2947-02-26 - Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Gamble

Blake checked the batteries on his long, slender hunting rifle as the pair of visiting lighters touched down beside the compound and cut their engines. Junia found the man difficult to read, but the concerned expression on her mother’s face hovering nearby sent a clear signal about what was expected out of visitors in the middle of the local night.

Ever since the compound had been raised, they had expected someone, discovering what Blake and Gus had done to the interstices of the emigration liner, to come looking for Sapphire. The common-sense illegality of trafficking a poorly understood xenospecies to a new colony world guaranteed that if Berkant’s loose authority structure learned of the fifth resident of the little outpost, there would be a high price to pay, and Gus spent whatever time he did not spend working the land and maintaining Sapphire’s terrarium concocting methods to better conceal his alien friend’s living nest.

Of course, Gus’s plans were all based on the arrival of legitimate authorities, who were bound by strict rules of conduct. The lighters, in cutting their running lights and descending quietly, had announced themselves not to be bound to those rules – the motivation of their pilots remained a perilous unknown. Junia assumed they were after Sapphire and shuddered at the thought of whatever inhumanity might be in store for the kindly xeno, should they succeed.

Gus burst from the terarrium wing, his pistol slung low on his hip for the first time in months. “Cameras say there are four of them. Blake, think you can get to the roof?”

With a nod and a brief, meaningful look toward Faye, the big man hurried off to the compound’s central hub, where he could climb up to the roof. How he’d do this without making a miserable racket, Junia could only guess; the rickety prefabricated structure creaked abominably when anyone had to climb to the roof to inspect the various comms equipment and security monitors installed there.

“What about us?” Junia wanted to go hide in the terarrium, where surely Sapphire’s calming presence would moderate the intruders’ violent intentions, but she was usually not allowed to linger near the sensitive equipment which kept Sapphire’s host growths alive.

“Stay here. Both of you. And hold onto that dog.” Gus didn’t even break his stride to answer the question. Though he had advocated for the purchase of a dog when Faye and even Blake had resisted the idea, Gus and Anas didn’t get along. “If you hear shooting, run for the back.”

As soon as the two men had disappeared, Junia grabbed her mother’s hand and placed it on Anas’s collar. Faye might be content to hide and let the two former ruffians handle the situation, but she was not. “I’m going to have a look.”

“Junia!” Faye’s call was reinforced by a long, forlorn whine from the dog, but the teenager paid it no mind. She would have a look at this new threat to their life on Berkant – the danger of being spotted spying on the confrontation would be little greater than the danger she was already in.

Slipping out the compound’s tiny back door, Junia felt a tug on her ankle, and turned around to find a half-sized version of Sapphire’s favorite beautiful, statue-like shape, a form the alien had purportedly derived from her first interaction with Gus. The usual feeling of calm which cloaked Sapphire was muted, as if she too was hiding from the danger.

“You’re safer in your terrarium, Saph.” Junia whispered. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Sapphire shook her carven head silently, her spun-glass pseudo-hair glittering in the starlight spilling in through the door. The tug on her ankle was gentle, an invitation to consider the planned course rather than an attempt to prevent it.

“I’m just going to look.” Even as she said it, Junia cringed, knowing that she was going to look for a way to take action and help the men protect the compound.

Sapphire, who didn’t have any use for words, saw right through the protest. With a child-sized hand, she reached up to take Junia’s own, gripping the teenager’s fingers firmly. The gesture felt almost like a farewell.

After a moment cradling Sapphire’s carefully sculpted hand in her own, Junia slipped free and stepped outside the compound. Already, she could hear raised voices from the front, as well as the hiss and hum of lighter turbines cooling off after a flight. Sticking to the tall grass which had grown up around the walls, she crept around for a look. With two moons in the sky, the imperfect darkness itself was no protection.

“… who you are or what that card says.” Gus’s voice was calm, but icy cold. “Come back at dawn.”

