Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

A Sword Has One Purpose

I had enough time to light a fresh cigarette before my office door told the client to come in. Smoke in the air didn’t make it any easier to oil a cutlass, but it made me look badass. Same with my leather jacket, tailored to fit comfortably over my smartsuit. I projected confidence so brightly that every once in a while I forgot what I hid beneath it.

My client entered wearing fine high heels and the calm stability that came from long years in habitat gravity. My most interesting cases were from habbers, because habbers didn’t come my way until they figured out their problem was beyond them.

That’s why being a badass is important. Badasses like Siderosa Lee, consulting swashbuckler, win contracts.

“You must be Rana Khayat.” Tall, dark-skinned, bright-looking enough to hold my attention. Lifelong Theta resident, glowing reviews from the life-support volunteers, and a little office in Sector Three. It wasn’t often that an agricultural librarian needed my services. “Have a seat.”

“Believe me, Ms. Lee, you’ve already impressed me,” Khayat said as she sat. Her eyes were polished armour, cool and gray. “With your sword, I mean. It’s clearly very fine.”

“It’s all maintenance,” I said. Ordinary, time-consuming, and vital to survival in Theta. Whether it was my turn for an inspection shift or time for sword sharpening, my partner never let me forget. “The real fine stuff is what we do together.”

“Yes, well, that’s what I’m hoping.” Khayat folded her hands in her lap and shuddered. “It’s about my brother, you see. Iskander. He’s not fine. He’s in trouble. From Callisto.”

That was enough for me to pause mid-wipe. Theta was farther away from Callisto than Callisto was from Jupiter, but I knew the Titanese lesson: distance was no protection. It was why I wore a smartsuit under my jacket, so that I could keep breathing if they ever aimed their guns Theta’s way.

“You have to understand, he’s . . . idealistic.” Khayat clasped her hands together. “Closer to pure of heart and block of head, really. After Rovaniemi, he said he couldn’t stay quiet any more.”

I bit through my cigarette. Domed Rovaniemi, the Queen City of Valhalla, had been the last holdout against the fascist Pan-Jovian tide on Callisto. Emphasis on had. A few refugees made it to Theta. I’d never seen eyes that haunted.

She took me through the whole show, because that was the problem. Iskander had started a radio show to “liberate Callisto’s downtrodden,” and the Panjos had no sense of humour. So they’d reached out and grabbed him. The Titanese lesson, but with fewer explosions. So far.

“I tracked him to their ship,” Khayat leaned forward now, and the enchanted steel in her eyes sparked with every word. “I’ve done the math. Their departure window shouldn’t open for another three days. Plenty of time for a rescue. All I need is a rescuer. What do you say?”

I’d done my own math while she was talking. Multiplying the dream of standing up to the fascists by the reality of their cold brutality. Callistonians weren’t disorganized troublemakers. They solved their problems with blood and steel.

“Hmm,” I said. To fill the air, really. One swashbuckler against a moon? What did Khayat expect? That all on my own I could shout “no pasarán” and make the Panjos blink?

I was still running the numbers when my office filled with the sharp notes of David Bowie singing about heroes. It figured. My partner knew exactly where to cut. Appropriate, really.

“Nice,” Khayat said, swaying in her chair with an appreciative look. “Not enough people still appreciate the classics.”

“All right.” Now that the music had started, I’d have to solve the whole equation. I’d never hear the end of it, from my partner or myself. “Let me do some research, and I’ll get back to you. Sound good?”

“Research?” From her tone, you’d think I suggested to start planning Iskander’s funeral. “We’ve only got three days! If we wait for them to leave, I’ll lose him forever!”

“There’s more to what I do than waving a sword around.” I tried to penetrate her armour with a hard, sharp look, but she didn’t shy away. “I’ll investigate. Give me a day, and I’ll have an answer for you.”

Khayat sighed and stood. There wasn’t a hint of instability in her. When I’d moved from Netherhope to Theta, with its just-slightly-lower gravity, it had taken months to find my spin legs.

“It’s a fine place you’ve got here,” she said. High praise for a former storage compartment. “You’ve taken care of it. Too many people forget that it only matters if we take care of each other, too.”

She nodded at me and left. Bowie went silent as soon as the door closed.

