2946-07-09 - Tales from the Inbox: The Heights of Herakles

Nojus was alone. 

He preferred it that way; he’d had partners in the past, but they always seemed to get in the way and cause. He was getting old, but he figured he had ten years left, if not fifteen, before he began to slow down. His followers would be heartbroken the day he hung up his survival multitool and retired to some tropical paradise on a pleasant world, of course; but they’d get over it in time to buy his memoir a few years after that.

Nojus glanced up at the pair of camera drones which hovered a few meters above and behind him. Green lights on each indicated that they were recording. Taking a deep breath of the thin mountain air, he turned around for one last look at his campsite. All the trappings of technology were piled next to the wind-proof tent, already half-buried in driving snow. The weather was far from perfect, but the viewers wouldn’t mind. After all, Nojus’s datasphere audience consumed his footage to see an explorer brave the harshest conditions on any world, armed with nothing but his trusty Reed-Soares Portable Survival Utility, and his sponsors at Reed-Soares Industries were happy as long as their product was occasionally waved where the audience could see it.

Wrapping his simple cloth cloak around his broad shoulders, Nojus turned toward the ridgeline which he’d come to scale. He was already two thirds of the way up to the top, but the final third of the climb was known to be the most perilous, and that would be what the viewers would want to see most. With a flick of his wrist, the big man altered his multitool to take the form of a climber’s pick and tied a length of simple polymer cord to its handle. Technically, rope bent the rules for his videos, but any time he was climbing, he brought some along; the viewers understood his desire not to plummet to his death in a remote mountain gorge.

Despite its reputation for being a perilous ascent which claimed many climbers, Nojus found the ridge ascent surprisingly easy; the rock and ice was crisscrossed with ridges and cracks that provided plenty of handholds, and once he started, the mountain’s shoulder blocked the worst of the wind-blown snow. He’d climbed far worse mountains with far less imposing reputations in the past; once again, he was being disappointed by a peril not quite living up to his expectations. The drones, unperturbed, hovered overhead, and he remembered to occasionally give them a good shot of his trusty, gleaming survival tool. He even made it look a bit more challenging; Nojus would never fake a near miss, but he did put more heaviness in his movements, as if the cold – which was unpleasant, but not a real concern – was seeping into his bones bit by bit. It would build suspense, and keep the audience invested in his journey longer.

The first time Nojus saw the claw-marks, he didn’t think anything of them. They might have been tool-marks from previous climbers – dozens of teams had climbed the ridge since Herakles was colonized, and many had vanished trying. The second time he spotted the marks, he began to realize what he was seeing, and by the third set, he began to grow concerned. Mountains on most worlds were lifeless wastelands, of course – a large animal climbing so far would be rare. Herakles, however, had an unusyally thick atmosphere that was breathable by humans even at the tops of the tallest mountains. It was quite possible, he decided, that local wildlife might prowl the peaks. Nothing of the sort had been in the reports he’d read about the place before climbing it, but even a Core World still sometimes had surprises for its human inhabitants.

Two hours after leaving most of his gear behind, Nojus stood only a few meters from the crest. Beyond, he knew the ridge dropped down at a dramatic angle to the plain on the far side, looking out over a largely uninhabited but lush region of jungles and marshlands. If the weather was clear, he might have been able to get a shot of himself standing there, with the gleaming sea in the far distance – but given the overcast and snow, he knew he’d be lucky to get a shot where the next peak on the ridgeline could be seen over his shoulder.

There was a tremor in the rock under the explorer’s boots as he took a step toward the lip. Frowning, he looked around, wondering whether he’d triggered an avalanche. He saw nothing, but the mountain blocked his view in three directions.

There was another tremor. In front of Nojus, a giant black paw reached up from below and gripped the top of the ridge. As he took a surprised step backward, the creature it belonged to clambered fully up onto the precipice. Nojus doubted the beast was in the Heraklean catalog; he’d heard of nothing like it. Its powerful, vaguely catlike form was almost eight meters tall at the shoulder, and its pelt of ropy, black hairs seemed to defy the driving snow. At first, it didn’t seem to notice that it was not alone on the summit. Nojus crouched low, quickly punching a new code into the handle controls of his multitool. It lengthened and flattened into a machete shape, with a long, curved cutting blade. It was the closest thing to a weapon pattern he had available, since he’d uninstalled the fishing harpoon configuration to make room for a few others that might be more useful when climbing a mountain. 

