Silver Veins

by Michele Lee

Years, Trista thought. She stared out, through the foot-by-foot square window in her wall, and wanted to scream. She wanted to pluck the lamp from the table beside her and bash in the window, the only window in her quarters. She wanted to punish it until either her emotions bled out in sticky red on the walls, or the window gave way and the stars bled into her chambers.

She’d spent years on starships or space stations or off planet condos. For years, the same small square of technology and blankness had held her hostage. Her quarters were shaped to fit the people who lived in rooms like these. It was nothing, empty in its natural state, and there was not much more than that around her.

The air was recycled again. The same air was breathed by the Vesvians, and the Astrarians and the Terrians, sanitized, re-oxygenated and cooled, then spat back into the room to suffocate Trista one ion at a time.

“You should go to the stimroom,” Lyvia, Trista’s counselor, told her at that morning’s session. “Experience a story, visit a new place. Or better yet, stop isolating yourself in your quarters. Join a club, or attend a party.”

Trista’s AS-classified brain bothered Lyvia. Despite being biologically Earthling — human was a slur, a epithet best left to gutter backstreets and uncivilized areas where the living creatures were unable to be polite — Trista’s brain worked closer to those of the insect-like races than other Earthlings. It was its shape, and its chemical make-up. It was legally recognized, considered completely normal for the subclass of Earthlings labeled Neuro-Atypical. And while Lyvia counseled fifteen different races on the ship, she couldn’t tolerate Trista’s noncompliance.

Lyvia wanted to drug her, a prospect that made Trista want to scream and claw the woman’s pretty purple face to shreds.

She’d tried the drugs in another place, another deep space community. They hadn’t made the parties and clubs and endless sea of people easier to deal with. They’d made it harder to escape. Harder to give a voice to the crawling sense of discontent that charged beneath her skin.

They locked her inside, still aware and unable to break free.

Drugs, therapy, had caused her last meltdown. Six months unable to find her words, trapped under the constant assault of the world around her. She would not let that happen again.

The vid screen beeped and a new general message from the ship appeared in purple type that reminded her, again, of Lyvia and her useless suggestions. “We will be docking at the Vesvian star port in two estimated hours,” the overly pleasant auto voice read. “All requests for supplies should be into ordering by 2100, standard time.”

“Show the planet,” Trista called out. The black screen vanished, replaced by a shining orb, pale as the Earth’s moon. The planet — Trista eyed the specs — named Coyol, glowed in the darkness of space. The stars’ light glimmered off whatever lingered in Coyol’s atmosphere. Then the ship rounded the planet and the spider web of metal and glass that made up the spaceport obliterated the view.

“Off,” Trista snapped. The screen went blank.

The planet’s beauty meant not a damn thing, because no matter how much Trista hated, loathed, despised the endless gray halls and chambers of the ship, she feared being outside them. More than agoraphobic, the few times she’d been outside of domes or space ports that were controlled down to the scents in the chemically regulated air, her body had shut down on her, the real atmosphere air refused to inflate her lungs, and memorized pictures and case files of local diseases and parasites flashed through her mind at high speed.

The anger threatened to give way to sobs. Rage-sadness-excitement, her brain clicked over and stuck on yet another emotion that was too strong for Trista’s mere human body to feel.

She turned the screen back on and rolled the sound up high enough to block out her own thoughts. News, crap, crap, crap, and there was the planet again. Softly luminescent like real silver-stone. Maybe that’s what made it so beautiful.

“What’s the status on planet surface visits?” Trista asked the screen.

“Denied,” the soft female voice replied. “There are no known settlements on the planet’s surface. Acquisition of supplies is estimated at three hours. Time limitations dictate…”

“I get it.” Trista expected to feel relieved. Instead she found herself staring at the planet’s image, longing to know what it felt like. What it smelled like. “Show the planet’s skin.”

“No images available. Vesvian scientists have not yet released a detailed profile of the planet.”

Trista cursed them in three languages. In a way it made things easier, knowing that she couldn’t psych herself up then let herself down by not showing up on the planet’s surface. So she went back to staring out the window, hating it for existing.

The soulless geometry of the space port crept past the tiny window, then obliterated it completely. Trista could no longer see the stars, just the dull walls and duller people in the dock as they began loading and unloading particulars from the ship.

“The port does have many fine dining rooms and splendid shopping.”

“Are you a computer or a commercial?” Trista snapped.

“I do not understand.”

“What about glider flights? Are they allowed?” Trista asked.