“I double-checked her data,” my partner said. “She’s good.”

“Don’t you even start.” I peered at my reflection, stark in the blade, and shook my head. “Heroes.”

“It’s better than your plan.” My partner, Cutty Jane, made herself heard with miniature speakers hidden deep in my ears. It’s a necessary arrangement. Most swords don’t have mouths, let alone synthetic intelligence. “Waiting for everything to fall apart. Again.”

“They’d melt you down, you know.” I wiped her down with a clean cloth and finished with a quick kiss, and she gave a contented sigh. “They don’t care for people like us.”

“As long as I get a nice, warm bath in some fascist’s blood, I’m fine with what happens,” Jane said. “You and me, queens of the resistance. Better to make Callisto the tomb of fascism than sit here waiting for the hab to collapse, don’t you think?”

I sighed and lit a fresh cigarette. Honestly, I’d never planned to live that long.

• • • •

Life was easy in Theta once. That’s what I hear, anyway. By the time I showed up, not much was left besides too much stubbornness to die. Most days that’s enough, but it’s hardly a picture of utopia, either. Three kilometres of spinning metal drilled into a moon’s flank isn’t where a lot of people dream of raising their kids.

Exhaustion, stubbornness, the struggle against entropy. That was life in Theta, and it was clearest in Cheapside. In a five-minute walk you might pass an emergency shelter with duct-taped signs, a rusted-up restaurant that had the best chai orbiting Jupiter, and a tailor who hand-made factory-quality spacesuit patches. It was harsh, but I’d chosen it, and it fit me like ratty shoes full of holes: garbage, but comfortable garbage.

“Fourth day in a row the air’s been sub-green,” Jane said. “If this isn’t fixed tomorrow, I’m calling our councillor. This can’t last.”

“No, but it’s what we’ve got.” Cheapside’s air had never tasted right to me, but I’d adapted. I’d had to. People have always had to. “Better than dying quick.”

“Nobody’s ever dying quick,” Jane said. “Until all of a sudden they are.”

She would know, and so did I. I took a drag of my cigarette and ducked into the Sector Seven Smoke Shop. Nothing in the décor hinted that I wasn’t the only one looking to die slow, of course. Lisette made sure the walls stayed perfectly clean.

“There you are, Sid.” Lisette cracked her knuckles from behind a beat-up bar and unfurled her draconic wings like flags. They were perfect and smooth, since Theta wasn’t a great place for a girl to fly, but in bed they made all the difference. “Was hoping you’d come by today. I’d have messaged, but it felt forward, you know?”

“Not really.” Theta ran on mind-your-own-beeswax guidelines that never stopped clashing with my Netherhope upbringing. “But I’m here now, so what’s up?”

“Your order.” Lisette set a thick package of Nemesis Lights on the counter. Best of the asteroid belt, and ruthlessly interdicted by Callistonian tribute patrols. “Savour ‘em, because it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any more in. MFK’s writing off Ganymede, and it’ll be a leak-free day before they come here direct.”

“Seriously?” I’d made the trip from Saturn on an MFK ship, and even then it hadn’t been easy to arrange. One big reason people stayed in Theta was that it was hard to leave, and without MFK it’d be even harder. “Damn. These are my favourite.”

“You and Ryder both,” Lisette said. Conrad Ryder was another of Theta’s independent investigators, reliant on fists and feats of strength, and a Rovaniemi survivor. I’d worked with him once. A bit full of himself, but hardly an asshole. “He burned through five. Pod’s still cleaning itself out. There’s not something going down with you troubleshooters, is there?”

“No more than usual. Tired people, scared people, desperate people. I’m starting to think there’s no other sort of person.”

“Not in this hab.” Lisette gave me a sharp look. “Tired?”

“Desperate.” I wondered if she could see the lie. A desperate woman wouldn’t have been a breath away from turning down a client, but a swashbuckler like me couldn’t show fear and be taken seriously. “I’ll see what I can find.”

Once I was a few minutes’ walk away, I let myself shudder. That’s the thing about living. Sometimes life hits you with a big, proper wallop, sometimes it breaks your nose, and sometimes it makes sure you see it finish off someone else. Cheapside echoed with the sound of distant fights and scuffles, as omnipresent as the machinery, but it wasn’t until I heard Ryder shout “HEY” somewhere up ahead that I started running. He was overconfident, sure, but he’d come by it from never having to raise his voice. Him yelling was something new.

