Nata spends her time zipping through the black in her ugly yet bad-ass spaceship, taking pride in being the best smuggler the Imperial regime has never caught. When she takes on an expensive mystery cargo, however, the risk reaches far beyond her pride.
“You’re a cheap asshole,” I call to Bara as I cross the threshold of the bar. I don’t have to wait for my Traveler to give me a rundown to know they’re there. Bara’s always there. Bara doesn’t sleep, shit, or fuck as far as I know.
The bar smells like old socks, sour beer, and just an edge of mustiness, which means the air filters are probably a couple weeks past due. Starting to go moldy, but not bad enough to actually give anyone a respiratory infection. It almost overwhelms the weird, dirty cinnamon scent that characterizes Corona Nine Station and never leaves the back of your throat once you’ve sucked in your first lungful.
“And you’re a sleazy shitbag,” Bara returns calmly. Their ident chip reads off to my Traveler as human, their voice—not too high, not too low—sounds like they’re speaking through a metal tube, and what those things add up to isn’t any of my fucking business. I like Bara, and Bara likes me, and that’s all that matters. “Business or boredom?”
“Okay. Business drink coming right up. Your table’s free.”
“I know.” In that brief time, my Traveler’s finished flitting around for a quick survey and clicks out the locations of everything in the bar to the little implant in my jawbone. Nothing and no one interesting, in its opinion. My normal place in the right mid where I won’t have to dodge too many outstretched legs and cocked elbows is clear. Probably because in station time, it’s just about breakfast, and so-called normal people have this thing about not drinking their morning carbohydrates mixed with alcohol in a shitty hole in the wall where your feet stick to the floor.
People like me? We live on our own time.
I move among the tables and the few patrons (human, human, human, most of them identifiable as smugglers or black marketeers because their ident chips roll off with that particular flat note that indicates knock-offs just expensive enough to dodge cursory security checkpoints) and then slide into my chair with as much grace as anyone can under 0.5 g.
Fuck gravity, I hate it. Makes my teeth ache.
Thump-sklich of footsteps (Bara probably weighs about 120 kilos) and then the solid click of a sipper cup being set down. I rest my elbow casually on the table, which is a mistake because it’s also sticky. “Did you fire your server again?”
“Nah, he left. Wanted to join the army. Can’t remember which one.” In their tone, I hear the shrug that puts the period on that statement.
“Guess they pay better than you.”
“Haven’t had a server get shot in years.”
My Traveler, now settled in its customary spot somewhere over my right shoulder, guides my hand with subtle pressure behind my ear so I pick up the cup with no fumbling. Me and my Traveler have been together a long time. We’ve learned each other. I raise the cup in the direction of Bara’s voice in a little salute. “Money isn’t everything—”
Bara finishes the saying with me: “—Cause you can’t gamble it when you’re dead.” They laugh. “Who you waiting for?”
“New one. Haddan?” The question is implicit—Someone you know?
“Doesn’t frequent the underbelly,” Bara says. “And sleaze is thin on the ground. Imperial patrols have been picking up a lot lately. Getting intense.”
“Think we’re in line for a raid?” Unheard of. Corona Nine was in the armpit of the Empire. That’s why I liked it.
“Finished unloading all your cargo?”
“Think about who you’re talking to here.”
“Then you’ll be fine. Anyway, I’ll see what blows in that looks like it might piss itself and send it your way.”
“Try not to scare off my meal ticket.”
Bara snorts. “If they can’t handle me, they sure as hell won’t be able to handle you, Nata.” They pat me on the shoulder and then walk away.
It’s an exaggeration. Of all Bara’s clientele, I’m the least likely to take a knife to someone. I’ve never liked fighting, never saw the point to it. Sure, I carry a vibraknife; one cut to the back of the hand and it’ll make anyone let go. But I learned at my auntie’s knee, there’s no point in having ballads sung about you if you’re not alive to hear them. I slouch down into my chair and take my time drinking while my Traveler ticks off minutes for me. I’m good enough that I get to be picky about the cargo I take, and I don’t put up with people being late, not when they expect me to be on time.
I’m just about to finish my drink and skip out when someone whose pace I don’t recognize walks up behind me. My Traveler reads the ident as Shev Haddan, and of course it’s got the same flat, sour note of every other ident here. Fake. Real ones are downright harmonious. “Nata?”
I don’t turn my head. It’s pointless, I can hear him just fine. “You’re late. Sit.”
“I don’t care. Sit,” I repeat.
Wonder of wonders, he does. And proceeds to fidget, all rustling clothing and the dull sound of one fingernail picking at another. One of those. Normally they wait until later in the conversation, when the fact that I’m not actually looking at them starts really getting on their nerves. “You came highly recommended,” he says.
I love it when they start with flattery. “You said you wanted a fast run. I’m the fastest. What’s the mass on your cargo, and where do you want me to take it?”
“Mass is 2,800 kilos. In-atmosphere haul; it’s delicate electronics. Going to Iota Dover Station.”
That’s three jumps out, but a straight enough shot in the backgates. The mass barely registers, comforting since it means he’s not having me smuggle ordnance for some guerilla group. And most important, it doesn’t require crossing the Seventh Satrapy blockade. War is mostly great news for people like me; all markets get smudged gray. But it also gives us a whole new array of people we really want to avoid, people who have a lot more guns and a lot more free time than us. I’ve been making my calories easy running contraband between Imperial systems and ignoring the civil war. I have no interest in changing that now.
I name a price, two times bigger than fucking ridiculous.
“Done,” he says, tone final. I hear him rustle into motion, then my Traveler informs me that Haddan’s got his hand out to shake.
