Stories / Spirals /

Upgrades

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

With some reservations, I leave Wren on the ship. I’m a little worried she’ll feel left out, but after the clusterfuck the poor girl’s been through, she needs her rest.

And it’ll make my life a touch easier not to have a dazzled grounder poking her nose into everything I’ve got going on.

The little shop is just how I remember, nestled into a dirty corner of the Tia Lan district, right on the edge of the docks. It’s almost hidden in the noise of its surroundings. Graffiti and rust coats the bulkheads all around. The little sign hand-painted with one of the handful of Old Script characters I’ve learned to recognize over the years. I flick a few coins in the direction of a beggar huddling by the air vents, more for luck than charity, and bang on the port-hole. He flashes me a pained but grateful smile, I nod back at him.

“Daisy?” I holler. “You in there?”

Some seconds pass and the door is yanked back by a small girl with perky blond hair in delicately-embroidered red robes and shawls, a line of grease smeared over her left eye.

“Sparrowhawk!” she yells, leaping forward and wrapping her arms around me. I hug her tightly. “Bitch, where you been? It’s been too long, waaay too long.”

“Hey Daze.” I gently extricate myself from her grip, and pat her on the shoulder. She fixes me with a cocky grin. “I’m not interrupting shit, am I?” I indicate the line over her eye. “I can wait out here—”

“Don’t you dare.” Daisy shakes her head firmly. “Just finished up communing. Come on in, I’ll get changed.”

She pulls me inside, slamming the port-hole behind me and turning the bolt. “Spar, Spar, Spar! Dude. How the fuck are you? You look great.”

I inhale deeply, enjoying the rich scent of Daisy’s incense. It’s her own blend, she’s told me, which is a little bit heretical but I can’t argue with her results. The shop is small but cozy, censers and strings of beads suspended along the wooden walls, which delineate a slanted rectangle of space. Scrolls, codices, and tech are scattered all around, most of the machinery in pieces. A pile of fresh blessing seals awaiting their wax sits on a hanger. The door to her cabin is halfway open, and I can see tangled blankets and papers through its aperture.

I fold my arms. “I always look great, you little pagan.”

Daisy snickers. “Yeah, yeah. So what’s been up with you, babe?”

“A… lot.” I sigh. “I just got a clusterfuck the size of a moon dropped in my lap.”

“Yeah, you must’a.” Daisy whistles. “Ain’t seen you this down since that justiciar had her way with you.”

I flinch. “Can we not talk about that? Maybe?”

“Sorry, sorry.” Daisy pats me on the cheek. “If I do it again just remind me of that time down at the Roasting Lamb — you know, with Ferret and the—”

“I remember.” I manage a weak laugh. “Anyway, what’s been going on with you nowadays? You look great too.”

“I always look great, Sparrow!” Daisy wipes the smear of grease off her forehead with a dirty cloth and starts unfastening her robes. “And I’ve been good! Real good. Guess who called me — me — in for a service around season’s break?”

“The Empress?”

“Lick my clit.”

“Lady Blackorchard?”

She punches me in the shoulder. “Get real!”

“I don’t know, Ferret?”

“Nope!” She beams. “Raven. Fucking. Windhand. Calls little old me in to get her torture machines blessed and polished. In return? She gave me this!” She thrusts a thick black codex into my face.

“And what is, uh. That?”

“Oh, nothing, just the original listings for the Sixth Greatly Exalted Chariot’s soulware!” She pries the book open, flicking through pages. A ream of yellowed paper floods past my eyes. I glimpse a sea of elaborately illuminated characters in the Old Script. I recognize a few of them — “carry,” “jump,” “call,” “exit,” repeated over and over, surrounded by numerals. The rest is impenetrable.

“What exactly is this worth?”

“It’s priceless! Like, Sparrow, I don’t think Raven really realized what she was giving away here. The 6GEC is fuckin’ everywhere in this sector and this… okay, so, like. Imagine if you had a book that listed every dirty secret of every person on a whole station. This is like that, except for the computer that just about all the new-soul ships from around here use for comms. And a ton of old-soul ships have them jammed in somewhere or other too. Sparrow, this book is gonna make me so much money. Every tian bèi in the sector is gonna wish they had this. And wow, just reading this…” She brushes a hand across the page, her eyes fluttering shut and a gentle smile outlining her lips. “I feel like I’ve seen a machine spirit naked.”

