Lapidary Nights
by Marta Randall

short fiction


The noise woke me; I lay in bed, listening to the bright sound of leaf on leaf. Another lapidary night, cracking leaves in the forest around the house. I thought dreamily of rising and walking into it, to fix the newly formed crystals before they shattered, perhaps to become crystalline myself. Instead I burrowed deeper into the bedclothes, listening to the rising wind. In the morning shards of emerald lay on the deeper emerald of the grass, or pierced the faceted violets. Another extravagance of jewels, littering my small clearing. I stirred them with one slippered foot, admiring their fire. Useless for my purposes, of course. Hawkins paid for perfection only: the unblemished beryl rose, the symmetrical ruby anemone, the pure silver tracery of veins through an emerald leaf. Or insects: moths, spiders, butterflies: so delicate that too often they shattered in the collecting. Two years ago I found something that looked like a squirrel, russet, auburn, bronze and amber; black jet eyes bright and peering, the glory of a tail caught ruffled and raised. Hawkins took it eagerly and appeared the next week with a cage full of cats -- scarce commodities on Suledan. I refused them. A squirrel caught in a crystal night is one thing, but I won't deliberately expose an animal. My adamantine goddess was not pleased. 

After breakfast I swept broken leaves into the shallow moat surrounding the cabin. They clung to my broom, melting in the sunlight; in the dankness of the moat their colors mingled to a uniform muddy gray. A process of rot, Hawkins had explained: when things ripen on Suledan, their cells crystallize overnight, except for the seeds. The sun's warmth melts the crystals to provide both organic nutrients for the untouched seeds, and the gases that keep the new growth safe until it, too, is ripe for crystallization. The process interested me less than the result: the transfiguration of light, the translation of the mundane into the fantastic. A poet's dream, this glory out of putrefaction, and to preserve the dream I left leaf and grass emeralds lying in the shade of trees, where they would, with luck, flash and sparkle a few days longer. I put the broom away, gathered my specimen boxes, and went into the forest. 

Nature thrives on curls and imperfections, the nibbles of insects and the vagaries of the sun, but Hawkins paid for perfection only. Originally I thought her an idealist, searching always for the pure, the unsullied, but I changed my mind. She had no sense of the beautiful, beautiful as she was; her taste ran to the brightly colored usual, devoid of imagination. During the first year, when pleasing her was a less vital and more romantic concern, I tried collecting fresh flowers and placing them where I thought crystals would form, but too many blossoms scorched to ebony. Now I simply walked the forest searching for the glorified mundane and found clusters of perfect leaves, a spray of evergreen needles, two sapphire eggs in an abandoned nest, moonstone morning glories. The morning glories were no more morning glories than were the agates agates or the roses roses, but Suledan had no sapient indigenes to contradict my naming and I didn't care what the Suledano colonists called these plants, or how scientists defined these peculiar gems. 

In the odoriferous dimness of my one-room cabin, I mixed chemicals and slid the specimens into the fixing bath. Hawkins's invention, that clear and viscous solution. I asked her once if untreated specimens still lived, caught in gems, before they melted. She shrugged the question away, uninterested in the minor moralities of life and death. I set an amethyst insect in the sun and saw a final spasm before it liquefied, but could not tell if I saw its death, or simply an angularity of the crystal. Perhaps, I thought, life did persist, and when I treated the specimens I gave them immortality. A pretty conceit, which I didn't share with the crystal bitch, who is not one for pretty conceits. I lifted my specimens from the bath, set them aside to dry, and pried up the loose board in the floor . 

Hawkins appreciated gaudy perfection, but I didn't. My hidden stash glowed with the understated: opalescent, burnished, lambent, strange. After a moment's consideration, I added four leaves and one sapphire egg from that day's scavenging and knelt for a moment, considering my escape fund that someday, with luck, would buy my passage off Suledan. Two years ago, fare to the nearest grabstation came to two thousand Federation fremarks, or about three thousand of the local suldans. Two years of Hawkins's miserly commissions added to twenty-two hundred fifty suldans and the proceeds from my private hoard, the specimens I had hidden from Hawkins's greed, might eventually make up the difference. 

