2948-07-21 – Tales from the Service: The Garden of the Grand Azure
Last week, we began the account of Leon Koch-Zyma, a Confederated Navy officer whose odd story seems to line up very closely with previous accounts from this feed (If you have not read Tales from the Service: Aboard the Grand Azure, I recommend you do so before reading this week’s entry). While I am personally convinced Leon came into contact with Gus, Blake, Faye, and Sapphire (convinced enough that I have used those pseudonyms rather than the probably-false names given by the mercenaries Leon encountered), there cannot be any proof of this, unless perhaps Junia (who you may recall made her exit from this group on Berkant years before the tale came to us) has any means to confirm.
As the big, affable repair tech wandered off, Leon’s suspicions that Grand Azure’s crew was up to something were enhanced. “So I’ve met three of the four of you. I suppose we’ll run into the skipper in hydroponics?”
Gus turned around suddenly, as if stung. “Why would you say that, Lieutenant?”
“You… suggested it as the highlight of the ship.”
“Ah, right. I did.” Hadley scratched his neck again. “Next deck down.”
Even with the upsell Hadley had given him in the umbilical, Leon was surprised by the size and sophistication of the hydroponics garden aboard Grand Azure. The deck’s double-height overhead paneling allowed for a mix of nutrient vats for traditional hydroponics systems and towering, tree-like specimens which served no obvious purpose but decoration. The most prominent species seemed to be a cream-and-blue organism that looked much like a gigantic mushroom; the jewel-like blue pustules studding each mushroom-tree’s trunk setting a rather pleasing counterpoint to the greenery in the beds and vats below. “Impressive. What is it for?”
“The trees are an exotic specimen we picked up in Allenden.” Gus patted one, and Leon noticed that he did so between the gemstone pustules. “Careful, the blue stuff is sticky.”
“Yes, but what are they for?” Leon pressed, examining one of the sapphire blobs carefully.
“We’re trying it as a nutrient source. These things put out this blue stuff like you wouldn’t believe. It’s an… acquired taste, but the, ah… chemical composition is pretty sound for human digestion once it’s processed right.”
“Interesting.” Leon knew he had found his reason to strip-search Grand Azure. The mushroom-trees could for all he knew produce a dangerous drug or another substance prized by criminal syndicates. “We’ll have to verify that claim. With your skipper’s permission, I would like to-”
“By all means, Lieutenant, take a sample with you.” Gus glanced at the nearest tree, then gestured to one of the smaller blue blisters.
Leon frowned, then reached out to touch the substance with one gloved hand. It had a thin, brittle skin that gave easily under his finger, and as Hadley had promised, the gooey, viscous mass within felt sticky. A nauseating warmth also penetrated his glove. “Ugh.” He yanked his hand backwards, trailing a long streamer of slime. His fingers didn’t burn or tingle, which meant either it was inert, or his gloves had protected him. “It’s like syrup.”
“Under some conditions, yes.” Gus Hadley turned to the vats of more traditional hydroponics produce. “Would you like to inspect these as well? I can get some containers from the mess.”
“Ah, no, thank you.” Leon shook his hand in an attempt to free the last streamer of blue goo. A simple glance at the beds and vats suggested they were standard-issue with most of the usual plants found in shipboard hydroponics. “I’ll just sample the trees, Mr. Hadley. We’ll also need to perform a search to make sure you don’t have any contraband flora aboard.”
The Azure representative held up his hands. “Lieutenant, there’s not so much as a desk plant in the rest of the ship. What you see is what we have aboard.”
Once again, Leon got the sense the man was telling the truth in the most deceptive way possible. He’d never heard of any food-crop organisms native to the Allenden system, though perhaps only the size of the Grand Azure’s hydroponics compartment allowed the use of the species. The real question was, why would a high-end private-military frigate have such a vast hydroponics capability in the first place? “I’m sure it is, Mr. Hadley. But you understand, I need to prove that for the report.”
Hadley looked uncomfortable, scratching his neck under his collar once again. His eyes darted distractedly between Leon and the mushroom-tree behind him. “Really isn’t worth the trouble. But if you’ll wait here, I’ll okay it with the... skipper.”
“I’ll go with you, Mr. Hadley.” Leon insisted. “I would still like to meet the master of this fine vessel.”
“The skipper is very particular, but I’ll pass your interest along.” With that, Hadley hurried toward the lift.
Leon took two steps to follow, but thought better of it – he was being left in the suspiciously extensive hydroponics section unsupervised. As he wandered around, he keyed in an encrypted channel on his comm. “Prentiss, it’s Leon. Round up a team for a teardown search of the Azure.”
