sigh, Faye absently stirred her own breakfast for another minute before gathering up her own tray and the one Junia had left behind. After depositing them in the recycler receptacle, she left the passenger mess hall, still thinking about her daughter’s claims. Junia had always been imaginative, like Faye herself, but this was something new. Even for a teen who went through phases at an unbelievable pace, her claims were too bizarre and specific to simply ignore as a play for attention. 

Abandoning her plans to spend the morning in the ship’s full-gee gym (which was, despite its name, barely providing point-eight gee), Faye decided to check out Junia’s cabin before determining how to proceed. There were plenty of reasonable things which, blown out of proportion by an overactive imagination, could result in what Junia was describing. If it was pure fantasy – and that still seemed the likeliest explanation – Faye would be unable to avoid taking the sorts of unpleasant parental measures which she had always sought to avoid. 

Passing only a few dozen late-risers heading in the opposite direction in the corridors and lifts of the massive liner, Faye soon returned to the deck which housed their cabins. Since she had been forced to choose between having two adjacent bunks in economy-class or having two separated cabins in second-class, Junia’s berth was not next to her own – it was at the end of the corridor, a thirty-meter walkpast her own identical, spartan compartment. When they had boarded, Faye had at first harbored hope, unfounded though it was, that this bit of privacy and independence would help make the voyage pass more easily for her daughter. 

Because Faye had booked Junia’s ticket, the teenager’s cabin opened as easily before her as her own. Faye had avoided intruding on her daughter’s privacy as much as possible, and now found herself dismayed at the disarray within. Discarded clothing and the wrappers of sugary snacks lay scattered over the floor, and the bunk was neither made nor folded up into the wall. Junia’s travel bag lay underneath the tiny desk, clothing and personal objects spilling out of its open side. 

Faye picked her way across the floor to the bunk and, feeling silly for even doing it, folded the shelf-like sleeping arrangement into its wall recess. As she expected, the deck below it was as much a mess as in the middle of the cabin, but there was nothing there. Faye had half-expected to find a forgotten vid-player slate that might explain the voices Junia described, but the only device of that sort in Junia’s cabin was perched precariously on the edge of the desk to put it in range of the charging hub. 

Letting the bunk drop back into its deployed position, Faye sat down, dropping her head into her hands. She wasn’t sure if Junia was having auditory hallucinations, or simply making a play for attention, but either option was a sign of trouble. She wondered if it was time to have one of the ship’s overworked med-techs examine the teen – perhaps taking the complaint seriously would help Junia understand that her mother was doing her best. More likely though, Junia would find a way to be wounded by that, too. 

As Faye weighed a set of equally bad options, she heard a dry cough. At first, she thought it was coming from an adjacent cabin, but she remembered that second-class was soundproofed – someone would have to scream at the top of their lungs to be heard in the next cabin, and then only faintly. Where, then, did the cough come from? 

Faye flipped the bunk back up once again and pushed all the clutter into the middle of the floor. Behind a balled-up blouse, Faye found a tiny vent, one of many such openings throughout the ship. Every compartment, serviced by the ship’s atmospherics system, had such ductwork, and the five-centimeter port under the bunk was certainly not big enough to admit an intruder, mobster or otherwise. The system was also supposed to include sound baffles to prevent it from carrying voices between cabins, but like the “full-gee” status of the gym, perhaps this detail had also not been implemented correctly on a budget mass-transit liner. 

“Receiving.” A gruff man’s voice muttered, and Faye could tell it was coming from the vent. “Yah, nothing to report. Tomorrow, Gus, we’re switchin’ places, ya hear?” The man paused, as if listening for a response. “Breakfast sounds good. Do they have eggs?” 

Faye blinked slowly, trying to figure out what was going on. The voice’s odd accent – definitely not one which she’d ever heard on Planet at Centauri – did sound remarkably like the accents used in her treasured crime dramas. Junia wasn’t hallucinating or lying; there actually was a voice under her bed, and in radio contact with someone else aboard. He might be in an adjacent cabin with faulty sound baffles in the atmospherics system, but Faye doubted that, as it would probably mean more people than Junia could hear his voice. Perhaps instead there was a maintenance space behind the wall, and the same atmospherics line which fed Junia’s cabin from the system trunk also carried air to this space. Faye knew enough from her own days as a spacer to guess at the elaborate measures used to keep such a stowaway hidden from the crew. He certainly could never leave his hideout without setting off alarms. 

Even as she wondered to what end the man was voluntarily entombed, he spoke again, replying to his collaborator, though Faye didn’t hear the other man’s voice. “This scheme is the worst gig we’ve ever had.” The grumbling sounded trite, as if this was a conversation they’d had many times before. “Next time, we ship things that don’t need this much babying, so we can both relax.” 