He agreed too fast. Something has to be wrong. He can’t be that naïve or stupid. But the payday. The fucking payday. When you’re a smuggler, it’s all about the payday. “Cash up front,” I say, not making a move. I won’t be played. “One hundred percent.”
“How do I know you’re not going to run?” he asks, the enthusiasm finally gone.
I like knowing I’m not the only one feeling paranoid. “Go ask your friends around the station, if you have any. My reputation is solid.” It is. I’ve never welshed on a deal. Might have dropped cargo a time or two, but I refund the payment when that happens. I like my contracts clean, my work simple, and my head still attached to my neck—it’s more valuable that way.
But the bigger point is the one we both know. He doesn’t have friends on this station. I can smell the downsider on him, the cheap freshener he’s doused his clothes with because he can’t handle the permanent acrid body odor stink of budget station accommodations. And when he walked up, he sure as hell didn’t sound like someone who knew low-g or no-g. We space-born rats aren’t goddamn dancing unicorns, but we don’t shuffle every step. He’s pure dirt sucker.
“You came highly recommended,” he mutters.
“I sure did. And if you want reliable, and you want speed, you fucking give me what I want.”
He’s sticking his hand out again, my Traveler informs me, now amused. And I can hear Haddan huffing his displeasure. Taps of pressure like a maneuvering jet guide me in smoothly for a handclasp, and the deal is done. I’m nice enough about his ego that I don’t quite smirk. “Deliver your cargo to berth 257. Sooner you get it to me, sooner I can run it out.”
“I’ve been by that berth,” he says. Checking up, maybe. Doing a little research. Not a complete moron. “Ugliest ship I’ve ever seen.”
I give his hand a vicious squeeze before I let go, smiling all the while. “You paid for fast. You didn’t pay for pretty.”
My ship’s been voted ugliest on Corona Nine Station ten years running. Her name is Goodluck Gray Pearl, after my parents and my auntie, the way my auntie named me after her auntie, Chrysanthemum. No one but her calls me Chrysanthemum—to everyone else I’m just Nata, because I didn’t want anyone getting weird botanical ideas. I don’t know what the Pearl looks like, and I don’t care. She’s my elephant: Each of her parts feels random, unrelated, and adds up magically to spaceship. All that matters is that I can weave them together into a set of wings so we fly across the void, faster than anyone else.
I’m waiting with her when the dockworkers show up with the shipment: 2,800 kilos, packed in a lot of weirdly big boxes. I skate my fingers over the smooth, unremarkable shipping containers to get a handle on their size and where they are in the hold, and note the raised maker marks have been filed off, but that’s normal in my line of work. My Traveler sniffs them over for flagged biologicals and radiation sources and quietly murmurs the null null null result through my jawbone, but beyond that, it isn’t any of my business. For all I know, I’m running the most expensive empty boxes in the system. Plausible deniability is a shield I’m not too proud to use. Saved my ass on more than one occasion, playing the confused and naïve woman who’s just trying to save up for an operation.
Cargo gets one final count; I check all the netting and sign off for Karis -dee, the dock boss. She knows me well enough that she slaps me on the shoulder on the way out. “See you in a week, Nata.”
“And I won’t see you, Kay-dee.” The cargo doors closing cut off her silvery laugh, the send-off I’ve gotten at Corona Nine for the last year and a half. I wish I could bottle up that laugh, roll around in it, feel it flutter against my throat. Maybe next time. Maybe I’ll set aside some money and get her a present. (I never do. All my love tokens go to the Pearl.)
I slide my fingers along the bulkhead until I find the lighting control. The front panel is already missing, since I didn’t think there was a point to having multiple lighting settings. Full on or full off covers the bases, since I only use the lights for the dock loaders. I pull out the thumb-sized control pack—they last slightly longer if you take them out of the circuit since they don’t get hit with the tiny power plant variations that occur during flight—and stick it in one of my thigh pockets. I learned how to pinch credits on Auntie’s knee, and it’s not like I or the cargo need the light. That power’s better off diverted to the engines.
I keep my fingers on the wall as I take the short passage, head ducked precisely because I’m too damn tall to be in a ship under gravity, up to the bridge. It’s like running my fingers along the arching back of a happy cat. I slide into the waiting couch, worn and grooved to match every muscle of my back, ass, and legs, and trigger the sensory feedback links for the skinsuit I always keep under my regular clothes. I pull the Pearl on like a second skin. The power plant hums its readiness, a vibration that I feel in my gut. My Traveler nudges the onboard dumb AI out of sleep mode with the kind of fondness you get from someone waking up a pet. As the AI handshakes with the smart station system and Corona Nine spins us off into space, I find the sensor pad and pin it between my front teeth. I taste the wash of Corona’s solar wind like curls of orange peel on my tongue.
“Station course accepted. Exiting local control zone in eleven minutes, thirty-six seconds,” the onboard AI informs me in a genderless voice. I settle in against my safety netting as gravity finally fucks off, and absorb location tones, taste washes of mild radiation that splash across the ship’s skin—now my skin. The shift and hum of maneuvering jets and steadily warming impulse engines echo through my fingers and palms.
And eleven minutes, thirty-six seconds later, I stretch my wings and fly.
Five hours out from the rickety backgate that’ll take us from Corona to Tauric as long as it hasn’t fucking fallen apart, and I’m relaxed into a border-smudging ooze with my ship. Like a nap, but better. That’s when I feel the air in the cabin shift—impossible—and catch an acidic whiff of synth strawberry flavor—fucking impossible, I can’t stand that shit. I rip my arm free and go for the knife on my belt as I feel a shiver of heat cross my face, a hand light maybe. And then the couch shakes as someone grabs hold and something cold, broad, and metal presses against the top of my head. It takes my fumbling brain about two seconds to recognize the metal barrel’s the right size to be a neuroscrambler. I freeze.
