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Short Fiction: "The Sculptor's Stray"

AeternisMay 5, 2021, 3:27:19 AM

(Art by Richard Bagnall.)

This piece was published to my short fiction blog in two pieces (1 and 2). It features one of the more negative aspects of the Angels' Reach setting - the existence of "fleshsculpt" modifications to the human body and the massive negative stigma against it, even when the modified person was altered against their will.

When combined with the scourge of human trafficking in the less-pleasant areas of the galaxy, the outcome is rarely pleasant, even if the trafficked victim is later liberated.

 - - - - - - -

When Hugh Apperlo took the usual prisoner inventory at the beginning of his shift, the woman in cell number three caught his eye. Though she lay half in shadow on the hard bunk, he could tell from the shear, shimmering gown that draped her slim frame that she wasn’t a local. He’d worked at the Temerity District lockup for five T-years, and had gotten used to the usual crowd of junkies, violent drunks, and street scum. They might be unpleasant, but they had become a reassuring part of his daily routine.  

“What’s her problem?” Hugh asked Aref, the night constable. The other officer had clocked out, but as usual, he was puttering around the guard post, putting things in order before he went home to sleep.  

“Hells if I know.” The weary-looking officer threw up his hands. “Chief Sterling hauled her down here in here in the middle of the night. Fleshsculpted freak hasn’t made a peep.”  

Hugh glanced back at the security monitors. He saw no obvious sign of deviant body-mods in the half-light of the cell, but he had no reason to doubt Aref, who would have gotten a good look at her as she was marched past the guard-post into the cell block. While mere cosmetic surgery made a person’s existing features more appealing, illegal and expensive fleshsculpt procedures went beyond the normal possibilities of the human frame to create monstrosities. Only degenerates and cultists willingly eroded their humanity in this manner, but Hugh knew plenty of both lurked in Maribel’s burgeoning criminal underground.  

Still, it was odd to find such a person dozing in a constabulary lockup in Temerity District. To call the sector Hugh rough and run-down would be incredibly charitable. The miraculous population boom on the Coreward Frontier had lifted Maribel from obscurity to a growing and prosperous trade hub, but that prosperity had passed over Temerity District’s sprawling, unmanaged slums. Offworlders invariably scowled down at the shabby rooftops of the zone from their lighters and aircars as they flew overhead toward more pleasant places like Zdislava District, Archer Bay, and Mount Mordred.  

Curious, Hugh called up the woman’s file in the post’s computer system and was unsurprised to find little there. In having a sparse official footprint at least, this prisoner was much like the those in the other cells. “Varinia Villa. Age, thirty T-years... Native of Cardona’s Landing. Aref, where’s that?”  

“I looked it up earlier. Turns out it’s a rock over in the Silver Strand.”  

Hugh, who’d never been off-world, didn’t know much astrography, but he knew the Silver Strand was part of the treaty-demilitarized border with the Rahl Hegemony, more than halfway across the Colonial Reach from Maribel. “Long way to come, to end up in lockup here.”  

Arif gave a snort of disdain. “Freak like her, she should’ve stayed put.” The night guardsman removed his duty badge and placed it in his coat pocket, his routine tidying-up completed. “See you tomorrow, Hugh.”  

After seeing his associate off, Hugh started processing morning release forms. As usual for a Monday morning, most of the prisoners who he’d taken charge of would be released in a few hours. They represented the weekend’s bumper crop of miscreants – some had been collared during drunken brawls, others hauled in after domestic disputes, and a few caught in the act of burglarizing their fellow Temerity residents.  

Most of the cells’ occupants would be set free to wander the streets once more, without even a new mark in their records. A distant court would rubber-stamp convictions for any of the offenders the Chief saw fit to send up the chain, but since none of the minor offenders could pay the fines anyway, and the prisons in other Maribel constabulary districts never accepted Temerity convicts except in cases of murder, Temerity’s legal organs usually didn’t bother. Some of the “regulars” had even spent so many nights in lockup in recent years that Hugh would greet them by their first name as they were led out – and he wouldn’t feel threatened to meet them on the street at the end of his shift.  

Hugh whistled to himself as he worked through the release forms on his desk console. His was a sad sort of routine, shepherding Maribel’s dregs back out into the harsh sunlight, but he was thankful for it all the same. He had a promising career ahead of him in the constabulary; most who, like him, were born to squalor of Temerity District spent their lives stumbling from one menial job or petty-criminal scheme to the next, always one rung above total poverty.  

