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.