I poured tea from the teapot. For once, I had eyeballed the coriolis force quite well. The stream of dark liquid curved to the right, following a gentle arc that connected the mass-produced teapot given by the Solar Sea commune with my ornate teacup. I lowered the teapot and turned towards Villaverde.
The young officer shook her head, and I put the teapot back on the reheater. Villaverde sat down. Her dark blue jacket bore the inverted white triangle signalling her function as a community worker tasked with security and safety. Her voice crackled.
"I can't realize Aguilar is dead. Sorry. Before you say anything, yes, I already have an appointment scheduled with my counsellor. It's just...it happened so quickly. We were surveying the inner garden on ring D for minor defects, I left to get lunch at Charlotte's, and when I came back, his heart had stopped beating."
I nodded. I didn't feel like there was anything else to do -- I didn't know Villaverde, I didn't know Aguilar, and while the station was still a familiar sight for me, I was a stranger to its people. All I felt entitled to give her was a kind smile.
"How close were you?" I asked. "Feel free not to answer, if my question is inappropriate."
"We were just colleagues. Aguilar was a rather lonely person, I don't think he had many friends on that station, but I feel like I was among them. Do you have...it feels so strange to ask it that way but...do you have any idea how he died? I couldn't...find any visible wounds on him."
I took another sip of tea. It wasn't bad for space-grown tea. More bitter than I was used to, but acceptable.
"We are still investigating it."
"Many solar envoys travel alone, but that is not my case. I brought a ship with me. It is equipped with a full bio-analysis suite, among other things, far more powerful than whatever you have aboard this station. You said you recovered a small dart on Aguilar's body?"
"Yes. Do you think it was poisoned?"
"Possibly. I have Leaves examining it for contaminants."
"Leaves? That's your AI?"
"Yes." I glanced at my open lectern. "Ah, here we are. I've just received your report. I don't think I will bother you further, officer Villaverde. I can handle it from there.”
New track selected.
Title: Subterranean Waters (reprise).
Genre: Neo-electro ambient.
Artist: Low Earth Orbit.
Release date: 0.87 Interstellar.
Illapa station had changed. The air smelled different. Gone was the scent of mud, filtered wastewater and recent soldering. It had been replaced by a fragrance of hot plastic, pure water and pollen. I would have called it "Mature Space Station, Number 5". It was the smell of an old habitat, having reached its ecological equilibrium. As I walked down the hallways of Habitat Ring A -- the oldest one, assembled ten years and five months ago, an eternity for a space station -- I started looking for the signs of Old Illapa in my surroundings. They were few and far between, scattered among recent renovation works and newly built sections. Here and there, I could see yellow-orange warning signs, eroded by the passing years like shells on the seaside. They dated back to the initial assembly of Illapa Station and I suddenly remembered glueing a fair share of them to the ring's hull to mark the perimeter within which construction drones would solder the inner panel. At that time, Ring A had not been pressurised or even primed for rotation, and I could still feel the eerie thrill of moving in microgravity between the beams, under the vast shadow of the station's central skeleton.
Lost in my thoughts of a time past, I felt something bump against my shoulder, scraping the ultramarine blue of my flight jacket. The tip of a pair of gardening scissors.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't see you coming!" said a young operator who wore a green suit with yellow stripes. Ecological control, I recognized. They worked in Ring B, the historical hydroponics section turned into a forest. "Are you alright? You're bleeding!"
I massaged my shoulder a bit. A faint line of red liquid poured from the whole in my jacket.
"Ah. Your scissors are sharp."
"No, no, it was my fault. I haven't been in that station for ten solid years. I got lost in my thoughts."
"You gotta patch that up before going back to your ship, zero-g can have nasty effects on wounds like that."
"How do you know I've got a ship?"
"I saw you disembark this morning, your jacket is unmistakable. It's Eloran, right? Ateliers Beauclair. I have the same one, but in orange. Blue's for security here, though I guess that suits you. That's what solar envoys do, right? Security?"
"It's slightly more complex than that, but you're not entirely wrong."
"What are you doing on our little station in the middle of nowhere?"
"Uh. Well I guess I'll let you transit, then. Good day to you, solar envoy!"
New track selected.
Title: Adagio for a Lost Moon.
Genre: Eloran neo-classical.
Artist: Sawadi Mambé.
Release date: 0.59 Interstellar.