The creature eventually noticed Nojus and, as if surprised, wheeled its head toward him, roaring into the blowing wind. The camera drones were, of course, still recording. 

“What a pleasant surprise!” The explorer shouted back, raising his blade-configured multitool in challenge. He had begun to worry that footage of his adventure was turning out to be distressingly dull. 

Some of you probably recognize the name of the audience member who submitted this story - it's none other than Nojus Brand, a vidcast personality in his own right with a massive audience.

Nojus sends us this story rather than publishing the full-capture drone footage because, according to him, the creature he encountered on the mountaintop snapped up his drones, then darted away. He sent a video of himself telling the story our way, hoping I could do something with it. As an occasional consumer of Mr. Brand's vidcast content, I was only too happy to oblige.

Any of you who know the work of Nojus Brand know that he is somewhat given to getting carried away in recounting his own exploits. I don't think this story is made up wholesale, but I do confess I suspect it might be exaggerated. The creature in particular was probably a Heraklean mountain lion, despite his assertion that it was unknown to the human population of that world, and according to information I could find, they never get larger than about three meters tall at the shoulder. That's still a gigantic predator, but we can forgive Nojus for overestimating its size in his excitement.

2946-06-05 - Tales from the Inbox: Cupid's Scattergun

Today's Tales from the Inbox is brought to us by Ali W., who thankfully waited until the situation had resolved itself before sending us anything. Evidently, this took place a little more than a year ago, and he is now working with a new partner, in large part due to the events described here.

Ali's submission went out of its way to avoid explaining what happened to Mahir and Konnila. if either one ingests this text feed, they might provide the rest of the story.

As a note, the musings on mythology summarized here are original to the submission. Ali wrote a fair bit more on the topic than I retained for the text feed.

Ali didn’t know much about the mythologies of ancient peoples, but he did remember that some ancient cultures on Earth, before the Space Ages, believed in a magical creature which was responsible for people falling in love. He’d always considered the idea to be grotesque, even by the standards of ancient peoples; after all, they pictured the agent of love as a winged child, often little more than a toddler, which wore a blindfold and lurked in bushes and behind rocks places with a bow and arrow, with which it shot random passerby. Ali had always wondered how they thought it hit anything while blindfolded, and how its chubby little child’s arms could draw back a bow with enough strength to fire even the smallest arrow.

Ali also knew that at some point, the ancients figured out this wasn’t actually the cause of romantic feelings and came up with a better explanation. They kept the creepy bush-sitting child sniper image around, but only as a metaphor. He’d always wondered how the consistent lack of arrow wounds among the love-struck had not undone the whole idea before it could even get started.

Though he used to laugh at such superstitious nonsense, Ali has lately found plenty of reasons to sympathize with the people who came up with such wild theories. Ali and his partner operate a small-freight hauler on the Coreward Frontier, and after a recent run, their two-man crew gained a third member. Ali sends us the story of how it happened. “The whole Cupid legend isn’t as idiotic as I used to think.” He said, in the introduction he sent in. “But I’m pretty sure the little punk has traded in his bow. He snuck onto our ship armed with a scattergun.”

Elena Finn is not a very large ship. There are only six cabins, and the crew use two of them. Most of the hull volume is taken up by a pressurized cargo hold, intended for sensitive cargoes which need regular inspection. Conditions onboard aren’t exactly what anyone would call luxury travel accommodations, but Ali and his partner Mahir still find passengers from time to time. Most of their runs are hauling freight rather than people; small ships like theirs tend to move fragile cargoes and too small to fill the holds of the big hauler ships, but too important to wait for the hauler to fill the rest of its hold with other goods. For Ali and Mahir, medical equipment and supplies are the core of the business. Most of the new colony worlds hit some sort of medical emergency or sudden shortage every so often, and the nearest available stockpiles of what they need are at Maribel, or even all the way back at Jansing. Lugging crates of surgical machinery to and from the new colonies isn’t glamorous or exciting, but it is steady work which pays their bills.