The last file in Hugh’s morning queue was the one for Varinia Villa in cell number three.  Oddly, there was no criminal charge listed, and no date of release. If Arif was to be believed, Chief Sterling himself had hauled her in – yet, the conscientious station chief had neglected to complete her paperwork.  

With a weary, bureaucratic sigh, Hugh switched on guard-desk intercom and hooked into the speaker system in cell number three. Asking the prisoner was easier than calling the precinct chief, who had probably gone off-duty and headed home around the same time as Arif. “Sorry to bother you, miss. There seems to be a problem with your file. Did your arresting officer give you a reference number or case code?”  

On the video feed, the woman raised her head, then stood up fluidly and moved into the beam of weak light in the middle of the cell. As she did, Hugh could see the fleshsculpting Arif had been referring to. The flesh on Varinia Villa’s left shoulder and arm seemed stretched taut over angular, geometric structures embedded beneath. Jutting from this already tortured tissue were hundreds of odd, crystalline spikes; even in the faint light in the cell, these glittered darkly, as if wrapping the tattered grey light around themselves.  

The simple gown of shimmering gray smart-fabric she wore had been cut to fit around these modifications, presumably because the crystalline protrusions were sharp enough to tear fabric. The thin cloth did little to conceal the angles and curves of her body even where it nominally covered her.  

“The guard has changed.” The woman turned in a circle until she found the camera lens in one corner and stared into its depths as if seeking a soul within its electronic heart. “Who are you?”  

“Constable Apperlo. First shift lockup guard.” This was all he was usually comfortable telling prisoners, except the ones with whom regular visits had allowed him to develop a rapport.  

“Apperlo.” She paused and nodded, as if familiar with the name. “You don’t mind if I call you Hugh, do you?”  

Blood suddenly running cold, Hugh didn’t reply for several seconds. Eventually, he decided on his response. He’d never seen the degraded woman before in his life; she couldn’t possibly have known his name unless someone else in the precinct had told her. “I would prefer you did not.”  

She shrugged and made a noncommittal, almost whimsical noise, but the expression on her angular face remained neutral and solemn. “My file won’t be of any use to you, and I don’t have a case code. I wouldn’t be here except by choice.”  

“This is the precinct lockup, Miss Villa.” Hugh frowned at the idea that someone would enter the lockup voluntarily. “You don’t-”  

“Varinia, please.”  

“You don’t have a say in your period of incarceration. We’ll have a time of release as soon as your file is sorted, and you will be leaving at that time.”  

“Will I, Hugh?” Varinia Villa stretched her arms lopsidedly, with her left side clearly not as flexible as the right after her modifications. “And when I do leave, what will the local color have to say about a fleshsculpt freak on their streets?” The dead tone in which she delivered the phrase was almost more awful to Hugh than her appearance.  

“Fleshsculpt is illegal.” Even as he spoke, he knew his automatic reply didn’t answer the question.  

“A practice for degenerates who have embraced the darkness and seek to erase their humanity.” The deliberately lifeless tone continued; she was only echoing rote what was preached on so many worlds. The woman’s shoulders drooped. She turned away from the camera and all the animating force seemed to leave her body. “I couldn’t agree more, actually.”  

Hugh winced, suspecting he knew her situation, and regretting his previous assumptions. She was from the Silver Strand – a region whose reputation spoke of unmanaged decay, barbarous excesses, and general chaos. If even half the stories were true, a Strand native might look on the plight of a Temerity local with envy.  

The worst stories, the ones most Frontier natives refused to believe, told of an underground economy where captive humans and other thinking beings were traded like livestock for all manner of unthinkable purposes. If Villa was an escapee from this grim chattel economy – and Hugh guessed now that she was - the horrific fleshsculpting had not been her own choice. Reversing an elaborate skinsculpt was often much more expensive than procuring it.  

“You probably can’t find a file because I asked your Chief to arrest me.” The prisoner sat back down on the cot, where she’d been sitting solemnly when Hugh had done his visual inspection of the cells upon arrival. After shifting so the half-light hid her alterations under a coat of shadows, she looked back up at the camera. “He’s a decent man. He gave me your name and said you would understand the situation.”  