“Yes. Gliders are allowed to file flight plans and disembark until 2400 standard time.”

“File personal plan Trista-5 for Glider Three. To leave as soon as I get there.”

“Affirmative” was the last thing Trista heard before she abandoned her quarters for the hushed halls. She kept to herself outside, avoiding the main sections of the ship, and the exits, which would be filled with people going back and forth between the spaceport and ship.

The glider hold was her territory, more so than any other place on the ship. Trista maintained the ship’s fleet of twenty gliders, small light personal crafts that qualified people could check out for a little off-ship private time, or short space trips. Most often they were used for ship personnel to move back and forth from a planet or spaceport and the ship when the ship was in orbit. Trista kept them up and running, almost single-handedly. It looked harder than it was, but Trista wasn’t about to let anyone realize that.

One of the perks was free rein to use the gliders almost anytime she wanted. Hyperspace movement aside, the gliders let Trista transcend the walls, the rules, and at wonderful moments, her own overactive brain.

“Going for a spin?” Trevor, the security guard posted outside the glider hangar, asked with a too large smile as Trista walked up. He looked right into her eyes and the crawly feeling flared up on Trista’s skin.

She broke the eye contact and offered half a smile. “Yeah, it’s a good time.”

“If you want to get out for a while, the spaceport has this great place, The Rio. It cooks real food to order, and has shopping areas from five different star systems. I bought a necklace there for my wife last year. Gorgeous silverstone and white gold.”

Trista didn’t care. The guard kept spitting out words she heard but couldn’t put in context as he checked for her flight plan registration before opening the bay’s door.

“I’m not a people person,” Trista said, in an attempt to stop his verbal diarrhea. In the end only the hangar door sliding shut cut off the sound of his voice. Trista strode down yet another red and gray corridor before a second door opened at her approach.

The hangar was small, as far as hangars went, because the gliders were small. Each glider connected to the ship with two thick-coiled black umbilical cords. One monitored systems and downloaded flight plans into the glider. Many of the ship’s residents didn’t know how to fly anything, so the gliders came with some automated features. The other cord charged the gliders’ batteries off the ship’s main reactor. Nice and clean.

Trista powered on her chosen glider, then let it go through standard system checks while she unplugged the cords. Then she climbed in, sealed the doors and aimed the glider toward the bay door. The first one opened and the glider rolled slowly into the airlock. The second door opened and Trista was free. The glider dropped a few feet then recovered. The ship’s gravitation held the glider for a moment before it surged forward, out into the blanket of stars.

The first thing Trista did was disable the autopilot. She’d chosen a flight plan meant to test the glider, which she commonly used when she just wanted to fly around and had to file a flight plan due to protocol. She didn’t know what exactly she planned to do, but she knew she couldn’t stand the sight of Coyol obscured by the manmade port monstrosity. She circled the planet until only its luminous surface was visible. She found her attention drawn down toward the atmosphere, found herself trying to discern what was beyond the layers of gas.

The glider followed, skimming the atmosphere, then penetrating it. Trista watched the console carefully. The glider analyzed its environment to keep a steady speed despite wind shear and gravity. The readouts indicated the planet had high amounts of oxygen. Plenty to support Trista, she thought.

She flew lower. The luminosity, she discovered, came not from the mix of gases in the atmosphere, but from the surface itself. Trista let the glider sink gracefully to the surface.

The view around her changed from solid radiance to a thicket of long, tangled silver-pearl branches. Whatever it was looked too delicate to truly be as large and heavy as it seemed. Trista followed a branch. It twisted around, as far as Trista could see, up to twenty feet in places. It looked as if trees made of the stuff reached for space, with vines for branches and glitter for bark.

She didn’t plan to get out. She just wanted to get a look. No one would be on the surface so no one would know anything about her. There would be no expectations of small talk or smothering closeness. But once the glider sat on the surface, her curiosity over took her. She didn’t have to go out, but she wanted to see if the vines were just a trick of the camera or if they really were so brilliant. The door to the glider slid open.

Trista sat in the doorway, dangling her legs in the three feet between the glider’s deck and the planet’s surface. The air felt colder than she expected. The planet was the sixth from the system’s sun. The third was a tourist paradise, the fourth contained the most productive mines in the system. They were conquered things. This one, Trista didn’t know what to make of.

It was quiet. Still. Beautiful. A pleasant, slight scent carried through the air like a memory of a scent rather than the present, full-on assault of the real thing.