I very carefully release the hilt of my utility knife and raise my hands, fingers spread. I’d rather not startle anyone. That I can move, and think, and cuss myself out means they haven’t pulled the trigger yet. I just need whoever it is on the other end of the scrambler to realize they can’t afford to turn my axons into an unrecognizable knot. The way I can feel the scrambler trembling doesn’t give me a whole lot of comfort, but—
“What the fuck?” a woman says. She’s not the one with the gun; she’s in front of me, and there’s her leg brushing against mine. “What the fuck did you do to the control panels?”
Oh, there we go. I grin, hands still held out, and spit the sensor pad out to swing on its tether in front of me. “You dumb assholes picked the wrong ship to try to jack.” Lights and pretty visual display panels? Waste of power that could go to the engines instead. First thing I scrapped the day Auntie loaned me the money to buy the Pearl.
I feel the warm tickle of the light beam sweeping over my face again. I can practically taste the char of realization dawning.
“Darn,” the man behind me says, in the same tone normally reserved for motherfucker. The scrambler’s muzzle pulls back slightly.
“Then you’ll just have to take us where we want to go,” the woman says.
“No, I don’t .” Now that they’re getting the measure of the situation, it’s the moment to keep hitting before they can try to come up with other solutions. “You need me a hell of a lot more than I need you. Sure, you can shoot me, but then however many there are of you”—2,800 kilos worth of people, apparently, how many is that?—“get to asphyxiate, or drift into a star, or get hit by some space junk, or—oh. Yeah, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get picked up by pirates. I hear they do some amazing shit to their prisoners.”
“Shut up,” the woman says, the words sounding squeezed through clenched teeth.
But no, I’ve just gotten rolling. “Or, no, you know what would be even better than that? You could get picked up by an Imperial patrol if you figure out how to set off the emergency beacon. And then you get to explain to them how you ended up in a ship that none of you can fucking pilot, and you have contraband weaponry, and you spaced the owner’s corpse, and—”
“Shut up!” the woman shouts.
I feel like I’ve made my point. I spread my hands a little wider. “Tell you what, out of respect for pulling one over on me, I’ll drop you off on the nearest station and I won’t even tell anyone. No hard feelings. We just go our separate ways.” Hell no, I’m spacing these fuckers into the vacuum at the first opportunity. They came into my fucking ship, crawled under my skin like parasites, and now nothing is ever going to smell right again. It’ll stick in my brain.
“Lydia—” the man behind me starts.
“You shut up too, Ayren,” she snaps. “I need to think.”
But Ayren just keeps going. “We can’t go to the next station.” His tone is calm, reasonable, and I’d buy it more if I didn’t still feel the barrel of that scrambler brushing against my close-cropped curls.
“Cargo manifest said you were going to Iota Dover station. It’s on the way.” Bullshit, of course, that’s obvious now. But I can play dumb to keep him talking and figure out the scam.
“We can’t stay in the Empire,” he says. “We need to go to Selanor VI. Or any Seventh Satrapy world. A planet, though.”
I don’t need him to spell it out for me. “Sounds like you’ve got a problem, then.” Fuck Haddan-the-parasitic-wasp-in-human-form. And fuck these people. I don’t know which side they’ve managed to piss off in the rapid disintegration of the Empire, and I really could not care less. I’m not getting killed for them.
Hands—must be Lydia, she’s a charmer—yank my safety netting off. “Whoa there, whoa, no need to—” I start, and then my Traveler shrieks a warning half a second before Lydia punches me in the jaw. My teeth slam together, I swallow blood, and go limp. Lydia pops me off the couch like she’s ripping an innocent, slimy sea creature out of its shell.
“Get her out of here,” Lydia snarls. “Put her in one of the containers. I’ll figure something out.”
Ayren grabs me by the back of the neck and shoves me toward the door. I have to reach for the frame or go into it face first. But it’s fine. I can play the cooperative prisoner for now. Because I know my work, I know my Pearl, and Lydia isn’t going to be able to do shit. Not even my auntie could unfuck the puzzle I made of the nav systems when she tried to repo the Pearl eight years ago. All I have to do is wait.
And wait. And take a nap. And then wait some more. And listen to my Traveler huff about the entire situation. The container isn’t uncomfortable; it’s probably not fun if you’re packed in here with a whole lot of other people like they were, but there’s room to stretch. I just wish Ayren hadn’t picked the one that smelled like farts. Hell, maybe they all smelled like farts. That’s something that happens when people get nervous.
Outside, I hear the muffled sounds of people talking, singing. Whatever little toy they had interfering with the station sensors while they were hiding in here, it must be some kind of control module instead of pure shielding. I’m itching to find one of those and take it apart. Too bad Ayren was smart enough to net my hands together.
A scrape, and the top of the container comes off. I catch a whiff of the synth strawberry scent again—speak of the devil and there he is. I can hear the talking more distinctly now, shit like, “Lydia will figure it out” and “How does anyone live in this?” and “The first crop we’ll plant is . . .” The singing, though, I don’t recognize, which means it’s not one of the half dozen most common languages in this neck of the galaxy. Small religious or ethnic group, probably, pried out of the planet they’d colonized fair and square centuries ago. The Empire always liked shitting on the little guys.
“I want to talk to you,” Ayren says.
“I was listening to the music.”
“It’s not for you.” He slides into the container and pulls the top shut behind him.
“You’re singing in my ship.” And in case that isn’t pointed enough: “Which isn’t for you.”
A long pause, followed by a long sigh. “Songs for the Sabbath.”