Hugh didn’t know what to say. Chief Sterling was among the district’s most respected persons, and though he was getting near retirement, his firm hand on the law enforcement tiller had probably slowed Temerity District’s long decline. To be considered someone trustworthy by the Chief was something Hugh didn’t think he deserved.  

As he struggled to figure out how to ask how this unfortunate woman had managed to wander into Temerity on her own, Hugh looked down at the desk display and noticed that Villa’s file had changed. There was still no information about the crime for which she had been arrested, but she was now scheduled for release along with most of the others. In a little while, Hugh would have to send her out with the rest, and what they'd do to her once they were outside the building was obvious.  

Cringing at the idea of releasing the unwillingly-altered Varinia Villa with the usual riffraff and knowing what the outcome of such a blunder would be, Hugh switched comm lines and called up to the Chief’s office. When someone finally connected the call, it was not Chief Sterling; he had most likely clocked out at the same time as Arif. Instead, the sharp, nasal voice of Lieutenant Porcher answered. “What do you need, Apperlo?”  

“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am.” Hugh didn’t like Porcher; she was senior on duty for the quiet morning shift, and she was something of a tyrant when she could get away with it. “There’s a woman here called Villa the Chief hauled in last night. Are we releasing her this morning?”  

“We are.” Porcher’s voice took on an air of smug condescension. “The Chief has no right to use our cells as a halfway house. She’s not charged with anything, so she’s free to go when you release the rest.”  

“Understood, Ma’am.” Hugh ended the call quickly, then shook his head. Releasing such a distinctively fleshsculpted individual among the territorial and often violent petty criminals of the district would be a mess – there would be violence on the very steps of the precinct station, and Porcher knew it. The Lieutenant was marking her territory; the Chief ruled the night, but she intended to undo anything of his that didn’t suit her own management of the morning. She probably also hoped to get some of the regular weekend “visitors” on open-and-shut murder charges that would justify sending them away to the regional penitentiary. Porcher had never liked the awkward rapport many of the district’s petty criminals had with local law enforcement, after all. She thought it unbecoming, and perhaps it was.  

“I’ve got your records now, Varinia.” Hugh didn’t catch himself using her first name until it was too late. “The Lieutenant says with no crime on file, we can’t legally keep you.”  

There was no answer from inside the cell, and Hugh didn’t need to look at the video feed to know that Varinia Villa was aware of the danger a release in broad daylight would put her in.  

After it was clear the woman would make no reply, Hugh continued. “I’m going to make sure we process all the others out first, then we’ll see about your case.”  

“Don’t risk your job on my account. It’s not worth it.” Her tone was light, but she seemed to have grasped the situation and knew the peril she was in.  

Hugh didn’t think that delay would earn him any reproach, but with Lieutenant Porcher, anything was possible. He would, of course, risk it.  

Less than a minute later, the Lieutenant came down to collect the prisoners for release, with two fully-armored constables in tow to wrangle the occasionally-disruptive prisoners. Hugh stood to salute, then triggered the cell-release controls for the other prisoners to be released one by one, letting the other officers escort them out of the cell block to muster in the vestibule beside his guard post. The lieutenant watched with a withering stare until all the prisoners except Villa were arranged along the wall, kept there by two armed officers, though Hugh could tell they weren’t interested in trouble inside the annex.  

“Well, Mr. Apperlo?” Porcher looked at him with one icily arched eyebrow. “I thought there was one more.”  

“Go ahead with these, Ma’am. I’ll handle the special prisoner myself.” He did his best to sound confident with this assertion, hoping to remind her that she was still Chief Sterling’s subordinate.  

The other prisoners muttered amongst themselves at this choice of words, knowing the situation was unusual. Hugh paid them no mind; he met his superior’s eyes and didn’t look away. At first, Lieutenant Porcher looked ready to make an issue of this change of plans, but as if remembering the Chief’s involvement in Varinia Villa’s case, she suddenly backed down after several tense seconds. “Process these ones out. Apperlo and I will see to the last one directly.” A wave directed the other two constables to escort the prisoner train upstairs.  

Hugh let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding as the other prisoners were marched away to be processed past the front deks. Varinia Villa would still have to brave the daytime streets of Temerity District, but at least the Lieutenant wasn’t willing to feed her to the wolves immediately.  

“Guard Apperlo.” The Lieutenant’s sharp voice accompanied the clang of the outer door behind the last prisoner. “Bring that degenerate up here.”  

