“No, I’m not lettin’ ya.”
“Oh? What gun’s ya totin’ then, boy?” His marred cheeks crease with resentment. He likely wishes I was never born. After all, it was just happenstance I was conceived. No serendipity about it. Just a drunken thief and a concubine treading the river. Then me; a bundle of fishnet. I’m the only thing this man’s caught in years. If only I were more akin to bubonics—or, the like.
“—None. Kid’s playin’ a fit and expectin’ us to care.” Laughter churns from the crew. Perdin. Man has less gut than I do, yet he still manages a hoard.
“Enough. Back to duties, the lot of ya.” Captain drags our victim to my feet as the crew disperses. If he’s expecting me to sentence her, he’ll find I’m more unwilling than before. “I get it, son. She’s a fine thing. She’d probably fetch ya an ass on the market. But she sold us bad, and those are punished.”
“Bad information?” Our jaws grind on the same side; that’s as close a relation as can be found between us.
“It wasn’t bad!” our victim cries out. Sure, she’s a swindler. But I don’t kill for lying.
“Don’t plead your case.”
“So vent her, then.” A well-greased smile pins the Captain’s lips. Hypocrite. He’s barely aware he’s scum anymore. But just how far am I willing to reach to save this rat? She sullied our reputation. And what is a ship of thieves if not their reputation? Then again, what good is a reputation built on the dead—victims or otherwise?
“She’ll stay with me.”
“I won’t have ya settlin’ for a petty, little—”
“Next planet we put down, we’ll go.” My gaze eases from the Captain’s to hers. She’s small. And Cap’s right, she’d fetch a fine horse. But I’m not in the business of flesh trading; I’m not her owner.
“Fucks to settlin’. Ya’re not quittin’, son. I told your ma I’d take care of ya. Ya put down with her and I’ll leave ya, ya hear? Ya put down and we’re done with ya.” His tongue flicks through soiled teeth, moistening them with rancid breath. He’s nothing but threats. Yet, mine will see follow through. So, I suppose, mine will lead his to come true. Because only I could make this man honest, twisted logic or no.
“Don’t make me repeat myself,” I growl, then gesture at the girl. “Up with ya.” Arms crossed, I turn away from my conceiver and walk back to the loading bay. I can hear our victim’s padded steps behind me. At least she listens.
“Ya ever boss me that way again,” she begins under her breath, “ya’ll only have your tongue to chew with.”
“Threaten me all ya want.” I enter the bay without so much as a pause. Orren is sure to be awaiting us both. He’s a weapon man, a hired gun. But he’s softer than the others. He likes innocents, children. Both of us have seen enough war. Really, all of us have. But it changed the others for worse. And us for—well, something a bit better.
“Jed.” Orren comes to meet us from the stairs. “What’d ya promise this time?”
“Leavin’,” I admit.
“For that thing?” he balks. The frustration that sounds from her throat is enough to know: he’s in for a lecture.
“I’ve done this business long enough to know a girl’s not welcome. But a thing? I am not a ‘thing.’ Call me short, call me pathetic, but I am not a thing! Your captain, this amoral hero, and ya; ya can all meet cold death in the vacuum.” She raises her fist as if to strike him but stops. Straightening the fringe over her eyes, she rolls her shoulders back. “Your service was appreciated.”
“Oy, Jed here is a good sort. I don’t wanna hear nothin’ ‘bout his morals.”
“It’s alright. An apology is owed. I talk to my old man in a way that gets through to him. But it’s not for lack of insult. Apologies.” I offer a strained smile before returning to Orren. “Next put down I’m done. Ya know I’m not much for this life anyway. This ship, the stealin’, the injury, the death. That’s my father’s dedication and his before him and whatever vermin raised that one. I’m a land folk. I like a steady ground. And ya—ya wouldn’t want to join me, wouldya?”
“I’m not stayin’ here,” she spits. “But soon as my feet touch tan, ya’ll forget me.”
“And of course, the missus. I know she likes them ground markets.” I cash gold at my long-time friend, though I’ve lost a few. Hard to keep the front ones rooted in brawls. And the gold, well, spices akin to powdered fruit will do that—stain them for good.
“The missus hates ya, Jed.” Orren returns my toothy plea, but it’s hardly reassurance. He glances past me, eyeing the girl. “What’s your tag? Me and Jed, we’re the war-like. I ain’t ever seen somethin’ like that though.” He gestures to a burned sigil in her forearm.
Orren has no chance to conjure a witty retort. Beneath us, Egality rumbles. War’s waging on her, and she’s mustering her battle cry. “This ain’t good.” Dents form in the bay doors. How many times had I warned the Cap’n to paint over that wretched symbol? We’re not warmen no more.