Ali and Mahir had just unloaded just such a cargo on one of the colonies and were prepared to return with an empty hold when Mahir went out to buy a few last-minute supplies and found a well-dressed Atro’me wandering around the planet’s drab orbital spaceport, hoping to find a ship with enough free berths to take his family back to Maribel. Mahir, knowing that the addition of six passengers on a leg Elena Finn was already going to travel would be a profitable arrangement, negotiated a very reasonable fare, then hurried off to find a software patch to allow the ship’s food processors to cater to Atro’me diets. 

Ali was still installing the patch when the Atro’me family arrived at the boarding hatch. Hearing Mahir’s description, he’d expected two adults and four children, but all six of this family looked to be adults, or nearly so. The parents walked ahead of their brood, their more upright bearing, darker red skin, and visibly faded follicle crests marking them as older and of higher standing, and the other four, though bedecked with the wild, vibrant crest colors and brighter, almost orange-hued skin of their kind’s youth, kept their heads bowed, indicating their lower station.

It’s not always easy to tell at a glance with Atro’me, but Ali came to realize that three of the four youths were females; the fourth, the oldest child, was a male. They all spoke Terran Anglo fluently, of course – it’s rare to find an Atro’me who doesn’t – and as Elena Finn got underway, the youths decided to wander through the ship, curious as to what it contained. After the youngest, a quiet female named Konnila, set off alarms by finding her way into one of the maintenance crawlspaces, Ali organized the passengers into the lounge and laid down the law about what was off-limits during the five-day journey to Maribel. Evidently, he laid it down too well; the Atro’me stayed in the habitation compartments after that, but only the family patriarch spoke to him for the rest of the trip.

To smooth things over, Mahir did most of the interacting with the passengers. Ali could see that his partner didn’t mind this arrangement; Mahir was the more outgoing of the two anyway. Whenever he was not needed to run the ship, the man started spending much of his time in the lounge, swapping stories with whichever subset of the passengers happened to be there at the time.

It was clear to Ali that the passengers all seemed to like Mahir, but it became increasingly obvious that the three girls seemed to hang on his every story, often remaining in the lounge with him long after their brother and parents had retired for a sleep cycle. At first, Ali didn’t think anything of it; Mahir was the sort who loved having an audience – any audience – for his embellished tales. He probably didn’t think too hard about why he had the audience he had. Ali had his suspicions about the way his partner smiled at the oldest sister, but didn’t think that there would be much of a problem. The way he looked at it, the person responsible for reining in any potential problems was the girls’ father, not Ali himself. If the family patriarch didn’t see any problems with the situation, and Mahir didn‘t see any problems with it either, Ali decided he would let it run its course.

Ali soon came to regret his decision. When Elena Finn reached Maribel, each of the three girls independently arranged to return to the ship after their family disembarked. The older two had returned with luggage, indicating that they meant to stay aboard, if they were allowed to do so, while the youngest had brought nothing. None of them anticipated running into her sisters in the corridor in front of Mahir’s cabin.

The security system aboard Elena Finn doesn’t capture sound, but what happened next was not witnessed by either member of the crew until Ali found the recordings several days later. They indicate that this unexpected meeting turned into a chaotic, three-way argument before the two older girls fell upon each other. Atro’me are distinctive for their wide mouths filled with jagged shark-like teeth, and I shudder to think of the sorts of injuries those two girls inflicted, biting, clawing, punching, and generally tearing at each other with wild abandon.

The third Atro’me girl, Konnila, stood aghast at this struggle for several seconds, ignored by her older siblings. This was, of course, the very same curious explorer who’d set off alarms on the first day of the voyage by getting into the maintenance crawlspaces. She was the quietest of the passengers, especially after Ali’s lecture about off-limits areas, but in the struggle of her two sisters, she saw an opportunity.