“Will do. Something suspicious over there, Lieutenant?” Chief Technician Prentiss Liu replied immediately.
“Several somethings. Meet me at the umbilical in ten minutes.” Leon cut the channel as he threaded between two precariously leaning mushroom-trees, careful to avoid brushing against the sticky blisters on their trunks. To his disappointment, the only thing beyond them was another row of the same blue-and-cream organisms. If they were part of some sort of war-profiteering scheme, the Azure crew had a lot of nerve to host them front and center – but if they were just an alternative source of nutrient biomass, it was possible what Gus Hadley and his associates were hiding was not contraband, at least not contraband of a type Chief Tech Liu’s team would be able to find.
Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, Leon turned, expecting to see Hadley threading his way through the stands of mushroom-trees. There was, however, no sign of the man. Leon edged back around the stand of trees between him and the lift - the doors remained closed.
“Mr. Hadley?” Leon’s hand fell reflexively to his side-arm. He had never used the rail-pistol in anger before, but there was a first time for anything. If the Azure’s small crew tried anything-
The sound of something wet plopping against the deck behind Leon cause him to whirl in place. One of the sapphire nodules had burst, and a glob of thick sap had fallen outside the lip of the root-bed vat below. He wondered if he had brushed against the fragile pustule himself. Despite its contents streaming out onto the metal plating in a quickening stream, the broken boil seemed to be growing in size almost as fast as the puddle on the deck.
Fascinated, Leon watched the puddle grow deeper at least as fast as its tongue-like edges expanded outward toward his boots. The mushroom-tree goo moved like no other liquid he’d ever seen – it almost seemed to be alive in its own right, searching for him. Out of sheer, nauseating curiosity, he reached out the toe of one boot, wondering what would happen if he touched it.
“Lieutenant Koch-Zyma, sir. I’ve been asked to recommend you return to Brightley at once!”
At the sound of Chief Tech Liu’s voice, Leon jumped back, feeling inexplicably guilty of letting his curiosity get the better of him. He keyed in a reply on the same channel. “On my way, Prentiss. What’s going on?”
“Don’t know, sir. We just went to general quarters over here and the bridge is working to get Grand Azure off our umbilical as soon as you’re back aboard.”
“Damn.” Leon threaded his way toward the lift, changing comms channels as he went. “Mr. Hadley, where are you? I need to-”
“Get back to your ship, of course Lieutenant. The skipper has given you priority access to the lifts.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hadley.” Leon reached the pair of lift doors, and one of them opened in front of him. He didn’t even need to punch in a deck number – the system seemed to know where he was going. “What’s going on?”
“Our sensor suite picked out a half-dozen Coronachs creeping in just outside of practical railgun range. Anyone’s guess where they came from.”
Coronachs, of course, were dedicated strike launches – unlike the more well-rounded Confederated Magpies, they had no star drives of their own. The Incarnation’s swift, flashing sabers went nowhere its strong arm – the Tyrant heavy cruisers – did not take them. If Helena Brightley was caught in the open by one such ship, the added firepower of a single untested mercenary frigate would not do anything to save her. “I guess I’ll finish my inspection some other time, then.”
The doors opened and Leon saw the hatch to the umbilical only a few paces ahead. As he jogged toward it, this too opened for him, to reveal Chief Technician Prentiss Liu waving him on.
As Leon passed over the threshold, the twin hatches closed quickly, and the airlock between the two ships depressurized. Gus Hadley’s voice came back on just once before the two ships’ diverging courses took him out of shipboard comms range. “Looking forward to it, Lieutenant.”
As the umbilical retracted, Leon Koch-Zyma watched through its armor-glass windows as the decorative form of Grand Azure peeled off and made a high-acceleration break for the edge of the system’s jump shadow. Somehow, he doubted the crew would allow him, or any other Confederated officer, another chance to plumb their secrets.
Gus’s observation about the origin of the trees (which Leon describes in uncannily similar ways to how Junia describes Sapphire’s host flora in her own accounts) is here very interesting, because it lets me pin down Sapphire’s probable species. She is not, in fact, a member of some new and unrecognized species – she is very probably a Myxomyceti from the moon Lazul in the Allenden system. These creatures have a strange life-cycle and there is no scientific consensus on whether they are true sapients. Perhaps some, like Sapphire, are – and others are not.
Grand Azure is currently contracted as a Confederated Navy auxiliary for patrol duties on the Frontier. It has not, despite Lieutenant Koch-Zyma's concerns, been implicated in any illicit activity.