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 somethin' outta... 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."