Faye remembered Junia’s observation about a shipment. The man and his accomplice were smugglers, secreting themselves aboard an already overpopulated interstellar liner to move contraband. What would they do if they found out Junia could hear their activity all night? Dropping the bunk with a clang, Faye hurriedly grabbed Junia’s data-slate, overrode its user-lock with her parental code, and jotted down every word she’d just heard. It would not do to forget any details when she went to inform the liner’s crew. 

After making her notes, Faye tucked the slate under her arm and hurried to the door, which opened to let her out.  

Before she could step outside, a large man stepped into her way, clapping a hand over her mouth and pushing her back into Junia’s cabin. 

“Now, now, Miss.” The man grinned unkindly as the door shut behind him. His accent was different than that of the man in the vents; it was more cultured, and smooth where his partner’s was gruff. “We can’t have that, can we?” 

Faye struggled against his grip, but it was no use. She tried to bite his hand, but he knew enough about restraining people to keep her jaw clamped firmly shut. Her captor had obviously led a hard life – a garish scar which most people would have paid to have removed cut across his left cheek, and the collar of his shabby coat didn't quite conceal a set of crude tattoos on his neck. 

The man effortlessly shoved her back until she toppled over onto her daughter's unmade bunk, at which point he released his grip on her mouth. As soon as she was released, Faye screamed for help, but with the door shut, the cabin soundproofing would muffle the sound, even if – and this wasn’t likely – the adjacent cabins were still occupied in the late shipboard morning. 

Faye’s captor winced at the noise, waiting until she had run out of breath. "Are you through?" While there wasn't a gun in his hand, Faye guessed from the bulge inside his otherwise slim-cut jacket that he had managed to sneak some sort of weapon through the screening systems the passengers had gone through. 

"Let me go." Even as the words left Faye’s mouth, they sounded hollow and weak.  

"Nothing personal, Miss." He shrugged. "You got curious, and you know too much. I’ve got too much riding on this run to-"  

"Ya got it under control up there, Gus?" The man buried deep in the ductwork called up, not bothering to use the radio. He could, Faye realized, hear everything that went on in Junia's cabin, just as she could hear him. He’d heard her banging around with the bunk and had kept talking all the same – probably at the urging of his partner. 

"It's handled, Blake." Faye's captor called back. It galled her how little the two appeared to care for stealth; evidently they believed more in the sound-baffling system of the second-class cabins more than she did herself. "There won't be witnesses."  

"So that's how it is." Faye replied hollowly. "My life to protect a load of narcotics."  

"Narcotics? Hells, woman, wouldn’t that be easier." Faye watched him carefully – if he stepped out of the way and gave her a clear path to the door, she thought she might be able to make it to the hall, where there were security cameras. Even if he still shot her down there, the attention it drew would be the end of the smuggling operation. "Look, Miss. I need you to understand something before I kill you. We don't do-"  

"Gus, ye're explainin', not shootin'." The voice from the vents interrupted.  

"As if it matters." Gus shot back. "Besides, can't shoot her. Gotta make it look like the girl did it."  

"Wait. No, ye're not supposed to – whoah!" Blake exclaimed. Faye didn't think the second man was talking to Gus, and by his expression, Gus didn't either.  

"What's going on down there?" Gus called.  

"You're gettin' company whether ya like it or not." Came the shaky reply.  

Faye winced. Company meant Gus would have to act quickly. The conversation was over. Dying was bad enough – but these criminals planned to pin the crime on Junia. She was torn between begging for any alternative and leaping at her captor to do her best to claw his eyes out. The two instincts cancelled each other out, warring for dominance over the last few moments of her life.  

When something brushed past her leg, Faye almost didn't bother to look down, but she noticed Gus looking at her feet, so she glanced that way herself, and recoiled in alarm. "What is that!?" She pulled her feet up onto the bed.  Some sort of blue serpent slid silently across the floor from underneath the bunk, threading its way around the assorted items Junia had carelessly discarded there. It had no head, and its flesh was translucent, like the cheap resin souvenirs the ship’s fabricators would churn out for a fee. 

At first, Faye thought the serpent was intent on Gus, and her fear was replaced by hope which was just as quickly dashed as the creature's featureless head raised up vertically into the air roughly halfway between Faye and her captor. Oddly, the rest of the sinuous body continued to crawl, and Faye realized that it wasn't a serpent – it was a gelatinous semi-liquid, more substance than creature. 

The upraised head became a sort of trunk, which rose a meter and a half before cascading back down in a waterfall-like structure. Two limbs, thin and elegant, separated from the sides of the shape, and it took on a particular set of curves. Faye blinked in surprise – even as the bluish fluid tail still wound across the floor and under the bunk below her, the bulk of the creature had taken the shape of a human woman facing Gus. Even before the figure had fully formed, it – she – held up one hand in a clear "stop" gesture to the rough-looking man.  