I found him in the wrecked patio of a bean-and-bacon joint, its plastic chairs scattered and tables overturned. He was still on his feet, but swaying with every step. He was surrounded by three light-graviteers, white skin stark against their black-and-red support exos, and a fourth with habitat bones. A few Thetans stood back from the melee, ready to jump if things turned worse.

“Callistonians.” Jane said. “The ones who grabbed Iskander, maybe?”

I narrowed my eyes and sighed. All I’d wanted was some smokes, a walk, and a chance to think. Not to kick off the Third Battle of Cheapside. That scar I’d got from some fascist’s knife at the Second Battle hadn’t even finished fading yet.

“Last chance,” Ryder wheezed. “Iskander Khayat.”

That figured. Rana Khayat must have got impatient—understandable, really—and Ryder was the type to challenge war machines to fisticuffs. She’d hired him on, and he’d taken the direct approach.

None of the Callistonians said a word. They didn’t need to. The way they stood, tense and ready and daring Ryder to take another swing, said “don’t fuck with us.” It was an invitation Ryder couldn’t resist.

It unfolded so fast that Jane had to tell me what happened afterward. All I remember are impressions: the solid crack of knuckles against metal, the wet, muted thumps of a body getting worked over, and the tang of blood. All that in seconds. Then I was there with Jane at the ready and gave them a blazing, toothy smile.

“This isn’t any of your concern,” the habitat-boned one said, and for a moment I froze. Marcus? No way. Back in Netherhope, when domination had paid the bills, he’d been my most troublesome client. Had that bastard come all the way to Jupiter to get fitted for a Callistonian jackboot? “Walk away.”

I growled at him. Whether it really was Marcus or only someone with the extreme misfortune to resemble him so closely didn’t matter. He’d invaded my home.

“Not gonna happen, fash.” The lights of Cheapside dimmed around me, the way it always happens when I steel myself for a fight. I could taste their salt, their grit, their rusted bones. “Fuck off or find out.”

The Callistonians traded a look and, instead of fighting me, cleared out. Their job was done, as evidenced by the mean-looking knife driven into Ryder’s heart. I did what I could, which wasn’t much. I didn’t dare touch the knife, which gave one of the gawkers the chance to unsheathe it instead. It came out of Ryder sullenly, scratching against dead bone.

It’s always a good idea to carry a knife in Theta, so the saying went, because death is always right behind you.

• • • •

“It wasn’t your fault,” Jane told me for the fifth time. I’d counted. When you’re stuck in the middle of a transit tube, there’s not much else to do. “He chose his way, and what a way. This isn’t like what happened with Hespeler.”

“Please don’t.” I elbowed the tram’s thin metal wall, hard enough to hurt. Hard enough to be punishment. Nobody else in the car gave me a second look. Frustration’s the only thing Theta has in abundance. “Hespeler was my fault, and so was this. If I’d said yes, she wouldn’t even have gone to him.”

“You don’t know that.” Jane spoke with unwavering clarity of purpose, which made sense, really. Swords only have one purpose. “Remember Amanda? If people keep backups romantically, they’ll do it for this, too.”

“Please stop trying to make me feel better.” I groaned and buried my face in my hands. Getting told you’re not a good enough lesbian is one thing, but this? Ryder was dead because of my indecisiveness.

Before Jane could throw another rope down into the pit I’d dug for myself, the tram shuddered and hummed and started to move. That was better. That was progress. I rode it all the way to Sector Three, where Rana Khayat had crammed her office and agricultural library into a converted personal shelter. There was enough room for the two of us in there, but I couldn’t have unsheathed Jane without drawing blood. Probably mine.

“Sorry, I know it’s not much,” Khayat said. She reached out her arms, touched both walls, and shrugged. “It was all they could spare.”

“It’s cozy,” I said. With the room so small, there wasn’t much to focus on except Khayat. She smelled like fresh flowers in bloom, fragrant and soft—how had I missed that before? “I’ll help you.”

Khayat peered at me for a moment like a gardener surveying an unexpected bloom. What did she see in my petals?