Yep, religious sect. It’s not something that’s ever signified to me; everyone’s credits spend the same. Questionable privilege of living in the underbelly, I guess. The only people I automatically don’t like are megarich fucks. They’re the only ones who have ever tried to stiff me on a payment. “And my ship’s named the Goodluck Gray Pearl.”
Another long pause. “Okay.”
“I figured, since we were talking about ourselves.”
I feel the temperature shiver of that hand-light beam passing over my face again. He doesn’t know what to make of me. Most people don’t. “We need your help.”
“And my name is Nata.”
“Okay. My name’s Ayren.”
“I know. Sorry, Ayren, I can’t help you.”
“You mean won’t,” he says.
“Can’t. If you wanted to make it into the Satrapy, you should have hijacked something with more mass. Then you might have a chance in hell. But they’ve got all the gates sewed up tight.” Something with enough mass could at least try to skip without a gate. There was a slim chance of making it , and to someone desperate enough to try to hijack a ship to start, maybe that would be enough.
“Haddan was supposed to get us on a blockade runner.”
“Haddan fucked us both. We should go complain. Or let me guess . . . you told him you needed fast, when you really meant big.”
Silence. Finally, “We never wanted to leave our homes. The only reason we even have a pilot is because Lydia . . . she’d left and wanted to stay out in the world. But her parents . . .”
That shouldn’t have felt like a little prick at the base of my spine, but it did. “Well, Lydia’s not going to be able to pilot this ship. Offer stands. I’ll take you to the next station. You guys can regroup, think of your next move. Don’t try to hijack another ship. It’s bad for your health.”
“Going to the next station would be bad for our health! We barely got out of Corona Nine alive.”
“I’m a criminal. We’re not known for our sympathy.” I like being alive. I don’t want to get blown to atoms in the space between stars. That’s not my kind of flying.
“You’re a smuggler, not a murderer.”
“I wouldn’t be killing you.”
“Yes, you would.” He makes a frustrated sound and pops the top off the container again. “Selah,” he calls. “Come here.”
A moment later, I hear movement, and a little voice pipes up, “Yes, Papa?”
“Oh no,” I say. “No, no, no. Fuck you.” My Traveler, less wise in the ways of manipulative shitheads than I am, is curious where this is headed, while I can already fucking feel it.
“This woman is named Nata,” Ayren says. “She’s the pilot of this ship.”
“She has funny eyes,” Selah says. Way to go, kid. Keep it up.
Ayren grabs me by the shoulder, slices through the netting around my hands with practiced ease. “Were you a cop or—”
He grips my wrist—damn, but he’s got big hands—and drags my hand to rest on a head of curly, thick hair like mine, if longer and fluffed out in a style I’ve always liked the feel of, but could never maintain as a pilot.
“Papa?” the little girl says.
Only it’s not my hand in her hair, it’s Auntie’s hand resting on my head thirty years ago while I sob, Papa? Where’s Papa? Where’s Da? It’s Auntie saying, Girl, it’s time for you to stop crying and be someone again. It’s her laughing as I take her comm unit apart and put it back together and she tugs at my curls with her crooked fingers. It’s her giving me my wings and telling me to not be afraid, after space took my parents and chewed them to atoms.
“Fuck you, Ayren,” I say. I’m not my parents. I’m not Goodluck and Gray. I’m still fucking alive. And I’m not falling for this emotional blackmail.
“You said a bad word,” the little girl whispers, in the same kind of tone I’d expect for an accusation of murder.
“Yes, she did, Selah. But it’s okay, just this once. This nice”—pointed emphasis there, fuck you very much, you tentacock sucker—“pilot is going to take us somewhere safe.”
“Fuck you,” I repeat. It doesn’t sound as strong to my own ears, but that’s because I’m thinking.
“Twice,” he amends. “Just this twice.”
“I’m not promising anything,” I repeat. This has become my mantra. They hear it and think I mean that I’m on their side now, but not willing to promise miracles. What I actually mean is that I’m seriously not promising them jack shit. I’ve just shifted gears. They can’t tell where I set our course to, but if I go for a station, it’ll be obvious early enough that Lydia might get punky and scramble my brain for spite. So fine. I’ll take us to a border gate. And then hand them over to whichever side is monitoring the traffic. Let the authorities work for me, just this once. I won’t even be lying when I say I got hijacked.
“Failure isn’t an option,” Lydia says from behind me. I’m really starting to dislike her.
“We know you can do it,” Ayren says soothingly. I’m not too fond of him, either. But they’re both going to be not my problem soon. My Traveler, nervous, keeps constantly updating me on where the two stand, how they shift. It gets on my nerves until I tell it to knock it off.
I slide us up to the Sestira-Iota Empira Gate , balls out and strutting pretty, because I’m not trying to hide. Almost everyone else has been packed back in the shipping boxes, since supposedly those can slide past inspection. It also keeps them out of the way. I tried to talk Ayren and Lydia into going back in the hold, because it’s not like they can see anything in the cockpit. Neither of them would go for it, more’s the pity. You’d think after a couple back-system jumps with rickety gates to get us here, they would trust my technique. They’re probably extra nervy because this gate is the one that will lead to the Seventh Satrapy proper, and will therefore be heavily guarded.
As twitchy as Lydia is—and this time she’s the one with the neural scrambler, oh the joy—I’m glad she can’t see. The modified targeting comp that I used to ping all location tones to me is going absolutely mental. And from the signatures, at least half the ships are military. Welcome to the blockade.
On cue, I get a signal on the nav channel: “Approaching ship, identify yourself.”