Moving quickly, she took up the heavy polymer travel-case the oldest girl had brought. Swinging it overhand like an inefficient club, she battered her sisters over the head with it as they struggled on the floor until both had stopped moving. Ali doubted, upon seeing this, that Konnila was strong enough to kill them with the semi-rigid piece of luggage, but he couldn’t be sure, from the recordings alone. Before either had regained consciousness, their younger sister dragged them one at a time to the airlock and down the boarding umbilical into the station, and that was the last Ali saw of either of them. If they did come to, either they gave up and retreated to tend to their wounds, or they never managed to find a way back onto the ship in time. She kept their bags, including the newly-dented one she’d used to batter them into submission.

Composing herself, this formerly shy young woman returned to looking for Mahir, now standing a little prouder than she had since boarding the ship. Mahir bumped into her when he finished his inspection rounds twenty minutes later. She made quite the impression on him, as I understand it; despite first appearing shy, Konnila turned out to be quite enthusiastic and unwilling to take no for an answer. When Ali returned to the ship after arranging a new cargo, Mahir convinced him to let the Atro’me girl, probably no older than twenty T-years, stay aboard.

Of course, Ali didn’t see the security recordings until long after he’d agreed, and Elena Finn was a day and a half out from Maribel loaded with yet another cargo. When he finally did find them, it was just as he was beginning to grow used to the addition to his crew; after all, Konnila rarely ventured out of Mahir’s cabin, and when she did, she knew where not to go and what not to touch. Mahir had even managed to teach her to read a maintenance probe’s cryptic display, allowing her to help with the constant maintenance of Elena Finn.

Of course, now Ali had the recordings, and he needed to figure out what to do about it. Mahir, he knew, would stumble on them eventually, and even deleting them would only prolong the inevitable. Mahir kept backups, and those couldn’t be deleted. The longer Ali kept the secret, the more tainted by inevitable fallout he’d be.

Sighing heavily and reaching under the pilot’s console for the flask which he kept there for special occasions, Ali called his partner to the helm.  

 2946-06-26 - Tales from the Inbox: A Breath of Fresh Air

Besnik took a deep breath and released the seal catches on his helmet. The oxygen reserve of his suit was exhausted, and it was time to risk the planet's fetid, steaming atmosphere. The instruments told him it was breathable, but he had no idea if any of the local microorganisms would be compatible enough with his biology to cause problem. That was a risk he would have to take, as long as he wanted to avoid suffocating. His landing craft, partner, and temporary shelter were still several hours' walk away.

With his first breath, Besnik coughed, and suppressed the urge to vomit. The atmosphere had a bad smell, but a worse taste – it was utterly beyond anything in his experience, but it was reminiscent of both rotting meat and an open sewer. As the clinging mists around him indicated, the air was warm, wet, and thick. The alien flora looming out of the steaming haze were misshapen, cancerous things, most of them translucent and vaguely amoebic. 

As the initial wave of nausea faded, Besnik tried to remind himself that the world he was stranded on wasn't quite the primeval cesspit that it resembled. Having studied its biosphere for more than a week, he knew that the organisms he could see were lumpen and inelegant to the eye, but highly complex biological specimens from which - he hoped - the science of biology had much to learn. Almost all of them were not individual organisms, but complex colonies in which multiple species lived in a complex network of symbiotic and parasitic relationships. Each was a teeming hive of multicellular creatures, acting for the greater whole as the cells and organs in a human body might – ferrying nutrients, disposing of waste materials, repairing injury, or fighting off invaders.

As Besnik fought to gulp the local air without emptying his stomach, The helium-filled envelope of a gas tree ahead of him suddenly tore open with a flatulent sound, and the whole organism crumpled wetly to the spongy soil. Suddenly alert, the human explorer put his back to one of the bulging sac-bushes and watched in that direction carefully. He'd been on-planet for almost a week and still hadn't seen any large predators, but the mist reduced visibility so much that he could have passed a Centauran Ferroceros at ten meters without noticing it or being noticed.

