I wake to the rapid chirping of an alarm. Blearily, I push the blindfold off my eyes and stare at the blinking lights on the bedside panel until my eyes are focused enough to parse it. Successful jump four hours ago. Carnelian Imperial Time 0020, estimated. As close to “morning” as you get out here.
I take a deep breath, letting the adrenaline die down. The first moment after an alarm wakes you up always gets your heart pounding. I’ve been in this business nearly a decade and I still get jumpy. It would be nice if the damned system would let you give the drive and the prox alerts different sounds, but whatever. Shit’s what it is. And it ain't worth paying a wirehead to get the channels untangled.
I thumb the luminator switch, and the battered light fixtures blink to life. I unbuckle the straps on my bed and drift to the hatch, pull myself out into the hallway and lazily push myself off the wall in the direction I always think of as “up” for no specially good reason.
You can always tell if a ship is a toy for rich planetlubbers by how she’s laid out. Yachts are flat as a rug, or they’ll have ornamental staircases to help the passengers get their bearings. The silliest ones have magnetized floors.
Mine’s the real deal, laid out in all three dimensions. Used to make me dizzy but it’s amazing what the human brain can adapt to. These days, I wouldn’t trade Chrysanthemum for the fanciest yacht. Spend enough time in zero-g on a ship built for it and you’ll never feel free anywhere else.
I buckle myself into the pilot’s seat and lean back, calling up screenfuls of telemetry with keystrokes that years of running a ship have made instinctual. As an afterthought, I punch the window switch, and the heavy metal shields over the cockpit separate and slide away, creaking and complaining as they retract into the hull.
I can see Ruby in the distance, a tiny blue speck of a planet against the endless black of the void. “Resplendent Ruby upon the Scepter of Righteous Command,” that is, but everybody in the sector just calls it Ruby unless they’re mailing a package or some shit.
I poke at the radar a little and then I kick the field drive into reverse. I learned the hard way not to use the autopilot at distances like these. The fucker just wastes your batteries.
In more law-abiding provinces, flying by hand in a settled system is the sort of thing that’ll get the Justicariat on your ass so hard you’ll think they forgot your safeword. “A safety risk,” they say. Me, I’m not convinced it’s not a huge scam to suck more money out of honest traders with crappy autopilots.
But out here in the sticks, nobody gives a crow’s third tit unless you actually run into something. And the void is big. That doesn’t happen much.
I’m not in realtime comms range with anything interesting yet, so I sit back and pull up my last news digest. It’s about a week out of date now, of course. I won’t know exactly how out of date until I’m in comms range. It’s not time dilation exactly, you don’t get that with a jump drive, but you can’t keep time in sync over distances this big. I asked how that works once and got a mouthful of “general relativity” this and “fictitious frame of reference over the hyperspace volume” that so I stopped asking.
Hours pass, and finally the little “latency” slider on the control panel drops under the one-second line. Ruby’s the sector capital, so it’s got more stations in orbit than the Grand Vizier has treacherous schemes, from big shiny corporate resorts to shipyards to dingy supermalls. There’s only one I ever bother to do business on here, though. My home away from home.
I tune the radio to the station's flight control frequency. The packet translator wired awkwardly into the radio circuit displays the station's ident in flickering Khmai letters ill-suited to my native language: “Golden Lotus Unfurls in the Light of Bountiful Commerce.” I wait for a lull in the chatter, listening to comms traffic in a dozen languages, only three of which I can make any sense of. No voices I recognize.
“Come in, Lotus. Captain of Trade Vessel Chrysanthemum Blossoms in the Garden of Hope looking to dock, over,” I interject when I have the chance.
“This is Lotus Flight Control. We read you, Trade Vessel Chrysanthemum,” says a woman briskly when the connection clears. “Please state your ship's local registration code if applicable. Ready to copy, over.”
“Seven-eight-eight-six-heron, over.” I dock here so much my local ID is permanently etched in my memory; I don't even need to pull out Chrysanthemum's battered registry booklet to look it up.
There was a pause. “You are Captain Sundancer from Joyous Opal of Hope and Fulfillment, this sector?”