“Damn, that’s…” I whistle. “You sure you want to get in bed with Raven? She’s bad news, Daze.”

“Damn right I do. Have you seen those abs?”

“She’s like. Older than the Empresss, Daze.”

Daisy thumps the book shut. “And she’s still a looker!”

I sigh. “Your funeral.”

“Okay, but you know what the best part is?” Daisy grins. “So a couple days later, right, I’m coming home from a job, and I get jumped in the alley. Big, scary looking dude, probably an andro thug or something, and I’m thinking, oh shit, there goes my coin and also quite possibly my womanly virtue, and then — before I had any idea what was happening — some chick in a black suit has him pinned to a bulkhead and is going all, ‘Apologies for the inconvenience, Mistress Autumn-Lotus, we’ll take care of this little pest for you.’” She sighs happily. “I think Raven likes me.”

I ruffle her hair. “Just be careful, okay? These are dangerous people you’re playing with.”

“Roger, roger.” Daisy salutes lazily. “Still got a little bit of an Army stick up your rear, dontcha?”

I roll my eyes. “What can I say. It helps with my posture.”

Daisy leans in and pecks me on the cheek. “So tell me! What’s this dread moon got dropped in your lap?” She shrugs out of her robe. Underneath, there’s nothing but a gorgeous mesh bra and panties—

“Sparrow?”

I blink. “Sorry, distracted by the scenery.” I turn my gaze back to her face. “So, um. I ever tell you about my homeworld?”

“Not much. I remember you got very drunk and swore a lot once.”

“It’s a shithole for sure. Twelve-a-copper little agri-world. It was my personal hell for more than a decade. My folks were determined to make an honest woman out of me. The whole reason I enlisted was to get away.” I sigh. “And it turns out it’s, sorta, like, doomed.”

“Doomed?” Daisy pulls a long-sleeved tunic down over head and and turns back to face me, eyes wide. She crosses her bare legs in the air, leans forward with her hands clapsed between them. “The fuck you mean?”

“A volcano wrecked the biosphere.”

“No shit!” Daisy clasps her hands over her mouth. “Oh man. What’s gonna happen? They gonna evacuate?”

I shake my head. “They pled to the sector governor, but — no ships are coming. Farmers aren’t any good without a world to farm. So she wrote them off.”

“What?” Daisy exclaims, shocked. “They’re just going to let them die?”

“Yep.”

“Can’t they, I don’t know, resettle them? There are plenty of greenworlds to harvest out there.”

“Sure but they’re not much value on another world. Every biosphere is different. A lifetime farming one place and you’re a novice again in another.”

“Seriously? Can’t they at least pick it up faster than a novice? Ten thousand people have to be worth something.”

“It’s cheaper to teach new farmers from scratch than lift ten thousand of them into space, drop them on a new world, and then teach them almost from scratch.” I look down. “Plus moving a whole population to a planet that’s already settled… it threatens stability, you know? Bottom line, they’d be a huge pain in the ass for the Governor to deal with and she stands to get nothing out of it. There’s just no reason to save them.”

“Holy shit.” Daisy’s silent for a moment. “What are you gonna do? Doesn’t sound like you liked them very much—”

“No, but I’m not gonna let my parents and all my childhood friends starve to death.”

“So you’re gonna evacuate them yourself? That could get ugly, there are a lot of people who’ll want to be on the boat out if they catch wind one’s in orbit.”

“I’m not going to leave ten thousand people to die.”

Daisy whistles. “You’re fixing to save a whole planet? What are you gonna do, try and lift them out on Chrys?”

I shake my head. “It would cost millions even if I had the Governor’s fleet behind me. They’re stuck where they are. I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, other’n deliver food and try to keep them alive as long as I can. Thank God for MREs, yeah?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Daisy’s cheer is gone, replaced by a somber gaze, not meeting my eyes. “Spar… Sparrow, I’m so sorry. I’ve seen a lot of shit, yeah? This is… this is some next-level shit. Can’t say as I’ve ever known someone as had the fate of a planet in their hands.” She purses her lips. “You poor girl.”

“That’s actually why I’m here.”

She pouts. “Not a social call?”