My ship, the Sleeping Owl, was a small q-drive runner, a cross between a racing ship and a personal yacht, befitting of a solar envoy perpetually on the metaphorical stellar roads. I couldn’t call it large, but it was cosy, and the small nest I had made for myself in the cockpit wasn’t too different from the apartment I had owned in my first years on Illapa Station. As it was devoid of a nuclear drive and had approached the station on chemical thrusters, the Sleeping Owl had been allowed to dock right underneath the station’s mainframe. From there, I could see the four rings through the ship’s virtual reality displays, as if my hull had been made of transparent glass. They rotated in unison like the gears of a kilometer-long pocket watch. Ring A and C rotated clockwise and through their bay windows I caught glimpses of lively hallways, neon streets and inner gardens. Ring B and D rotated anticlockwise. They were almost entirely transparent and showed a million shades of grey and purple as the forests and hydroponic fields prospered under the watchful gaze of the local star. A few local vessels moved around the station, emitting short bursts from their RCS thrusters. I recognized one of them, the mining vessel Rocks and Hard Places, with its cylindrical hull and folded radiators. Two hundred kilometers away from Illapa Station, only visible through reflections on its massive hull, the Farseer-class Transporter No Dawn Like Twilight awaited refuelling. It came from the Earth, by way of the Traverse stars. Its destination was Gondwana Station and the Silenian Cloud, seven thousand lightyears away, at the edge of the spiral arms. Illapa Station was the last oasis before the desert. The ultimate pit stop before the great beyond. The last pebble of civilization before fifty billion uncharted stars. Once, a frontier. Now, a lighthouse in the darkness. A lone fragment of humankind, at the very end of Orion’s Arm.
I leaned in my chair in zero gravity, waiting for the multicooker to take care of my rice rolls. Illapa Station was as far as the Sleeping Owl would get. Maybe it wasn’t the edge of all civilization anymore, but it was certainly the edge of mine, and I welcomed this idea with a peculiar feeling of cosiness. Standing at the border of the desert was more romantic than most people gave it credit for.
The multicooker rang and sent a rice roll my way, ejecting it with a loud ping as if it had been a railgun slug. I caught my dinner in midair, then woke Leaves up. She lived in the ship’s vegetal mainframe and her avatar was a six-legged cat, happily strolling on my screens.
“Hey there, Leaves. How are you today?”
Her voice was warm and reassuring.
“Pretty fine. I’ve been examining our dead security officer. It seems that senior operator Aguilar was well-liked by the station’s crew. He was very popular in rings C and D, judging from the commotion his death caused among the population. This will, no doubt, be exacerbated when station authorities reveal the cause of death.”
“I have examined the so-called dart operator Villaverde retrieved on Aguilar’s body. It is made of wood and seems to be some sort of thorn, albeit I cannot identify which plant produced it. The thorn was coated with a toxic compound. I wasn’t able to find traces of that compound inside Aguilar’s blood. I suspect that it has a very low life expectancy in a human body. I could only perform a summary analysis on the samples but I think it is a very potent neurotoxin, targeting brain and heart functions. This is coherent with the cause of death, identified as a stroke-like loss of brain functions, followed by cardiac arrest.”
“I assume you confronted the molecular structure to our databases?”
“Of course I did. I couldn’t find any matches. It might be something obscure, or a custom, locally produced compound. May I know what you intend to do with this knowledge?”
“What would you do?”
The feline avatar stopped and gathered its legs.
“Hard to say. Considering how popular Aguilar was on the station, I believe the people deserve to know their beloved security officer was likely assassinated. On the other hand, as long as we do not have a culprit, or at the very least a clear idea of where this dart came from, it might be premature. Station authorities mentioned that Aguilar died of a heart attack, without any further mention. It’s only a lie by omission, at this point.”
“Do they have the means to figure out he was poisoned?”
“No. Illapa Station does not have the equipment to perform a complex molecular analysis of an unknown compound like we do.”
“Stations like Illapa are microcosms, Leaves. There are two hundred people on this space station and I can assure you that everyone knows everyone. It is wise to be cautious. This is why I am here, after all. A foreigner. A pièce rapportée.”
New track selected.