I replaced the board and put the remaining gems with the other specimens in the transport case. They made an impressive display; I wondered how much Hawkins would pay me for them, then put the wondering aside. What Hawkins offered, I had to take. I rechecked my cupboard. Still a week's supply of food left, but, Hawkins would be back soon. Terrans can't eat Suledano vegetation or meats-they're not poisonous, just entirely non-nutritious. I spent the rest of the day watching the sun turn emeralds into sludge beneath the neighboring trees. 

Hawkins came the next morning, heralded by the shattering of grass under the hopper's air cushion. I watched her dark-robed figure descend from the hopper and turned away before she turned toward me; all the poetry disappeared, replaced by clammy hands, sweat, pounding heart -- I catalogued the symptoms, but it didn't help. She dumped a supply bag beside the opened transport case and made a pleased noise, rotating a diamond moth between her slim fingers; rainbows fractured against my walls. Her robes reeked, as always, of rotting crystals. I watched her hands –  safe, I thought, if I didn't look at her face, didn't see the color of her eyes. 

"Find more animals," she said, her voice deep and smooth. "You should look harder -- trap some, set them out." 

Azure fingernails tapped the case. I shook my head. "No. How much for these?" 

"Thirty-five." She bent toward the table, her robe clinging momentarily to the curve of her hips. I looked away. 

"Last month you gave me forty-for a smaller group. Not as good, either . 

"That was last month," Hawkins said, replacing the moth in the case. "Food's expensive, kid. And I'm taking the risks, not you." She closed the case and tapped the locks carefully before sliding the case into her saddlebag. "You give me more animals, then we'll discuss more money ." 

I shook my head. "I want fifty for this batch. It's worth it." 

"You find animals, then maybe it'll be worth It. Or maybe you don't want the job anymore." Her voice richened; she always enjoyed this part. "Maybe you'd be more comfortable back in town. " 

I almost looked up then, and she laughed. 

"Kid," she said genially, "they still got your picture up in the center of town. And all the Suledano schoolkids get marched by it twice a day so they can spit on you. " One hip braced against the table, long fingers caressing the saddlebags, the pale skin of her wrist. I looked away, saw my messy, narrow bed, turned away from that, too. 

"You used to be grateful, spacer ," she continued. "I kind of  miss that. You want to hear again what they do to murderers? They're real old-fashioned on Suledan-they like ropes. And knives. " 

"Damn it – " I said to the wall. 

"And everyone comes to watch, too. Like a big party." I could hear her smile. A little silence grew -- this was where she usually laughed, and said I was too important to her; this was where she sometimes, not too often anymore but sometimes, moved toward the bed. Instead she said, "I could tell them where you are, kid. I could turn you in." 

I jerked around to look at her. Sapphire eyes today, above high ivory cheekbones, framed in curling amethyst hair -- last month her eyes had been lavender jade, her hair silver and ebony. I lost my breath and she laughed again. 

"You can't," I whispered. "You turn me in and you'll be- " 

"Hey, I'm clean," Hawkins said, tossing the saddlebags over her shoulder. Her voice lost its honey, now that she'd won the game. "I spotted you in the forest, made a report like any good citizen. Found a fugitive murderer violating the export laws -- they'll give me a goddamn medal. And my brokers aren't going to rat on me." 

I couldn't talk. Smiling, she reached toward my cheek and I leaped back; Hawkins laughed again and dropped a bound packet of suldans on the table, mounted the hopper, and powered off, leaving me alone in the crystal forest. 

She wouldn't do it. Would she? I paced the forest, fighting panic. Pale skin smooth against the skin of my thighs, curls spilling over my pillow (she rode above me once, agate eyes, her hair an azure waterfall between our faces and the world) -- perhaps she'd found someone new, some other spacer in trouble. Gems flickered in the deep shade. She hadn't let me touch her in months. She wouldn't turn me in. Would she? No. She needed me. A mantra against the darkness of the night: she needed me. This new threat was just another twist in Hawkins's game, and I could live with it, as I had learned to live  with the others. She needed me. Fear and hatred and uncertainty -- she needed me. 

