ʞ / fiction / Spirals / War /

Alone in the Cold

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

The ice in the tumbler clinks together as I set it down on the countertop. With closed eyes I savor the taste of the whiskey for a moment, relishing the cathartic burn of the alcohol in the back of my mouth before I swallow it. I lean back on the barstool, gaze out my apartment window, scanning the street by force of habit before I look back at the sheaf of memos in my hand.

What in all ash is going on?

If I didn’t know better, I’d say I’d been burned. Kicked to the feral pien şai for a bit of political convenience, like I always expected my world would end. But this…

In our abject and inexcusable failure we bow before the most honored and esteemed Customer, praying she might accept, with grace and generosity undeserved, this most sincere and wretched of missives.

This isn’t that.

You don’t last long in my trade without contacts. Good ones, bad ones. The ones you’re supposed to have, to do your job; the one’s you’re definitely not supposed to have, to be your insurance policy. You learn never to show anyone all your cards, no matter how much they pay you. To always be ready to cut and run. To always have another job ready on the side, even if it’s just some downtime as a tavern waitress.

It is our insuperable shame to report that the void-telegram most magnanimously presented to us for transmission has not to the extent of our knowledge been delivered, as however sincere in our undertaking, our atrocious clumsiness precluded the accomplishment of the simple goal set before us. For this grotesque slight, each and every of we lowly telegraphists prostrate our worthless forms alike to denounce ourselves forthwith, offering up unto the so ignobly offended Customer ten thousand & ten apologies, in addition to a commensurate service credit of


But sometimes you let yourself get too comfortable.

This total and severely improper laxity in service has been attributed, by


to the following most foolishly unanticipated and insufficiently mitigated calamity:


The following comments and/or suggestions, if any, are submitted in hope that Customer’s incalculable Wisdom might in some small and insignificant way profit from their presentation before her magnanimous and justly scrupulous Gaze.


Sometimes it’s the money. Sometimes it’s the perks. And sometimes it’s the pride. Sometimes you let yourself get wrapped up in the notion you’re part of something bigger. Something important. That maybe, just maybe, something in this awful galaxy’s worth dying for.

If the estimable and gracious Customer should so indulge us, we crave to present below a most humble list of reputable and accredited couriers, proficient in skill, peerless in speed, renowned in name, reasonable in price, and honorable in character, to whom one might, if she were so graciously inclined, direct her greatly enviable custom, in order to procure the timely transmission of this most eloquent and refined Message (attached), of which our lamentable service has proven catastrophically unworthy.

I like to think I keep a clear head. That I know where my loyalty lies, and it’s to one person: me. That I never get myself used to civilian luxuries, like bank accounts, like passbooks, like currency. Like love. That I’m a survivor first, and everything else comes second.

This is one of those moments where all your little delusions just come crashing down all at once.

Everyone says the same thing and no one says it same twice. A play made for the Throne. A civil war broken out in the Core. A plague. An experiment gone wrong. A nameless new enemy towards the Rim. An ancient superweapon mistakenly unleashed. A whole planet blown away. Every story more fantastical and improbable than the last. But there’s one thing everyone agrees on.

The Empress is dead.

My girl inside the Guard says everyone’s running around like a pien şai with its chie phin cut off. The generals are all trying to claw their way to the top of the shitheap. Some of the knights are even deserting to follow a psycho on Primrose calling herself the Seventh Empress. My man in the Sallowfen fleet’s gone silent, and word is the Countess herself has finally bit the bucket. The papers have stopped coming, or they’re sticking to local news. My handler on Carnelian isn’t answering my telegrams. If she’s even alive to get them.

And my bank account is running dry.

I sigh, throw back another gulp of whiskey, toss the memos aside. I’ve got nothing lined up. I’ve got enough coin in the bank left for half a season of rent. Or to stock up on rations, platinum, and shells. I could go deep cover, pick up a civvie job, keep myself from starving while I look for real work — but I’ll never afford a place this cozy on a common woman’s pay. And all the bullets in Creation won’t but delay the reckoning that’s coming when all my old enemies pick up my trail and realize for once that nobody’s protecting me. God’s own mercy it’s taken them this long, even.

Worst of all, I got a girl now depending on me.

A girl who might just be the easiest way to hurt me.

