2947-05-14 - Tales from the Inbox: Seeker in Scales
You may refrain from sending me your own version of the rumor that the Arrowhawk squadron tangled with Sagittarians in open battle this week on the far side of the Gap; I have heard several versions of this story, and Naval Intelligence flatly denies every one of them.
This would mean little if they also prevented me from publishing them, but their ambivalence to my sharing these rumors suggests the stories are (at least as far as their office at Håkøya is aware) false. I’ve sent messages personally to Captain Bosch, but he has not responded to them, owing to the long turnaround time on communication sent along the mostly-complete chain of HyperCast relays which spans the Sagittarius Gap.
The increased Ladeonist criminal activity on the Coreward Frontier, while verified and noteworthy, is also not within the purview of this text feed, and I do not need to be informed of it. Acts of terror are that cult’s usual strategy, and while their movement into the Frontier is a new development, it likely has more to do with the crackdown on their activities in the Silver Strand and other backwaters than it does to an actual expansion of their numbers and resources. It is not surprising that the mass movement of people from the Core Worlds and the Colonial Reach has brought along such unsavory elements as the Ladeonists. Perhaps once the Sagittarians have been dealt with, the forces the Navy is concentrating in the region will be used to root out their redoubts.
Stories on this text feed have always been chosen with an eye toward the mysterious, the unknown, the shadowy, and to those who seek out the same. Jaska N. graced this space in a four-part series about his escape from the Rattanai slavers who destroyed his home settlement in Hegemony space (Tales from the Inbox: Rattanai Rematch). In his escape, he rescued an odd sapient which called itself Ina - this odd creature, seemingly made up of a swarm of metallic (possibly mechanical) constituents, proved useful, if uncomfortably friendly.
Jaska, after parting ways with fellow survivor Karley, let the xenosapient Ina lead him into the Brushfire nebula, to what is probably its world of origin.
The little runabout’s landing skids clattered down on crumbling rock, and Jaska leaned away from the controls. Though hardly the galaxy’s best pilot, he was glad he could still land a small ship on a flat surface. A storm had complicated the landing, but despite lightning and driving rain, the final approach had been relatively smooth. “We’re here.” Unbuckling his crash harness as sheets of rain beat against the hull above his head, he spun the pilot’s couch around and stood, mindful of the heavy planetary gravity overriding the weaker A-grav of the diminutive ship.
A lithe, scaly figure slipped quietly out of one of the two bed-racks in the back of the crew compartment, seeming more to pour itself off the bunk than to climb down. Ina’s blue-black face-plate betrayed no hint of emotion or thought, but the way her whiplike, barbed tail cut the air suggested agitation. Despite any nervousness, she jumped to wrap him in a simple embrace communicated her thanks more than any three symbols drawn on the face-plate ever could.
Jaska returned the embrace, long since used to her swarmlike composition and the way her plate-like components shifted loosely under his arms. Despite asking many times, it was still unclear to him whether Ina’s “scales” were machines or organisms – if they were machines, they were so sophisticated that they mimicked flat, beetle-shelled organisms, and if they were organic, it was no surprise that their metallic shells and perfect intercommunication mimcked networked machines in a local datasphere.
The embrace, as intimate as one between lovers, dragged on several seconds beyond where mere gratitude would have been satisfied. With Ina’s cool, glassy face-plate pressed into his shoulder, Jaska cleared his throat. “What are we looking for?”
Ina lifted her head, and Jaska had to push whitish pseudo-hair out of the way to see what she had to say. In three-letter segments replaced about once a second, Ina spelled out her message. “IWI-LLS-HOW-YOU,” her face flashed out. “ITI-SCL-OSE.”
“Air outside is breathable, but should we wait for the weather to clear?” Jaska gestured to the viewpanel at the front of the ship, over which the rainwater flowed in cataracts.
It was little surprise that Ina’s face displayed only two letters in response: “NO.”
“Let’s see what we’ve got for coats, then.” Jaska gently lifted Ina off himself, then rummaged through the ship’s various storage compartments until he found a pair of insulated ponchos in the survival kit. The rented ship was meant to allow the renter to camp out on remote planets for a few days, so it came reasonably stocked for inclement weather.