I cherished the thought, returning through the forest, crossing the shallow moat, upending the supply bag she'd left on my table. A flour sack filled with dirt, dinner pouches stuffed with sawdust, shards of rotting crystals in the drink sacks. She needed me? I ripped the containers apart, tore at the supply bag, emptied the rotting crystals of the drink sacks into the rotting crystals of the moat. The final twist to her game, of course: that I could choose starvation in the forest or execution in the town. I gripped the edge of the table, terrified of my own rage, and slowed, and stopped, and breathed until my breathing steadied. Hawkins won, Hawkins always won, but not this time. I would not die. I would not give the bitch the satisfaction. 

The makeshift backpack from behind the pile of my clothes. My remaining food, my remaining water. The pile of suldans, an empty specimen case. Crystals gleamed when I tore aside the loose board; they warmed my hands as I lifted and nested them, one by one, in the extinguishing darkness of the case. I wrapped the case in a dark robe, the one Hawkins gave me when she smuggled me out of town, and fitted everything into the backpack. By early afternoon I was walking toward town, avoiding the barely discernible route Hawkins always took, following the stench of rotting crystals. 

Neat as parkland, the Suledan forest has no deadwood, no thickets of brush; Suledan holds neither oil nor fossils. The trees lose leaves and bark to the crystal, leaving smooth, pale heartwood, and when I roamed the forest, I looked for dark and shaggy trunks amid the vines and long-limbed flowers. 

Now I followed naked boles and thick scent, working my way east. In late afternoon I passed through a glade on the verge of crystallization; in the evening I found a rotted spot to spend the night. Nearby, a stream sang. 

The settlement lay in a broad river valley, surrounded by a kilometer of scorched earth; roofs and covered streets created a hodgepodge of protection against the sun. Suledanos lived in perpetual shade, decked in covering robes, sprayed daily with the essence of rotting crystals, terrified of their world. I cursed them and skirted the town, moving toward the port. 

It, too, hadn't changed: a pale expanse of setdown, the dingy one-story terminal, the clutter of hovercars and battered cargo vans, the scent of lubricant. It smelled like heaven; some spacers claimed to hate it, but Suledan had been my first trip, and that thick, sharp odor made me want to cry .That and the growl of an approaching shuttle, soon followed by the gleam and flash and deeper roar of setdown. 

I crept across desolation, finding a place to hide amid the cargo vans. An hour later the crew spilled into port sector, shouting and laughing and flinging their arms wide, while I scurried after. In two years I'd seen only Hawkins's mutable face, and my reflection in the facets of jewels. I tried not to stare. They must have thought me a local kid, tagging along in worshipful adulation; the kid I'd been three years before. A few laughed and held their noses against my stink; the others ignored me. Hidden in their roistering, I walked toward the center of the sector . 

Spacers glitter and flash, decked in eccentric layers of color, blazoned with web scars, but the Suledanos are a dour sort, dark and grim. A number of them risked the open streets in port sector, faces buried in their hoods, fastidiously holding their robes away from the spacers' gaudiness. I held my breath, but they glared at me no more than at the others. The spacers stopped to argue about bars and whorehouses and where to spend their three days' leave. Over their shoulders, I saw the sign for Spacer's Haven, and I backed away from the group, turned, walked off. I had killed a man in Spacer's Haven. 

Ahead, the vivid, sunny street slid under the overhanging roofs of the colony; I walked toward the dimness, peering in shop windows. The clutter of a fitter's, a café promising off-world delicacies and reeking of grease, a couple of whores lounging against the dirty windows of a vid parlor. They called to me amid the constant, startling roar of the sector , and when I ignored them they cursed me for a baby. Eventually I found what I wanted: a shop settled modestly between the sunlight and the shade, sporting a discreet display of jeweled leaves and a brokerage sign. I had picked those leaves the day before. I put my hand through the shimmer of the door and went in. 

A single chime, the scent of fresh apples, thick amber rugs, specimens bedded in velvet behind vibraglass. The woman behind the counter, decorative as her merchandise, looked up from her book, clicked it off, and rose. 

"Good morning," she said amiably, looking at my stained clothes. ""May I help you?" One glittering eyebrow rose. 

