ʞ / fiction / Spirals / Empire /


from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Everyone wants smuggling to be a much more glamorous business than it is. Secret compartments, dogfights in the void, rare technologies, stolen art, secret peers, and espionage. The reality is a lot less interesting. What it all comes down to is contacts, luck, and money.

Lots and lots of money.

There’s very little ancient Thalisan tech to be found on the black markets or hiding in secret compartments on shady merchant ships. It’s mostly drugs and guns, stuck behind a bulkhead or hidden away inside a computer casing. Occasionally people, disguised as slaves or crew, or crammed together into awful hiding places like so many cigarettes in a packet. The reality is there’s not a port in the galaxy has time to tear down an entire ship in search of one little bit of contraband. If Customs can’t find it with a walk through, a metal detector, and a sniff test, maybe prying off some panels with missing screws, odds are they aren’t ever going to. And if you do get caught, it rarely takes more than a handful of gold (platinum if it’s a classy establishment) to convince the inspector not to throw you to the local justiciar.

Of course, it helps to have friends on the inside. Know the right people, and you can dodge even the most cursory screening.

There’s also a much thinner line between honest traders and smugglers than spaceport novelists would have you believe. Nobody in their right mind spends all their time shipping contraband. The smart thing to do is to mix in a little bit of high-value loot with legit cargo. That way, nobody asks awkward questions like what you’re doing in port with an empty cargo hold, or why your bank account is full of nothing but giant coin deposits. It also means that if you can’t find anyone to move your hot cargo, you can still turn a decent profit from legit trade.

Truth be told, though, I smuggle more than most. It’s a good source of clean coin, which is the sort of thing you need when you move in the kind of circles I do. I’ve only faced a justiciar for it once, and I wasn’t carrying opium that time, thank God. I don’t fancy ending my career in a labor camp.

Ferret’s goons are waiting for me in my airlock. I don’t bother to ask how they got in. Working for Ferret, silly little things like station security rarely apply.

“Hey, boys,” I call as the airlock begins to cycle, pressure dropping almost imperceptibly. “Here for the cargo?”

The lead goon nods, stepping forward to greet me as I sidle up to Chrys. “If you would be so kind.”

“Come along then.” I twist my key in the lock; the boys are gracious enough to unseal the hatch and haul it open for me. “I’m Sparrowhawk, by the by.”

“Folks call me Bull,” says the lead goon. “This is Mouse. He don’t talk much.”

Mouse, a hulking brute of a man, nods meekly.

I pause in the doorway. “How long have you been working for Ferret?” I ask casually. “I figured he’d send Dahlia.” There’s not much chance these people are impostors, but it never hurts to do your due diligence.

Bull winces. “Dahlia... made some mistakes.”

“What kind of mistakes?”

“The kind Raven don’t take kindly to,” says Bull. Mouse shakes his head sadly.

“Yikes.” I turn, and allow them into the ship. “It’s a shame. Cute ass on that one.”

“Oh yeah?” Bull offers me a sleazy grin. “How does us two stack up?”

I roll my eyes. “Don’t worry, you gentlemen are twice as buxom as Dahlia ever was.” I gesture down the hall. “Goods are this way.”

“Sparrowhawk?” Wren pokes her head out of her cabin. “Oh! You have guests?”

“Something like that.”

“You should have told me! I would have the food all made by now—”

I laugh. “Wren, hon, this ain’t a social call. They’ll be in and out in no time.”

“O-oh.” Wren looks down. “I’m sorry. I — I didn’t realize—”

I pat her on the shoulder. “Don’t let us bother you.”

“Are you sure? There’s nothing I can help with?” Wren grabs my hand earnestly. “I want to earn my keep, Sparrowhawk! I—”

“Wren.” I take her firmly by the shoulders and turn her around. “Go back to your cabin.”

“Speakin’ of cute asses,” says Bull after the hatch shuts behind her, “where’d you find that one?” He grins. “Buy her off a farm, didja? Them farm girls, so eager to please, I tell ya.”

“…are you for real?”

“Look, if she’s up for sale—” Bull continues.

“Do you know what happened to the last man who asked me that question?” I interrupt, a cold smile on my lips.

Bull falters, scratching his neck. “Er. I, ah, don’t suppose as I do.”

“Unless you want to find out, let’s stick to business, shall we?”

Bull glances nervously at Mouse. “Er. Copy that, Mistress Sparrowhawk.”

“Good lad.” I hand him a screwdriver. “Help me pry up the bulkhead, will you?”

Bull, Mouse, and I lever a few panels off the walls, and I gesture at the bottles nestled in among the insulation and wiring.

“There you are.”

Bull nods, and takes a whiff from one of the bottles. “That’s the stuff, alright.”