After several seconds, during which nothing else in that direction moved, Besnik took another reluctant breath. The expedition still didn't know much about the gas-trees - not even how they obtained their nutrients. Their beige-brown color certaintly didn't match with the coloration of the planet's other photosynthetic organisms. Perhaps spontaneous bursting was part of their usual life-cycle.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Can you hear me?" 

Once again, only the silence of a dead digital radio channel answered his call. Either his suit radio had been damaged by the crash, or the atmosphere, with all its poorly-evaporated water, was affecting the signal. He'd tried without success to radio Vipin every hour since he had flown too close to the canopy and clipped clipped a gas-tree with one of the wings of his aerofoil.

Grumbling, the explorer collapsed his helmet, clipped it to his belt, and set off once again, following the bearing indicated by his wrist unit. The terrain was hilly, but fortunately, there were no major obstacles between his crash site and the base camp. If he'd thought to bring two more oxygen tanks, just in case, he would have been able to make the walk without even taking off his helmet. 

At the top of a particularly large hill, Besnik was forced to stop to take a breath. The gravity of the world was less than Earth standard, but somewhat more than shipboard standard, and apparently his exercise regimen on the outward journey had not completely kept up with the difference. It didn't help that the air didn't get any less foul-tasting as he breathed more and more of it, and he was trying not to breathe any more than absolutely necessary. At least, half an hour after shedding his helmet, he didn't feel any ill effects other than the sporadic nausea.

Reaching the top of a particularly aggravating hill, Besnik leaned on the flexible trunk of a gas tree and surveyed what little of the terrain ahead he could see. The land sloped down into a valley, and he thought he heard flowing water in the mist. A minor brook or stream would pose no problem – his suit might even be able to refill its water reservoir from the stream, properly filtered.

As Besnik started down, the gas tree he'd just been leaning on burst with a very balloon-like pop. He turned just in time to leap out of the way of its wet, membranous envelope as it fell to the ground. "Ugh." He grumbled, kicking the tree's ropy branches. He hadn't seen a gas tree burst on its own before he took his helmet off – not since he started walking, not since he'd landed on the ball of putrid meat which could be charitably called a planet. It was a mystery he'd have to mention to Vipin, when he made it back. Perhaps it happened all the time, but he had merely paid it no mind before.

At the bottom of the slope, Besnik found a small brook, its waters almost clear. He stuck his wrist probe into the water, allowing his suit to test the liquid and, if it was safe, to refill the suit's reserves. Evidently, the suit liked what it sensed; he felt the tiny pump below his elbow spin up, drawing water up a tube in his arm to the reservoir behind his back. When the water tank was full, he took a sip from the water tube protruding near his neck and waded across. The stream, despite moving quickly, had a thick, muddy bottom – Besnik's boots clung with every step, and gray mud covered them up to the ankles when he emerged on the other side.

"Vipin, it's Besnik. Please tell me you're not napping on the job." Besnik sent again, trying unsuccessfully to kick the sticky mud off.

"Besnik? Where the hell have you been?" The reply was punctuated with static as the channel struggled to connect. Besnik tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but instead he caught a whiff of the mud he had walked through and gagged violently. It smelled like someone had blended a bucket of rotting fish heads in sulfuric acid.

"I'm..." Besnik struggled for breath. "Almost back. Wrecked the aerofoil. Any chance you can come pick me up in the rover?"

"Got your locator. I'll get moving right away." Vipin was a terrible driver, but Besnik didn't mind if the all-terrain research rover picked up a few dents if it meant getting clean sooner. "See you in a few minutes."

"Thanks." Besnik barely managed to reply with his eyes watering; the mud's reek seemed to grow stronger as it dried. He kicked his boots against the rubbery side of a sac-bush to try to knock some of it off, but managed only to smear the side of the xeno-flora with a thin film of the stuff. Almost immediately, the bush trembled in a disquieting fashion, as if repulsed by the mud as much as himself. In the end, Besnik gave up and began walking again, glad for a light breeze in his face which wafted the worst of the acidic stench away. As he did, another gas tree nearby failed; its ropy, twisted trunk fell limply against an adjacent specimen.