Even as he shook out one of the ponchos, Jaska found Ina’s sinuous, prehensile tail winding itself around his waist. Allowing himself to be turned around by its gentle pressure, he saw the message in her posture long before “ICA-NKE-EPY-OUD-RY” finished flashing across her face.
“No thanks.” Jaska shook his head. She could indeed keep him dry – the swarmlike sapient could envelop him like a suit of scaly, symbiotic armor. Indeed, this trait had proven invaluable to their escape from the Rattanai slavers who had destroyed Jaska’s home settlement, but Jaska preferred not to give her an opening to use it.
It wasn’t that the process was unpleasant – indeed, it was quite the opposite concern. Ina had proved herself quite capable of making the experience thrilling and even pleasurable, and it was obvious she derived a similar enjoyment from attaching herself to a cooperative partner in such a way. Symbiotic bonding seemed to nourish Ina in a way Jaska couldn’t understand, and she grew weak and feeble without it. Jaska liked Ina, but her symbiosis represented a fate far worse than death – it represented a way in which Jaska could lose his individuality, and perhaps even his humanity. He had allowed her enough contact to regain her strength, but no more.
Perhaps understanding his reluctance in part, Ina did not force her dubious protection on Jaska. She always offered, but never pressed. Though obviously not human and no more subject to humanlike sexuality than the ship itself, she was content to match her mannerisms to her lithe female shape, as if she could slowly tempt him into accepting her symbiotic attention by swaying facsimile hips. Indeed, even the designation “she” which Jaska gave Ina was probably no more meaningful than to assign a gender label to the gun strapped to his belt.
“ASY-OUW-ISH.” Ina took the second poncho, examined it, and set it aside, seeing no need for it. Her tail uncoiled from Jaska’s waist, and she stepped aside to give him space to shrug on the plastic garment. As soon as he had, she darted to the airlock and opened the inner door.
The lock was so small that Jaska and Ina were pressed tightly together in its one-square-meter footprint, but neither of them wanted to be outside in the rain alone while the lock cycled a second time. When Jaska’s boots crunched down on the broken stone outcrop on which he’d landed, there wasn’t much to see – the rain hid everything more than fifteen meters ahead.
“I hope you know where you’re going.” Jaska called out, detaching a Reed-Soares multitool from the ship’s belly compartment and configuring it into a long hiking pole. Though local time was near mid-day, the rainstorm hid everything in near total darkness, except when a purplish bolt of lightning cut across the sky. Oddly, there was almost no wind.
Ina turned to face her human companion, a simple “YES” already glowing from her face-plate. Unlike Jaska's voice, the glowing letters had no trouble cutting through the hissing downpour. Oddly, the hairlike strands spilling from Ina’s head seemed to repel the rain without becoming wet.
“Lead on, then.”
Ina stepped in close and took Jaska’s hand in her own. As always, the scale-like components of her fingers shifted against each other under his grip, as if her hand was about to come apart if he squeezed too hard, but none of the scales slipped free as she pulled him gently forward. In Jaska’s experience, the scales only lost their grip on each other when she wanted them to.
Soon leaving the rocky but clear ground of the outcrop, Ina led Jaska down into a gravelly, muddy ravine. With each step, his boots sunk in and then sucked free of the muck, but Ina’s nimble feet barely left any tracks. Being far lighter than she appeared, and crowned with a halo of whitish, water-repelling hair, she seemed to dance elf-like beyond the grip of the rain and the boggy ground.
The sodden hike ended less than an hour’s walk from the landing site, and though Jaska was fit and healthy, the mud and then a rough uphill climb left him panting when Ina stopped and let her hand slip out of his. There, at the crown of a barren hill, Ina stood staring off into the distance as Jaska recovered his breath.
“Are we... there yet?” Jaska, leaning on his multitool hiking pole, stepped up to see what his companion was looking at. A curtain of rain prevented him from seeing the opposite slope of the hill, much less the horizon beyond. Even when a particularly bright flash of lightning shot across the sky with a crack like the splitting of the world, he could see only a number of distant silhouettes, equally likely to be lifeforms, ruins, or simple rock formations.
Ina turned to face him, the letters “WEA-REH-ERE” flashing on her face. “JAS-KAD-OYO-UTR-UST-ME?” The addition of punctuation – a question-mark – in her three-letter message segments struck Jaska as odd.
