Stories / Spirals /

Escalation

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

“You feeling better?”

Wren nods, swallowing the last of the ration pack. Ashes, if she was hungry enough to down a whole pack — when did she eat last? “Y-yes, I think so.”

“Alright.” I pat her on the shoulder. “Then let’s get moving. I got a busy schedule today and I need to buy you some proper clothes so you don’t freeze to death.”

“Don’t you have any I could just borrow? I don’t want to be a bother!”

“None that would fit great, and trust me that matters out here. Now come on, get your ass to the airlock.”

Wren looks sadly at the blankets. “I’m nice and warm here though.”

“I’ll keep you warm if you get cold out there,” I say, winking, and enjoying her blush. “Up you get.”

I pause on my way to the airlock, intrusive thoughts gnawing at my mind. I can take care of myself, I know that. This place doesn’t scare me, when it’s just me I’m worried for.

But now there’s someone else I need to watch out for.

I hesitate for a moment, then take my gun back out of its safe, securing it inside my vest.

Anyone fucks with Wren, and they’re going to pay in blood.

We leave the ship, and make our way out of the docking bay. The blast door grinds back, and the light and noise of Lotus hits us. I take a moment to close my eyes and bask in the chaos, before sizing up the scene and figuring out the best route to a voidwear shop.

The causeway is vast, a rough tube hundreds of meters wide. Ads, luminators, and the odd UV panel crowd the walls, as tides of people move through, either confidently drifting up along the guide cables, nervously fiddling with those silly guide-clips they sell to landlubbers, or crawling along the walls, dodging the food-stands, haggling traders, impromptu get-togethers, and the occasional bit of street theater. There’s no elevators, no rapitrans in a micrograv station; momentum’s all you need to get where you’re going.

“Here.” I rummage through my pockets and pull out a spare comlink, which I press into Wren’s hands. “Hold onto that. It’s linked to my ship so if we get separated, just push the big gray button and you can talk to me, yeah?”

“Are-are we going to get separated?”

“Not if I can help it, and here’s how.” I take Wren by the shoulders and turn her around. With one hand, I grab a guide cable, and I wrap the other around her waist. “Ready?”

“Oh! What are you doing?”

“Syncing our momentum. This way we can just float along together until we get where we’re going.” I yank the cable a few times, thrusting us upwards, then I let go of Wren. “Just gotta make sure we don’t run into anyone heading the other way too fast. You can work up some pretty serious speeds in here.”

She turns back to face me. “God, this feels so weird.”

“Did you just crawl the walls to get from your hotel to me?”

She nods. “It didn’t seem so scary.”

“You’re not scared now?”

“Well, I’m with you.” She blushes again. “You know what you’re doing.”

“Damn right I do.”

For a moment the only sounds are the bustle of the station, the food cart cooks barking their offerings in clipped, colloquial Khmaira, the hum and buzz of machinery, the babble of distant conversation. Wren finally looks at me.

“So do you, um, usually carry a gun?”

I sigh. More of this. I know it’s to be expected, she’s a civvie, she’s gonna fixate on the scary firearms. Never should have let her see me packing.

“Nah.” I shake my head. “Not unless I got a good reason to think I might get killed or worse.”

“I thought you said this was a dangerous place?”

“Oh! Sure, it is.” I nod. “Long as you don’t piss off the wrong people or threaten station personnel, you can get away with pretty much what you like here. But killing… it’s a line you don’t usually cross. Not ’less someone’s hurt you and yours. We got businesses to run, you know?”

“Oh.” Wren stared into the distance for a few moments, then looked at me. “You said, ‘killed or worse.’”

“Mm-hm.”

“Sparrowhawk, what — what would be worse than death?”

I hesitate. “Well — rape, for some. Seeing someone you care about get hurt. And there’s always slavers about.”

“Slavers?” Wren goes white as a sheet.

“There’s no law against flesh-taking in this sector.”

“On this station? There are people who… who want to enslave us?”

“I’d’a thought you of all people would be congenial with the idea.” I punch her in the shoulder, and enjoy the look of horror on her face. “Want to? Sure as ash. You’re a good-looking girl and everybody around can see you wouldn’t put up much of a fight. But most are smart enough not to try here. Stations are for trading, not taking. You get a reputation for collaring innocent customers, aren’t a whole lot gonna want to do business with you, yeah?”

“That’s horri…” She looks suddenly conflicted, and stares at me. “You think I’m good-looking?”

“What? Yeah.” I laugh. “Of course I do. You’re a cutie, Wren, you always were.”