Title: Whiskey Blues
Genre: slow space rock
Artist: The Wiltham Orchestral Band
Release date: 0.25 Interstellar
I moved cautiously through the hallways of ring D. They ran alongside the external beam, with nothing but a few centimeters of steel and carbon coating separating the passersby from hard vacuum. I could hear the fans whispering in the background, a familiar presence on any self-respecting space station. The lights in the hallway were red, the universal sign that the station had entered a night cycle. Illapa Station was located at a Lagrange point and didn’t have a parent planet that could occluse the sun at regular intervals. There was no natural night and day cycle, except for the short moment — five, six minutes maybe — when a bay window found itself in the shade of Illapa’s central beam. The twelve hour long night cycle was purely arbitrary, much like on a spaceship. I felt cold. The Sleeping Owl was a small, hot vessel and I briefly wished I had brought a pull-over to withstand the contrast with Illapa Station. I came across two maintenance drones, sweeping the hallway. One of them carried a space lightbulb like a bayonet. I saluted them. You never know when a drone might become sapient, after all. I kept going through the hallways, until I reached the main entrance to the inner garden where Aguilar had been killed — only to find it locked.
“Your pass isn’t going to work here I’m afraid. Brought pincers?” sneered Leaves over the music playing in the background. I sighed. The airlock had been sealed with a padlock, linking two steel plates together over the thick blast doors.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” asked someone behind me. I lowered the volume and turned around. I recognized the green and yellow jacket instantly and raised my hands in the air, under the threat of a pair of pointy scissors.
The gardener sighed and folded the scissors in their pocket.
“Look, solar envoy, I don’t know what you’re doing on our station and I don’t want to know, but next time you’re prowling in ring D, please leave me a note or something.”
“Speaking of...isn’t the inner garden supposed to be a communal space?”
“Supposed to, yes, but I’ve got jackasses interfering with my plants, so I’m putting the whole place under lockdown at night.”
The gardener waved.
“I’ve been finding trace contaminants in the garden’s waste water for a good year now. Advanced fertilisers, the plant equivalent of performance enhancing drugs, and poison for vermin. Nothing that I use in the inner garden, so it means someone is growing their own little hydroponic field somewhere in the vicinity, hijacking my water supply network in the process. Haven’t been able to find it, but when I do, someone’s head will roll.”
In truth, I had no problem imagining this pair of scissors cutting through other things than plants. No one would tamper with their little microcosm.
“May I see the garden?” I asked, cautiously. They nodded and opened the airlock with a key.
“Sure. Follow me.”
The air inside was wet and cool. A variety of flowers and leaves rustled in the artificial wind created by a vast array of well-disguised fans. Yellow starlight fell through the bay windows, and the ring’s support beams cast short windows on the ground. The gardener asked that I remove my shoes and I obliged, stepping barefoot in the grass and moss. The plants and fungi swirled all around me, complemented by a small colony of colourful moths. Oxygen levels were higher than in the rest of the station and I could feel the beginning of a bout of euphoria. I spotted oasis trees from Tyra; long-roses and pseudo lavender from Elora; oaks and olive trees from the Earth; water flowers and algae from Vyiranga, floating away in the streams; and even a miniature world-tree, whose massive roots pinned the inner garden to the ground. I took a very deep breath and felt a wave of anxiety wash away from me. I reached for my intra-auricular earpieces and disconnected them.
Music playback stopped.
Silence came. The world was in order. The garden protected me. I knew the feeling wouldn’t last, that in a few minutes fear would come back and my mind would start racing against darkness once again, but for now I was at peace. The gardener didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to comment for me to grasp the marvels of this place. A true microcosm, perfected during the last ten years until it worked on its own, secluded from the rest of the station and yet integrated to it. An island of greenery in the void. A coherent ecosystem, having reached its ecological equilibrium. I took a few steps towards the world-tree. I was more familiar with its Eloran brethren, towering several kilometres above the ground, embedded deep within the central beam of our arcologies, and I suddenly realised that I had never seen a small world-tree. They weren’t born gigantic, after all.
I looked down.
Under my feet, I could feel the touch of silvery filaments, smooth and delicate like strings of dry algae on Eloran beaches. They protruded from the moss, minuscule tentacles reaching out for the surface. As I walked, they moved slightly, as if undulating under a nonexistent wind.
“Oh. Is that a weave?”
“Indeed,” smiled the gardener. “I wanted to avoid using one, but it’s just so effective at creating a substrate for my plants. Engineering really wanted a world-tree, for some reason, and they need weaves to thrive away from Elora. Symbiotic relationships are amazing, aren’t they?”
“I think, yes. I’ve never seen a silvery weave. Is that an indigenous species?”