“High grade, uncut, fresh from the opium vine.” I fold my arms. “Satisfactory?”

“I reckon so.” Bull unfolds a bag, and he and Mouse clear out the bulkhead. “Pleasure doing business with you, mistress.”

“I’m sure.” I snap the panels back into place. “Give Ferret a smack on the ass for me.”

“They seemed nice,” Wren comments, as Bull and Mouse disembark.

“I thought I told you to stay in your cabin.”

Wren smiles cheekily. “It didn’t sound like an order.”

“‘It didn’t sound like an order…?’” I stare expectantly at her.

Wren flushes.“…ma’am.”

I pat her on the back. “You learn quick, cadet.”

“What were they here for?”

“Business meeting.”

Wren tilts her head. “Can you be more specific?”


“You don’t seem to like telling me things.” Wren pouts.

“It’s for your own good.”

“Mm.” Wren narrows her eyes.

“What have you been up to while I’ve been away?” I punch the door plate and the kitchen hatch hisses back.

“Studying the ship,” says Wren, following me in. “She’s fascinating. So old.”

“You can tell that just by looking at her?” I grab a bie duen from a cupboard and pull a knife from the wash-slot.

Wren nods quickly. “Oh, yes. Little scrapes and scuffs build up over the years. The bulkheads don’t all match up, some of the plating is titanium, some of it’s steel, some of it’s plain old iron. A lot of different people have worked on this ship.”

“Smart girl.” Duen-slices drift gently through the air as I slice the fruit apart. Wren catches one and nibbles absently on it. “Ship registry goes back about five hundred years. Before that, no idea. She might have been built in the early days of the Empire, she might date back even further.”

“Five hundred years?” Wren asks with awe. “She’s still flying after all that time?”

“I’m sure just about everything’s been replaced at least once.”

“Where did you find something this… historical?” Wren runs a hand distractedly along a bulkhead.

“Here, as it happens. Bought her off a broker. It’s nothing out of the ordinary,” I add at her incredulous expression. “Most ships are old. There’s a lot of people in the galaxy and we make more of them faster than we make more ships.”

“Oh.” Wren nods quickly. “That makes sense.” She looks at me, and blurts out, “Could you teach me how to run her?”

“I — you want me to what?” The question takes me completely off guard.

“Teach me how she works!” says Wren. “If. Um. If you don’t mind. It’s just — I’ve looked at some of the machines but I can’t make any sense of them. Well, except for the big round one in the cockpit that swirls around and goes ‘ping’ if you have the switch on. Judging by where it went ‘ping’ I guess it’s for finding other ships? But I don’t recognize any of the symbols on anything—”

“Whoa. Slow down.” I stare at her in amazement. “You’ve been up in the cockpit? You figured out how to work the farseer?”

“Is that what it’s called?” Wren nodded. “I was bored, and you were gone — I hope I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“No, no — you probably didn’t. Um. Where did you learn to do that?”

“What, to use galvanics?” Wren scoffs. “Just because I’m a farmer doesn’t mean my brain doesn’t work, Sparrowhawk. It’s got buttons, so you push them, you see what happens, and you keep going until everything falls into place. Except I didn’t recognize any of the symbols except ‘power’ on a couple of them and I didn’t want to accidentally break anything important, so—”

“Okay, okay, hang on.” Wren’s always been smart, but I never imagined she’d adapt this quickly. “You’ve just been working out tech from, what, first principles?”

“Is it really that hard?” Wren frowns at me.

“It took me months to get used to this shit after I left Hope, and that was with teachers and everything!”

“Oh. Gosh, that must have been hard. I just — I don’t know, it just makes sense to me?”

“Wow. Okay.” I pat her on the shoulder. “I can show you a little tonight, after I get back from my dinner date with Seven.”

“Okay. Okay! Thank you.” Wren beams. “Can I come with?”

“No.” I swallow the last slice of fruit in a single mouthful and steer Wren back towards her cabin. “One thing at a time, cadet, and that’s an order.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Wren salutes. “I did it right that time, right?”

“Yes you did.” I pat her on the head. “Good girl.”

She beams, and suddenly she hugs me, burying her head in my shoulder. “Thank you. Thank you for everything. I know I’ve said it already but — I’m so glad I found you. I get to wake up tomorrow morning warm and safe and I never have to be alone out here again. And — and maybe soon Hope can be safe too.”

I hold her tightly and ruffle her hair. “It’s gonna be okay. One way or another, we’ll find a way.”

“I believe you.” Wren stares up at me. “I bet you could do anything you set your mind to.”

“Maybe not anything, but definitely anyone.” I run my fingernails down the back of her neck and she shivers. “I’ll be back soon. Try not to steal the ship while I’m gone?”

Wren giggles. “No promises!”