“He died, you know.” It was barely a whisper, but in the compartment’s confines it was a breeze on Venus, heavy and blazing. “The guy I went to when you didn’t say yes right then. I needed someone.”

“I know.” I sat down on the floor. I didn’t deserve a chair. “I was there. That’s why I’m here. If you want your brother back, you’ll need the right person. Ryder, rest him, wasn’t.”

“I don’t know if it matters anymore anyway.” Khayat slumped into her chair and bowed in mourning. “I’ve got a friend in traffic control . . . they’ve moved up their departure. Four hours, and Iskander’ll be off to Callisto. That’s it. I’m afraid you’re too late, Ms. Lee.”

I exhaled the way I would if the compartment was about to decompress, driving every molecule of air out of my lungs. I could still have walked away. I could have nodded, apologized, and gone back to my office to burn through the last of my favourite cigarettes and waited for Theta to collapse around me. It would have been easy.

I’d never be able to listen to Bowie again.

“You can always change a trajectory.” My hand found Jane’s hilt, familiar and inviting. “All you need is the right kind of thrust.”

• • • •

Nobody owned space. How could they? There was nothing to plant a flag in. Out there, I had options that didn’t exist in Theta’s confines. Swinging a sword, for example, was a lot easier when there wasn’t any pesky air to get in the way.

“I still don’t know if this is the best idea,” Khayat said as the tram sped along. She’d squeezed herself into a smartsuit, and a bright pink messenger bag hung from her shoulder. It made me feel warm, like Brutus, my pink teddy bear. “I never would’ve considered this.”

“Because it isn’t the best idea.” I had my helmet under my arm, Jane in her scabbard, and my battle-singed revolver in its holster. I hoped not to have to use the gun, but hope isn’t worth much in the Jovian system. “It’s just the best one that’s left.”

“Pardon me, but this is definitely the best idea,” Jane said. “I’d say that even if you’d come up with it.”

It wasn’t easy to leave Theta, so I’d hedged my bets. Apex Echo was a utility shuttle I’d won in a high-stakes wargame. It wasn’t much, but it flew. I settled into the pilot’s rig and smiled. The control centre was smaller than Khayat’s office, but in that chair I had wings.

“Nice.” Khayat gazed around the control centre like it was a gallery exhibit. “Very industrial aesthetic. Big fan of the ‘held together by duct tape’ look.”

“It does the job.” Not ideally—Khayat probably thought she was joking about the duct tape—but I expected it to last longer than Theta. Under ordinary circumstances, at least. Chasing after a ship full of fascists meant all bets were off. “Better strap in. I’ve gotta double-time the pre-flight if we’re going to make our launch window.”

At least Apex Echo was simple. Back in Netherhope I’d dated a woman who flew Titan transatmospherics, and she’d sworn her screen got heavier when she loaded the departure checklist. I had enough spare time to snatch quick drone camera glimpses of the rest of the docking bay. The Callistonians’ vessel, Charles A. Lindbergh, was a bunglesome-looking formation of parts that might have been flying for the better part of a century. There was a big Phoenix Halo flag painted on the outside, as if that would convince anyone it wasn’t a ship of fascists.

“Can’t believe we have to sit here and watch them go,” Khayat said. “There’s no justice in the world.”

“Believe me, I tried to turn it around.” I’d hit up all my contacts after the meeting in Khayat’s office, but none of them were willing to put Lindbergh in clamps. I could understand why—Theta’s independence was a carefully-balanced thing—but there’s a difference between understanding and forgiving.

We were most of the way through our checks when Lindbergh’s thrusters spat cold gas. A constellation of debris shuddered and fell away from Lindbergh as it went: strapped-on containers, service hatch covers, and clouds of general refuse. The jetsam wasn’t fast enough to be bullets, but it filled the docking bay with hazards. That didn’t happen accidentally. They hadn’t counted on me, but they’d considered the possibility.

Fuck them. A bunch of garbage wasn’t going to stop Siderosa Lee. The checklist was green, and I had buckles to swash.

“Theta Control, Apex Echo, stand one-seven,” I said. Clear, unhurried, professional. I had to put on a good show. “Request clearance to exit.”