She blushes. “Oh. Th-thank you.”

“Nah, I’m just the messenger. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you same.”

“So. Um. Who would they sell m— who do they sell slaves to?”

“All sorts. Folks get pressed into service in pirate crews, or petty little aristo flotillas. There’s always need of manual labor. Men end up sex slaves more than not.”

Wren shudders. “That’s… God, Sparrowhawk, how can you be out here? This place is so horrible.”

I laugh. “It’s bracing! Nothing to get your blood flowing like a good knife fight.” I grin. “In more ways’n one. This isn’t your kind of place, Wren, but I wouldn’t trade it for the fanciest core world. A woman with a mind for it can stand tall out here. Sure it’s a fight, but that’s what makes it worth it, yeah?”

“You’re — you’re scaring me.” Wren’s eyes are wide. She’s making little motions like she wants to back away, but her subconscious hasn’t gotten used to microgravity yet.

I grin, and snag her by the front of her shirt, pulling her closer. “I know,” I say quietly, looking her right in the eyes. “And that, little Wren, is how you can tell you’re safe here. Folks around these parts know better than to cross me.”

She moves her hand up to reach for my arm, and stops. Her eyes are still wide with fear but she’s flushing now, a deep, crimson blush I can see even through her farmer’s tan. She’s feeling a lot of different things right now, and this could go a lot of ways. I decide to push her in the right direction, and let go of her shirt, taking her chin in my hand.

“I will always protect you, Wren. With everything I’ve got, you hear?” I brush the side of my vest back to let her see the revolver at my waist, letting her work out the implication.

“You — you care about me,” Wren whispers. “You said—”

“Death, rape, slavers, and seeing someone as matters to you hurt. I got no fear of the first three today.” I pull her closer and gently embrace her. “You’ve been through too goddamn much already. So I’ll be damned if I let this shithole galaxy hurt you worse, and that’s a promise.”

“Th-thank you.” Wren buries her head in my shoulder.

I run my fingers down her back. “It’s the least I could do.” I take her by the shoulders and push away slightly. “Now, we got ourselves some shopping to do, yeah?”

She nods quickly. “Right. Yeah. Warm clothes.”

“And athletic wear.” I take her arm and squeeze her deltoids. “The void will suck your muscles out like a vacuum. I can tell you haven’t been exercising, so if you ever want to set foot on a planet again, we’ll have to get you back in shape.” I poke her belly, and she squeaks. “Besides, I’ll bet you want to keep that nice flat stomach of yours. Abdominal muscles don’t get much use in zero-g.”

“Y-yeah. That would be, um. Good.”

“The good thing for you is being on a ship, we can punch up the acceleration and get grav on board for a while. It’s how I stay in shape. Orbitlubbers got a much harder time of it.”

“It, um. It’s really a good thing I’m going with you, it sounds like.”

“…yeah.” I glance off into the distance, pursing my lips. “Yeah, sure is.” I look back quickly and smile. “Heads up, we’re almost there. Assuming my favorite damn voidwear shop hasn’t decided to shut down too—”

The familiar blazing lights and garish advert screens of Far Rim Fabrics solidify out of the station’s cacophony of visual noise. Taking Wren in my arms again, I snag a guide cable and kick off towards our destination.

“So why don’t you carry a gun normally?” Wren asks suddenly.

“Sorry?”

“I mean I get that you don’t want to kill people, but what’s the harm in having one? In case things get out of hand?”

“Because if you take a sitch that isn’t threatening anyone’s lives and you add guns to it, you’re upping the stakes in a real bad way. Back when I was with SIA, they taught us not even to pull dusters unless we were in real danger, because even something that looks like a gun can escalate things.” I look Wren in the eyes. “Fights are fast-paced and you don’t often got time to size up everything that’s going on. I like a good brawl as much as the next girl, but you pull a gun in a bar full of angry drunks, and even if you don’t fire so much as one bullet, people are gonna wind up dead. You never, ever want things to escalate that bad.”

“Sparrow! Fancy meeting ya here!”

My arm plunges into my vest, and in one swift movement I’ve pulled the revolver from its holster, switched the safety, aimed, and closed my finger around the trigger. There’s an electronic squawk, an audible crack, and a hollow-point bullet shatters against a bulkhead to our right. The cylinder clicks as the actuators line up another round. Wren screams. The recoil’s jerked me backwards, and I snatch a guide cable to steady myself. My target’s already ducked behind the bulkhead. She’s laughing.

“Sparrow, Sparrow, that’s a mighty unkindsome way t’ greet an old friend!”