There’s always the run. A common pickpocket without a copper’s worth of tradecraft in him can make a spare living on the streets at night, if he keeps to moving and don’t look back. Me, I rob peers in broad daylight and shake their hands on the way out the front door. I could put together enough to keep us breathing for a few months easy. We haul ass to orbit, we hop a freighter to the Frontier, and we might just get far enough away from Opal that nobody with a grudge will find me. The galaxy’s a big place, and the chaos of war might be just the cloak I need to disappear.

But I can’t ask Vi to do that. To give up all she’s ever known. She may not have much but she’s got more than I ever had. Friends. A life. A routine. And for a little while yet, a home. A big, warm, safe home, with beds and blankets and friendly neighbors and even her own little room. Somewhere she can finally rest.

Somewhere she don’t have to worry about the Justiciar’s girls (or God forbid, the greys) finding her passed out with a needle in her vein.

Taking that away from her is bad enough. I can’t drag her with me into the middle of a warzone. And I sure as hell can’t leave her here alone and defenseless for my enemies to find. That’s one shred of honor a woman has to hold onto.

What in Haven am I gonna do?

My adrenaline spikes as I hear a rap on the door. Instantly my hands are on my gun, safety off and barrel at an angle to the floor. I slip silently off the stool, pad over to the door to peer through the peephole.

I exhale softly. It’s just a boy. Can’t be older than seventeen. Messenger bag hanging loosely off his shoulder, a sheaf of papers in his hand. As I watch, he raps on the door again. “Telegram!” he calls, sounding slightly irritated.

I flick the safety back on and slip the gun into the waistband of my underwear. I turn the deadbolts, disarm the alarm-bell, and cautiously open the door.

“You got something for me, hon?”

“No, he doesn’t,” says a calm voice from the side of the door. An accent I can’t place. I see the flicker of someone lighting a cigarette. “Thank you ever so kindly, dear boy. Run along now.” A shiny platinum coin sails through the air and the boy catches it easily, grinning.

Instantly my revolver’s drawn and aimed toward the intruder. “Show yourself!” I demand. The boy screams, turning and fleeing down the hall. “Who are you!?”

A woman saunters into view from past my doorframe, seemingly unconcerned with the gun barrel aimed at her head. She turns to face me. Her sturdy brown trenchcoat, open down the front, reveals a snug black dress over a pair of slender leather leggings, rising from her tightly-laced combat boots.

She’s like no one I’ve ever seen. Small, slim-framed and short. Her skin’s light, tan, almost brown in color. A shock of messy golden hair spills out from under the brim of her hat, so light and bright it almost seems to shine. And as she looks up at me, snapping her lighter shut and pressing a cigarette to her full, youthful lips, I catch a glimpse of her eyes.

My blood runs cold.


Green as a pien şai’s blood. Green as an emerald in the sunlight. Green as an untouched garden world.

Green as a Green.

“Rhea, right?” The woman in black smiles. “Mind if I come in?”

Now, it takes a lot to get my heart pounding. Gun to my head? Please. Thugs with pipe-wrenches? Distantly amusing. A ticking time bomb? I might lift an eyebrow. A full shai ping on the table in a game of strip-due sham? That, now; that comes close.

But an enemy citizen thirty parsecs behind the front line knocking at my door in the middle of the Imperial heartland to call me by a name even my girl of three years don’t know?

I’m not ashamed to admit that got my hands shaking.

“Who in all fuck are you!?”

The woman exhales casually, blowing smoke in my face. She rests one hand on her hip, sweet-smelling smoke wafting from between her fingers, and tips her fedora with a careless gesture of the other. “I don’t think you could pronounce my real name, honey, so how’s about you just call me Rose?”

“Alright, Rose,” I reply, trying to conceal the fear in my voice. “How’s about you give me one single reason not to pull this trigger and—”

A man and a woman in combat armor with some real high-tech rifles in their arms immediately step out behind her. I swallow hard.

“Oh don’t mind them, darling,” “Rose” replies, stepping forward and taking another drag off her cigarette. She buries a hand in the side-pocket of her jacket. “They’re just here to make sure we get to chat private-like. I do so hate being interrupted by — shall we say — old friends?”