Jaska frowned. Little good ever came of someone asking such a question. “You have not done me any wrong yet, Ina. Don’t start.”
Ina put her scaled hands on Jaska’s shoulders, then leaned in as if to kiss him, though she lacked a mouth or lips with which to do so. He realized what she was going to do too late to stop her – all at once, her humanoid shape dissolved, and a fluid rush of scaly components flowed into the cowl of his poncho, wrapping themselves around his head, then proceeding down his body and limbs. The scale-like constituents crawled under his jumpsuit and undergarments to interlock over his skin.
Knowing what to expect, Jaska held his breath as her face-plate contorted until it covered his own face. The feeling of Ina’s composite body wrapping itself around his own was, devoid of the terror of the first time, a very nearly comforting experience.
“I know you didn’t want this.” Ina’s voice, produced by the vibration of the scale-components over his ears, whispered sweetly. “But it’s the only way.”
Jaska threw back the poncho’s hood and brushed Ina’s hair back out of his face, ignoring the clink of his newly mailed fingers against his newly visored face. “The only way to do what?”
“Pluck a shard.” Ina laughed brightly, and as usual, every one of her scales laughed in unison, vibrating with mirth. “That’s why we’re here. With the shard, I can be complete.”
“No more symbiosis?” Jaska felt an itch developing on his side, and just as he despaired of scratching it, the scale covering that patch of skin did it for him.
“A shard of this world will sustain my strength.” Ina whispered seductively. “But I will still be capable. We make a good team, Terran. We can do much together.”
“Too good for my comfort.” Jaska grumbled, but the honeyed voice in his ears found more than a little sympathy in his thoughts. “Where is this shard?”
A bolt of lightning, seeming to move in slow motion, split the sky above their heads, and Jaska saw tiny sparks of its light reflecting from something nestled within the boulders of the hilltop. Stepping up to the odd object, he saw what it was – a bulbous xenoflora of mirrored metallic flesh studded with crystalline thorns.
“This is your shard?” Jaska reached out to tap the plantlike organism. It rung at the slightest touch, loudly enough to be heard over the rain.
“One such, yes. The closest to where you landed.”
“What do I do?” Jaska held up his hand, feeling a slight tingle in his fingertips.
“Pull it free, but do not wound it yet.”
Remembering that he was many times stronger with Ina’s scales coating his arms, Jaska reached out to grip the “shard” where it protruded from the ground and pulled, gently at first but with increasing force. Stubby, twitching roots surrendered their grip on the pebbly soil, and the plant lifted free.
Jaska held the odd thing at arm’s length. “Is this all we came for?” His hands were tingling more strongly now, and he wondered what the feeling meant. Perhaps some irritant on the plant had seeped between Ina’s scales.
“Do you trust me?”
“Do you trust me?” Ina raised her voice slightly, though it lost none of its seductive tone.
“I think I do.” The purpose of the question still wasn’t clear to him, but the answer was obvious; when Ina had suggested the trip without explaining what she was after, he’d agreed without too much argument.
“Then be still.”
The twitching pseudo-plant leapt in Jaska’s hands, and in spite of himself he squeezed it. At this pressure, the growth split open to reveal a branching manifold of pale crystals surrounded by golden filaments, all glowing with sinister light.
The tingling in his hands and arms became a burning sensation, but Ina’s scales locked against each other, and he could not move to drop the plant. With a sudden spike of panic, he knew the sensation to be radiation – he had ventured out of the ship without a geiger counter, and Ina had led him to an organism that was highly radioactive. Under the scales, he imagined his skin discoloring, bruising, and then finally sloughing off in sheets as it was consumed by the harsh energy put off by the organic crystals.
“I said be still!” The voice lost some of its honeyed charm, and gained a measure of impatience. “This will only-”
But Jaska didn’t hear the explanation delivered to his ears by the vibrating scales. His vision swam, and consciousness fled, with the glow of the shard-plant chasing him into oblivion.
Jaska sent this account in, of course. He did not die, but he was forced to spend several days recovering from the ordeal before he was healthy enough to pilot his rented ship back to a civilized world. Whether he still travels with Ina or not, he did not say; he does say that the sapient got him back into the ship and nursed him back to health.
What the creature did with the “shard” he does not know.