Apex Echo, Theta Control, negative on clearance, hold position.” Exactly what I’d expected. Traffic Control was the one part of Theta where everything was still done by the book. “Flight operations are currently suspended.”

It would’ve been easy to go along with it. Safe, too. I’d done what I could and had been outmaneuvered. Who could say they’d never had that happen? I could turn off Apex Echo, unstrap, and go home. Where I’d never be able to look Rana Khayat in the eye or listen to David Bowie.

I could knuckle under to Rovaniemi’s murderers and be safe for today, or I could try to be a hero.

“Fine, Jane, you were right after all,” I subvocalized, so Khayat wouldn’t hear me talking to emptiness. “Keep them out of our systems, okay?”

“No sweat.” Her voice was sharp with eagerness. Traffic Control would try to seize remote access as soon as we lit off unauthorized, but if there was anything a sword had experience with, it was hacking. “Told you this was the best idea.”

Apex Echo, stand one-seven, request startup,” I said, as if nothing was wrong at all. Traffic Control’s response was nothing but negative. Like I said, by the book. I even read back what they’d never said.

I didn’t bother listening to Traffic Control after that. They weren’t saying anything interesting anyway. I felt Apex Echo’s heartbeat course through me, and I lifted us up from the stand and away, into the cloud of debris.

“Okay, they’re definitely pissed off,” Jane said. There was a hollow clang as something whacked against Apex Echo’s flank. “Three takeover attempts already. It’s going to be fun coming back.”

I dodged an empty nitrogen canister and lined up for the exit. Lindbergh had long since cleared it, so there was nothing but junk in our way. Another blunt impact resounded through Apex Echo, but it wasn’t garbage this time. It was a fishing line, and its hook was in us.

“No, no, no, no!” Khayat broke her silence with a roar. “You bastards are not going to keep me from my brother, no!”

One of Apex Echo’s manipulator arms snapped to life and vaulted across the hull to where Traffic Control had a line in us. Khayat poured her strength, her courage, and her fury into that arm, and after a few mechanical punches the line snapped away from its hook like an overstressed bowstring.

“Punch it!” Khayat shouted.

Apex Echo jumped ahead with all the oomph it could muster. Scraps of debris rained against the hull, but it’d be okay. If this was the old shuttle’s last mission, it’d make a hell of a closing act.

“Damn,” I said. A discarded container slammed into us, and an entire hull panel tore itself off. “Never seen someone arm-wrestle like that.”

“Come on, what’d you expect?” I could hear the smirk in her voice. “I’m a librarian.”

We blasted out into open space and left Traffic Control screaming at the void.

• • • •

Fascists loved big things: big guns, big self-congratulatory monuments, big crimes against humanity. Lindbergh wasn’t any of those, which made it useful for snatch-and-grabs. It was long, narrow, and spidery where an aluminum scaffold linked the habitat module with its drive section, and now that it had jettisoned its garbage it looked gaunt. That gave it more acceleration than I’d have liked, and Apex Echo was uncomfortably low on delta-V once we closed to knife-fight range.

Not that we were combat-equipped. Neither was Lindbergh, lucky for us. I hadn’t found any weapon emplacements, and now that we were well away from Theta, they’d have peppered us to ashes if they could. So it’d be a knife fight after all, or close enough to one.

“Close enough to hear the trumpets.” Khayat clung to the back of my chair, peering at my screen, her hand on my shoulder. Even through both our suits I felt her warmth. “Now what?”

“Now we give them one last chance to stand down.” It would have been so much easier if people recognized fascists for what they were: enemies of all humanity, to be dealt with accordingly. Until then, there were rules. “Which they’re absolutely not going to take. But it’ll make me feel better later.”

“Whatever you need to sleep at night,” Khayat said. “Far as I’m concerned, if they’re between me and Iskander, they’re all out of chances.”

I spared a moment for the life I’d be leaving behind. Violating departure procedure was one thing, but this was the real point of no return. Fascists didn’t look kindly on people that crossed them, and I was about to make a personal declaration of war against Callisto. All my fingertips buzzed with pins and needles, even the synthetic ones.