They know damn well who I am, because I’ve got my beacon up and running. But it’s an easy way to catch really, really dumb or new crooks—they forget the name of their own ship. “This is freighter Goodluck Gray Pearl, crew of three, requesting permission to gate through to Sestira. Transmitting crew profiles and manifest.” The dumb AI sends them over. I wish I had a chance to doctor the manifest with a little Help I’ve been hijacked note, but Ayren’s been too up my ass and I didn’t want to risk it.
“Stand by for scan,” control comes back.
I’m trying to play cool as I taste the scan bounce off and then cut through the hull, going from cold to hot, sweet to acidic, the full spectrum of possible energies. Really, I feel like I’m going to throw up, which is a spectacularly stupid idea in zero-g. This is what I need to do to get these assholes off my ship, I remind myself. Even if the thought of letting a bunch of border guard goons dig through my holds makes my skin crawl even more. It’s still less of a risk than trying a blockade run for people I don’t even like.
The scan goes on, forever and ever, repeating and repeating and I’m pretty sure at this point they probably know what’s in the waste tanks and can tell me what I ate for breakfast five days ago. Ayren’s tapping the headrest of my couch with his fingers, and I’m just about ready to punch him. The wait’s approximately ten years long before the signal comes back: “Manifest is in order. Slave your nav to the system controller to queue up.”
“Affirmative.” I switch the channel off, tell the dumb AI to do as it’s told with a tap of my toes on one of the lower pressure plates.
Ayren breathes out a shaky sigh. “That seems too simple.”
“Shut up,” Lydia and I say in unison. Oh look, something we agree on.
And it is too simple. Lydia’s a pilot. She knows what a gate approach vector will be like. And she feels us shift away from it. “What’s going on?” she demands.
“What do you mean?” Ayren asks.
I already know, but I’ll play dumb. I snap my fingers to signal the other two to silence just in case they decide to start bickering, and open the nav channel again. “Control, is there a reason we’re heading away from the gate?”
“You will temporarily dock with the fleet ship Kai Gregori for visual inspection.”
“There a problem with the scan of our cargo? I’m on a tight timetable here.” Right on schedule, but I feel sick about it, somehow.
“Scan comes back clean, but this is the new standard procedure.” Control’s tone shifts from bored to a sick note of smiling malice. “Keeps the scum out of our systems.”
“Can’t be too careful about scum,” I agree with false cheer, and cut the comm again. “There you go,” I tell Lydia and Ayren.
“What are you doing?” Ayren asks, anxious. “We’re still going in?”
“Your magic shipping containers can stand up to a visual inspection, right?”
“Yes—maybe,” Lydia says. “But we can’t.”
How does the way someone looks define their religious sect? The mind boggles. “I told you assholes you needed to be in the containers.”
“Don’t you—” Lydia starts.
“Please. Now isn’t the time to argue. We need to think.” Ayren, being the reasonable one again. I just want him to shut up and stop acting like we’re in this together.
“Should’ve thought about this before you made me fly your ass to a gate.”
“You knew this was going to happen,” Lydia says, accusing.
I shrug. “This isn’t my regular run. I figured you guys knew what you were doing.” It’s a cheap excuse, we all know it. “But it’s also not my problem.”
Ayren takes in a shaky breath. I’m not sure if he’s scared or angry. “If you let them take us, we will be sent back to the Empire in a penal ship, for execution. And so will you.”
“Going for mutually assured destruction?” But my stomach’s sinking. All of their words against mine? I should still be able to win, if I’m smart enough about it. I’ve got the innocent blind woman who didn’t know what she was getting into, et cetera card to play.
“None of us needs to say anything. They hate us that much.” That’s Ayren angry, I realize. So angry he sounds perfectly calm. It’s goddamn eerie. “Even if you don’t want to save us, you must want to save yourself.”
I definitely hate Ayren. Is he lying? Does he even need to be at this point? My stomach gurgles with acid. I don’t have any good choices. You can’t gamble money when you’re dead.
“Okay,” I say, thinking furiously. The only solution I can come up with at this point is smuggler’s law number one: Don’t get caught. “Hang on to something.”
There’s no alarm or anything fancy like that to hit. It’s only ever supposed to be me in my ship, so what’s the point? I take a quick scan, listening to the tracking pings, charting the courses of the ships, finding the windows where I can squeeze in between larger vessels, because that’ll make it a lot harder for some overexcited gun battery jock to open fire on me. Then I punch the engines by clenching my toes on the feedback pads and go full acceleration.
My couch jerks at the sudden inertial shift, and then there’s a loud crash as someone hits the rear bulkhead. Sounded heavier, probably Ayren.
The nav channel screams to life with a “Freighter Goodluck—” I don’t even wait to hear whatever control has to say next, just cut it off. I need less noise so I can track the symphony of pings as other freighters sluggishly scatter around me, no doubt reacting to the way I’m shitting all over their proximity warnings. I’m more concerned by the low, bronze tones of the capital ships, smearing their way into motion from port channel to starboard. The only mercy is that they’re moving to protect the gate, and I’m on course to loop around the way station and veer away from it. Which is a stupid move for anyone who wants to live, going in that close to the supermassive point that is a gate, except for two things:
1) I am the best damn pilot I know.
2) I am not mass driver, nuke, or whatever-the-Satrapy-is -using-these-days-proof.
I wring every ounce of power out of the onboard plant, and thank fuck I’ve stripped out all unnecessary systems on the Pearl. By the time the Satrapy cruisers get my course deviation—which slams Ayren into another wall from the oof sound he makes, and okay maybe I shouldn’t be grinning around the sensor probe between my teeth—I’ll be too far out of their reach. Big ships accelerate like pigs.
“What are you doing?” Lydia screams somewhere behind me.