"I don't want -- I mean, this is a brokerage too, isn't it?" I waited for her nod, my palms damp. ""I've got something to sell." I shrugged out of my pack, but she put one hand up, forestalling me. Tattoos shimmered along her fingers. 

"Our merchandise is specialized," she said, still amiable. "There's a fine pawnshop-- " 

"I don't need -- can you just look at what I've got? Roses, butterflies-- " 

"We don't deal in illegal exports," she said sharply. "Perhaps you're new on-planet. Suledano law prohibits export of native flora or fauna. In any state. " 

I stared from her to the elegant jeweled pinflowers in the case. 

"Handcrafted," she said. "A local art." 

I shook my head, then realized her problem and pushed my sleeve back. 

"Look, lady. Here's my license; I'm a drive-jock, not a knocker, or a cop. I don't care what the laws are -- I've just got some stuff I want to sell. Okay?" 

She inspected the license embedded under the skin of my t forearm. "These can be forged," she said, but she was smiling. 

"The hell they can. You want to see what I've got?" I reached into the pack for the specimen case. 

"God's love, spacer, not in here," she said quickly. She came around the counter and palmed the shop door; the shimmering opaqued. "Come into the back. Well, come on." 

Black velvet draped the doorway; she held it aside and I followed her into a small room. Shelves, racks, an orderly clutter. High-intensity lamps flickered and glowed as she walked around a square table; jeweler's loupes glittered. 

"You have some trinkets?" she said as I pulled out the specimen case. A comer of her mouth curved up and I knew what she expected. Dumb spacer picks jewels in the forest and, when he tries to sell them, discovers they've turned to sludge. Then she'd have a good laugh and kick me out. "You're not the first spacer to run short of funds and make a trip to the forest," she said as I flicked open the catch on the case. "But I should warn you, most of the stuff you pick up isn't worth. .." Then she ran out of words and stared. 

I stepped back, watching her. After a moment, she picked out a sapphire egg and peered at it through a loupe. Good choice -- the denser specimens were often imperfect, but this one was flawless. An aquamarine bird, lapis lazuli snakes twined together, a small furry thing with ivory tusks; one by 
one she inspected my horde, and when she finished she stood back and looked at me. 

"You're Hawkins's scoop," she said. "Wait, don't leave. I won't tell her." 

I stopped halfway to the door and looked at her. She put her hands flat on the table. 

"Once a month Hawkins disappears for half a day, comes back with dozens of perfect specimens, and nobody knows I how she does it. We figured she must have help. Do you have a name?" 

"Does it matter?" 

She shrugged. "Not really." Her mouth curved again. "What does she pay you, spacer? Money? Sex? Or both?" 

I put my shoulders back. "Do you want this stuff?" 

"Of course. I'll even pay you what it's worth, which is probably more than Hawkins does." She touched an embedded keyboard while numbers flashed and danced along the table top. "Nine hundred seventy suldans; that's fifty percent of what I'll get for them. Have we got a deal?" 

"Can you pay me in fremarks?'. 

She nodded, counted out six hundred forty-seven fremarks, and banded them into a small, neat package.

"I'll take any specimens you can find," she said. "Of this quality. Laila Sa'ad -- remember me. But for God's sake don't tell Hawkins -- she'd kill for less." She glanced at me. "I mean that." 

I slid into the backpack, put the fremarks in my pocket, put my hand on top of them, and nodded and smiled and left, clutching my freedom. It took all my will power not to run down the bright street to the port. The setdown shivered with heat; the factor's office was dusty and close. He yawned and checked his database, ran a flat finger down the screen, and announced, yawning again, that there was room on Skiffle, departing m three days. Lower level only, payment in advance. I dug into my pocket while he cleared me through the Federation roster, and when he turned back I had the money stacked neatly, fremarks on the left, suldans on the right. He frowned at the suldans. 

"Any problem with mixed currency?" I asked, knowing that there wasn't. 

