2946-12-04 - Tales from the Inbox: Sculptor's Stray

The identity file for the woman in cell number three was short on information, as was usual for the sorts of people who found themselves in secure solitary lockup in a constabulary annex. As Hugh Apperlo took inventory at the beginning of his shift, she stood out from the usual crowd of junkies, violent drunks, and street scum; most of the prisoners who woke up in the Temerity District annex holding cells were the same sorts, in a reassuring sort of way.

The district was, for lack of more charitable words, somewhat rough and run-down. The miracle of the Coreward Frontier which had lifted Maribel from obscurity to a growing and prosperous planet had passed over Temerity District and its sprawling unmanaged cityscape of slums. For all that, Hugh was fond of the place – it was his home, and though keeping order was an impossibility, he considered it his job to keep the disorder limited to the familiar, local sort.

“What’s her problem?” Hugh asked Aref, the night constable. The man was still hanging around as usual, to make sure his replacement found everything in order.

“Hell if I know.” The weary-looking officer threw up his hands. “Chief Sterling hauled her down here in here in the middle of the shift, and she hasn’t said a peep. She’d be nice to look at if she weren’t skinsculpted all to hell.”

Hubert shuddered at the thought, though a casual glance at the cell monitors hadn’t suggested anything amiss about the prisoner. Skinsculpt was illegal on most of the Confederated Worlds, but illegal or no, Maribel’s position as gateway to the frontier meant that it had a strong black market in depravity. Usually, such degenerate behavior and those who catered to it stuck close to the spaceport or to the centers of wealth and privilege; to find it in Temerity District was an unwelcome novelty. “Varinia Villa.” He read the name of the sparsely populated file. “Age, thirty. Native of Cardona’s Landing. Aref, where’s that?”

“Looked it up earlier. Turns out that it’s a drain-circler in the Treaty Zone.”

Hugh was never good at astrography, but he did know the Treaty Zone was on the border with the Hegemony, on the opposite side of Confederated Space. “Hell of a way to come, to end up in lockup here.”

Arif gave a snort of disdain. “Freak like her, she should’ve stayed put.” The night guardsman removed his duty badge. “See you tomorrow, Hugh.”

After seeing his associate off, Hugh started processing morning release forms. As usual for a Monday morning, most of the prisoners who he’d taken charge of would be released in the first third of the shift. The weekened “rush” of drunken brawls, domestic disputes, erratic junkies, and incompetent petty thieves would be set free to wander the streets once more, their records blackened with fresh but minor offenses. Some of the “regulars” spent so many nights in lockup that Hugh would greet them by their first name as they were led out; others would leave looking bewildered as to how they managed to find themselves in lockup in the first place. It was a sorry routine, shepherding Maribel’s dregs through the petty-crime system, but it was a comfortable one.

When he reached the entry for the woman prisoner, Hugh found no criminal charge or term of incarceration, only her name, home-world, and age. If Arif was to be believed, the Chief himself had hauled her in – yet, the arresting officer had put no details about how long she was to be held. That she was a skinsculpt wasn’t even listed in the records.

With a weary, bureaucratic sigh, Hugh punched in the guard-desk intercom code and hooked into the comms system in cell number three. “Sorry to bother you, miss. I can’t find your file. Did your arresting officer give you a reference number?” He could find her file, but its emptiness seemed sufficiently sinister that a white lie might worry her less.

On the video feed, the woman half-hidden by shadow stood up fluidly and moved into the light leaking through the view-glass in the armored door. As she did, Hugh could see what Arif had been referring to; the left side of her body had been heavily skinsculpted, with her flesh seeming to be stretched taut over angular, geometric skeletal extensions. Embedded in this tissue were hundreds of odd, crystalline structures; even in the faint light in the cell, these glittered darkly, as if wrapping the tattered grey light around themselves. A simple, sheer dress of smart-fabric, cut around the modifications which could not be hidden by mere technological cloth, did little to accentuate her slim and relatively curveless frame, but her angular face was quite unmodified and, Hugh decided in agreement with his compatriot Arif, fairly attractive.