“Vessel Charles A. Lindbergh, attention.” I made my voice hard as titanium and sharp as whetted steel. “This is Siderosa Lee aboard Apex Echo, pursuing in response to the state-sanctioned kidnapping of Iskander Khayat and the murder of Conrad Ryder. Cease acceleration and prepare to be boarded.”

I let the moment drift, caught in midflight, buffeted by the wind, and never finding rest. I had a feeling my own life would be uncomfortably similar to that, now that I’d laid down the law.

“You have no authority, Lee.” The Callistonian accent was as cold and harsh as their world. The sound of it was like needles. “Board us and you’ll face the consequences.”

Like Ryder had, no doubt. I couldn’t tell if they were blowing smoke or really did think I’d knuckle under.

“Watch me, Panjo scum,” I said, and cut the channel. There was nothing more to say.

“Nice,” Jane whispered in my ear. “Unyielding. I like it.”

Khayat dragged her fingers along my shoulder, and if not for my belts I’d have leapt. I’d been so focused on the Callistonians, I’d forgotten she was right there.

“I know you’re one for dramatics,” she said, “but don’t tell me you’re planning to jump.”

“No way.” One course correction, and anyone untethered would become a new Jovian satellite. That wasn’t on my bucket list. “We’ll throw some lines over.”

We didn’t have ship-to-ship weapons, but that didn’t mean we were totally unarmed. I shot a pair of thickly braided cables, tipped with grasping claws, at Lindbergh’s spidery form. They grabbed on, went taut, and winched us in. I secured the controls and made for the airlock while the fascists dragged us along.

“It’s going to be all right,” Jane said. “We’re here. All we have to do is see it through.”

“I’d be happier if I knew I’d see tomorrow.” It was a foolish wish at the best of times. Nobody had that assurance, least of all me. “But today is good.”

When Khayat followed me through the airlock, it was with a knife strapped to her shoulder and an array of utility pouches on her belt. She attached a tether with experience and without hesitation.

“Hey, I told you,” she said with a smile. “Librarian.”

We sailed across like pirates swinging from the rigging, which in a way we were. It was too bad that I couldn’t grip Jane between my teeth while we made the crossing. It’d be a great look for about ten seconds. At least there was no one out there waiting for us. I hooked onto a hullside anchor and climbed until I found an airlock, sealed tight against the vacuum.

“All right, ship this old, this should be easy.” Jane’s confidence wasn’t distracting, really, but a reminder that she had a lot less at stake than me and Khayat. “I’ll make it think we’re opening every airlock. I’ve already scrambled their cameras, they won’t know which way we’re coming from.”

“Great.” Through the radio, Khayat sounded as close as Jane. It made me shiver, pleasantly. “Pretty sure they know how we got here, though.”

She pointed to the cables that tied Apex Echo and Lindbergh together. A manipulator arm was inchworm-walking its way toward them with cold, mechanical determination.

“I can handle the door.” Khayat patted her belt. “That looks like your purview.”

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t kill the manipulator arm, but I would give its operator a fight to remember. I made it to the cables’ grip site with enough time to anchor myself and draw Jane. I’m not sure whether I looked confident or foolhardy.

The arm was multi-elbowed, and moved far faster than I liked. There was no intricate dance here, no play of steel against steel. It swung at me with a batter’s single-mindedness. I pushed up, away from Lindbergh’s hull, and felt the jerks and strains as the arm caught my tether and pulled me to the side, close enough for me to grab on to the arm.

It was like riding a mechanical snake doing its best to buck me. Hacking at it was right out; people used blades in Theta specifically because they had trouble damaging metal. Good thing for me that mechanical or not, an arm was still an arm, with all the same old weaknesses I could exploit.

So I went for its elbows. The arm swung and snapped and tangled itself in my tether, but that didn’t stop Jane from biting through sheathing, wires, and synthetic ligaments with all the grace of a surgeon who no longer gave a damn. I lost myself in the fight, in all its perfect fury and brutal simplicity.

Strike. Strike. Strike. Destruction for destruction’s sake. Just like Ryder and Rovaniemi.

“—rosa!” Khayat and Jane were both shouting, their voices melding into a chorus sharp and beautiful. Khayat was next to me. When had that happened? “Siderosa, it’s finished. Let it lie.”