"This currency ain't mixed," he said slowly, flicking the suldans with one broad fingernail. They fanned over the counter, red and blue and white. "This ain't currency. " 

I stared at him. "Of course it's currency, it's suldans, it's my pay -- " 

"It's junk. There's no paper money on this planet, kid. This ain't even counterfeit, it's New Edo yen, and New Edo went bankrupt forty years ago. " He grinned suddenly. "Somebody paid you with this? And you took it?" 

For a moment I couldn't breathe. The factor giggled and fingered his 'base. 

"Wait! I've still got the fremarks, six hundred forty-seven; can I buy passage in stasis?" 

"Ship ain't equipped." He looked at my suldans and giggled again. 

"I'll work. Any berths open? I'm licensed. " I pushed back my sleeve to show him. 

He played with his 'base again. "Naw. Didn't think so. Nobody jumps ship on this place." 

"Okay, hold it, when's the next ship due? Maybe I can wait..." 

The factor shook his head. "Three months. Give it up, kid." He flicked the 'base off and went back to his office. "Hey," he called over his shoulder. "Get that garbage off my desk." The door snapped shut behind him. 

My hands shook so hard it took three tries before I could gather the fake suldans; when I went outside they slid I through my fingers, scattering across the setdown. Hawkins. 

I had been on planet only a few hours before the fight, before she hustled me into the forest. Stupid kid, stupid spacer -- God, she must have laughed at me. I stared at the bright New Edo yen, flipping and dancing in the spaceport breeze; mechanics swarmed over the shuttle nearby, voices harsh, tools banging and clattering and loud. Stowaways are deep-spaced; it's Federation law. Suledanos kill murderers with ropes and knives, and everyone comes to watch. Hawkins left me in the forest with a bag of sawdust and a bag of dirt. 

The breeze tweaked my hair. I felt suddenly naked, bare to sky and fate and Suledano schoolkids. I took the cloak from my backpack and put it on, hid my face, walked away from the port. My stomach hurt. Hawkins liked to see me crawl. Maybe she'd take me back. If I begged. If only for entertainment's sake. She'd take me back, and I'd scour the crystal forest, build my collection again, bring it to Lana Sa'ad. Maybe six more months, if I worked hard. Maybe a year. What choice did I have? The hood hid everything save the patch of street before me, and the whores left me alone. 

Hawkins wasn't hard to find. The public directory gave me her address; after half an hour of wandering the maze of covered streets, I rounded the corner of a mansion and froze. 

Street lights, door lights, floodlights, ground lights; the glare bathed a large hovervan and movers loading passage boxes. The boxes sported Federation intercargo insignia. Hawkins watched from a second-floor balcony, white silk, quartz eyes, leaning to point an ivory fingertip at the leader, a tall woman in spacer's gaudy rags. I ducked back, heart pounding. Honeyed voice, servile response, grunts and clatter, a lift field whined. The bitch was leaving me. To starve in the forest, she thought -- if she thought of me at all. Getting out clean. I risked another glance. Hawkins was gone; the leader consulted her flipboard and the movers worked rapidly, the skirts of their robes tucked up between their legs, hoods pushed back. One glanced my way and I ducked my head, walked away with hands clenched in my pockets, trying to imitate a Suledano's dour gait. It was very hard to breathe. 

Spacer's Haven had a raised dance floor, circled closely by tables. The bar looked smaller, darker, dirtier, eerily quiet. A Suledano lurked behind the bar; the bartray brought me a kravath, took a fremark, dropped Suledano change on the table, floated away. I fingered the coins as I drank: milled edges, the planet's name on one side, the denomination on the other. Plain, ugly coins, but they bought me three more glasses of kravath. I lined them up on the table and downed them in order, staring at the dance floor. 

That was where it had happened, on the side farthest from the door: drunk and happy, seventeen, dancing with another spacer until one of us tripped and we spun around each other, trying to find our balance. We fell into a table of locals; one screamed and jumped for my throat; I grabbed his shoulders; the table collapsed around us. I sat up, still laughing, still ready to fight, but the Suledano lay still. Everyone was yelling and swinging, and a woman with opaline eyes grabbed my arm and rushed me out. And nothing marked it, save that I was here again, and drunk again, and there was no way out. The crystal bitch, Suledano law, wandering into the forest to become my own monument -- it should have ended two years ago, before I knew, before I had a choice. 