“That’s me, over.”
“Welcome back, Captain. Please ensure you and all passengers have your passbooks ready with full immunization records and hold for the next available intake bay, over.”
I sigh. “No passengers, ma'am. Over.”
“Oh.” She sounds a little embarassed. “You’ll still need your passbook, of course. Are you a trader?”
“Sorry about that, I’ve been docking transports all day.” She laughs awkwardly. “Alright, moving you to Docking Bay 144. Fees are—”
“Whoa, hold on. I’m a Morningstar member. It should be in my file. Can you route me to one of their docks?”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am, but Morningstar just sold their property on the station. And they declined to contract out their trade association benefits, over.”
“What?” I sigh. “Goddammit. Okay, yeah, sorry, public bay, then. What are your fees?”
“For our smallest freight bay, the docking fee is ten sovereigns, plus ten talents per night, charged at sunrise Carnelian time, over.”
“Ugh.” That’s going to eat uncomfortably into my profits. “Acknowledged, over.”
“Received and logged. You are cleared for Bay One-Four-Four. Docking fees will be charged at Immigration. Please be aware that failure to pay will result in seizure of your vessel, so make sure that you have adequate funds or credit before docking. Thank you for choosing us for your business. Lotus out.”
“Copy that. Chrysanthemum out.”
I switch off the radio and snuggle back into the seatcushions, pinching my brow. Fucking Morningstar! Half the reason I joined their fucking club was free docking here. One hundred platinum a year and this is what I get? The assholes didn’t even give me a heads up, for fuck’s sake. Ten plat for docking might not seem like much to a megacorp but I’ve made runs with less than that in profit more times than I like to think about. I’m lucky I’m not taking a loss this time around.
I turn the autopilot back on and pull the comms screen to the fore. After a few false starts the Blue Star box finds its network signal and connects. The teletype spits out a cheery message telling me to expect roaming charges for reasons that probably boiled down to “we wanna see how tight we can squeeze you losers before you run.” I open a few terminals, one for my bank, a couple for commodity pricesheets I subscribe to, and—
Access denied. What the fuck. The Far Rim Review says my subscription expired, which is pretty fucking impressive since I have it set to auto-renew every year. How many people am I going to have to yell at today?
My bank statement looks good, at least. My investment accounts are doing well, my credit line's enough for the docking fee, and oh look there’s the entry showing where Far Rim charged me for subscription renewal, the lying bastards.
After filtering out the junk, my mailbox is blissfully empty besides one message from a trader I hooked up with back on Glory.
thinking of you, babe. wanna try and hit Glory with me again next quarter? love, Heron ♥
And there's an attachment. An image. Couple hundred kilobytes, but — I can spare a silver or two. I tap the keypad and the screen flickers into graphics mode. A smile grows on my lips as the image slowly resolves, line by line.
It's a topless selfie. Because of course it is. Babe.
Two silver was a small price to pay. I flick a switch on the router to splice in the archiver, slot in a high-capacity tape, and let it roll forward for a bit. It clicks to a halt as it finishes encoding the screencapture.
I turn the archiver back off and switch back to text mode, flicking another switch to open a reply window.
*Fuck* yes, I key in. The curvy Khmai letters blink into existence one by one, cursor advancing along the line. Operating the mess of hardware's all but second nature to me now.
Bring a friend next time? ;) I add, signing it,
That girl made the cutest noises.
I save the transaction table and the pricesheets locally. Once my newsreader and mailbox are done chattering with their servers, I sign off and rip the receipt out of the teletype slot. It’s amazing how many people will sign back on and download whole files all over again every time they want to look something up or read a letter. There aren’t a lot of traders who keep their comms bills as low as me.
I spend the next few hours rearranging my schedule so I can fit in another run to Sapphire and make up some of today's losses, and before I know it Lotus is looming in the window. Reluctantly I dial down the heat and pull a sweater on over my bra. Pants can still wait, though. I didn’t go five thousand plat into debt for a ship because I wanted to wear clothes in space.