I took in my handiwork and slumped. The arm hadn’t been built for battle, and I was lucky for that. I’d nearly drowned in my own viciousness. In true battles, viciousness lost to calm efficiency. I’d learned that at Cheapside.

Khayat took me by my tether. It was too tangled in the arm’s wreckage to be straightened out easily, so instead she tied the two of us together. I arched my back as she clipped a short tether to one of my spare anchors and discarded my tangled line. In that moment, as she shepherded me to the airlock, the two of us were one.

• • • •

All the alarms were alive inside Lindbergh, howling and blood-bright. Beneath my suit my arms shuddered with goosebumps, and if not for Khayat and adrenaline I would have buckled. I knew that one day alarms like them would scream throughout Theta, electronic banshees wailing in anticipation of the dead. Instead I pulled myself through the keening ship, handhold to handhold, my revolver at the ready.

It wasn’t a big ship once distilled down to its habitable volume, but it was still a lot of unfriendly territory for two bodies to search.

“There’s nothing about Iskander in the network,” Jane said. “I’ve got most of the crew locked down, but at least they’ve got a little proper security. I was starting to get embarrassed for them.”

The hatch to the next compartment was shut. Jane’s camera scrambling meant I couldn’t be certain what was on the other side. Was it still an ambush when you expected one? I crouched next to the hatch, told it to open, and waited for the storm of bullets.

I didn’t expect a storm of words.

“Siderosa Lee.” I’d heard my name used like a curse before, but rarely so familiar. Netherhope accents weren’t common this far from Saturn. “Very impressive. But then, you always demanded that, didn’t you?”

“Marcus.” God damn, it really had been him in Cheapside. I tightened my grip on my revolver. “I see you cut to the chase and went for the worst.”

“You were the one who showed me how life works.” Marcus drifted into the compartment, suited but with a clear faceplate. He carried a revolving shotgun, polished black as space, that looked like it could blow holes in Jupiter. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d have never seen Callisto. It’s everything a person could dream of.”

My faceplate was all that kept me from spitting on him; he’d always hated that. Callisto’s people hadn’t chosen fascist conquest, jackboot worship, pain without pleasure. It had been forced on them by people like Marcus, who thought they knew better.

“I thought fascists like you didn’t care about dreams,” I said while Khayat growled over our private channel. “Just power.”

“If that’s what you’re into.” Marcus shrugged. “Power, domination, security. Everything you taught me. Everything Theta will never have. It doesn’t have to be this way, Sid. Let them go. Sign up with the future.”

Khayat answered before I could, with a shout and a knife. Marcus had been so focused on me, so enraptured by my presence, that he’d forgotten we weren’t alone. He shot at Khayat, a throaty roar that would’ve broken naked eardrums, and missed. So did Khayat. She sailed past him and crashed into the far bulkhead, and while he was distracted, I wrestled the shotgun from his grip and grappled him into submission.

“Wow,” Marcus panted. “You were never this good before. You’re wasting yourself, spinning around with all those degenerates.”

I grabbed my revolver from where I’d left it to drift and jammed it against his flank. I’d loaded it with shotgun shells, and at point-blank they’d punch clear through him.

“You don’t even care why I’m here, do you?” I growled at him, let him marinate in it. “Is this all just a game for you? Score-settling?”

“Power for power’s sake.” He fixed me with a crooked leer. “You get that, don’t you? Isn’t that why you did what you did?”

“Kill him, Siderosa!” Khayat had swept up his shotgun. She pointed it at him—at us. “He’s a fucking Panjo! He’s not worth life!”

It would’ve been easy. He was at my mercy, the way he’d been so many times before, but neither of us were playing. All it would take was a simple squeeze, and his blood would paint the bulkheads. Viciousness bubbled deep inside me, and I took a heady whiff of the power of life and death. It would be even easier than play.

“Siderosa,” Jane whispered in my ear. “It won’t last.”

“I thought you were the one who was all about bathing in fascist blood,” I said. “This must be killing you.”

“Only when there aren’t better options,” Jane said. “A sword has one purpose, but I don’t have to be a weapon if I don’t want to be.”

I gritted my teeth as Marcus half-heartedly struggled. A real pirate would’ve ended him right there. I only watched him and felt empty.

“You’d better not be thinking of charging me for this,” Marcus said. “I don’t remember asking for delivery.”

