2946-12-11 - Tales from the Inbox: Sculptor's Second Beginning

In last week's Tales from the Inbox: Sculptor's Stray, we first encountered Hugh A., a local constable on Maribel, and Varinia V., a woman who survived he horrors of the Silver Strand pleasure-slave market, and did not emerge from this den of degeneracy unaffected. Somehow, she made her way across hundreds of light-years from the Strand to Maribel, largely on her own. On Maribel, she found a few people who saw through her horrific alterations and helped out a person in need - the chief law officer of Temerity District, and Hugh himself.

Hugh and Varinia are now crew-members on an interstellar hauler whose captain, a native of the Strand himself, is very sympathetic to Varinia's situation. Though the stigma against human use of  skinsculpting found on most populated worlds is difficult to dismiss as illegitimate, but it should come as no surprise to this audience that the interstellar community has been far more accepting of her situation than the population of even the wildest of the Frontier worlds would have been.

I would hope that members of this audience try to keep an open mind with persons whose humanity has been lost to some degree - there are many out there who did not come to such a situation by choice, and would, if they could, undo what has been done to them. Be it the torture inflicted by slavers in the backwater Strand or the hideous effects of poorly-understood xeno-contagions, we should always keep in mind that those who are fighting to get their humanity back in the face of great personal tragedy are often among the most human of us all.

Cringing at the idea of releasing the unwillingly-altered Varinia Villa with the usual riffraff, and knowing what the outcome of such a blunder would be, Hugh switched comm lines and called up to the Chief’s office. When someone finally connected the call, it was not Chief Sterling; he had most likely clocked out at the same time as Arif. Instead, the sharp, nasal voice of Lieutenant Porcher answered. “What do you need, Apperlo?”

“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am.” Hugh didn’t like Porcher; she was senior on duty for the quiet morning shift, and she was something of a tyrant when she could get away with it. “There’s a woman here called Villa the Chief hauled in last night. Are we releasing her this morning?”

“We are.” Porcher replied smugly. “The Chief has no right to use our solitary cells as a halfway house. We don’t have the budget for it. She’s not charged with anything, so she’s free to go when you release the rest.”

“Understood, Ma’am.” Hugh ended the call quickly, then shook his head. Releasing such a distinctively fleshsculpted individual among the territorial and often violent petty criminals of the district would be a mess – there would be violence on the very steps of the precinct station, and Porcher knew it. She was marking her territory; the Chief ruled the night, but she intended to undo anything of his that didn’t suit her own management of the morning. She probably also hoped to get some of the regular weekend “visitors” on more serious crimes, that would justify sending them away to the regional penitentiary. Porcher had never liked the awkward rapport many of the district’s petty criminals had with local law enforcement, after all. She thought it unbecoming, and perhaps it was.

“I’ve got your records now, Varinia.” Hugh didn’t catch himself using her first name until it was too late. “The Lieutenant says with no crime on file, we can’t legally keep you.”

There was no answer from inside the cell, and Hugh didn’t need to look at the video feed to know that Varinia Villa was aware of the danger a release in broad daylight would put her in.

“I’m going to make sure we process all the others out first, then we’ll see about your case.” Hugh offered.

“Don’t risk your job on my account. It’s not worth it.” Her tone was light, but she seemed to have grasped the situation from what little she’d been told.

Hugh didn’t think that delay would earn him any reproach, but with Lieutenant Porcher, anything was possible. He would, of course, have to risk it.

Less than a minute later, the Lieutenant came down to collect the prisoners for release, with two fully-armored constables in tow to wrangle the occasionally-disruptive prisoners. Hugh stood to salut,e, then triggered the cell-release controls for the other prisoners to be released one by one, letting the other officers escort them out of the cell block one by one, as usual. The lieutenant watched with a withering stare until all the prisoners except Villa were mustered along the wall, kept there by two armed officers, though Hugh could tell they weren’t interested in trouble inside the annex.

“Well, Mr. Apperlo?” Porcher looked at him with one icily arched eyebrow. “I thought there was one more.” She knew full well there was, of course.

“Go ahead with these, Ma’am. I’ll handle the special prisoner myself.” He did his best to sound confident with this assertion, hoping to remind her that she was still Chief Sterling’s subordinate.”

The other prisoners muttered amongst themselves at this choice of words, knowing the situation was unusual. Hugh paid them no mind; he met his superior’s eyes and didn’t look away. At first, Lieutenant Porcher looked ready to make an issue of this change of plans, but as if remembering the Chief’s involvement in Varinia Villa’s case, she suddenly backed down after several tense seconds. “Process these ones out. Apperlo and I will see to the last one.” A wave directed the other two constables to escort the prisoner train upstairs.

Hugh let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, then turned away to do as he had said. Varinia Villa would still have to fare in the open, the Lieutenant was allowing her to escape outside the notice of the petty criminals. He had to hope it was enough to let her get out of Temerity in one piece, though the neighboring districts wouldn’t be much more hospitable for an unwilling skinsculpt.

“Guard Apperlo.” The Lieutenant’s sharp voice stopped Hugh short just as his hand rested on the cell-door release control for the final cell. “Bring that degenerate up here.”

Hugh winced at the epithet, but did as he was ordered, releasing the door lock and then trudging down the silent cell block to number three. Varinia was seated calmly on the cot, and when the door opened, the light drew back the shadowed curtain over her disfigured nature. Trying not to shudder, he held out a hand. “Come on.”

With a curt nod, the skinsculpted woman stood fluidly and walked past Hugh into the hall, ignoring his outstretched hand. She stopped as soon as she saw Lieutenant Porcher standing at Hugh’s guard desk at the end of the block, halted as if by the force the officer’s unconcealed antipathy. Closing the cell door behind the woman, Hugh urged her onward after only the briefest hesitation. Porcher was a firebrand, but she probably wouldn’t risk her own rise to Temerity’s highest-ranking law enforcement position over one of the Sterling’s mercy projects.