I don’t answer, licking at the sensor probe and getting the shiver of a targeting laser, too strong. I spin us, but it’s not enough. Inertia’s working against me, not with me. A mass driver round clips the port cargo pod. There’s a crash in the cockpit behind me, and Lydia stops screaming. Alarms start yelping as the automated systems come up and cut the cargo pod off from the rest of the ship to prevent further decompression. I smell blood, which my Traveler confirms belongs to Lydia. It better not get into any of my systems.
And for a moment, the ship goes dead in space. One of the power conduits is down, must have been hit by debris from the cargo pod.
“Ayren!” I scream, since my Traveler tells me he’s at least still sort of conscious. “Get your fucking ass up.” I’m already scrambling from the safety netting.
“What is it?” There it is, the suddenly reassuring shiver of warmth from the hand-light’s beam.
“The port power conduit needs to be rerouted. I need you to close off all the junctions manually—they’re not flipping on their own.”
A hesitation that takes way too long. “I can do that.”
I hear him leave with half an ear. The emergency power comes up, way too slowly, and I start working from my end. There are plenty of conduit lines from the power plant to the engines, but the problem is that most of them aren’t rated high enough for the power draw I need. The whole system shut down to protect from overload-induced meltdown.
And all the emergency power really does is bring the targeting computer back up and give me the low, approaching pings of the Kai Gregori and its friends. “Come on, come on,” I mutter.
The ship’s intercom crackles on —I never bothered to uninstall it, bless past me —and I hear Ayren’s voice, thick with confusion. “Which junctions? Some of them are labeled life support, Nata.”
“Don’t go by the labels. I rerouted everything when I upgraded the plant.” And it wasn’t like I could read those labels. I force myself to take a deep breath and just tune out the frantic pinging of the targeting computer for a minute, mentally counting. I know this ship like I know my own hands. “Number them starting top left, go in a serpentine. You get me?”
“Flip one, six, eight, ten through thirteen, and fifteen.”
He counts under his breath, each number followed by a crisp snap of a junction flipping over. I count with him, silently, over the ever-approaching sound of the border guard ships. . . . Thirteen . . . fifteen. The Pearl roars back into life.
I don’t bother telling Ayren to hold on this time. He should already know the drill. I max the throttle on the engine and turn us into our drift, making it a long bank that’ll shoot us around the dark side of the gate and take advantage of the gravitational anomaly for extra acceleration. There’s no way in hell we’re skipping through it; all I want now is to escape the local space and regroup at a safe distance.
An alarm sounds, warning of a coolant leak, more damage from the mass driver hit. I tap it off with one finger and keep pushing. I know the power plant like I know the sound of my own heart. It’s still good for another three-percent draw: I feel the pitch of it in my bones.
Lydia groans. Drama queen. “You better not fucking vomit,” I growl between my teeth.
Then it’s just me and the pattern, speed and space and the thousand sounds and tastes and pressures that make the Pearl a living part of me.
We fly. We live. We never die.
“Lydia’s got three broken ribs, a concussion, and a shattered collarbone,” Ayren says.
I grunt. I’m stretched out in the port maintenance conduit, feeling the coolant line inch by inch, searching for the crack or piece of shrapnel that had it leaking. The ship is dead and quiet around us, only the hiss of air exchange still going. I kept us limping to a safe distance from the gate and parked us in with some asteroids for camouflage. We’re still on the wrong side of the Empire/Satrapy divide, but we’re alive, so that’s something.
“We lost twenty people when the cargo pod decompressed,” he continues.
Well, most of us are still alive. “Do you want me to say I’m sorry?”
“Are you?” he returns. He doesn’t even sound angry at this point. Just tired.
“No.” Yes. A little . “Was your daughter in there?”
I feel a little relieved in spite of myself. For a moment, instead of tubing under my fingers, I feel the tight curls of her hair. It’s not fair. It’s fighting damn dirty. Because it reminds me that from here, I could cut the starboard cargo pod free too. I wouldn’t even have to come out of the conduit. Ayren wouldn’t know until it was too late, and then it would be just him versus me, and I’m pretty sure I could take him in my own ship. I’m a spacer born. I know how to fight dirty in zero-g. “Good for you.”
“Shut the fuck up, whatever you were going to say. I never asked to have you assholes on my ship.”
He sighs, like I answered a question he hadn’t actually asked. “I know. We invaded your home.”
I’m not sure how I feel about Ayren whipping out the mind-reading shit. No, I do know. I hate that too. “Yeah. You did. And then held a fucking gun to my head.”
“It was a bad idea to do that, and I’m sorry for it.”
I hadn’t been expecting an apology of any sort. “Thanks,” I say dryly.
“But home isn’t just a place, Nata. It’s people. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. Keeping our home alive. Who do you go home to?”
My parents have been dead several times longer than I knew them alive. I haven’t seen Auntie in a decade. I bounce between stations and have my little fantasies about taking lovers, but that’s all they are: fantasies. At the end of the day, it’s just me rolling in to Bara’s joint and having a cup of their finest swill, shooting the shit with them and letting my bones unkink because that’s all I really want. A place other than my ship where my skin fits. Fuck Ayren for making that sound like it isn’t enough. “Fuck you.”
“Why do you hate us?” Ayren asks quietly.
“Because you’re going to get me killed.”
“If you wanted to live a safe life, you wouldn’t be a smuggler.” I can hear him shifting around outside the conduit. He’s probably uncomfortable about not having this conversation face to face. He can deal with it. “So it’s more than that.”
“My parents would have wanted to help you,” I say, grudgingly. “That’s the kind of people they were. And that’s why they’re dead.” I feel my Traveler hovering near my shoulder, and this is one hell of a time for it to decide it wants to play angel instead of disinterested, observing devil. I ignore it.