The gardener had a small laugh. The only indigenous species that could populate Illapa Station were a few strains of bacteria. Everything else was a pièce rapportée.
“Not quite, but it’s a very rare species, indeed. It comes from Smyrnia. Brought by a passing ship. It’s rather resilient, I like it. Grows like hell, though, I have to keep it on a very tight leash or it will clog my fans.”
“Does it have a name?”
“No. Aguilar calls it Bob. Ah. Called it. Sorry.”
They didn’t seem particularly disturbed. Perhaps they preferred the company of plants to that of people. Or rather, they just didn’t feel like emoting in front of a solar envoy. I couldn’t really blame them for it.
“Did he spend time here?”
“Sort of. I think he appreciated the place. He and Villaverde are quite familiar with my weave, they’re the ones warning me about its incursions in the ring’s vents.” We walked towards a secluded patch of moss, right underneath the world-tree’s shadow. “This is where Villaverde found him. Between the roots.”
I nodded and looked around. There was a path going through the patch of moss. I couldn’t see any entrance nearby, other than the two airlocks that led to the inner garden. Through the vines on the wall, I distinguished the yellow markings of a maintenance panel. Right under the golden flowers of Eloran trees. Not a bad place to die, but certainly a peculiar one. The branches of a world-tree, dangling in the wind — this might have been Aguilar’s last sight in this world, I thought, though something told me his death had not been serene.
“Tell me, gardener. Are any of your plants dangerous?”
“No. Well, I would advise against gnawing on my pseudo roses, but the worst you’d get would be an upset stomach. I can’t allow toxic plants to grow on a space station. Even the world-tree has been neutered, because I can’t afford getting the vents clogged by pollen. I guess the weave could be dangerous if you really pushed it, but you’d have to go quite far.”
“Weaves can be dangerous?”
“Well, they are extremely good at adapting to their environment. I’ve seen weaves literally choke plants that tried to poison them. But I’ve never seen a weave threaten a human being. You’d have to be exceedingly cruel to one of them to trigger such a reaction. And it would take years.”
“I see. I see. Thank you, gardener. Good night.”
I put my earpieces back on.
New track selected.
Title: A Lighthouse on Mars
Artist: Garage Aerospace
Release date: 0.48 Interstellar
I left ring D and took the central hallways in zero-g towards ring B, crashing at Charlotte’s. The small bar was installed alongside the largest bay window on this ring, and gave a beautiful view on agricultural ring C, hydroponic fields gleaming under the distant sun. The place was fairly different from what I remembered: it was larger, having turned a nearby hangar into a stage used by Illapa’s local bands to perform on saturday nights. The owner had changed. Charlotte herself had left for Elora three years after my own departure from the station, and had been replaced by a pair of former deep space pilots. The drinks were better, the music was poorer. Balance in all things, I guess. After ordering a cup of tea, I phoned Villaverde.
“Good evening, officer. Am I interrupting anything?”
I heard a rustling sound in the background and a male voice. I knew that she had two husbands, but no children.
“Tell me, was Aguilar investigating someone or something in particular before his death?”
“Yes. There was a guy, but he was away for the day...I could arrange a meeting tomorrow, if you want?”
“That would be great. Thanks, Villaverde. And good night.”
New track selected.
Title: Hard Burn
Genre: heavy metal.
Artist: Fusion Drive Monkey Band
Release date: 1.27 Interstellar.
Another day on Illapa Station. Dawn Like Twilight was still refuelling, and another blip had appeared in the sky — an Inyanga-class vessel en route to the Serene Sea, nicknamed All Along the Watchtower. The rings rotated in harmony. Purple leaves dangled through the windows of ring B. Everything was normal in the heavens. Someone had plastered posters all along the hallways, announcing that the secular and religious tribute to the late José Aguilar would be held in two days, in the Omphal temple on ring A. His official portrait showed him with his security officer uniform, smiling at the camera. Villaverde kept avoiding the posters, eyes locked on the ceiling.
“It doesn’t feel right. We don’t even know how he died and they’re already burying him.”
“Why, Villaverde? You think it wasn’t an accident?”
She shrugged. Her hand reached for her shoulder, putting her insignia back in place. She hadn’t slept much.
“I don’t think anything, solar envoy. I can only note that you’re here, and one doesn’t send a solar envoy for a security officer who had a heart attack, even in the line of duty.”
“I’m transiting, Villaverde. Station authorities just wanted me to take a look.”