“Wh—” I begin, and the next thing I know my gun is in her hand and my fingers feel like they’ve been slammed in a door. I grimace in pain, stumbling back, trying to make sense of what just happened.

“Nice piece,” Rose comments, her eyes on the gun, an expression on her face you’d more normally see from a pimp about to buy a fresh new slave. “Now that is an authentic coilgun unless my eyes deceive me. Rare sight in these parts, nice and quiet; no need for a suppressor to keep it blowing out your eardrums. Now look at the finish on that wood!” She turns it over. “Forty-five caliber barrel, muzzle velocity… hm, thousand and a half feet per second, I’d guess by the powerpack. Which… has a built-in suncharger; oh, that’s cute! This thing’s Core tech, if I’m not mistaken. Not bad for a Rosie, but we can do you one better.” With a practiced motion she unlocks the cylinder and ejects the bullets one by one, knocking them across the room with her heel. She catches the final round in her hand and whistles as she inspects it. “Oh that is some nasty ammo for a civilian to be carrying. Of course, you ain’t a civvie, are you, Rhea darling?” She sets the gun aside, sliding it across the kitchenette counter. “Don’t mind if I keep a souvenir,” she adds with a wink as she pockets the round. “Now—”

“Wren, honey?”

My heart skips a beat. Oh no. No, no, no—

“Do you got comp’ny over? I heard voices—”

“Vi, hon,” I begin, my voice shaking with real fear for the first time I’ve known it in years. “Vi, you just— you just go back to bed, I’ll—”

“Oh, no, no!” Rose claps her hands delightedly as she advances toward me. She turns to face the hallway and beckons. “Please, come and say hi! I’d love to meet the whole family.”

I fix angry eyes on Rose, my hand closing around the knife in my back pocket. “Don’t you dare,” I hiss. She grins at me.

Violet emerges from the hallway, blinking sleepily at us. “Wren, you didn’t tell me you were having guests tonight!” she protests. “I’d— I’d’a made dinner and everything…”

“Vi, hon.” I try to hide the terror in my voice as I move towards her, my eyes locked on Rose, trying to get between the two. “You don’t gotta do that, love, you ain’t my servant. Rose—”

“Wren, is it?” Rose giggles. “That would be Wren Shalevine, I presume?” She pats Vi on the shoulder. “That’s the most darling nightgown, dear. You must be Violet, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Vi curtseys awkward-like, offers Rose her hand. “Sorry, I— I ain’t dressed for comp’ny right this minute, I’ll go and change—”

“No, no, no!” Rose exclaims. “It’s fine, darling, don’t you go to all that trouble on my account. It’s my fault anyway, dropping by unannounced at such a godforsaken hour. Besides, you are already a delight for the eyes in that outfit.” She takes Violet’s hand in both of hers, bowing and kissing the back of her palm. “It is such a pleasure to finally meet you, Mistress Summer-Hazel. I’ve heard so much about you!”

“O-oh!” Violet looks half-alarmed and half-flattered. “Well, uh, l-likewise, Mistress, uh… sorry, I didn’t catch your family name?”

“Oh, just call me Rose, darling!” Rose clicks her tongue in amusement. “It’s not my real name anyway.”

“Oh. Well, uh, then— then you just call me Violet, then.” She smiles uncertainly, shoots me a glance. “You, uh. You a friend’a Wren’s?”

“You could say that, you could say that,” Rose replies with a chuckle. “In fact, I think we’re about to be very good friends.” She sits down on the recliner, removing her hat and setting it on the hatrack nearby. “Why don’t we all sit down for a nice friendly chat, then?” she says brightly. “Oh, Violet, would you be just the most darling girl and fetch me a drink? Something strong and on the rocks, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“O-of course, mistress, my pleasure!” Violet replies, and scampers off towards the kitchen.

My legs shaking, I plant my ass on the edge of the sofa nearest Rose’s chair. I lean forward, my voice low. “If you do fucking anything to her— if you ever fucking touch her again—”

“You’ll do what, my dear? Kill me?” Rose asks, her bright green eyes fixed, unblinking, on mine. Before I can react there’s a gun in her hand, a sleek, grey, all-metal piece like I’ve never seen before. For a brief moment it’s aimed at my heart but then before I can react she twirls it around the trigger-guard and catches it by the barrel, holding it out. “Well, go on, give it your best shot. We might as well get this over with.”