Two voices, speaking quietly, both tried to respond, and Junia couldn’t make either of them out. Eventually, one quieted down, letting the other address Gus’s demand. As they spoke, Junia spotted the dark forms of the lighters, parked on the marked landing field next to the storage barn. Both of the canopies were open, and it appeared that the intruders had not left anyone to watch their rides.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Come back at dawn, and bring coffee.”

As Gus stalled, Junia crept toward the lighters. As she moved away from the wall, she could see the light from the foyer spilling out over the meadow, interrupted by four shadows – Gus’s towering shadow framed in the doorway, and the lesser, darker shadows of three others. Faint light from the still-active instrument panels inside each aircraft cabin reflected off the upraised canopy panels, and Junia, hoping to spy an insignia or a registration number, approached the nearer vehicle, shining the weak light of her wrist-comm on its polymer hull.

“Hey!” A nearer voice cried out, prompting Junia to cut the light and dive for the shelter offered by the open barn. Only then did she remember Gus’s claim that there were four visitors, and that there had only been three shadows at the compound door.

As the sentry hunted for the source of the light, Junia watched him creep steadily nearer. He would check the structure, and there was only one doorway – she had to get past him, somehow. The only other cover before the tall grass behind the compound was the dubious concealment offerred by the lighters themselves.

Junia might have thought better of the idea had she been given the time to think at all, but the opportunity was only open for a moment. The sentry paused to check the landing-gear wells of one of the two aircraft, and as he did he was faced away from Junia and the other. She sprinted across the wet moss of the landing field and leapt into the open cockpit of the second vehicle, still hoping to collect images of its registration or other useful data that would justify the risk she was taking.

At the front of the compound, Gus’s icy rejections had devolved into a tense standoff. Junia peeked over the control panel in time to see the compound’s unofficial leader draw his pistol and wave it at the three intruders, who all reached slowly for weapons of their own. Somewhere in the shadows on the roof, Blake was probably watching the same scene through the thermal lens of a hunting scope. Junia thought shooting might start at any moment.

Before it did, though, another shadow appeared in the long cone of light spilling from the doorway. With a bark of overstimulated confusion, Anas bounded past Gus’s legs and out into the fray.

This week's entry continues the story provided by Junia (for the first installment, see Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Frontier) about her departure, from an odd little family unit, as well as from the colony world of Berkant.

Junia's foolhardy decision to investigate the intruders' aircraft nearly got her killed - but as we will see in the next installment, the decision put her in the right place to save a life, and start her own.

The next installment in this story will not be next week - I've been collecting potential stories in the station bar for several days following the completion of the new studio, and there are several which I think are deserving of this audience's attention. Junia's story will return, but I don't want to let this text feed feature focus too much on certain personalities or stories.

Cosmic Background is also in final negotiations for a new sponsor for this feed; some of you have asked what happened to our previous sponsor, and the only thing I am allowed to announce is that Cosmic Background is no longer in a formal business arrangement with that firm. Fortunately, the low cost and high audience engagement of this medium allowed it to thrive without a dedicated sponsor for many months, but sponsorship of this content was always intended by the studio.

2947-02-19 - Tales from the Inbox: Hermit on Håkøya

Today's Tales from the Inbox represents the first story which I am ingesting from the new studio in the Håkøya star system. While I had several items in our usual inbox which would have been excellent stories, I had a chance encounter with Hussein Haberkorn on Argyris Spaceport.

His name may be known to portions of this audience, but I will save the others a datasphere search. Mr. Haberkorn was a senior and well-known Navy captain who was embroiled in scandal in 2936, who has always insisted that he was innocent of the wrongdoing which the Navy used to drum him out of the service. He is probably best known for being the central to the Strand Crisis of 2932, the closest the Confederated Worlds and Rahl Hegemony have come to war in our lifetimes. His downfall, according to the Navy version of events, was related to unauthorized and untoward contact with the Ironstar Corporation, a security firm with known ties to the Hegemon's intelligence services.