He wasn’t worth murder. I was too exhausted for that. Instead I checked his suit’s air supply. Still high in the green, good for eight hours at least. More than enough.

“He’s not worth a bullet, either.” I looked at Khayat with a soft, understanding expression. I knew she ached to pay that price. “Can you do me a favour, and open the airlock? I’ll be right back.”

I dragged him to the airlock, pushed him in, and sealed the inner door behind me. I was close enough that I could feel the suggestion of his heartbeat, his ragged breath, his building worry. How had he planned for it to go? Had he expected I’d worship his feet for a change? Did he think he could dominate a professional?

The outer door slid open, and space unfolded before me. Jupiter was a painted marble and Callisto a sickly crescent.

“Hey, hey, what the hell is this?” Real fear tinged his voice, something I’d never managed back in Netherhope. “Showing me how small I am? How worthless?”

He was righter than he knew. Marcus wasn’t worth a bullet, but only because everyone deserved the chance to see death coming.

“Something like that.” I hooked a distress beacon to his suit and gave him a smile. “I’d give you a chance to beg, but you’ve had it and then some. Better hope you’re not too worthless for your friends to pick you up.”

I gave him a swift kick in the ass and waved as he sailed away.

• • • •

We found Iskander shoved into a spacesuit locker. Not entirely surprising; space was always at a premium aboard ships. His cuts and bruises told me everything I needed to know about how well Lindbergh’s crew had treated him. They must have wanted to get their hits in before they handed him over to the secret police. Khayat cried in her helmet.

I didn’t feel anything yet. Not even amazement at how quickly Khayat had picked the lock. Until I was back in my office, all of this was provisional.

“You have no idea how uncomfortable that was,” Iskander said once we pulled him out. His voice was smooth, calming, and melodic—no wonder he’d gone into broadcasting. “You’re Siderosa Lee, right?”

“That’s me.” I unfolded and pressurized the rescue ball I’d brought over. It’d be enough to get him back safe to Apex Echo. “Your sister needed a bit of help to bust you out of here.”

“I figured it’d be you.” Iskander beamed at me with the intensity of unfiltered sunlight. “Rana’s fancied you for ages.”

Khayat gasped and polarized her faceplate. Not before I had a chance to see her blush.

“So that’s what you meant about being impressed,” I said with a smile. “I was starting to wonder.”

Khayat didn’t say anything while she sealed her brother up in the rescue ball. I tethered the two of them together and covered our exit. Not with the gun, but with Jane. I figured I owed Jane that much.

“Rana’s pretty fine, isn’t she?” She’d have grinned ear-to-ear if only she’d had a face. “You’re not going to swallow your tongue and let her go by, are you?”

“Just a client, Jane.” A client who had found me. Who had reached me. Who ached to awaken me. “Just a job.”

“Could be,” Jane clicked her nonexistent tongue. “Could be that Rana’s got a different idea. Might be worth looking into.”

I backed into the airlock and sealed it shut. There wasn’t much space with all of us in there. The two of us in suits ended up squeezing into each other.

“Getting pretty tight in here,” Khayat—no, Rana—said. “Intimate.”

“Could be. Assuming you need a consulting swashbuckler for that.”

“We’ll see, won’t we?” She smiled in return. “You’ve got me this far.”

The outer airlock door cycled and swung open to reveal the vast and endless starfield. All that complexity, all those possibilities, connected into constellations representing heroism, romance, and love. That Bowie song was about love, too, wasn’t it?

“I didn’t know you were so good at unlocking things.” I tilted my palm at her and gave her a smile.

“Come on.” She gave me a playful grin. “Librarian.”

Rana took my hand. I squeezed it tightly as we pushed out and away.

Phoebe Barton

Phoebe Barton is a queer trans science fiction writer who first visited Earth on an unseasonably warm day in the winter of 1982 and decided to stay. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as AnalogOn Spec, and Kaleidotrope, anthologies from Bundoran Press and Alliteration Ink, and she is currently deep in the weeds writing interactive fiction with Choice of Games. She serves as an Associate Editor at Escape Pod, and is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She lives with a robot in the sky above Toronto. You can connect with her on Twitter at @aphoebebarton or her website phoebebartonsf.com.