I stare at her, trying for a split second to make sense of whatever game she’s playing at before I snatch the gun out of her hands, standing up and backing away. It fits perfect in my grip. There don’t seem to be a safety to flip or a slide to rack so without hesitation I squeeze the trigger tight. Her thugs in the hall don’t matter. There’s more than one way out of this apartment; I get what I pay for.

But nothing happens. Not even the click of an empty chamber. I slam the eject button, catching the cartridge as it falls out and staring at it, bewildered. It’s fully loaded, with twenty-four bullets small enough to be rifle rounds — baremetal, no propellant; obviously coilgun ammo — visible through the transparent magazine’s side.

“Nifty design, isn’t it?” Rose asks, the smugness in her voice thick enough to choke a pien şai. “Oh, Violet! Thank you, darling, much obliged. You’re too kind.”

“W-Wren?” The girl stares at me, at the gun, eyes wide, as Rose plucks the tumbler from her hands. “What— what’s going on?”

“I’m just showing off some product to your woman, dear; don’t be alarmed,” Rose replies before I can get a word in edgewise. She winks at me, gripping me around the shoulders and tapping the gun in my hands. “There is a safety, see — only it’s biometric. Fingerprint actuated. You see that little black pad there? Go ahead and give it a poke. Go on, don’t be shy, it doesn’t bite.” With a surprisingly strong grip for such light arms, she directs my finger to the pad just above the cartridge eject. The gun emits a quiet chirp and a status strip facing me blinks to life for a moment, lamps flashing red before it powers back off.

“Isn’t that nice?” Rose steps away, picking her brandy back up and sitting back down in the recliner. She takes a final drag from her cigarette before putting it out in my ashtray. “Picture it — the deal’s just gone bad. Before you can even try to run, the head thug grabs your gun out of your jacket and points it right at your head. All those fancy martial arts they taught you on Carnelian — such a shame about Carnelian, by the way, I hope you weren’t too attached to any of the geography — are useless now, they think. They’ve got you just where they want you. But then—” She pauses to take a dainty sip from the glass. “—then you run right for him, and he squeezes the trigger, aiming to the splatter your brains all over the wall, and it looks like it’s the end of you… oh, but wait! Nothing happens. Nothing, that is, until you take advantage of his surprise and confusion to snatch the gun back, key the safety, and put a bullet through his ugly mug before he can even blink. Nifty, eh?”

“…the fuck are you, an arms dealer? Did you go through this entire song and dance to try and get me to buy a fucking gun!?” I demand, setting the gun down gingerly in my lap and staring at her incredulously. She grins that infuriating grin again.

“No, no. Think bigger picture, Rhea! I adore your knife, by the way — that carving of a heart on the handle, so precious!” I see a blade glint in her fingers and my hand instantly moves to my pocket. Empty, of course. How the fuck—

I look her in the eye and she meets my gaze levelly, a flirtatious smile on her lips. After a moment I squeeze my eyes shut and take my head in my hands.

“Okay. You’ve made your point.”

“My ‘point?’” I hear the familiar sound of my flick knife snapping shut. “Whatever do you mean, Rhea dear?”

“Wren? Why does she keep calling you Rhea?” Vi asks, an undercurrent of alarm in her voice. “What’s going on? Issat another one of your aliases?”

“Yeah,” I mutter. “The one mom gave me.” I look back up and meet Rose’s gaze again. “You’ve made your point,” I repeat. “You’re in complete control of this situation. You know everything about me. You’re stronger than me. You’re faster than me. There’s nothing I can do to hurt you or coerce you. There’s nothing I can do to protect myself or my girl from you. I get it.”

In the corner of my eye I see Vi start in alarm. “It’s gonna be okay, babe,” I say, turning to her and reaching out my hand. She hesitates for a moment, then takes it. That little moment, that look of betrayal I see in her eyes… that hurts, worse even than Rose has hurt my pride tonight. “Vi, hon. It’s okay. If she were gonna do anything to you she would have already. She’s making a point, showing me she can hurt you if I don’t do what she wants. So I’m gonna do what she wants. Okay?” I take her small hand between both of mine, squeezing tightly. “I’m not gonna take any chances with your safety.”