Hugh winced at the epithet, but did as he was ordered, releasing the door lock and then trudging down the silent cell block to number three. Varinia was seated calmly on the cot, and when the door opened, the light drew back the shadowed curtain over her disfigured nature. Trying not to shudder, he held out a hand. “Come on.”  

With a curt nod, the skinsculpted woman stood fluidly and walked past Hugh into the hall, ignoring his outstretched hand. She stopped as soon as she saw Lieutenant Porcher standing at Hugh’s guard desk at the end of the block, halted as if by the force the officer’s glare.  

Closing the cell door behind the woman, Hugh urged her onward after only the briefest hesitation. Porcher was a firebrand, but she probably wouldn’t risk her own rise to Temerity’s highest-ranking law enforcement position over one of Chief Sterling’s mercy projects.  

“I don’t know how a freak like you sweet-talked the Chief into getting a warm bed for the night, but we’re not a charity.” The Lieutenant stood in the way, preventing Varinia and Hugh from leaving the jail.  

Varinia kept her gaze studiously on the floor. Hugh focused on her, rather than on the Lieutenant, because it was his duty to keep her from causing trouble, even if his superior was more likely to instigate something. In the much better light near his desk, he saw what he could only suspect from the camera feed – the skinsculpt job that had been inflicted on the woman was more extensive than it had first seemed, with tiny crystalline patterns radiating across her body, starting at the arm and shoulder covered in crystalline spikes. The whole effect was one of incompletion, as if the loss of her humanity was a slowly developing disease which would cover her whole form if not interrupted. He did his best not to think about the sick tastes which such a modification appealed to.  

“Maybe whoring is normal where you come from, but this is Maribel.” Porcher continued, clearly trying to goad Varinia into doing something. When it was clear that there would be no response, the Lieutenant, flying into a sudden fury, backhanded Varinia viciously, sending her reeling back against Hugh. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you, wretch!”  

Hugh caught the prisoner to keep her on her feet, ignoring the unpleasant feeling of the geometrically-sculpted arm and shoulder under his hand, and the macabre, chime-like sound of the crystalline extrusions rattling against his body-armor. “Lieutenant.” He made no attempt to disguise the disgust and anger in his voice. “Get ahold of yourself.”  

Porcher’s furious glare met Hugh’s, and once again, he struggled not to look away, even though he knew what he was doing. She would be Chief soon, and when she was, he would be out of his job. Once again, the Lieutenant backed down, though she abandoned none of her irrational fury as she whirled on one booted heel and stalked away. “Get her out of my precinct.” The barked order came only as she was halfway up the stairs to the main floor. “Then make sure that cell is well cleaned.” 

This last elicited a response from Varinia, a brief tensing of the muscles Hugh only noticed because he was still holding her upright.  

Hugh waited until Lieurenant Porcher was gone before moving or making a sound. “Sorry about the Lieutenant, miss. I can take down a statement if you want to file a complaint.”  

The woman regained her footing and pushed Hugh’s hands away to stand on her own. Already, a red mark was forming on her cheek where she’d been struck, but the blow seemed not to have done any serious damage. “Would it do any good?” Hugh suppressed a shudder at the grotesque juxtaposition of her untouched, pretty face framed on one side by gaudy, dark crystalline spines sprouting from her shoulder, and on the other by her tangle of dark, unkempt hair, cropped asymmetrically to keep it away from the garish sculpting in which it would certainly become tangled.  

Hugh shook his head sadly, unable to voice the simple admission that the complaint would go nowhere. Porcher was not popular in the precinct, but she had earned the grudging respect of everyone, including the Chief, because she ran a tight shift. One minor incident of violence against such a disreputable prisoner might even aid her career prospects, in such a rough place as Temerity District. “Let’s go. Since you’re not charged with anything, I’ll take you out by the alley.”  

Varinia followed Hugh upstairs down the hall between the two constabulary ready-stations, past the interrogation room, the mess, and the evidence vault. The alley door was intended for bringing in supplies; it was a loading dock rather than a public entrance, and it refused to open until Hugh tapped its status panel with a bypass chit.  

After peeking cautiously out into the dingy alley, littered as it was with reusable crates waiting to be picked up by the reclamation service, Hugh led the skinsculpt out. “Do you have some place to go?”  

“I’ll find somewhere.”  