Bay 144 is looming up ahead. I angle the velocimeter at Lotus and watch the needle drop. Two. One. Zero. The field drive powers down as we match momentum, and a docking armature extends. The bay enfolds Chrys, the docking techs working their magic as clamps lock down and electromagnets lock on. Finally, the bay lights up green. Chrys is nestled in nice and cozy.
I turn to the distributor and flick down all the nonessential switches. No need to waste precious silver on power I'm not using. Around me, the ship falls silent.
I pat the central console. “Rest easy, girl.”
I fish my keyring out of a cupboard and lock down the consoles one by one. Some might call me paranoid. I call myself a survivor.
I'm about to make for the airlock when an uneasy feeling takes me. This isn't some swanky Morningstar lounge. This here is a public docking bay. No telling who I'm liable to find about.
I have a gun safe mounted under my bed that I keep my old service pistol and a handful of ammo in. Mother, I’m sure, would lecture me very sternly about gun safety for keeping them in the same place, which is one of a whole lot of reasons it’s a good thing we’re not in touch anymore. I slot a cartridge into the receiver and flip the safety. The status strip lights up blue and I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t test the thing as often as someone in my line of work should.
I pull the hatchway shut behind me as I step into the airlock. I turn the crank, fastening the bolts, and lock them in position with the master key. I fix the keyring in my pocket, the small carnelian ornament on the end dangling out in free space.
The airlock cycles around me. Outside, spacesuited techs cling to Chrys like barnacles, hooking up fuel feeds and electric lines. One catches sight of me and gives me a jaunty wave. I wave back, and step through. Into the seediest district of Lotus.
Lotus is an odd little station. Most split up the public bays across different docks so as to isolate the riff-raff, keep down on violence, but she's old. Maybe older than the Empress. Maybe older than the Empire. Probably not a lot of modern design sensibilities to be found.
I've been on the public docks around these parts before. Anyone can tell you I'm not the picky type, but this is one place I don't fancy to linger. Reminds me of nothing so much as the old warrens we used to patrol from time to time, back when I was with the Company. The low-down built-over places, full of stink and dirt and blood and rape. Or worse, when we were sent in to clean up after the Baroness's girls in grey had had their fun. Bad memories. Bad ones.
I don't meet any gazes as I make my way through the corridors. Intersections and bay doors pass me by. Panels levered off bulkheads. Makeshift shelters. Huddled forms under blankets. Needles floating in free space. Frightened children. Refugees, by the look of it. The Empire never lacks for them. The work programs are never enough. A small commissary. A girl outside sees me pass, turns, hopeful eyes and too much bare skin greeting me. Shrunken pupils, flushed cheeks, arms swaying. I look away as she beckons. It ain't right.
I'm grateful when the familiar patter of the dock pushers greets my ears. Rough Khmaira words I've heard many times before. “To'ikha'e! Bakhare! Khobo'!” Cigarettes, sweetfoods, news. Unspoken offers left implied.
Dock thugs give me appraising glances here and there. I meet their gaze with calm, unafraid eyes, and they look away, moving off in search of softer prey.
I breathe a sigh of relief as Immigration comes into view. It's an altogether cleaner side to the dock. Station troops wait ready at the entry, rifles at the ready. In the distance, a hostel. God alone knows what horrors are to be found there.
I pass through the portway to Immigration, ignoring the guards’ careful looks. Rows of reentry lanes stretch across the facility, big glass stations here and there where staff await new arrivals. I look to each one in turn, squinting at the clerks behind the glass—
Finally some god-damned luck.
I approach one station. The boy manning it looks up as he finishes with the woman in front of me, and his eyes brighten. “Sparrowhawk!” he calls out, sliding back the station shield and giving me a friendly wave.
“Hey there.” I ruffle his hair affectionately as I pass him the credit slip. “Nice to see you, Seven. How’s life on the docks treating you?”
He smiles, clipping the slip into a folder. “Dunno what you said to those longshorewomen but they’re finally leaving me alone. Mostly. One of them took me out for drinks.” He flicks through my passbook without reviewing it and presses the visa printer against the usual page. “I owe you.”