“Awh, that’s so sweet,” Rose coos. “Such devotion! Such love! So rare among your kind.”

I turn back to her. “Okay, Rose. You win. I submit. What do you want from me?”

Rose claps her hands and waggles the knife in my direction. “Oh, I like you! You are a smart one. Your game ain’t bad, you know — for a baseline, it’s stellar. But not only that, you know when you’re beat. You don’t just bluster and bluff and bravado yourself to death. No, you know how to recognize your betters and when to submit. That takes something special. Something very rare in this shitty little Empire of yours — or, whatever’s left of it. Humility. Valarit tam tare, as we’d say back home — you know your place.”

She glances at Vi. “She’s right, by the way, Violet darling. You’ve nothing to fear. Neither I nor those to whom I submit have any intent of harming either of you. Quite the opposite in fact.” She turns back to me, a cruel smile on her lips. “You seem to be in a bit of a predicament, my dear Rhea. We know who you work for — worked for, I should say. It must have been quite the gig. Only thing is…” She puts a hand to her heart in mock dismay. “…she’s dead now, the poor dear. Her and quite a lot of other people. You’re out in the cold, cut off from funding, and it’s only going to get colder. Am I right so far?”

“That about sums—” I begin, when I hear a commotion at the door. Raising the useless gun on instinct, I leap to my feet just as the door crashes open and one of the armored thugs enters, dragging someone behind him. Rose clicks her tongue in irritation, setting aside her brandy and uncrossing her legs.

“Hal mase, Lena? Hal dale tilit?”

“Beg pardon, ma’am,” the thug says to me, dragging the handcuffed figure on the floor — a tall, bald, musclebound Zyahua man — to his feet. “Found this fella trying to pick your lock just now. Friend of yours?”

My grip tightens around the gun. I’d know that scalp-tattoo anywhere.

“You’re supposed to be dead.”

Cougar gives me a bloody grin, spitting a tooth on the floor. “Favored by the Gods, me. Not for kill me, no woman, ya.”

“Who the fuck is this supposed to be?” Rose asks, sounding genuinely bewildered, the playfulness gone from her voice for the first time.

“His name’s Cougar,” I answer distantly, unable to look away from… him. “I’m— I was— a couple years ago—”

Cougar hollers something in that damn fucking cant of theirs. “Ya, ya, scared, you? Ya, know your fucking place, you! Know what happen, you, if no little boy on leash for protect you!”

Violet moves closer to me on the sofa, clinging to me tightly. The poor girl looks terrified. “Get behind me, Vi,” I murmur quietly.

“He had this on him,” the Green thug says, holding up a battered pistol and a long serrated knife with what look like bloodstains along the blade. “Looks like he was fixing to assassinate our new friend.”

“Rtèya ņakh buye yakhu little boy, got a fucking cunt for a cock, you?” Cougar shouts at the man. He tries to break free of the thug’s grip, huge muscles bulging to no avail. For his part, the Green seems barely to notice Cougar’s thrashing. “Zuvang ba! Zuvang rtèshe! Why controlling you, them? Why not for fight by your rightful brother, you? Yakhu dèwa ņayè!”

“The fuck is he speaking?” Rose asks, glaring at the psycho fucking cultist. “I know half a dozen languages like the back of my hand and I’ve never even heard—”

“It’s the— the dzuang ţai,” I murmur. “The Men’s Cant. They call Zia Ţai dishonorable, say ‘the tongue of our fathers’ has been corrupted by women, so they go around talking like that and making idiots of themselves instead.”

“My cock to your ass!”

“Do you have any idea what he was saying?” Rose sounds more amused than anything else.

“Think he was trying to call your bodyguard a ‘filthy little homosexual.’”

“Your bodyguard, actually.” Rose flashes me a smile. “I can take care of myself, after all. You, on the other hand… are you alright, Rhea dear?”

“Why the fuck do you ca—ow!”

Immediately Rose’s hand is around my throat and she’s angled her thumbnail right up into my jaw. How does she keep moving like that? I feel like someone just jabbed a needle right into a nerve ending, and the more I squirm, the deeper she digs in. “Rhea, darling,” she says reprovingly, effortlessly holding me in place as I struggle to force her arm away, “this is not what submission looks like. Behave.”