“You’re right,” I growl. “That was rude of me. How about you show your smug little face so I can put ten rounds through it all friendly-like, cut your head off, and mount it on my ship, Hawk, you goddamn thieving bitch ?”

Bystanders are scattering. A gunfight in microgravity is not a pretty thing to be around. Too many open spaces. A bullet can fly ’til it finds something to break. Usually a person. It’s lucky I haven’t already killed an innocent. God damn those stupid army instincts. If I didn’t have frangible rounds loaded, who knows how far the damn bullet would have ricocheted.

“Sparrowhawk! What are you — who —” Wren is clutching at my arm.

I keep my eyes fixed on Hawk’s cover. “Get behind me. Now.”

She obeys, steadying herself on my ribs.

“Sparrow, dearest, I think ya might maybe want to stow your piece,” Hawk drawls. “There’s folks about as wouldn’t look kindly on ya pluggin’ me full o’ holes.”

“That so?” I let go of the guide cable, steadying my aim with my other hand. “Who’re you taking it from now I should be so scared of?”

Hawk snickers. “There’s a right frightsome old bat who’s enamored of my operation, name of Raven. I’m thinkin’ ya might heard tell o’ her.”

“Raven Windhand? You’re in bed with the fuckin’ Syndicate now?”

“And they would be most displeased if that river of coin I bring in got plugged up by bullets,” says Hawk, “so be a dear and put that thing away, ’fore ya wind up with ten thou on your pretty little head. ’Coz we both know right well y’ain’t got no employer protectin’ you — y’always was too thick to bend knee t’ your betters.”

“I— ten thou?” I growl. “That’s all I’m fuckin’ worth to you crooks? You deviant little—”

Hawk howls with laughter. “Do I apprehend ya rightly, that you’re whinin’ ya wouldn’t get a big enough bounty on ya?”

“A credit less than fifty and I’m personally throwing Raven down the sewer.”

“Your hopeless bravado always was too fuckin’ cute.” You can’t really saunter in zero-g, but the way Hawk drifts out from behind the bulkhead is too damn cocky to call it anything else. “We both know y’ain’t fixin’ t’ plug me. And I ain’t fixin’ t’ plug you neither, so stow the damn twelve-shooter.”

Slowly, begrudgingly, I lower the revolver, snapping the safety back into position. “What do you want, Hawk?”

“Aw, Sparrow, ya say that like I’m up to somethin’!” She kicks off the bulkhead, drifting closer. She’s horizontal to us, like a swimmer on her back, hands folded behind her head like she’s lounging in the air, grinning up at me with that damn grin.

“You’re always up to something.”

“Sometimes that somethin’s just shoppin’ for a cute bra,” Hawk returns evenly. “A girl’s gotta do somethin’ with her ill-gotten gains. You of all people oughta know.” She winks.

“And you’re getting in my face why?

Hawk giggles. “This ain’t gettin’ in your face.” She’s close enough now to reach me, and snags me by the front of my blouse, righting herself and pulling me closer, her eyes right next to mine. I can smell her perfume, the same damn cherry-blossom scent from all those years ago. “Now this? This is gettin’ in your face, trader girl.”

“I might not be allowed to kill you but I can still break your fucking nose, you murderous whore.”

“Why, Sparrow, I do believe you’re bearin’ me a grudge. How is that old rustbucket o’ yours fairin’ these days, anyhow?” I feel her thigh against my pelvis, and before I can react, she leans in and plants a kiss on my lips.

I reach back, ball up my first, and slam her in the gut with a punch that sends all three of us careening away from each other. Hawk howls with laughter and pain, doubling up. “Now that’s the Sparrow I remember!”

“You so much as look at me again, Hawk, and bounty or no bounty I will end you.” I push myself towards Wren, grabbing her by the shoulders. “There’s gotta be someone out there wants you dead bad enough to make it worth my while. Now fuck off and let me shop in peace.”

“Aye-aye, cap’n!” Hawk salutes. “Captain, tch. One of these days I gotta do something about that. I can think o’ more fittin’ titles.”

I aim the Peacemaker. “Now.”

Hawk winks, and grabbing a guide cable, disappears among the store racks. I sigh, and reholster my gun in my vest.

Wren’s shaking. I reach out to steady her. “It’s okay. The pirate thug is gone.”

“Wh-wh-who was she? What did she — what was that?”

I grab the top of my blouse and bra, yanking them down. “See this?” I say, pointing to the deep scar across my left breast.

Wren nods.

“She’s the one who gave it to me.”