“I don’t know how a freak like you sweet-talked the Chief into getting a warm bed for the night, but we’re not a charity.” The Lieutenant stood in the way, preventing Varinia and Hugh from leaving the jail.

Varinia kept her gaze studiously on the floor. Hugh focused on her, rather than on the Lieutenant, because it was his duty to keep her from causing trouble, even if his superior was more likely to instigate something. In the much better light near his desk, he saw what he could only suspect from the camera feed – the skinsculpt job that had been inflicted on the woman was more extensive than it had first seemed, with tiny crystalline patterns, seemed to radiate across her body, starting at the arm and shoulder covered in crystalline spikes. The whole effect was one of incompletion, as if the effort to strip her of her humanity had been interrupted.

When it was clear that there would be no response to her invective, the Lieutenant, flying into a sudden fury, backhanded Varinia viciously, sending her reeling back against Hugh. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you, wretch!”

Hugh caught the prisoner to keep her on her feet, ignoring the unpleasant feeling of the geometrically-sculpted arm and shoulder under his hand, and the macabre, chime-like sound of the crystalline extrusions rattling against each other. “Lieutenant.” There was no hiding the disgust and anger in his voice. “Get ahold of yourself.”

Porcher’s furious glare met Hugh’s, and once again, he struggled not to look away, even though he knew what he was doing. She would be Chief soon, and when she was, he would be out of his job. Once again, the Lieutenant backed down, though she abandoned none of her irrational fury as she whirled on one booted heel and stalked away. “Get her out of my precinct.” The barked order came only as she was halfway up the stairs to the main floor. “Then make sure that cell is well cleaned.”

Hugh waited until Lieurenant Porcher was gone before moving or making a sound. “Sorry about the Lieutenant, miss. I can take down a statement if you want to file a complaint.”

The woman regained her footing and pushed Hugh’s hands away to stand on her own. Already, a red mark was forming on her cheek where she’d been struck, but the blow seem to have done any serious damage. “Would it do any good?” Hugh suppressed a shudder at the grotesque juxtaposition of her untouched, pretty face framed on one side by gaudy, dark crystalline spines sprouting from her shoulder, and on the other by her tangle of dark, unkempt hair, cropped asymmetrically to keep it away from the garish sculpting which would certainly trap it.

Hugh shook his head sadly, unable to voice the simple admission that the complaint would go nowhere. Porcher was not popular in the precinct, but she had earned the grudging respect of everyone, including the Chief, because she ran a tight shift. One minor incident of violence against such a disreputable prisoner might even aid her career prospects, in such a rough place as Temerity District. “Let’s go. Since you’re not charged with anything, I’ll take you out by the alley.”

Varinia followed Hugh upstairs down the hall between the two constabulary ready-stations, past the interrogation room, the mess, and the evidence vault. The alley door was intended for bringing in supplies; it was a loading dock rather than a public entrance, and it refused to open until Hugh tapped its status panel with a bypass chit.

After peeking cautiously out into the dingy alley, littered as it was with reusable crates waiting to be picked up by the reclamation service, Hugh led the skinsculpt out. “Do you have some place to go?”

“I’ll find somewhere.” The reply was optimistic, but Hugh knew she wouldn’t find anywhere in Temerity District that would welcome her, even if she had money to pay for lodging.

“Miss Villa-”

“I told you to call me Varinia.”

“Varinia.” Hugh grudgingly corrected himself. “Are you-”

“Stars around, what a freak.” In the mouth of the alley, a trio of slouching local troublemakers had taken notice of the pair at the loading dock. These were, Hugh recognized, some of the very people who’d just been released from his cell block. “Officer, we’ll make sure she gets out of the district.” His two friends chuckled unkindly.

“You tried, Hugh.” Varinia observed quietly. “I suppose not everyone here is as decent as you and the Chief.”

“Mr. Apperlo.” Lieutenant Porcher’s voice barked in Hugh’s ear, courtesy of his comms earpiece. He could hear the undisguised smug satisfaction in her voice, and knew that she had made sure somehow that the local miscreants had taken notice of Varinia’s departure. “Back to your post.”

Hugh looked at the three men, then at Varinia, then up at the surveillance camera perched above his head, watching the alley. Porcher could fire him without the Chief’s approval, and then he would be no better off than the very drunks he had spent several years guarding. Good employment in Temerity District was nearly impossible to find; the junior constable position he had was among the best available.

“If you lot don’t go home, I’ll have you back in the block in five minutes.” Hugh warned the men, but they only sneered at him. They knew how little Maribel authorities – especially in a place like Temerity – usually protected indigent off-worlders who washed up on the already thickly populated planet.

“Mr. Apperlo, back to your post. That was an order.”

Hugh looked up at the camera again, intending to make it only too clear that he had heard the order, then deliberately pulled out his earpiece, dropped it to the ground, and crushed it under one foot. “Come on.” He told Varinia, leading her toward the men. He had a side-arm and a shock baton, in addition to the protective body armor contained in his uniform; the trio quickly thought better of their approach and slunk away.

Varinia finally found her voice after they had gone. “What are you doing? Hugh, your job-”

“Chief will have my back.” Hugh didn’t have the confidence he placed into those words. Chief Sterling would do what he could, but disobeying a direct order to return to his post, then smashing his earpiece in a show of open defiance, was not recoverable.

Varinia threaded her unaltered arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder gently. “I’m sure.”

Hugh looked down at the damaged woman next to him, for once not having to suppress a shudder at her twisted appearance. The Chief had seen something in her, and in him – if he had to guess, it was that neither of them was a good fit for rough, tumbledown Temerity District.