Mr. Haberkorn was forced into retirement and stripped of his accolades, and he largely fell out of the public eye; he apparently lived on Håkøya until this month, when persistent messengers from the Navy, likely looking to pull senior officers out of retirement to recover from the Great Purge, rendered his retirement home, in his words, "completely unsuitable."

I found Mr. Haberkorn to be gruff but personable, and though he refused to sit for an interview, he did tell me about his troubles with the Navy's insistent badgering, troubles which have persuaded him to relocate farther out into the Frontier. I sympathized with his irritation - Håkøya is a beautiful world any of us might dream of retiring to, and agreed to share his story.

Hussein led a simple life, and he liked it that way. He found Håkøya to be a pleasant planet, rugged and remote, and his little plot of land possessed of a mild equatorial climate, in which very little effort was required to grow an abundance of food. It was not the retirement Hussein had imagined as a young Navy officer, but he loved it all the same. Rather than managing the Navy’s thorniest problems, he needed only to maintain his extensive gardens.

Of course, even this responsibility had its complications. His least favorite of these was that the patch of ground-hugging tartberries in front of his hut appeared, from the air, to be an ideal landing pad. Only three days before the fragile plants were ready to be harvested, pressed, and fermented, Hussein emerged from his home just in time to watch a visiting lighter plop down in the middle of the plot.

Not realizing what she was doing, the pilot jumped down from the craft, crushing yet more plants under her smartly polished Navy boots. With a wave of greeting, the officer – her bearing could belong to no-one else – held up a bottle of strong but tasteless Core Worlds liquor.

Despite this infuriating intrusion, Hussein waved her inside and accepted the bottle. Swallowing his ire, he ushered the visitor into his hut. The walls, being little more than loose thatch of sticks, offered no protection from the elements, but the day’s elements were so wildly pleasant that it would have been sinful to protect oneself from them.

Hussein, taking out two carefully-carved wooden cups, poured out his carefully marshalled chillhusk nectar into both, then gestured to one of the two haphazard chairs.

Already sweating in her stifling smartfabric uniform, the visitor took one of the cups and drained it, not bothering to ask what was being offered. “Captain Haberkorn.” She finally spoke. “You’re a hard man to find, you know.”

“That is by design.” The woman was hardly young, but her impatient air made her seem younger, young enough almost to be Hussein’s granddaughter. He’d been in retirement for a decade, but unfortunately, that time had not allowed him to be forgotten, even though it had allowed his offenses against the service – offenses which ensured that it was a breach of formal protocol to address him as “captain” -  to vanish from the Navy’s memory. “I’m sorry, but whoever sent you, the answer is no.”

“You haven’t-”

“You are the fourth person to come here bearing the same query in as many months, miss.” Hussein sipped his chillhusk nectar as she processed this, which her superiors had obviously not bothered to explain beforehand. “If they wanted anything else of me, they should not have run me out of the fleet with a drumhead court-martial.”

“Captain, the security of-”

“There are ten million sapients in the service. My expertise was not critical ten years ago, and it is not critical now.” Hussein held the bottle of liquor up to the light, read the label, then handed it back. At least his betrayers had seen fit to send an expensive drink as a peace offering; the bottle likely cost nearly four hundred credits back in Centauri. “And when you get back, make sure that their next messenger is going to land on the marked landing pad up on the hilltop, rather than in the middle of my garden.”

Finishing off his drink, Hussein walked out of the hut, hearing his guest get up and follow behind him, stopping at the threshold to see that she had in fact planted her lighter on top of tilled and fertile ground. He ignored her, stalking off into the woods to gather sticks for the expansion of his hut he’d been planning for nearly a month. 

When he returned ten minutes later, messenger and lighter were gone, but the bottle of liquor remained. Set next to the bottle was a data-slate, its screen waking up as Hussein approached. Carefully avoiding the text on the screen, he carefully gathered up both objects and swiftly buried them behind the hut. Whatever scheme the Admiralty was brewing, he wouldn’t be dragged into it.  