“The guard has changed.” She stared into the lens, pointedly not addressing Hugh’s question. “Who are you?”

“Constable Apperlo. First shift lockup guard.” He replied. This was all he was usually comfortable telling prisoners, except the ones he had begun to know from their regular visits.

“Apperlo.” She echoed. “You don’t mind if I call you Hugh, do you?”

Hugh, blood suddenly running cold, didn’t reply for several seconds. Eventually, he decided on his response. He’d never seen the degraded woman before in his life; she couldn’t possibly have known his name unless Arif had let it slip. “I would prefer you did not.”

Her wordless sound of reply was noncommittal, almost whimsical, but the expression on her angular face – angular by nature, not by sculpt, Hugh guessed – was neutral and solemn. “My file won’t be of any use to you.” She eventually came back to the question. “I wouldn’t be here except by choice, and you can be rid of me whenever you want.”

“This is the precinct lockup, Miss Villa.” Hugh reminded her. “You don’t-”

“Varinia, please.”

Hugh soldiered on as best he could. “You don’t have a say in your period of incarceration. We’ll have a time of release as soon as your file is located, and you will be leaving at that time.”

“Will I, Hugh?” Varinia Villa stretched her arms lopsidedly, demonstrating the reduced flexibility of the artificially-shaped and decorated limb over the natural one. “And when I do leave, what will stop some street thugs for tearing a skinsculpt freak like me apart?” The dead tone in which she delivered the phrase was almost more awful than the reality of her appearance.

“Skinsculpt is illegal.” Hugh replied automatically, though it didn’t answer the question.

“A practice for degenerates who have embraced the darkness and tried to erase their humanity.” The deliberately lifeless continued; she was only echoing rote what was law on so many worlds. As if all the animating force had left her, the woman’s shoulders and head drooped, and she turned away from the camera. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Hugh winced; he realized the blunder he’d made. The Treaty Zone was unmanaged, barbarous, and chaotic, and those who lived there were pirates, fanatics, chattel traffickers, and worse. If she was truly a native of that place, it was entirely possible that her alterations had not been her own choice. “I’m sorry.” He said, without pressing the button to carry his voice into the cell. Reversing an elaborate skinsculpt was often much more expensive than procuring it, whether or not it was done legally; nobody who ended up in Temerity had that sort of money.

“You probably can’t find a file because I asked your Chief to arrest me.” The prisoner sat back down on the cot, where she’d been sitting solemnly when Hugh had done his visual inspection of the cells upon arrival. After shifting so the half-light hid her alterations under a coat of shadows, she looked back up at the camera. “He’s a decent man. He brought me in here. Gave me a few names of officers I could trust. One of those names was yours.”

Hugh didn’t know what to say. Chief Sterling was among the district’s most respected persons, and though he was getting near retirement, his firm hand on the law enforcement tiller had probably slowed Temerity District’s long decline. To be considered someone trustworthy by the Chief was something Hugh didn’t think he deserved.

As he struggled to figure out how to ask how this unfortunate woman had managed to wander into Temerity on her own, Hugh looked down at the desk display and noticed that Villa’s file had changed. There was still no information about the crime for which she had been arrested, but she was now scheduled for release along with most of the others. In a little while, Hugh would have to send her out with the rest, and what they'd do to her once they were outside the building was obvious.

This is the first part of an account sent to me by a Maribel native who is a new member of our wide interstellar community. Hugh A. was happy for me to share his full name and his story. He also provided a more complete account of what his friensd Varinia V. suffered at the hands of the degenerate wretches of the Silver Strand, but I don't think that such a tale is appropriate for this audience. It is sufficient to say that the Strand is not a nice place, and that we all look forward to a time when the treaty-demilitarization of the region is lifted and it can be brought back into the fold of proper civilization. The fact that skinsculpting and other forms of dehumanizing nano-procedure are commonplace there is well-known, but the fact that many are put through such twisting without their own consent is less widely publicized.

The second half of Hugh's account will be featured in next week's Tales from the Inbox: Sculptor's Second Chance.