“Least I could do for a friend I can count on to overlook all the totally legal vegetables I’m not smuggling, right?”
Seven grins. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and oops—” He scribbles a signature on his clipboard. “—it looks like I just accidentally put down that your ship's cleared customs already.”
“Good boy.” I slap him on the shoulder. “You’re the first good luck I’ve had all day. Speaking of drinks, I got time to kill before I take off tomorrow. Headless Hog this evening? My treat, natch.”
“Shit, don’t tell me they’re closed down too?”
“No, I mean — there’s a girl on the station who’s been looking for you. I promised I’d let her know when you docked.”
“Wait, what? Who is she?”
“I don’t know. She’s not a trader or anything. At least not like any I’ve seen.” Seven shakes his head. “It’s really weird. She asked for you by your full name.”
“Hold on, what?”
“Nobody calls me that.”
“Yeah. Really weird. She seemed upset. Kept saying it was urgent.”
“Huh, okay. Tell her I'm here? If something's gonna go down, can't hurt to have the greys on hand.”
Seven nods. He reaches across his desk and lifts up a handset. “Hey, can you put me through to the dock hostel, cabin… two-nine-two?” he asks the operator, eyes turning back to me. “—Thanks. Hey, yeah, I was calling about the trader you were asking after. She just got to Immigration, and— Hang on. Where are— Um.” He stares at me.
The dock hostel?
“Seven? What's up”
“She said she's coming over right away.”
“The fuck she is. Tell her to make a goddamn appointment.”
“She's gone.” Seven turns his headset off. “I just heard her door close. She didn't even bother hanging up. Gosh, she's in a hurry.”
“Okay, I’m starting to get a little creeped out.” I pat the back of my pants where my pistol's stowed. “Your girls gonna take issue if I show my piece?”
“Hang on.” Seven unholsters a radio. “Lane four to Immigration security, be advised we may have a situation brewing. Trader is a friendly, repeat, trader is a friendly. Please monitor and be prepared to assist.”
“Acknowledged, lane four.”
I whistle as he shuts off the radio. “You sound like a damn commander. It's like you grew up or something.”
“Oh!… I… I mean… you’re too kind, um.” Seven blushes. “A-a-anyway, point is, you're safe, they know you're on our side. As long as you don't start, um, shooting at them? Or anything?”
“Sweet.” I slide the gun out of my waistband, keeping it hidden under my coat, wincing at the cold metal brushing my skin. “Here’s hoping I remember how to aim if I have to.”
“Please try not to shoot me by mistake.”
“No promises. —Wait, is that—”
A young woman’s just cleared the entryway. She’s obviously not comfortable in microgravity, and doesn’t have the arm muscle to move around very quickly.
“Sparrowhawk?” She sees me across the bay and stops dead in her tracks.
Holy shit. It really is her.
“Sparrowhawk!” She tries to run towards me and just ends up knocking her head against the bulkhead. I slide the revolver back into my waistband, kick myself off from a guiderail, and close the distance to her.
“What the fuck are— how—” I begin.
Wren throws her arms around me and starts sobbing.
“Um.” I put an arm around her. “Wren? Are you okay? What’s going on?” Scenarios are rushing through my mind and none of them are good.
“I found you. God, I can’t believe it, I finally found you.”
“You did. I’m here now. Wren, what’s wrong? Why were you looking for me of all people?”
Seven stares at me worriedly as I tug her back with me to the ingress lane. “Are we okay? What’s going on?”
“I—Yeah. Yeah, we’re good. You can call off the greys.”
“Who is this?”
“This is Wren. Wren Skybreaker. From Hope. We, um, grew up together.”
“Oh!” Seven mumbles a coded message to station security and turns to Wren. “Um. Hi. I’m Seven Falcon Windrider. My friends call me Seven.”
“Very big family,” I explain to Wren, as if she’s listening. “He has like twelve brothers. Look, do you need, like, protection? A safe space or something? Come on, Wren, talk to me.”