I suppose I said all this, loudly, because the Suledano barkeep came over and I tried to hit him, then threw the empty vibraglasses at the dance floor. The first one winked out halfway there; the last one, still full, left a trail of kravath behind it. Two chairs followed it, but the bouncer got to me before I could lift the table. I tried to explain to it, trap and snare, circularity, but it tackled me, slapped a sobor on my arm, and called the port cops, while the barkeep howled curses from beneath a table. 

Within an hour I was sitting in the port guardstation, frozen in a holdfield, sober. The cop took a print from my license and ran a data check on me, and I thought about ropes and knives, about the cabin in the forest, the marks of Hawkins's hopper on shattered grass, New Edo yen dancing in the spaceport breeze, all the details that bound us together. I could take her with me. Maybe they'd let me watch her die before I died. 

When the cop released the field I looked at her, and smiled, and waited for it to begin. She frowned. 

"You goddamned kids have any idea how much trouble I you can get into?" she demanded. "Think you're under Federation law, but you assault a local and they press it, you go into local court, local law , it's part of the treaty .You got any idea how bad that is?" 

"Yes," I said, still smiling. She cursed. 

"Okay, put it this way -- we get on pretty good with the colonists, and we plan to keep it that way. No major problems in twenty years -- and you 're not going to be the first, spacer. If I see your ass around here again, I'll kick it to the woods and back. Personally." She released the holdfield. "You owe the barkeep six fremarks for damage. Pay up, and get out.” 

I stared at her, not moving. "But -- but there was a murder, two years ago.” 

“You got the wrong planet, kid." She grabbed my collar and took six fremarks from my pocket before she kicked me out. 

"Wait! I need -- " The door slammed. And a woman with opaline eyes grabbed my arm, rushed me out. Told me her name was Hawkins. Said she was going to save my life. Told me that the Suledano was dead. 

Something slapped my ankle; a New Edo yen, blowing free. Across the setdown, a tall spacer in gaudy rags supervised the loading of passage boxes into the shuttle's hold. I watched for a while, then stripped off the Suledano cloak and walked, back straight, into port sector . 

I spent some of my fremarks in a fitter's shop: chemicals, a tube of hardfoam, bottle of rotten crystals. I bought a holdfield in an alley near Laila Sa'ad's -- illegal, sure, but you can get anything in a port sector, if you want it enough, if you're willing to pay. And a cat -- I bought a cat. Then I shouldered my pack and went into the forest. It took me only two hours to find a good place. 

Is there life in crystal? The cat blazed: diamond claws, black sapphire fur, ivory fangs in the silent, screaming mouth. A glitter in the amber eyes that caught and kept Hawkins's jade glance, reflected the brief fear when she saw me at her door, the set of sarcasm, the sweet greed as she touched the bristling fur. I crawled for her, I wept, I begged forgiveness for past transgressions, I promised her kittens, left in the forest, no more than half a day's trip, tigerine and tabby, calico and jet, left behind for fear of shattering but perfect, every one of them, if only she would come. And she came. I knew she would. She had another day before the shuttle left. 

I was gentle with her, among the bearded trees. I did not want her marred. She vilified me, her body motionless in the holdfield; then she pleaded, then she promised, then she screamed. I silently sprayed myself with rotting crystals, silently mixed chemicals. Sometimes I smiled at her. She was still screaming when the crystals came, taking her long slender feet, the smooth curves of her hips, her breasts and arms and hands, her eyes. I released the holdfield as the wind rose, so that her platinum curls blew wildly before they, too, hardened, a pale nimbus around her ivory face. 

I had worried about the fixative, sprayed rather than in a bath, but when the morning sun struck her she flashed and gleamed and did not melt, and I left her that way, shining amid the liquefying trees, the black cat snarling at her feet. 

The purser stopped me at the shuttle's hatch, glanced through his lists, asked my name in the hurried, harried voice all pursers use. 

"Hawkins," I told him, and waited for his nod, and smiled, and went on board.

short fiction
copyright 1987, 2002 by Marta Randall
orignally appeared in
UNIVERSE 17, 1987