from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale
I wake to the gentle buzzing 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 read it. Successful jump four hours ago. Carnelian Standard 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 jump alerts and 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 the 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 CTS 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,” says a woman briskly when the connection clears. “Please state your ship's local registration code. 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 have your passbook with full immunization records ready when you dock and at the planetside checkpoint, over.”
I sigh. “No, sorry, I won't be landing. Just passing through port. Over.”
“Oh.” She sounds a little embarassed. “I'll drop the Ruby visa. 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, I have you in 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 shake my head. “Goddammit. Okay, yeah, sorry, public bay, then. What are your fees?”
“For our smallest freight bay, the docking fee is one thousand credits, plus three hundred per night, charged at sunrise Carnelian time, over.”
“Ugh.”That’s going to eat uncomfortably into my profits. “Alright. Bill it to my credit line, over.”
“Received and charged. You are cleared for Bay One-Four-Four. 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. Ten thousand a year and this is what I get? The assholes didn’t even give me a heads up, for fuck’s sake. A thousand 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 people without losing customers.” 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 call and yell at today?
My bank statement looks good, at least. My investment accounts are doing well, 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. A message with an attachment.
“thinking of you, babe. wanna try and hit Glory with me again next quarter? love, Heron ♥”
And under that, a topless selfie. Babe.
Those eight hundred kilobytes were well worth the extra credits it cost to download them.
I hit the reply button. “Fuck yes. Bring a friend next time? ;) -Sparrowhawk ♥♥”
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 half a million into debt for a ship because I wanted to wear clothes in space.
I’m greeted by a familiar face when I dock. A boy in a customs uniform waves at me as I climb out of the airlock.
“Hey there.” I ruffle his hair affectionately. “Nice to see you, Seven. How’s life on the docks treating you?”
He smiles. “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 and registry and stamps both without bothering to review them. “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 cleared your ship right through customs without searching it at all.”
“Good boy.” I slap him on the back. “You’re the first good luck I’ve had all day. Speaking of drinks, I got time to kill before I take off tomorrow. Angry 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 what bay I’m in. I’ll keep my gun loaded just in case.”
Seven nods and punches the switch on his headset. “Hey, can you put me through to the dock hostel, cabin two-nine-two? —Thanks. Hey, yeah, I was calling about the trader you were asking after. She just arrived, docking bay one-forty-four, and— Hang on. Where are— Um.” He stares at me.
“Seven? What's up”
“She said she's coming over right away.”
“The fuck she is. Tell her I’m busy.”
“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 wave at the ship. “I’m… gonna go get my gun. Just in case.”
“Yeah. Um. That’s probably not a bad idea.”
I turn around and dart back into the ship. 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’ve let security know we might have a… stalker situation,” Seven says as I come back out the airlock. “They’ll be keeping an eye on us.”
“Sweet.” I switch the safety back on and slide my gun into the back of my waistband, flinching at the touch of the cold metal. “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 pushed open the door to docking bay. 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 bay wall. I kick myself off from a docking clamp 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 catches up with us and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Are we okay? What’s going on?”
“I—Yeah. Yeah, we’re good. You can call off security.”
“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 autocook 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 can’t buy it from another planet, 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 smuggle 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 PTSD.
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.