Violet cries out in alarm. I grit my teeth. “L-let go of me—!”

Cougar sneers. “Not how for choke a woman, that! Got for use the whole fist, you! Make her fucking beg, ya! Sèkoye gaņa, make her earn her fucking breath!”

Rose ignores him. “I’m afraid I need you to answer my question truthfully, Rhea.”

“Stop!” Vi cries. “Stop hurting her! Why are you—” Rose gives her a dangerous look and she trails off, eyes wide.

“No!” I blurt out. “No, I’m not fucking okay, alright? Will you fucking—”

The pain vanishes. I take a shuddering breath, flinching as Rose pats me gently on the cheek with the same hand that was just around my throat. “There; that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Glaring at Rose, I put a protective arm around Vi’s shoulder and hug her close, kissing her roughly. “Shh,” I whisper in her ear. “Don’t do that again. You’re a good girl, Vi, I love you, but you gotta just hold on to me and be quiet right now, okay? I’m okay, I’ll be okay, just trust me, okay?”

“Okay. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Wren — I mean, Rhea, I mean — I’m so s—”

I put a finger to her lips. “Shh. Don’t apologize. You’re a good girl.” I pat her on the head and turn back to Rose, gently massaging Vi’s back. “I—”

“Got a pretty little snowhair, you, ya?” Cougar yells, interrupting. My blood runs cold. “Something special to you, pretty little snowhair, ya? Maybe cunt tight as yours, her?”

I can’t keep my composure anymore. “Don’t you fucking call her that!” I scream, on my feet in an instant, clutching Vi’s hand protectively as she shrinks back towards the corner of the sofa. “Don’t you fucking dare talk about her, you worthless piece of shit!”

Cougar screams in rage as the Green throws him to the floor, forcing him to his knees. “Know what I am going for do to her, you?” Cougar taunts me, wild-eyed, spittle flecking his filthy matted beard. “Only thing a woman is good for, ya! Going for fuck her ’til she bleed like you did, me. Going for fuck her, going for make you watch. Made me to watch my brothers burn, them.” He starts to cackle hysterically. “Going for make you watch her scream like they screamed, ya! Going for smash her all up inside! Then for fuck you on her corpse—”

I grab the useless gun from the coffee table and aim it straight at his head, advancing on him. “Shut the fuck up!” I scream, my voice cracking under the strain of rage and terror like I’ve never known. “Shut up, shut the fuck up you sick fuck—”

“Not able for kill me then, you; not for now neither! Ya, favored by the Gods, me! Not going for kill me, no woman, ya! Never!”

A hand on my shoulder. Rose is standing next to me. She reaches out, presses her forefinger to the print reader on the gun. Silently, the status strip comes to life, and I feel a mechanism click into place somewhere between my hands.

“We’ll take care of the body,” Rose says quietly.

Cougar opens his mouth again, and my finger closes around the trigger. There’s a sharp, faintly galvanic crack and his head jerks backwards, blood spattering his face. The horrible splintering sound of shattering bone. His body falls limp. Vi screams.

He’s dead. I stand there for a moment, breathing raggedly, my heart pounding in my ears, the gun still clenched in my quivering grip. He’s dead. For real this time. He’s dead, he’s fucking dead, he’s not coming back, he can’t hurt her, he can’t hurt me, he can’t hurt anyone ever again he’s dead he’s dead he’s DEAD—

Then I feel a gentle hand on the small of my back.

“It’s okay,” Rose says quietly. She holds out her hand palm-up.

This is it.

This is my chance.

Sure, the thug’s in armor, but that won’t stop a bullet to the skull. Two quick shots, and we’re home free. Grab our go bags, head out the back way, and they’ll never be able to find me again.

They’ll never have a chance to hurt Vi.

I look at Rose. We stare unblinking into each other’s eyes for a few tense moments, brilliant green to dull red.

Then I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and loosen my grip on her pistol. The status lamps blink out and there’s the faintest of sounds as the automatic safety clicks back into place. Slowly, my hands still shaking like I just had a seizure, I set the gun in her hand and let go.

“Good girl, Rhea,” she says gently, stroking my back as she returns the weapon to its holster inside her trenchcoat. “Why don’t I get you some brandy?”