Off in the distance she noticed a spot of lavender in all silver. Her feet touched the ground. For a moment she expected the paralyzing fear of danger, the familiar press of a wild environment assaulting her senses. But it never came. The air was still, not a breath of movement. The silver tendrils around her were not unlike the spaceport above. Raw and natural instead of geometrically and chemically strengthened, but the same. The planet didn’t feel real. It felt muted and too beautiful, like a dream.

The ground below her feet was a duller, dusty version of the planet around her. Perhaps dead and powdered pieces of the tapestry around her. Not far away the blur of purple waited.

Trista stood two feet from it before she realized it was a flower, blooming, like many others around and above her, out of the silver vines themselves. They were plants then, Trista thought. A plant that filled the land and the purple blurs were the flowers.

The one in front of her stretched nearly five feet tall, counting the petals. Its center was almost two feet in diameter, darker purple, but not by much. The petals, huge as they were, faded toward the tips. The darker pigment from the center section decorated the petals in speckles, like drips of paint. In the very center was the stamen, a lacy, star-shaped piece of creamy white in all that purple.

Trista’s skin tingled. It did that when she was genuinely excited. The smell was heavenly. She’d barely smelled it from the glider, but here, right on the flower, it smelled like vanilla and strawberries. A smell so solid and smooth she could roll it on her tongue. Wrap up in it like a smooth, cool blanket.

Something broke the silence. The call blew out again and Trista jerked to attention. Someone was paging the glider. Trista looked around, frozen for a moment because she couldn’t see it. She spotted it right when she thought her brain was about to shut down in panic. She’d walked much farther than she realized.

A fast jog brought Trista back to the glider as the third page rang out. When she saw it was a general page, Trista wanted to scream. But she already felt horrible for breaking the tranquility of the planet’s surface. “All personnel should be back on the ship in half an hour. Half an hour.”

Trista spent far more time on the surface than she expected. She’d never planned to set foot on it at all. She closed the door, giving the foliage a last, longing look before setting off back for the ship. It would take her more than half an hour to reach it. It wasn’t a problem. The ship moved slowly enough while leaving port that the glider could catch up with it. She set the glider on an auto-path back to the ship and watched the surface recede, then become obliterated again by the ship and star port.

“How was your flight?” her assistant mechanic, Joe, asked when the glider rolled back into the hangar.

“Amazing,” Trista answered. She found herself smiling into Joe’s oily reddish face.

Joe looked taken aback. “Wow, must have been. That’s good, Trista. I’m glad you had fun.”

Trista couldn’t shake the thrill of what she’d done. She’d deleted the flight record so no one would know, and yet she felt energized, refreshed, charged in a way she’d lost years ago. She made it to her quarters and skipped inside. Then she caught herself and laughed. The sound echoed through her room, which hadn’t heard anything like it since Trista moved in. She was practically shaking, so she decided to calm herself down with a shower and a cup of warm tea.

“Get a hold of yourself,” Trista told her reflection before she climbed into the shower stall. The water came on at her default temperature and it hit her skin like pinpricks. The heat of the water on the coolness of her skin gave her a pins-and-needles sensation. After a few moments the feeling washed away in the torrent, but the elation remained.

Trista squeezed a berry-scented soap onto her palm. It smelled nothing like the flowers, but it made her think of it anyway. She hit a rough patch of skin at her hip, but a little hard scrubbing had her shiny and smooth as a baby’s bottom. Once wrapped in a soft robe, a stillness came over Trista. She felt calm and sated for once, so she decided to take advantage of the feeling and try to sleep.

Her dreams came in glimmers of textured silver. She didn’t remember the actions, just the glimmer. When she woke, the elated feeling had sunken slightly into her skin, become a part of her almost. She couldn’t stop marveling at the feels and scents around her. She inhaled, savoring the citrus scent in the air, as if it circled through one of the hydro-gardens on the ship before filling her room. The air caressed her skin as it filtered in. The blanket, itchy and stuffy every other day, bathed her skin in warmth that offset the air flow perfectly.

Her alarm went off, and instead of cursing it, Trista verbally turned it off and stretched. She stood, and when she caught sight of herself in the mirror on the bathroom door, she froze. Her skin was the pasty pale of someone who’d never seen a real sun. Her shoulder length hair was shiny and curly enough, thanks to the composition of the bathing water. But across the somewhat convex expanse of her stomach, a tattoo spread. It reminded her, not of the blackish ink of the Earthlings, but of the Ryllian tattoos she’d seen. The Ryllians had a gift for metal working. With their bare hands, they could work most metals and stones to a semi-liquid, malleable form. They commonly adorned their skin directly with inlays of metal and stone.