“Stop this charade, will you? We’re both adults. So tell me. Was he murdered?”
She nodded, silently. The woman known as Maria Villaverde had disappeared. The security officer had taken hold of her.
“Right. I’ll show you the guy.”
Ambient music detected…
Music playback stopped.
Title: Ba Ba Bam! (spacer remix)
Artist: The Great Interstellar Swing Band, feat. Cherry’s Girls.
Release date: 1.18 Interstellar.
The Winking Jellyfish was the closest Illapa Station had to an underground bar. Located in the old storage section of ring B, it was mostly populated by passersby, and reminded me of the Crimson River in Elora. Dim, colourful, populated by music, lust and drugs, not necessarily in that order. A place for spacers coming back from the void, or gearing up to face it. We stood at the entrance, in front of the lazy security drone that passed for a bouncer. Villaverde took her officer jacket off and replaced it with a plain sweater.
“Not welcome here?” I asked.
“Most clients are spacers. They don’t know my face, and I don’t want to scare them with my jacket. Before you ask, no, there’s nothing dangerous in the Winking Jellyfish. The worst case of drug trafficking we have is an informal circle of Vyirangan lichen resellers. Nothing I can really do anything against, and mostly harmless.”
Caloplaca Vyirangana — Vyiranga’s golden lichen. A pseudo-plant native from a Traverse planet, capable of inducing lucid dreams when consumed before sleep. Not exactly a drug. Its prohibition beyond Vyirangan borders had more to do with communal lobbies than with the substance itself. Vyirangan lichen trafficking was a victimless offence. Villaverde was right not to be concerned by a small contraband operation on her station.
We entered the bar, and my earpieces let the music flow in. Many patrons wore plain dark green flight suits with a flower symbol in the back. The crew from the Dawn Like Twilight, I assumed. There was a pair of Algorab operatives, too, black sweaters and the raven on their sleeves. They came from the All Along the Watchtower. I avoided them. Villaverde ordered two drinks and I clung to my glass of tea like a lost ship to a lighthouse. My claustrophobia would have already kicked in without the music. I took a deep breath.
“You alright?” said Villaverde with a compassionate smile.
“I’m fine. I’m just not a great fan of cramped spaces.”
Villaverde moved her glass towards the backroom, scattering red and purple lights in her tea.
“Here is our guy,” she whispered, pointing at a twenty-something, masculine person who wore a bright yellow pull-over. “Name’s Odysseus. He’s from maintenance. A resourceful man. He supplements his lifetime salary with sales of Vyirangan lichen, which he exchanges for various electronic components and plant seeds. I never saw any reason to annoy him. His business is quiet and he donates half his “revenue” to the station.”
“Any idea why Aguilar investigated him, then?”
“No. José kept a lot of things secret, even for me. He used to work for Algorab, I guess that’s where the habit comes from.”
“How do you suggest we approach him?”
I gathered my mental strength and crossed the room, cutting through a small crowd of spacers who shared a tajine of fried rice, tomato sauce and jellyfish filaments.
“Hey,” said Villaverde while approaching the man with the yellow pull-over. He raised his gaze on us, gave the officer a nod, then gave me a long glance. Odysseus was very pretty, I thought, and he was aware of it. It had been a while since I hadn’t felt seen that way. I didn’t know if he was consciously trying to seduce me, but in any other circumstances, I would have considered staring back.
“Hello,” I simply answered.
“What a sight you are,” he winked. “And who are you, diving in the underbelly of Illapa Station with the prettiest security officer out there?”
Villaverde rolled her eyes. I raised my hand and the q-augs on my palm swirled to outline the complex seal of a solar envoy license, adorned with the stylized rose of the Eloran Ekumen, Illapa Station’s distant owner. I expected Odysseus to melt on the spot, but, after a brief hesitation, he settled with scratching his beard in vague disbelief.
“Oh. I assume you’re not here for the Vyirangan lichen, unless you’re a buyer?”
“I have a solar trader licence, I’m legally allowed to buy and sell it, but I’ll pass. I’m here for Aguilar.”
Odysseus took a brief look at Villaverde, then at me, then at the ceiling.
“We need to talk about it in private. Follow me.”
He led us through the bar and towards a small door shadowed by the entrance to a storage room. It led to a cramped but well-organised hydroponics section full of canisters filled with Vyirangan Gold Lichen. The bar’s music didn’t reach us here, so I tapped my earpieces again, sending another track at a low volume.