2947-02-12 - Tales from the Inbox: Junia's Frontier

I'll be more or less incommunicado for several weeks; this post was prepared in late January for publication. By now you all have probably read the reason for my unannounced disappearance so shortly after the holidays. The next time I dispatch Tales from the Inbox the day of publication, it will be from our new studio at Håkøya!

Junia stood at the bank of the luminescent stream, content for the moment to take in the sights. She was not technically allowed out of the compound at night, but with her mother spending more and more time with Blake, and Gus entertaining Sapphire as usual, it was becoming easier to sneak out every day. 

Berkant was a notably picturesque world during the day, but at night, the hills around the group's remote homestead were even more beautiful. Bioluminescent freshwater microbes lit up the streams as they wound their way down into the valley, the subtle green glow competing with the bluish illumination provided by the planet's two moons. A small herd of rotund buffadillos dozed standing upright near the gurgling water, with fast-growing creep grass climbing up around their splayed feet, seeking a position from which to catch the morning sun.

Junia had at first resisted her mother's decision to drag her out to the Frontier, but after a full year on Berkant, she had changed her mind. The reclusive life in the little compound had quickly taken on elements of a vacation trip to paradise, and even after the novelty of the gorgeous surroundings had faded, Junia had not resumed her complaints. The company her mother kept was strange indeed, but that same company almost made up for the remote solitude of their new life.

Not all of that company held Junia’s interest, of course. Blake was friendly, but rough and none too bright; Junia didn’t know what her mother saw in the man, but he divided Faye’s attention, which Junia found liberating. Gus was clever and inventive, but he spent so much time tending Sapphire’s terrarium that he was rarely seen outside the compound. 

Sapphire herself was the compound’s real heart and soul, and the strange creature was the main reason Junia had not complained about the quiet Frontier life even after the idyllic novelty had worn off. Though she couldn’t speak, the sapient had a way of understanding people, and a way of making people understand her, which Junia had come to respect. Though wholly alien, Sapphire had become almost an older sister for the compound’s lone teenager – an older sister who always listened, and didn’t need to interrupt to make her observations known.

Of course, even Sapphire’s calming influence couldn’t keep Junia content forever. She knew that in a year, maybe two, the Frontier would become unbearable, and she would demand permission to leave. A return to the cramped and stifling Core Worlds – they seemed so from the Frontier, at any rate – might be too extreme, but the growing Frontier urban centers at Maribel and Håkøya presented a tempting middle ground.

Turning around at a rustle in the xeno-grass behind her, Junia saw Anas, the dog her mother had acquired at in the planet’s tumbledown spaceport town, slinking to her side. Even though the teen had double checked the seal on the compound’s outer doors as she crept out, the wily little cross-breed had managed to find a way to follow her. Junia knelt down and scratched him behind his ears, whispering for quiet.

When she stood to look back out toward the distant horizon, Junia knew Sapphire was nearby. The odd creature was as silent as always, but a familiar calm feeling had settled among her jumbled thoughts. Outside the compound, Sapphire never manifested a human-like appearance; the farther from her carefully-tended stand of mushroom-like host trees she wanted to go, the more of her form needed to be used to reach the spot. Junia was near the edge of Sapphire's reach; most likely, she had arrived only as a serpent-like pseudopod nosing through the grass.

"Why don't I fit in here, Saph?" Junia whispered. Gus had told her that Sapphire didn’t need to hear her words to know their meaning, but speaking was still the best way to construct a thought. "Do you think it would be better on Maribel?" Junia didn’t think she had quite fit in back on Planet, she hadn’t adjusted well to the teeming people of the liner, and she was beginning to see how the picturesque, rugged back country of Berkant would never feel like home. She was beginning to wonder if there was any place for her in the whole galaxy.

