2946-06-21 - Tales from the Inbox: Iridescent Intercession

This Tales from the Inbox entry is the third part of a story sent to us by an anonymous audience member who is referred to herein as Faye. Read the first part of Faye's story in Tales From the Inbox: Smugglers in Second Class. The third part of her story, Tales from the Inbox: Azure Amber, will be available on the 23rd.

This marks the last part of the story which was sent to me; I'm sure I'm not the only one who's curious what happens next. If Faye wishes to share what happened once she reached Maribel with her daughter - as I suspect she did, otherwise it would be unlikely for the story to reach my desk - I'll make sure to prioritize any further updates to her story. It's also possible this story was made up out of whole cloth, but I suspect personally that it is at least based on a true story, which has been embellished.

“Now now, Miss.” The man grinned unkindly as the door shut behind him. “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.  


"Kindly shut up." 

2946-06-23: Tales from the Inbox: Azure Amber

This entry is the final piece of Faye's story - or rather, it's the first piece. That it was included with the rest suggests that, between the events described in the first two parts of her story and when she sent it along to Cosmic Background, Faye learned more about the smugglers she'd fallen in with - probably from them directly. If you haven't read the other parts of her story, I recommend going back to Smugglers in Second Class and Iridescent Intercession before going on to read this entry.

As with Faye herself, the names Blake and Gus are false. I was not provided with their real names, for obvious reasons, nor was I provided with the planet on which this encounter is supposed to have taken place. As with the rest of Faye's account, I cannot vouch for the truth value of this story; it seems farfetched, but it is plausible, if only barely so.

"Wouldn't ya know it, Gus." Blake stared up at the stand of vibrantly blue, six-meter-tall growths. "It's like somethinoutta... 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." 

2946-06-21 - Editor's Loudspeaker: New Rheims Ecological Collapse

This Editor's Loudspeaker post was written with the consultation of the rest of the Cosmic Backgrounds staff. Opinions contained within it are a consensus reached by the employees of Cosmic Background, not the sole opinion of the specific writer, Duncan Chaudhri.

It's time to clear the air about New Rheims. Because Cosmic Background - on the vidcast and on this feed - has avoided reporting directly on events there, we've been inundated with messages asking why we haven't, and by others promising an inside account of what happened there.

To be clear, Cosmic Background is not a news operation. If you want a news feed, there are thousands of them out there to choose from. We are an entertainment program for the interstellar community - a variety show for spacers, about spacers' interests. It is not our intent to find out "what really happened" in any current event. We will offer perspectives on current events that our audience might find interesting, but we leave the journalism up to the journalists.

We don't have any answers as to what happened, but we know who almost certainly does. We are worried that the Navy had something to do with the New Rheims disaster. That is, to be sure, a sensational claim, and we're going to take heat from Naval Intelligence for submitting it to our text feed - but we have reasons for this conclusion.

While this is not the proper medium for a full breakdown of all the reasons we suspect this, we can point out a few key observations which led Ashton, Sovanna, myself, and the others to this conclusion.

Peculiar Timing

Most of us here in the Core Worlds learned about the disaster on New Rheims on 06-10, when the story went from being a datasphere rumor to being picked up by some of the largest newsfeeds out there all at once. Oddly enough, there was no official announcement at first. The Navy, which had ships already on the scene evacuating the planet's residents less than six shifts after the disaster had begun, didn't formally announce the crisis until the twelfth, when private relief organizations had already begun to mobilize. This delay is odd, as in the navy's own published version of events, it had ships - an entire patrol group no less - on scene by no later than the last shift of the 06-09.

Moreover, six shifts is too soon for a response from a nearby system. To have been on-scene within that time, the responding vessels would have to have already been deep in the system. I can find no good reason for a patrol group deployed to the Hegemony border to have been in the vicinity of New Rheims.

Censorship of Images

Until the announcement, all we knew was that the world of New Rheims in Riviera des Soleils was suffering an ongoing natural disaster of some type which was quickly rendering it uninhabitable. Hard data beyond that was difficult to find. For a while, orbital images of gigantic, dusty-brown storms growing and multiplying on the planet's surface were available, but by the time of the Navy representative's official announcement, they had all been removed from the datasphere here in Centauri. As of this writing, I am still unable to find these images on any public datasphere resource. The Navy's announcement did not feature any pictures except those of the refugees, possessions in hand, being herded onto shuttles and settled into spartan accommodations hastily prepared aboard the Arrowhawk, the light cruiser which was, as per the Navy's account, on scene within six shifts. No other visual evidence of the disaster has been available since.

I didn't think anything of the images at the time, but evidently someone in the Navy or the government thought they were harmful enough to send takedown notices. The only kind of takedown notice that would be so universally honored is, of course, the sort issued by Naval Intelligence.

Lack of Military Response

The Navy hasn't mobilized any warships, beyond those already on the scene. No battle groups have been diverted to Riviera des Soleils. The only ships ordered into the region have been military haulers. I can find no evidence of these convoys being escorted more heavily than usual. The Navy claims it hasn't ruled out any possibilities, but the lack of movement from its combat squadrons, and the unescorted nature of its relief effort, suggests that they've ruled out enemy action. As of this writing, the Navy's official story still asserts that the investigation is ongoing and has not yet ruled out any cause of the sudden ecological collapse of New Rheims.

There needs to be a full investigation of New Rheims. I personally hope we, and the other personalities I've seen who have noticed that the Navy appears to have had a hand in the disaster, are wrong - but we'll only know for sure if there's an open inquiry. The Navy, for its own sake, needs to open its records about the matter, whether or not military personnel are culpable.

Cosmic Backgrounds supports the military forces of the Confederated Worlds, but this support does not extend to concealing misconduct. We call the Navy's reputation for honorable conduct into question only reluctantly, and we hope that the Admiralty lives up to the reputation built by generations of heroic officers in this matter.

2946-07-01 - Editor's Loudspeaker: New Rheims Investigation

This studio is not a news service; however, I'm sure you'll fogrive me for breaking that rule for this brief message.

The Confederated Congress has initiated an inquiry into the cause of the New Rheims disaster. While until now Sylja Nisi-Bonn, the delegate from Mars who is chairing the investigation was unheard of here on Centauri, her hypercast conference yesterday gives me hope that we'll eventually learn what happened. She seemed to indicate that she will treat Navy representatives as hostile witnesses, which is, as far as I'm concerned, the right step. It's been the better part of a month since news of this disaster reached the Core Worlds, and still we've learned nothing about how a supposedly ecologically stable climate suddenly collapsed.

I highly recommend setting up some ingestion filters to follow public releases from the investigation. If we're going to learn anything, they're likely to be the source.