New track selected.
Title: Life, Under the Old Stars
Genre: ambient prog rock
Artist: Fusion Drive Monkey Band
Release date: 1.30 Interstellar
I examined the canisters and the gleaming lifeforms bubbling away in artificial currents. Fragments of Vyiranga, transported to an island in the sky, thousands of lightyears away from the Traverse.
“What an operation,” I said. “Villaverde didn’t tell me you had a farm.”
Odysseus bowed proudly.
“It’s not exactly a farm, I can’t grow lichen in this environment. It’s more of a storage area. It took quite a lot of work to bring these aquariums to the station, but now I can sell fresh lichen instead of dried filaments.”
“Where does your original material come from?”
“Vyiranga, by way of various ships. I only keep the highest quality lichen. We’re in the middle of nowhere, solar envoy; people need to dream. I merely provide the means. You sell lichen; you know that it’s innocuous.”
“You don’t have to feel guilty of anything,” I answered. “I am the last person who would blame you for filling this niche.”
He smiled, then his face became more serious. Odysseus reached for a small locker under his desk, from which he extracted a sealed test tube. There was a golden substance inside it, not unlike the lichen filaments, but more luminous. I recognized it instantly. It was dreaming dust. A generous name for a refined byproduct of the Vyirangan lichen that, contrary to the “natural” product, was highly addictive. A drug, rather than a gentle dreaming aid. My lips froze. I gave Odysseus a distressed look.
“Where does this shit come from?”
“I’ve been spotting it on the station for about a year and a half now. At first I thought it came from some ships, but the supply was too steady and it only ever seemed to come from the station, not towards it. Someone is manufacturing dreaming dust and selling it on this very space station, and it sure as hell isn’t me.”
“What does this have to do with Aguilar?” asked Villaverde, who seemed increasingly worried.
“Aguilar knew of my discovery. Been in the know for a week or two, ever since I mustered the courage to mention it to him. I don’t want to have an airlock accident, you see. The market for Vyirangan Lichen is a peaceful one, but the one for oniric dust? Not the same thing.”
“And there’s something else,” continued Odysseus. “I performed an analysis on the fungal strains used to make that drug. It’s a native variety. Someone introduced Vyirangan Lichen on Illapa Station and is growing it somewhere.”
“Didn’t you say it was impossible?”
“Indeed, Vyirangan Lichen can’t live outside of its native planet without some serious environmental support. The only ecological asset that could support the growth of Vyirangan Lichen on this space station...I’d say it’s ring D’s weave.”
New track selected.
Title: A Vriij I Knew
Genre: space blues
Artist: Ledah Hallway
Release date: 0.58 Interstellar
We drifted through the station’s central beam, waiting for a tramway ahead of a pair of small cargo drones bubbling from one side of the superstructure to the other. Illapa Station hummed all around us. I could feel the tension in Villaverde’s heart and mind. Barely contained, a furnace underneath her blue t-shirt.
“It could make sense,” she said as a tramway pod slowed down towards us and opened its door with a hiss. “José decided to investigate whatever is happening in ring D, he stumbles upon something that’s way above our pay grade and gets himself killed. What I don’t get it is...why didn’t he tell me anything? It’s absurd! We’re colleagues! Friends, even!”
“If whoever is manufacturing this drug is ready to kill a security officer, I’m afraid they would have seen no issue with killing a second one.”
She sighed. Her right hand slowly moved towards the handgun at her side. Samira and Keller model 12, loaded with plastic bullets and fragmentation tips, specifically made for use in enclosed and pressurised environments. I was armed, too, but didn’t feel the need to show it to the world.
“You’re making things worse, solar envoy. I bet you’re familiar with such things, but I’m just a security officer, damnit! The worst incident I ever dealt with was a bar fight!”
“Not all solar envoys go to warzones. I never killed anyone, or even witnessed someone’s death. I’m just a trader and a courier.”
That was a lie, but it felt morally acceptable. Villaverde sighed.
“There’s an access to the inner garden and its weave even the gardeners don’t know about. It dates back to the construction of the station. An access tunnel for drones, large enough for a person to fit through. Hasn’t been used in years and is marked as sealed on public maps. There is a grand total of five, maybe six persons who know about it on the station, at least as far as I know. If someone is using the weave for personal purposes, they’re using this route to reach it. It’s the only way to avoid the gardener.”
“And you don’t suspect them?”