There was no answer. Sapphire could not speak, but not even the usual quiet reply was offered. Anas, sensing Junia’s distress, whined and butted his head against the teenager's leg.

Sapphire tugged Junia’s attention subtly, encouraging her to turn her attention to something. Taking the hint, Junia looked over her own shoulder. told Junia to look behind her. The compound's lights were all dimmed, but its domed atrium and multiple wings still glowed against the darkness of the hills beyond. When the group had first come to the place, Junia had looked at it in awe – the very thought of having so much wide-open space to call her own had seemed too great a fortune to bear. Now, the vast frontier distances seemed hopelessly lonely.

With another gentle nudge, Sapphire retreated back toward the safety of the compound with a sound not unlike a startled Terran snake rushing through the grass. Junia saw what she was being directed to see: a pair of lights crept across the starfield, circling lower toward the compound. The faint whine of turbines in the distance told her what they were. "Lighters." Junia muttered. Their compound had few visitors, and anyone who came by in the middle of the night were likely to be unfriendly.

Junia sprinted back toward the compound, Anas at her heels. "Mom! Blake! Gus!" She shouted, pounding through the front door. Sapphire had retreated into the wing housing the hydroponics system and fungal terrarium; she knew that her presence was better kept as a secret. "Someone’s coming." 

Today's Tales from the Inbox features the return of Junia (not her real name), who some of you may remember from Tales From the Inbox: Smugglers in Second Class. Junia sent this in herself, where prior entries related to her family's story were submitted by her mother. Also, our previous entries took place some years ago; the events Junia sent in are more recent, though I do not have the exact date.

While I have verified the identity of this person (or at least their understanding of details of the prior story which were not published in previous Tales from the Inbox episodes), I do not have any way of verifying the story (which as you can see, does not end here.) As usual, the audience is encouraged to make up its own mind about the veracity of the submitter.

2947-02-05 - Tales from the Inbox: An Alien Aurora

I'll be more or less incommunicado for several weeks; this post was prepared in late January for publication. By now you all have probably read the reason for my unannounced disappearance so shortly after the holidays. The next time I dispatch Tales from the Inbox the day of publication, it will be from our new studio at Håkøya!

Ozias A. shares this account of an odd organism that has colonized the polar regions of Maribel. I have found some low-quality imagery of similar "floaters" drifting high in the planet's atmosphere, but his account - which comes with no supporting imagery except for a picture of a pebbly lake-shore covered in broken ice - is unique in the parts of the Datasphere searchable from Centauri. I don't have any reason to doubt him, but his failure to produce coordinates (citing good reasons such as poachers and tourists destroying the organisms' habitat) does make it impossible to verify the story.

The creatures involved seem to be largely flora, rather than fauna, and though they are occasionally spotted drifting as far north as the 45th parallel, one has never been seen on or near ground level before this account. If it's true, it makes them particularly curious specimens, and if their eruptions of this form can be predicted, they will quickly become an event that attracts tourist attention.

By the time Ozias felt that he was far enough from the frontier settlement to think, his arms were burning from the unfamiliar effort of rowing his little boat. There were only a few places on Maribel where true solitude could be achieved, and despite the colony’s youth, peace and quiet was becoming difficult to find. Even the southern polar sea’s confused jumble of broken ice and tiny, barren islands was an occasional tourist destination, but this inhospitable climate was still Ozias’s best chance for a few days of genuine peace and quiet.

Of course, he hadn’t planned to do any rowing. The tiny boat he’d brought along had come with an electric motor, but it had failed almost immediately. If it were not for the relatively short distance to his intended camp-sight and a favorable current, the retired spacer might well have turned back and riske pitching his thermo-tent on the picturesque but tourist-overrun clifftop at Cape Vingano.