"Why the hell does that happen?" He asked nobody in particular. Idly, he wondered if the planet's miasmatic atmosphere was beginning to affect him. Realizing that his progress wouldn't make any difference since Vipin was probably only a minute away, Besnik approached the fallen tree. With its gas sacs burst, it looked something like a dead, emaciated webbed arm. Its trunk's entwined vine-like elements twitched like severed lizards' tails. There was nothing redeeming about the horrid things, Besnik decided.

Shortly after he started examining the flaccid tree closely, the random twitching turned into a cooperative tug, and the entire tree retracted into the ground with an elastic, slithering motion. "Hey!" Besnik trotted after the limp canopy, which was out of sight by the time he reached the place the tree had once rooted.

The sound of the rover's electric motors and a crash as Vipin plowed through a stand of sac-bushes, caromed off a large gas-tree, and skidded to a halt right in front of Besnik. The vehicle's nose was coated in several varieties of biological slime, each with its own consistency and putrescent shade of brown. "Hell, Besnik. You've been breathing this mess? Why didn't you call sooner?"

"Hell, Vipin, I tried." He replied, watching the tree Vipin had plowed over begin to slither into the ground below the rover. Something about that motion seemed wrong, but with his head swimming from the stench of the mud, he couldn't figure out exactly what it was. "Hey, did we know gas trees live in burrows?"

"Besnik, that doesn't even make a little bit of sense. Let's get you to medical." Inside the bubble canopy, Besnik saw Vipin strap on his own helmet and head for the belly hatch.

Besnik had a foggy sort of idea, but it was a very unpleasant one. "Wait, Vipin, don't-"

It was too late to warn him. The other explorer leapt the last few rungs of the boarding ladder, and just as his boots touched the spongy soil, a lightning-fast vortex of beige tendrils erupted from the vanished tree's "burrow" to ensnare him. Besnik saw a flash of comically surprised expression behind Vipin's faceplate, then his partner disappeared into the ground.

"Hells." Besnik took a step backward. He realized what had been bothering him. The gas-trees all around him had trembled and spasmed when Vipin had struck one with the rover. They weren't trees at all - they were the limb-like tendrils of some colonial organism living underground. The scent of unfamiliar human flesh had convinced some of these creatures to free up tendrils to snare him if he wandered too close - and Vipin had jumped right into its grasp.

With a chorus of tearing and popping noises, the other trees nearby began to deflate and fall to the ground as well. He was, he could see, thoroughly surrounded, and even if he was not light-headed from the stink of the substance on his boots, he doubted he could keep track of where each set of tendrils vanished in order to chart a safe path out of the trap.

"Besnik!" Vipin's voice contained a mix of fear and rage. "Get me out of here! I'm-"

Besnik didn't hear whatever Vipin said next. He took another step backward, stumbled on a rock hidden in the undergrowth, staggered, and fell onto his back - right into the eager embrace of the vine-like beige tendrils.

Besnik M. sent us today's story. Besnik is a field xenobiologist who has spent a lot of time on life-bearing worlds, examining their ecosystems. What he sent us here is, by his own words, a snapshot of what it's like to work on one of the most densely thriving planets he's ever set foot on. He sent this account as a high-fidelity suit-camera recording, but Sovanna took one look at it and decided not to subject her audience to the footage. It will be clear fairly quickly from reading his account why she chose not to put it on Feedback Loop, and why this particular life-bearing planet was skipped over for colonization, even though its stellar primary is close to a major artery of the Spacelanes. 

Besnik's account here has been left on a cliffhanger because that's where the footage ended. According to his supplementary notes, what follows was a bit of an anticlimax featuring Besnik and his partner Vipin shouting unkind things at each other through the wet, peat-like soil, then burrowing back out to their vehicle. Whatever dragged them down (Besnik is confident that it was some sort of meta-colony of carnivorous gas trees) presumably found humans quite unappetizing. It didn't hurt either xenobiologist, and they didn't have any further run-ins with it in their remaining time on the surface.

Besnik does observe that not everything on the planet was so harmless. He claims that he spent four days laid up in sickbay after trying to scrape the dried mud off his boots and discovering that it contained toxin-secreting microorganisms.

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."