"What am I supposed to do?” Gus scowled and gestured vaguely at Faye. “If she raises the alarm, all three of us are dead."  

Faye opened her mouth to reply, but she realized he was talking to the creature which had interposed itself between him and his prisoner. ""What's going on?" 

The moving sculpture in blue glass turned its head, and Faye saw two dark, gemstone eyes looking at her out of a hauntingly beautiful face which was, despite being perfectly human in shape, translucent and uncannily still.  

"Who are you?" Faye found her voice faltering under the gaze of that serene face, a likeness of a human assumed by something unnervingly alien. 

"As I was trying to say." Gus rallied. "We don't do narcotics. Well... Not anymore."  

Without moving its assumed shape, the uncanny creature glided across the floor and stood in front of Faye, one hand outstretched. Faye could see through it, but she could also see that the hand was perfectly formed, down to tiny ridges of fingerprints on the fingertips. It didn't say a word, but Faye knew somehow that this strange being was offering her a chance – but a chance to do what?  

"There's no way she can be trusted." Gus cautioned. He was certainly speaking to the liquid statue rather than to Faye, but the word of caution likely worked just as well if it were meant for Faye about this creature. Still, she had little choice. She reached up to take the offered hand. 

The alien's palm was cool, but firm – it felt almost like a real hand, but not quite. A subtle tug from the creature encouraged her to stand, and she did. 

"You're..." Faye tried to come up with a good description for what she was seeing. "Like nothing I've ever seen. They're helping you, aren't they?" 

There was no nod of agreement, but Faye suspected she had guessed correctly, as neither it nor Gus attempted to contradict her. 

"I'll keep your secret, on one condition." Faye agreed to the request that popped into her head, before she bothered to wonder how it had gotten there. "Let Junia meet you. I can't keep this secret from her." 

"The woman's bad enough..." Gus grumbled. "But the teenager too? She'll never keep quiet." 

Faye shook her head. "She will keep quiet." She insisted, returning her attention to the unmoving yet kindly face carved of blue glass. You can..." She didn't know how to voice the question, so she tapped her finger against her temple. Once again, that sourceless sense of confirmation crept into her thoughts. "You already knew I would agree." Faye was too amazed to be terrified. 

Gus sighed. "Blake, we've got a change of plans." The odd creature's expression didn't change, but something in its manner suggested gratitude being extended to the smuggler as well as to Faye herself. "Looks like we're taking on a few partners." The way he said "partners" suggested that he really meant "problems," but Faye already knew he wasn't the one making the decisions, even if he thought he was. 

"Ya think?" The sarcastic tone of the reply reminded Faye that she had a long way to go before she eanred the trust of the two ruffians. "This one's yer fault, Gus."  

"Blake?" Gus pinched his nose with one big hand, shaking his head.  

"Yah?"  

"Kindly shut up."

 - - - - - - -

(Art by KetKet.)

This piece was published to my short fiction blog in three pieces (1, 2, and 3), but out of order - the first section shown here, chronologically first in the sequence, was posted last. 

This is one of the few stories in which I attempt to demonstrate a character's accent by altering the words on the page, and I'm still not sure I like how it looks.

Blake, Gus, Faye, Junia, and the Myxomyceti known as Sapphire go on to feature in at least five more entries in the short story project; the group ends up on the frontier world of Berkant for a time. Junia, when almost eighteen, leaves to make her own way in the universe, while Faye, having developed a rather intimate attachment to Blake in the intervening years, remained with them.

The purpose of Faye's departure to the Coreward Frontier - employment shortages caused by a gradual economic decline in the Core Worlds - is shared by many tens of millions in the late 2930s and early 2940s. The youth of the era (and quite a few, like Faye, who are past youth but quite desperate) see the Frontier as the only place they can go to earn an honest living.

Great lengths are required to move Sapphire to the Frontier from Lazul, a life-bearing moon in the Allenden system, because under the laws of the Confederated Worlds, bringing nonsapient life from one habitable world to another is highly regulated, to minimize issues of invasive flora or fauna destroying ecosystems. Human scientists have concluded that the Myxomyceti of Lazul are not actually a sapient species, and have rated the intelligence of these creatures somewhere below that of the Earthly octopus, and that only in the branch of their life-cycle that results in symbiosis with mushroom-trees. Their curiosity and instinct for mimicry are said to account for the appearance of intelligence which some visitors to the moon report.

Sapphire does not permit itself - herself - to be studied by xenobiologists to counteract this position, but all the humans who have encountered her have no doubts that this Myxomyceti is both a thinking, sapient creature and one capable of reading (via visual cues or other methods) the thoughts and emotional state of nearby humans. Oddly enough for so different a being, Sapphire seems to have deep compassion for humans, having formed lasting bonds of friendship with several, and having chosen a life wholly dependent on humans and their technology (to sustain her the mushroom-tree symbiotes) as a result.