Depsite the optimistic reply, Hugh knew Varinia wouldn’t find anywhere in Temerity District that would welcome her, even if she had money to pay for lodging.  

“Miss Villa-”  

“I told you to call me Varinia.”  

“Varinia.” Hugh grudgingly corrected himself. “Are you-”  

“Stars around, what a freak.” In the mouth of the alley, a trio of slouching local troublemakers had taken notice of the pair at the loading dock. These were, Hugh recognized, some of the very people who’d just been released from his cell block. “Officer, we’ll make sure she gets out of the district.” His two friends chuckled unkindly.  

“You tried, Hugh.” Varinia observed quietly. “I suppose not everyone here is as decent as you and the Chief.”  

“Mr. Apperlo.” Lieutenant Porcher’s voice barked in Hugh’s ear, courtesy of his comms earpiece. He could hear the undisguised smug satisfaction in her voice, and knew that she had made sure somehow that the local miscreants had taken notice of Varinia’s departure. “Back to your post.”  

Hugh looked at the three men, then at Varinia, then up at the surveillance camera perched above his head, watching the alley. Porcher could fire him without the Chief’s approval, and his whole promising future would crumble. Good employment in Temerity District was nearly impossible to find; a black mark on his record brought on by dishonorable discharge from the constabulary would exclude him from most of the few opportunities.  

“If you lot don’t go home, I’ll have you back in the block in five minutes.” Hugh warned the men, but they only sneered at him. They knew how little Maribel authorities – especially in a place like Temerity – usually protected indigent off-worlders who washed up on the already thickly populated planet.  

“Mr. Apperlo, back to your post. That was an order.”  

Hugh glanced back through the door, half expecting to see Porcher standing at the far end of the long hallway with folded arms. Disobeying a direct order would certainly earn him that dishonorable discharge. If Chief Stirling were on duty, he would countermand Porcher’s orders, but he wasn’t. During the day, the Lieutenant reigned supreme.  

Hugh looked up at the camera again, intending to make it only too clear that he had heard the order, then deliberately pulled out his earpiece, dropped it to the ground, and crushed it under one foot. A dishonorable discharge would be a lesser disgrace compared to letting Varinia Villa fall into the hands of a gaggle of street thugs.  

“Come on.” He told Varinia, leading her toward the men. He had a side-arm and a shock baton, in addition to the protective body armor contained in his uniform, and was not afraid of them.  

Seeing Hugh approaching as if to make good on his threat, the trio quickly thought better of their approach and slunk away.  

Varinia finally found her voice after they had gone. “What are you doing? Hugh, your job-”  

“Chief will have my back.” Hugh didn’t have the confidence he placed into those words. Chief Sterling would do what he could, but disobeying a direct order to return to his post, then smashing his earpiece in a show of open defiance, could probably not be explained away except by accusing Porcher of gross negligence and engaging in a battle of influence which the Lieutenant would obviously win.  

Varinia threaded her unaltered arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder gently. “I’m sure.”  

Hugh looked down at the damaged woman next to him, for once not having to suppress a shudder at her twisted appearance. He began to suspect that the Chief had orchestrated the conflict deliberately, perhaps to test Porcher and himself, but that didn’t matter to him now. For the first time in his life, Temerity District’s comfortable decay seemed a stifling prison filled with small-minded people clutching petty honors, pale and hollow in comparison to the gratitude of this woman from half a galaxy away.  

Reaching the air-tram stop, Hugh led Varinia inside to the schedule map, intending to pay her fare. The vagrant and two shabby passengers slouched in the small building made no secret of their interest in the pair. “Do you have a place to go?”  

Varinia barely glanced at the display - she kept her eyes on Hugh. “Not really. Do you?”  

“I told you I’ll be fine.” Hugh couldn’t manage to make the lie sound believable this time, so he turned away to press his credit-stick into the slot to buy the woman a ticket. “I’ll buy you a ride as far as the spaceport. People up there are likely to be a bit more understanding.”  

Varinia reached out and put her hand – the one not infected by the geometric mutilation - over Hugh’s. “Thank you for everything.”  

Hugh smiled back at her, despite the twisting in his stomach brought on by the realization that the credit count on the stick was the only thing left to his name besides the terms of his apartment rental. “It’s my job.”  

Above them, a roar of turbofans heralded the arrival of the tram. Varinia looked up at it, her voice almost lost in the noise. “Not anymore.”