“They diverted course to investigate a distress beacon, and it was a trap. They got me into an escape pod. They didn’t make it.” Child me had been scared as hell and screaming her head off. Adult me, knowing what I know now about the kind of people out here in the black who do that kind of shit to people like my parents, feels sick and angry.
“Ah,” Ayren says. “There’s a saying among my people, Nata: Who destroys a soul, it is as if they have destroyed an entire world. Who saves a soul, it is as if they have saved an entire world.”
It feels like getting punched with words, and I don’t like it. I’m floundering, going down for the count. “All of this sounds a lot less philosophical and wise when I know you’re just saying it because you want me to help you,” I point out, trying to disguise how shaken I am.
“I’m saying,” Ayren continues, inexorable, and how the fuck did I ever think that it was Lydia who was the dangerous one, “that we will all die sometime. God created us to be mortal. But it is for you to decide if you will live like your parents did, or like the people who killed them.”
The weak solar wind of Iota Empira washes over my tongue, subtly different from Corona Nine’s star. Main sequence blue versus yellow. Blue tastes more flowery, and a little like hot metal. We float along in the outer of the system’s two asteroid belts, just in case the Satrapy patrol boats are still looking for us. With any luck, they’ve assumed we bled out our atmosphere from the mass driver shot.
“What are we going to do now?” Ayren asks. He’d just come back up from a check through the starboard cargo pod. After he’d delivered his verbal payload earlier, he’d left me alone before I could manage more than another fuck you. My most pathetic one yet.
“I’d say what are you going to do now, but then you’ll just haul your fucking kid out again, won’t you.” Silence is agreement, there. “You fight dirty. Asshole.”
“You would too.”
“I know.” I sigh. I’ve been mulling over the reaction I saw from the Satrapy ships, the taste of the process I got from the outside, the precise gut punch Ayren landed on me. “I’ve got an idea, but you’re really not going to like it.”
“Can’t scare me any worse than the last one.”
I snort. “Should be glad I don’t have view screens.”
“I think I am.” He’s near my head now, holding on to the couch with one hand to steady himself. He smells like sweat and that damn synthetic strawberry. Not an appealing scent if he ever wants to get laid, but maybe that’s not how his religion works. “What is your plan?”
I outline it—nearby mining system, sneaky thoughts, everything.
“You’re right. I don’t like it.”
“If we all die of hemorrhagic brain cancer in ten years, at least it’s ten more years than any of you have right now,” I point out. “Though it’s a hell of a lot less than I plan to keep kicking.”
Silence. Then, “I’m sorry.”
“Not that sorry.”
“Not that sorry,” he agrees.
“Get your people settled. If you want you can be up here for go time, but it’s not going to be an exciting show.”
“I think I’d like to.”
“I can’t believe you’re fucking trusting me. I already tried to kill you.” I can’t help but point that out. Maybe if he’s suspicious, I can get pissed off again, talk myself out of this new piece of stupidity. I’m not that good of a person.
Ayren laughs. “I have faith, Nata. That you want to go home as badly as we do.” He pats the couch again, turns to go.
I laugh too , loud enough that it makes my Traveler shudder with alarm because it knows that laugh. The dumb AI asks if I have a problem. I ignore them both and plot in the new course, which will take us to Iota Augirae, where there’s a whole lot of asteroids—and a mining station.
I feel the slight shiver of heat over my hands and feet as Ayren watches me do the delicate maneuvering through the asteroid belt, weaving to avoid space junk, mining drones, and security scan points to get in close to the enormous orbital smelting complex.
“Put your light away,” I say. “I need to concentrate.” I wait until I hear it click off. “And no talking.”
Silence. Good, he’s learning. My Traveler does its own nervous acrobatics that I feel through my jawbone, and I tell it to settle the fuck down too. This lack of faith in my piloting abilities would be really uncalled for if I wasn’t running in circles and screaming in the privacy of my own head.
I take my sweet damn time just listening to the symphony of pings and steady notes that indicate the structure of the smelting complex, the tiny tugs flitting in and out, the small personnel shuttles and in-system freighters—and the big, bass bell tones of the ore drones. I pick one that sounds right to me, so low it’s more of a subconscious growl than an actual sound.
Here’s the thing about ore drones: They’re fucking massive. So massive, in fact, that they don’t require a gate to skip across space. So massive that a little extra mass, like a small blockade-running freighter and 2,800 minus a few hundred kilos of human beings, won’t put even a shiver in their course calculations. We’re just another chunk of ore. And ore drones also have massive engines and power plants that might as well be captive stars, to push all that mass, to warp space into their own personal gate.
I lick the sensor probe, turn up its sensitivity to max, and move slowly through the wash of radiation. I want close to those engines and their masking radiation signatures. They could also potentially cook us on the spot if I don’t park just right, or someone’s let the maintenance on the engines slip a bit, but I’ve lived a life on the knife-edge . It’s kind of an exciting thought, gambling not just my life but 2,800 kilos worth of people . (Still don’t know how many that is and don’t care.) This is like running my tongue over a high-grit metal file that’s been sprayed with chili oil, searching for just the right flavor of agony.
There it is, like a hot rivet through my tongue. There’s the engines and their steady outgas of heat and radiation. There’s three in a triangle, I just need to find the edges of the exhaust and thread the cooler zone between them. Steady, steady. An alarm starts shrieking—radiation warning.
“Shut up.” A second alarm—hull temperature. I’m too close to one exhaust port. Sweat rolls down the end of my nose, and it has nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with internal pressure. I can park the Pearl on a dime. I can do this. Even with the wrecked port cargo pod dragging weirdly in the exhaust stream, trying to push us off course.