I shake my head. “I was wondering… I don’t know. Wondered if you might have anything, be able to do anything to give me an edge.”

She looks at me thoughtfully. “You know… there was this great little piece… I was planning to have Ferret find me a buyer, because, Spar, this thing is too good to be true — but I was thinking, maybe I could lend it to ya first? Since there’s lives in the balance and all.”

I smile. “That’s real good of you, Daze. I knew I could count on you. What exactly is it, though?”

Daisy pushes off against a stack of machinery and catches herself by the wall, pushing a painting of a Ruby coastline off to the side. Underneath is a heavy iron safe. She spins the dial back and forth. The release lever clanks, and she pulls it open. She rummages around inside, and pulls out a little blue circuitboard.

“This,” she says, pushing back towards me, cupping the circuit reverentially in her hands.

I look at it closely. There’s little blocky symbols — letters, maybe, in some foreign script — printed along the edge. It’s tightly packed with wires and gates. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

“What does it do?”

“It’s a jump diviner.”

“Come on. That small?”

She nods, her eyes serious. “If I know my tech… they carved this out of a Green wreck from the War. This smackhead off the docks came by to pawn a box of tech he’d scrounged and this… gem was just sitting in there, buried under a bunch of cheap old melding rods and cabling and vacuum tubes. No clue where in all ash he found her.”

“A Green wreck? You mean…” I glance at the chip with apprehension. “This is… Society tech?”

“Interbellum, but yeah. Yeah!” she hisses in excitement. “They say something like this powers the flagship of the Empress herself!”

“How fast can it go?”

“I did some testing.” She indicates a set of machines stacked against the wall. “Sparrow, we wire her into Chrys right and she could jump half a parsec twice a week. That old diviner you have in her now sucks up ten times this one’s power and for a fraction of her speed.”

“I… wow.” The possibilities surge through my brain faster than I can evaluate them. The amount of money I could make… just in legit trade, I might be able to make enough to buy the diviner off Daisy altogether.

“There’s a catch, of course.”

“There’s always a catch.”

“We can’t put her on your ship registry. She’d make you too hot. People get wind you have something like this in Chrys and — spirits, Sparrow, they’d come from parsecs around to rob you. Honest traders would go pirate. That’s why I haven’t sold her yet. Can’t work up the courage to put out the word yet.”

I nod slowly. “So we leave my old diviner where it is. Wire this one in somewhere out of the way… God knows it’s small enough to hide just about anywhere. I’ve never seen a diviner this size!”

“It’s a good start, yeah. But also, you’re gonna have to mix up your routine a little.” Daisy entwines her fingers. “Like. If they see you at the same station twice in one week… especially if you come in hauling opium from Emerald all out in the sticks… someone’s gonna figure out you’ve got something hot on board. You can’t attract attention.”

I rub my temples. “Oh, this sounded like such a good idea at first.”

“It is! It is, Sparrow, I promise. It’s just… we’ll have to strategize, yeah?”

“Yeah. Okay.” I look down at the diviner in apprehension. “This might actually give me a fighting chance. If it doesn’t get me killed.” I narrow my eyes. “You know how to make this thing work?”

“I do!” Daisy beams. “I’ve come across Green tech from time to time. Nothing this hot, but — our machine spirits, they’re untrusting, secretive. Aloof. It takes time and effort to tame them. But the Greens’?” She whistles. “They’re so open. It’s like they want to be understood. They don’t keep secrets. They’re friendly.”

“So it’s easier to make Green tech work?”

“I’m not as accustomed to it, it does have its share of quirks, but… yes, mostly. I think I could have her wired into Chrys in just a few hours. I could have the translators inscribed before you left port, if you’re staying the usual time.”

“I am, yeah. Okay.” I take a deep breath. “Thank you, Daze. I never imagined anything like this.”

She nods excitedly. “Also if there’s time I can do a general cleanup on Chrys. Bless your other hardware, tame any restive machine-spirits, all that fun shit. Maybe do a rite for the ship herself, just for good luck.”

“That’d make me happier, for sure.” I nod. “So what’s this all going to cost me?”

Daisy smirks, draws closer. “Oh, you know, Sparrow,” she says, caressing my thigh, slipping a hand under my tunic. “The usual.”