ʞ / fiction / Spirals / Empire /


from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

“You want to know something wild about opium?”

The little greenhouse is hotter than you’d imagine on such a cold day. Vines stretch all around, basking in the sunlight, fluid dripping into trays from tiny incisions. The head of the operation is standing next to me, filling a vial from a tray. I haven’t been in this part of the grow before; I’m a little bit surprised she’d invite an outsider in. But we have known each other a few years. Maybe that makes me trustworthy.

I grin. “Sure, why not.”

Piper nods excitedly. “So the thing is, like, the vine grows real slow, right? That’s ‘cause it dedicates almost all of its energy to making opium. Weird, right?”

“How’s that, exactly?”

“So like. Opium’s a pesticide, right? Fundamentally? The vine makes it to kill off pests. Only here’s the thing. The amount of opium it takes to kill a bug or a rodent is like, tiny. A single drop of this stuff can get a human crazy high, maybe kill them if they’re not a junkie already, yeah?” She squeezes the vine gently, raw opium spurting into the vial. “That’s why everyone waters it down at first. You don’t just stick the needle right into the jar, yeah?”

I shrug. “Never done it myself.”

“Oh!” Piper stares at me. “Wow. I didn’t realize. Most of the traders we sell to have at least a little habit. Well. Point is, this plant is devoting crazy resources to making a pesticide, to the point it can’t grow as fast and needs tons of sun just to survive. There’s no reason it should be like that? This never would have evolved naturally, it’s not fit to survive in the wild.”

“So you breed it?”

“I mean, yeah, we’ve increased efficiency a little over the centuries, but it was like this already. Back before the Empire, even, if you look at some of the oral histories.” She hesitates. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t mean to—”

I shrug. “That was almost a thousand years ago. What’s the point of being afraid of history?”

“Right?” Piper beams. “I like you. Not like those old farts who think I’m some kind of gender traitor just for studying the zia dzuang. It’s such a dumb taboo.” She rolls her eyes. “We’re literally growing half the opium in the galaxy, I don’t think we get to pretend we’re loyal feminists.”

“Wait, half in the galaxy?” I whistle. “Right here?”

She laughs. “Oh, fuck no. No, this is just one grow. The Empress cracks down from time to time and we’ll lose a whole site at a time, so we have them spread all over the Empire. I don’t know if any one person knows where they all are.”

“…I had no idea you were so big.”

“Drugs make the galaxy go ’round, baby.” She laughs. “No, actually that’s gravity. I think? You’re the pilot, right; you know physics.”

I laugh. “Gravity and inertia, yeah.”

“But metaphorically! Metaphorically it’s drugs.”

I smile at her. “You put so much care into your work. It’s really endearing, Piper.”

“Of fucking course I do!” Piper exclaims. “I’m not some goddamn şen bootlegger. I actually care if my fuckups kill people? Like for one, less junkies means less money, but also like. Killing people? Is bad?” She shakes her head. “That’s what makes the Cartel the Cartel. We give a shit. People buy from us, they know they’re not getting ground-up bai-zhang weed mixed with sugar and… asbestos, probably.” She turns back to the vine. “But anyway. I was saying. Really high opium content, even back in the tribal days. Unnaturally high. You know what that means?”

“The tribals bred it?”

“Nah, all they knew how to do was stabbing and raping. Someone else bred it. Before recorded history, someone engineered this vine to make as much opium as possible as fast as possible.”

“…wow.” I reach out and delicately touch the vine. “That long ago?”

“I know, right? And we know this isn’t the first time it’s been spread around the galaxy, we’ve found it on uncharted worlds a couple times.” She gazes dreamily at the plant. “Imagine what secrets this little vine holds. Imagine if we could actually read its genetic structure.”

I smile at her. “You’re so passionate.”

“I can’t help it. It’s an amazing galaxy out there. Plus all the şen makes me a little hyper sometimes.” She grins at me. “You’re not like most of the traders we get around here, you know? Most of them are just, they just buy the drugs and give us supercilious looks and then they jet. You’re nice. You’re… interested.” Her grin softens to a gentle smile. “And interesting.”

…so that’s why she took me back here.

I draw a little bit closer. “Şen, huh? You’re not a junkie?”

“Oh fuck no.” She laughs. “I’ve got a life to live and things to do, you know? I mean. Every so often I’ll relax with some friends and a pipe full of—” Her eyes glaze over suddenly and she begins to stammer. “I mean… not a pipe… I didn’t mean to say…”

I reach out and take her by the shoulder. “Hey. It’s okay, I’m not gonna judge.”

“You… you’re not?” Piper shakes her head. “God. You really are a weird one. Most people would be calling me a, self-hating masculist freak or something. Which I’m not! I just—”

“It’s a dumb taboo, right?”

“Right!” Piper nods vigorously, relief washing over her features. “It’s a really dumb taboo. Smoking’s easier on your body, too. Junkies would be a lot healthier if they didn’t shoot everything. Like, it’s not just a dumb taboo, it’s a taboo that’s claimed lives.” She sighs. “Sorry. I don’t mean to rant. I—”

I move closer, until there’s only a few inches between us, squeezing her shoulder. “Rant all you like, Piper. I like it when you’re passionate.”

“Oh!” Piper blushes. “Well. Thank you. That’s… Sparrowhawk, you’re really sweet, you know?”

“Funny.” I put my hand on her cheek. “I was about to say that to you.”

Piper stammers, every last trace of her bubbly confidence evaporating at my touch. “I— well— I, uh— um—”

I grin at her flushing cheeks, let her babble for a minute, before slipping my hand behind her neck, squeezing gently as I pull her close. She falls immediately silent, her eyes fixed on mine.

“I could kiss you,” I murmur, “or I could just watch you unravel in my hands. I’m not sure which would be more fun.”

“…God, I take it back,” Piper murmurs. “You’re not sweet at all.”

“How can you say that? You haven’t even tasted yet.”

Then I pull her in and kiss her. She stands on tiptoe, wraps her arms around my neck. I can feel the tension draining out of her body, her muscles slackening at my touch.

…is this her first kiss?

She pulls away suddenly, breathing hard, face beet red. “Ah. Hah. Oh my God. Okay. That happened.” She stares at me. “That really happened.”

I grin. “Was it like you imagined?”

“Better. Way, way better.” She looks away, squeezing her arm awkwardly. “I. Um. I’ve kinda been fantasizing about that for. For a long time. Um.”

I put my hands on her waist. “Really? How long have you been fantasizing about kissing me, Piper?”

“Kind of, um. Since I’ve met you?” Piper looks like she’s going to die of embarassment. “Only I never actually thought— God, when I brought you back here, I thought I was just—”

“That really was your first kiss, wasn’t it?”

“No!” Piper exclaims defensively, then looks down and admits, sheepishly, “…yes.”

“You know you’re adorable, right?”

“Shut up!”

“You really are. I mean, look at you!” I squeeze her waist and she lets out a squeak. “I had no idea I was the object of your wildest fantasies.”

“Wildest—? Not like that!”

“So allll you wanted to do was kiss me? Nothing else?”


“Nothing like, oh, this?” I brush her clit through her trousers and she gasps quietly.

“I— I haven’t— I’ve never—”

“I know, hon.” I pull her back into my arms, one hand around her back and one hand on her ass. “I’ve been a lot of girls’ firsts. Couple of boys’ too.”

“Oh,” she says quietly, looking at me with pleading eyes.

“The first step,” I murmur, reaching behind her neck and unbuttoning her tunic, “is to take off your clothes.”