A Ryllian-style tattoo spread across Trista’s hips and stomach in delicate stripes of silverstone. Trista touched one and felt a definite difference between her soft flesh and the cold silky stone. She felt an edge to the marking and slipped a nail beneath it. She expected pain, but the silverstone peeled away like the coating on cheap jewelry. Trista peeled it all off, washing the flakes down the drain of her sink. She ran the disposal as well, to make sure whatever it was ended up in pieces small enough to wash into the ships sewer system. There the filters and sanitizers would sift it out before the water would be treated for safe use again.

“Trista, are you coming in today?” Joe’s voice rang out into the main room. She had the audio line set to open, but thankfully not the video line. She’d have been damn embarrassed if Joe saw her peeling silverstone off her stomach.

“Yeah, yes,” she yelled from the bathroom. “I’m running late, but I’ll be there.”

She took extra time to scrub her skin smooth. Beautiful as it had been, the overnight tattoo struck her wrong.

The positive feeling wore off a bit during the shower. It wore off completely after nine hours of work in which not one but two batteries overheated, melting part of their casings and spilling out onto wires and carpeting. Nothing important, other than the batteries, had been lost. But Trista never did like messes.

She was beat by the time she walked back into her quarters. She was sticky with mostly-dried sweat, itchy, her face and arms bearing smears of who-knew-what. Trista stripped and tossed her clothes into the auto-clean machine. The little window in the door steamed up. All Trista wanted to do was go to sleep for a day, maybe two. But she couldn’t stand the thought of going to bed nasty. She checked herself in the mirror and cursed in three languages.

The gossamer tendrils of silver covered her stomach and hips again, threading their way down her legs toward the floor and gently cupping the bottoms of her breasts toward the top. She felt for the edge again, surprised to find a third texture in her skin. She it peeled off and pulverized the cool, smooth silverstone again. The new texture, like silk and suede spun together, fanned from a point just south of her sternum, and flaked away into a fine, pale powder when she rubbed at it. Trista tried to inspect the dust it left on the floor, but it was too fine to scoop up between her fingers.

Instead she blew into it to scatter the faintly dusty spot on her carpet. She scrubbed herself again, a distinct feeling of discontent and downright paranoia coiling in her stomach. She should go to the sick bay. She should tell someone, at least. Someone who’d isolate her in a quarantine chamber, more walls and less windows than even her current box allowed her.

In the morning. Yes, after one last, decent sleep. Then she could turn herself in, confess if the situation warranted it, and relent to whatever protocol the medical professionals dictated. Feeling cold and somewhat empty, Trista burrowed into her blanket and tried to sleep.

The sun, a gentle, computer generated simulation of sunlight, woke her, most likely later than she should have been up. Trista didn’t want to move. She wanted to turn the sun off and cry. The first time she’d been brave enough, fierce enough to set foot on a planet’s surface and somehow it had infected her, ruined her.

She’d never managed to do anything right, and never without much irritation and strife to boot. She finally crawled out of bed and hazarded a glance at herself. The veins were back, as lovely and brilliant as the first time she’d seen them. They curled around her body, growing across her skin like some kind of luminous fantasy armor. Except she wasn’t some exotic-breed warrioress. She was just Trista, a stupid human who made a stupid choice.

Trista choked down tears and dressed for what she thought would be her end on this starship. She took a last look out her little window and her nervousness gelled to a sickness in her stomach and chest. The window was dark. The shade was open, always, but the window remained dark save for an occasional glimmer or shine off the surface of whatever obliterated the view.

Trista’s door slid open on command, but instead of the empty sterile halls, she found a beautiful tangle of silver branches, growing up from broken pipes beneath the floors and between the walls. A heavy knot with a tiny purple bud blocked the passageway door. Trista slunk back to her quarters.

The ship was quiet. The blips and beeps that, at times, felt like they violated her, from boards, systems and displays were dark. Silent.

It was wrong because the social constructs of the ship said it was wrong. They said this was not how life was supposed to be. But it was right to Trista’s senses and her overworked brain. It was calm and soothing. It was beautiful and safe again, like the peace of the silver planet had come to her when she failed to return to it.

Trista stripped and stood in front of the mirror, watching the artificial light play along the growing silver on her skin. When the bloom pushed gently out of her stomach and her skin folded open into a breathtaking purple-speckled bloom, she watched that too. Finally smiling.

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