Wren wipes her tears on her sleeve. She’s still wearing some ratty farmhand outfit. “I’m — I’m fine. We need to talk. Sparrowhawk, everything went wrong. We need your help.”
“Easy there.” I put my hands on her shoulders. “Let’s go back to my ship. I’ll make you some tea, get you some blankets, and we can talk. You gotta be freezing in that getup.”
She shivers. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
I look over to Seven. “I know you gotta get back to work. Thanks for the backup, and for, you know.”
“Anytime, Mistress Sparrowhawk.” Seven bows quickly. “It’s always a pleasure.”
“You’re the best. I’ll message you later.”
Wren’s still shaking when we get to the ship. I seal the airlock behind us and steer her towards the kitchen. “Here. There’s a couch and some cushions. I’ll get the tea started and grab you some blankets, alright?”
Wren nods mutely.
I start up the boiler and duck out into the hallway. I spring open one of the lockers and pull out some blankets. Wren’s just curled up numbly in the acceleration couch as I wrap the blankets around her, and I turn up the thermostat a little.
“Alright.” I park myself in the air across from her. “What happened, Wren? Why are you out here all alone?”
Wren takes a deep, shuddering breath. “It’s Hope,” she mumbled. “Hope is — there was a — a volcano went off. A big one. It—”
In the warm room and under my cozy sweater, I feel an icy chill run down my spine. “Oh no.”
“There’s smoke and ash everywhere — nothing’s growing. The whole planet—”
Wren flinches at the vulgarity.
I put my hand to my forehead. “The whole planet? The sun’s just choked out everywhere?”
“Everywhere that matters. There was this scientist, he told us — told us it’ll be a hundred y-years b-b-before — before —”
“Oh, honey.” I push myself forward and put my arms around Wren. “I’m so sorry.”
“People are going to starve,” Wren mumbles. “There isn’t very much food left. We can’t grow more. We barely have any money left. We bought all we can from other worlds, and the Empire won’t help us, and — you’re all we have left.”
“You came out here just to find me? They sent you out here all alone?”
“They sent five of us. We were all supposed to look for you. We split up to follow different trails.”
“Love of God, why didn't you just hire a courier? That's what they're for!”
“We did!” Wren blurts out. “Again and again and they all took our money and disappeared!”
“…you hired unaccreditted couriers?”
“W-what does that mean?”
I massage my temple. “Never mind. Who else did they send? God, how the hell did they get you out here?”
“Crow. Four Dove. Queenfisher. You wouldn't remember the other two. We scraped together some credits and paid a trader to — to bring us out here. Old lady Dove had to sell like half her jewelry—”
“Some random-ass fucking trader? Were they trying to get you sold into slavery?” Hope's a backwater full of dumbfuck yokels, but could even they be this stupid? “And god, they sent Four Dove? What the fuck were they thinking? He’s not cut out for—”
“None of us were cut out for this!” Wren blurts out. “We were going to die! God, Sparrowhawk, do you have any idea what it was like? Nobody knew how to contact you. Nobody knew if you were even alive or dead! They sent us because we were the only ones they could spare who could recognize you! We’ve been running, panicking trying to find any trace of you, even just a reason to think you were still out there— God, I was almost out of coin— I was starting to think about, what I'd have to do to survive if, if, if—”
She’s hyperventilating. Shaking. Eyes darting around the room, not meeting mine. I’ve seen this before, too many times. She’s going to be lucky if she doesn’t have luo tai gi.
I pull her in close. “Shhh. You’re right. I’m so sorry. But it’s okay. You found me. You can rest now. You can stop running and panicking.”
I feel the tension drain out of her shoulders. “So y-you’ll help us?”
“I’ll do everything I can, Wren. I promise.”
The dam breaks, and suddenly she’s sobbing, clinging to me as tears stream down her cheeks, her body shuddering. I realize suddenly just how thin and bony she is. Loss, alienation, stress and terror without respite, malnourishment, and God knows what other traumas — this girl has been through shit that would break a hardened soldier.
And she survived. She survived all this, and made it to me.
I don’t know if I can save Hope. But I’ll be damned a hundred times over if I let Wren down.