As was true for polar summers on almost any world, Maribel’s orange solar primary refused to set, toying sullenly with the horizon. Ozias, at the direction of his navigation wrist-piece, steered directly toward it. The electronic guidance system informed him that the Gray Isle was near before he threaded through a narrow chasm between two great ice floes and first caught sight of it. The island’s flat, barren bulk might have been a dismal sight to some, but to Ozias, seeking as he did a few days of complete solitude, it was as welcome as the feeling of a warm shower after a year in space, forced to cope with a faulty shipboard acoustic cleanser.

Soon, the little boat’s prow scraped the pebbly beach, and Ozias, unafraid of the icy water because of his heated, waterproof attire, hopped out and pulled it onto shore. Because of the surrounding ice, the island’s beaches were totally becalmed, with only the slightest waves breaking the almost total silence. Sometimes the isle’s low hills were lashed by fierce polar winds, but it seemed perfectly calm – calm enough that Ozias could hear the crash of surf breaking against the great ice walls protecting the isle from the sea, four kilometers away.

After deploying the boat’s overland skids, Ozias towed it into the island’s interior, following the course of a small river of ice so clear he could count the bright pebbles over which it crawled. A kilometer from the shore, he found a patch of flat, dry ground sufficient for his thermo-tent, and began setting up camp. The place was everything he had hoped for – quiet in the extreme, both desolate and picturesque. Ozias had no intention of taking pictures, lest others befoul his hard-won refuge from society, but he knew he wouldn’t grow tired of the scenery in the week he had allotted to the expedition.

As soon as the domed tent was unpacked and staked into place, Ozias climbed the hill behind the campsite. To his surprise, on the other side, he found a small lake, its surface a sheet of ice so perfectly smooth he was certain that a stone kicked across its surface would slide all the way to the other side. After appreciating the view, Ozias returned to his campsite to prepare a meal, ravenously hungry from the exertion of rowing the last leg of the journey.

The sun dipped halfway past the horizon, bathing the Gray Isle in false twilight just dark enough for Maribel’s brightest stars to appear. It was a false twilight, Ozias knew, because it was also dawn – the solar disk would rise again shortly, without having completely set. The half-darkness would last, he estimated, less than an hour.

Just as Ozias had finished warming up a meal of re-hydrated wilderness rations, a chiming, splintering sound tore the isle’s blissful silence and startled him severely enough to drop his meal to the ground. Cursing and suspecting that his solitude had been broken by another human tourist, Ozias hurried up the hill to have a look around, expecting to see the lights of another camp glowing not far away.

He saw light, but it was coming from beneath the little lake, whose pristine ice was now shattered and shoved on-shore by mad waves far larger than such a small body of water should be able to produce. The light, too, was odd – it was electric blue, fitfully waxing and waning in a pattern reminiscent of an erratic heartbeat. Ozias was immediately certain that it came from no object of human origin, though the source was still hidden below the lashing waves.

The source was not content to remain submerged, though. Rising to the surface, a great phosphorescent bubble reached the surface, its pulsing radiance bright enough to cast shadows behind every rock and hill. The bubble didn’t stop rising at the waves, though – it kept rising, drifting weightlessly into the air. In its center, a mass of pinkish tissue throbbed and twitched along with the light, and below this vast orb, several greenish roots or tendrils hung limply.

Ozias, suddenly aware of his exposed position, dove to the ground, seeking cover from the hillside though the thing had no obvious eyes to see him. The creature – for there was no doubt it was alive, not a machine – continued to float upward, buoyant on the frigid air, and soon dozens of smaller specimens broke free of the water and followed it up. The variable light from each creature joined together to produce a chaotic strobing difficult to look at, but also impossible to look away from. Ozias watched, motionless, as the flock of airborne drifters rose above the hills, until they finally caught the cross-winds roaring above the sheltered place, and were quickly ushered away over the horizon.

Not certain what he had seen, Ozias hurried down to the swiftly calming lake’s shore to peer into the dark water. Splinters of ice crunched under his feet, and by the time he had reached the water’s edge, it had already becalmed itself enough to begin freezing once more, leaving no trace of the grand light-show which it had disgorged.