“No. I have my reasons.”
I didn’t ask further, for I shared the same opinion, even though I couldn’t quite say why. The idea just felt out of place. The tramway started slowing down. We were close to ring D.
“May I ask you a question?” she said.
“Why are you always listening to music?”
“It keeps the anxiety at bay. Fills the world with something to think about.”
We fell silent for a minute, then the tramway came to a halt.
“And why do you have two husbands?”
“I couldn’t choose.”
New track selected.
Artist: Blue Moth Records
Release date: 0.15 Interstellar
The tunnel was carved right underneath the station’s skin. I could feel the vague embrace of space beyond a thin layer of armour. Cold metal, then almost nothing. We crawled in ring D’s bowels. The air was moist, filled with the scent of decaying leaves and fresh air filters. The inner garden cast a long shadow. I could hear Villaverde, a few metres ahead of me. She grunted as she contorted in the tight duct. We were snakes, slithering away in the entrails of a space station. It was an eternity before we reached what looked like an exit. A small maintenance hallway, forgotten by time. Villaverde hoisted herself in the hallway and I quickly followed. Inside, we were welcomed by the sprawling vines of the weave. They surrounded us like a vast nest of small silvery snakes, growing over the panels on the roof and ceiling, but not inside, I noted — the weave was well-educated, and saw the station not as a mere nest, but as a reactive environment it would not risk endangering.
“Someone came here recently,” mentioned Villaverde. She was right. The lights on the ceiling were warm to the touch, as if they’d been on for days. They poured through the pseudo-vegetal, transbiological tissue of the weave. Eels in direct sunlight, I thought. There was a door, right in front of us, half-open. It led to a small room, but I couldn’t make out its details through the opening. We weren’t far from the inner garden.
“Do you smell that?”
“Indeed. Lichen dust.”
Villaverde drew her weapon, set to taser mode, and came in first. I followed, close behind.
The room was devoid of human presence, but not empty. A massive branch of the weave grew here, linking the floor and the ceiling together like a pillar of silver. It pulsed slowly, to the pace of sap running through the transbiological creature whose roots the inner garden was built upon. This branch was half-severed from the rest of the weave. It received nutrients and water from the rest of the organism, but did not send any inputs — hence, it was entirely possible the gardener ignored the existence of this branch entirely, as it escaped the monitoring systems they had likely hooked to their weave. Ash-like artefacts were scattered on the ground, like leaves falling from a dead tree, but skinnier and thinner. Just like Vyirangan Lichen. Gold dots covered one side of the branch, small colonies of juvenile lichen battling with the weave. Small monitoring tentacles were attached to the colonies, and linked to a lectern open on the table. There were a few test tubes, a miniaturised distillation apparatus and a centrifugal filter. The little drug maker’s arsenal.
And then, we noticed the thorns.
They had grown through the most flexible tentacles of the weaves, small needle-like objects, attached to little sacks of compressed air. Transbiological muscles enabled the weave to move the needles around, but also hide them in the shadows of the ceiling. As we had entered the room, the weave had taken aim at us, but had not fired. One of the thorns protruded from the weave’s surface. I could see a layer of transparent mucus on the tip, and had little doubt it was the neurotoxin responsible for Aguilar’s death.
Villaverde gave me a silent stare.
“This is impressive,” I answered. “I knew that weaves were capable of incredible feats of adaptation, but I had no idea they could produce ad hoc neurotoxins to protect themselves. It might be a peculiar property of this specific species of weave, or just an ill-documented capacity of the generic weave. To be fair...I don’t think we have any examples of someone trying to grow Vyirangan Lichen inside a weave. That is insane.”
“That’s because it is. Remember what Odysseus said? Ecological asset? Well here it is. Whoever set this up grew the lichen inside the weave, bypassing its sub-branches to nourish their improvised crop. Weaves are the kindest of transbiological creatures, but they do not take kindly to threats. I think it first tried to fight off the lichen colonies, then decided it was more fruitful to get rid of the drug maker. Weaves have a form of decentralised intelligence. This one just set up an ambush. And it succeeded.”
We stared at each other for a while.
“I can believe it,” answered the security officer. “I’ve been on Vyiranga herself. I know what feral weaves are capable of. I can easily buy that a manufactured one can do better. But, solar envoy, you do realise what it means, right?”
New track selected.