I tap the maneuvering jets, tongue working against the sensor pad to read the minute variations of radiation. The bounding pings from the targeting computer tell me that there’s a heat manifold close by that should shelter us from the drive wash. And hopefully won’t get hot enough to melt the nose off the Pearl. I just have to extend the magnetic clamps and—
CLUNK. A definitive vibration shudders through the ship. “There we are,” I say. I wipe more sweat away with the back of my hand and kill the hull temperature alarm. We’re either going to make it or we’re not, at this point. “Now we wait.”
“How long will it be?”
“You got a hair appointment you’re worried about missing?”
“We only have so much food . . .”
“We’ll skip before you run out of rat bars, trust me. I picked the highest mass drone I could safely reach.” High mass being an indication that it was filled, or close to it. “And they’re burning the engines to tune them. It’ll be soon.”
“But will it take us to the right place?”
“Ayren, this distrust is really hurting my feelings.”
He laughs. “I just . . . everything I know here is through you. I am the blind one, here.”
Har har. “It’s got a Satrapy registration. Not sure what system it’ll take us to, but you said you didn’t care as long as I got you into their territory. We’ll find out when I disengage and we drift away after we’re past any inspection points.”
“We really don’t care. We just need . . . land. Beneath our feet again. Once we’re there, they won’t be able to remove us. They won’t even notice us if we’re quiet enough.”
I don’t get this urge for dirt and gravity, but maybe it plays into the same part of the brain that sighs when I get a big, musty whiff of Corona Nine’s canned air. “Then everything will work out fine.” I still can’t fucking believe I’m doing this, and yet I can. They say you never pay your debt to your parents. Mine are beyond any collection, and Auntie’s never going to get the one payment she really wants—me taking my place in her operation. She’ll have to settle for this instead. Maybe I’ll send her a message, see how much new swearing I learn from her when she gets back to me.
The silence stretches again, and I can feel it, sitting in the air between us. That goddamn question. Everyone always asks me that goddamn question, no matter what bullshit hotdoggery they’ve seen me pull out of my ass.
“Why don’t you fix it?” he asks.
Yep, there it is. The common thread of humanity isn’t eating, shitting, fucking, and death. It’s this stupid question. I shrug. I’ve got the answer that will end the conversation quickest memorized like the rosaries Auntie once taught me to say. “Advanced brain damage. I’d need a hell of a lot of money and downtime for the cybernetics to integrate.”
“Oh.” He pats the couch, smart enough to not try to pat me yet. “Sorry.”
“I wish . . .”
“It’s fine.” Technically, I told Ayren the truth. It would be expensive as hell to do those kinds of cybernetics , to make me see “normally.” I was born with an underdeveloped occipital cortex, and my parents were never sure why and never made it to a station with good enough and cheap enough medical to find out. Not enough radiation shielding in the baby jar, maybe. For all I know, I also glow in the dark.
But money’s never been my problem. Anyone that knows ships can calculate how many hundreds of thousands of credits I’ve lovingly dumped into the Pearl. I just stopped giving the real answer decades ago because I got sick of explaining my life.
I feel another vibration echo through the ship, and it’s a relief. “We’re about to do an unassisted skip. You ever done that before?”
“No. Planet born and raised.”
“Then hold on tight. You’re in for a bumpy ride.” I lean my head back and tuck the sensor between my teeth. There’s no flavor quite like shrieking spatial unreality—like licking the sweaty taint of an angel—and here she comes.
It’s six goddamn months before my ass comes straggling back home to Corona Nine, my Traveler trailing behind me and wondering why the fuck we’re back to this dump. We could afford a better grade of dump now, if I wanted. I’ve got some new tricks, some good stories that’ll get me some free drinks, and a handmade scarf that Selah made for me, which Ayren swore will be a great gift for dockmaster Karis-dee no matter which shade of humanity she comes in.
I’ve got it tied loosely around my waist like a bit of swagger. Selah told me it made me look like a storybook pirate, which is not a compliment I’ll turn down. But I don’t go to the stevedore bar where the dockmaster holds court. Instead, I head to my regular haunt. It still smells the same, old beer and mold and a weird cinnamon undertone, the one constant in my life. Well, one of two.
“Well fuck me,” Bara says. “I heard you were dead.”
“And I heard you were a cheap asshole,” I call back.
“Just as well. You wouldn’t make much of an angel,” they tease.
“Fuck you.” Because that’s how friends say I missed you. “I’d show ’em how to really fly. My table better be free.”
“You already know it is.”
I throw myself into the creaky station chair, stretch out my legs, let myself grin like a smug bastard. Because who in this backwater shithole can say they’ve managed to skunk the Satrapy blockade twice? Just me. And the paydays are gonna roll in.
I hear Bara walk up behind me, their footsteps familiar as my own heartbeat. Then there’s the well-remembered click of a sipper cup being set down. But before Bara can go, I nudge the extra seat out with the toe of my boot, guided by my Traveler, who’s now starting to catch my drift.
“Who you waiting for?” Bara asks. “No one much here today.”
“Seat’s for you,” I say. So far, there have been only three people who have been in my life more than a day and never asked me That Stupid Question: Auntie, my Traveler , and Bara. Home is people, Ayren had said. I’m not giving him the satisfaction of admitting he might be right, not out loud.
Bara huffs a slightly metallic laugh and sits. “Pick up any other weird habits while you were running with the wolves for six months?”
I laugh. “Downsiders are fucking crazy, Bara. I sure hope not.” But my hand unerringly finds the tail of the scarf and plucks at it, lets the fine, soft strands of spun animal hair—imagine that shit, animal hair—trail through my fingers. “You like this color?”
“The Angel of the Blockade” copyright © 2017 by Alex Wells
Art copyright © 2017 by Micah Epstein