Title: Night Atop The Pillar
Artist: Dancing Regolith
Release date: 0.05 Interstellar
It took us half an hour to get through the lectern on the table, after Leaves had broken the encryption. The evidence was damning. Aguilar’s name and ID were everywhere, from CCTV camera footage in the tunnel to various orders of chemistry and experimental biology furniture. And sales of dreaming dust. Tens of sales. Hundreds, even, spread across the past two years. Sales to spacers, mostly. Just a few going to station dwellers — names I did not know. Growth patterns, too. Data pertaining to the best way to manipulate the weave and use it as a framework for the lichen. And deep, deep down in the files, there was a motive. An old debt, slowly repaid in increments, though not completely. A debt he owed to the meta-queen of Smyrnia herself. A debt he could not escape.
I expected Villaverde to swear, to cry perhaps, to refuse, to lash out at the lectern, but she just kept staring at it. Then, she took out a small storage disk and copied the entirety of the lectern’s drive, before scanning the room in three dimensions and taking a sample of the weave’s mucus.
Professional to the end.
My earpieces fell in my hand. We were back in the inner garden, through the maintenance hatch. The gardener wasn’t here. There was a neat variety of silence that night. Serene and calm, barely troubled by the wind in the world-tree. Villaverde’s face was closed, like that of a well-polished statue.
“I’ll file an inquiry right away. There is enough evidence to open one without…”
I took her hand. The sound of our voices felt weird without the music.
“Villaverde. Maria. No.”
Her eyes went bland.
“What do you mean, no?”
“Maria. You’ve seen it like me. Someone built an illegal laboratory in close proximity to the weave, using it as a framework to grow Vyirangan Lichen. Stressed and threatened by the crop, the weave evolved neurotoxin-infused thorns, which scared the drug dealer away. An undefined amount of time later, Aguilar, who was investigating the case, stumbled upon the laboratory and the weave killed him.”
There. She understood.
“Why, solar envoy? What is your motive?”
I took a long, deep breath.
“I don’t know José Aguilar personally, but I have known many like him. He was a pillar of the community, wasn’t he? A warm and reassuring presence on Illapa Station, an architect of your little microcosm. We cannot break this.”
“We can and I will. He lied to me, solar envoy, he lied to the station, he would have lied to you! He was my friend and my colleague, for the stars’ sake! And for two straight years, he bloody lied to me! He can’t get away with this!”
“It doesn’t matter!”
“Maria, listen to me. I’ve seen this station in its infancy. I’ve seen ring A and B as skeletons, and I’ve drifted through the central beam of this place you call home. It was a lifetime ago, and your station has changed for the better. It has evolved, and much like its garden, it has reached its ecological equilibrium. We cannot break it. The weave is healing, the thorns will disappear, and José Aguilar died in service to the people.”
Villaverde slowly let go of my hand. She blinked.
“So this is what you do.”
She blinked again.
“This is what you do, solar envoy. You tell lies, to preserve things as they are. How many times? How many times have you lied to the people, to a commune, to an entire planet?”
“Many. I won’t justify it, Maria. This is what I am. A solar envoy who keeps small worlds quiet and happy. Like space stations at the edge of the known world.”
“What happens if I decide I should ignore you? If I decide I should go ahead and start that public inquiry regardless?”
“I am a solar envoy. Make of that what you will. You are a clever person, Villaverde.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and turned towards the world-tree.
“I do not want to see you on Illapa Station ever again. Is it clear?”
“Yes. It is.”
New track selected.
Title: Space Lion.
Artist: Yoko Kanno, feat. the Seatbelts.
Genre: good question
Release date: 1998
The Sleeping Owl had detached from Illapa Station. All I needed was a snap of my fingers to deploy the magnetic tether of my q-drive and put the ship under thrust — but I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep Illapa Station on my screens for as long as possible, I wanted to keep that little, four-ringed thing in a corner of my eye. Odysseus had left a message for me. It was a proposal, both direct and charming. I had not followed suit — but one day, I thought, I might.
Leaves floated in a corner of the haptic screens.
“I’m tired, dear,” I whispered. “Even when I go to solve a random crime on a small station, I end up doing exactly what I’ve been doing for years. It’s exhausting.”
“You should take a few months off.”
“I guess I should."
"Do you have any destination in mind?”
“Elora, Smyrnia, Vyiranga, whatever. I’d even accept the Pale Path. Oh, and Leaves? I’d like you to erase an expression from your vocabulary.”
“What is it?”
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