“Jed, take the girl.” Orren loads his shotgun. “Find my missus. Get her to safety.”
“Don’t ya dare touch,” Liberty warns me. I hadn’t thought to try. I’ve been carved by a few feisty cats in my time. It was enough. Jogging past her, I head for the mess. On the other side is the bridge where Cap’n’ll be grilling our pilot, Nat—Orren’s missus. She’s likely prepping him for fodder, the way she always does. Though it never gets through to him.
The mess is in shambles, the men’ve already ransacked it. Greedy brutes. So I continue onto the bridge, taking the ladder up three rungs at a time. The closer I get, the easier it is to hear Nat’s commanding voice.
“I pinged ya,” she shouts. “I pinged ya when ya were down playin’ pirate. Didya listen? No. Ya want shoulders to lay a robe of blame, use your own.”
“We placin’ blame, then? Wouldn’t mind addin’ my own.” I clamber through the port and onto the bridge. Liberty follows me. “Orren’s askin’ ya hide yourself.”
“Course he is. Man thinks I’m wirin’ he’s to tuck beneath a panel,” she snaps at me. “Take the Cap’n. His chatterin’ is not just infuriatin’ but distractin’.” Her gaze wanders the screen, brow furrowed. She’s plotting an escape. But it’s likely we’ve none. The war’s upon us, and we dogs must pack. I knew Orren’s request would lead me to the Cap. We’re always the ones to end battles if we’re not starting them.
The alarms sound above us.
“I’m not thinkin’ that’s right,” Liberty whispers. No matter how she pled her case, it seems she’s everything she claimed not to be. A small, pathetic thing we have to protect. Orren may not’ve known, but I do. Her tag—Liberty—is a slave tag. The irony’s what the winning side lived for. The rebels tasted their freedom and then they stole it from everyone else. But thing or not, I’ll keep her alive. No one deserves to be a thing.
“It’s not,” I agree. “Orren’s overrun.”
“What do I pay that man for?” Cap’n steps around me, dropping down the ladder. “Come boy! I’m not feelin’ generous.” This is the very situation I’d hoped to avoid by leaving. I’m sick of death. But I concede to my father because I’m a protector folk. It’s written in the tag: guardian. And while we ain’t warmen no more, it’s still imprinted in me.
“They broken through, they’ll be met with rain. Perdin and them were already chasin’ after Orren.” Cap walks me right back to the loading bay. “Ya’ll have to wield it.” He doesn’t bother gesturing. We both know what he’s referring to. But only one of us hates the idea of it. “Ya’re in for theatre, info-lackey. He’s what warmen dream they were.”
Unclipping the pistol from my belt, I hold my breath. The cold metal on my finger, the weight in my hand. The memories rip and shred through my mental defenses until all I can see is blood. And the screams that accompany it.
Just let me out.
Cap doesn’t hesitate to fire. He never has. He walks into the middle of the fray with gun outstretched. No cover. No plan. Because I’m to act as his cover. With Liberty behind me, I march forward. I do this for Orren. I do this for me. And I do this for Liberty. Cap can freeze in the vacuum. Raising my pistol, I pull the trigger.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Orren. Several feet away, I can see him lying still. There’s blood, plenty of blood. And there are plenty of rebels. But their numbers won’t matter. We may’ve lost the war, but we won’t lose no more. They ain’t seen the animosity I tie to my belt.
I know Orren’s alive. He has yet to scream.
I feel the bullets graze me, biting through the cloth of my sleeves, whipping through the excess in my trousers. It’s just the fields all over again. It’s the rebels and the patriots trading weather. Because no matter how many times I tell that man to paint over it, he won’t. That conspicuous symbol is what tells them we’re thieves. And it’s what drives me to leave.
“Orren!” I rush to his side, dropping to my knees beside him. “The missus is just fine. Don’t think of beratin’ me.” He laughs, blood gushing through his teeth. “We drive them back and we’re land boys. Find some honest work. Settle down. Raise a few of them biological things. Liberty, stay clo—Liberty?!” She lifts her hand from her boot.
“Your boy’s right, Jed, ya’re not the immoral man I thought ya to be.” She cocks her own pistol, resting it between my eyes. It quivers against my skin. “And I may’ve lied, but it’s honest work. The—the rebels are doin’ right by the world, now. Ya’re the ones thiefin’ and hurtin’ people.” I can’t say I didn’t see it coming, but I didn’t put the thoughts together just right. Even so…
She screams as the bullet passes through her knee. There are a few things she should learn about me. I’m not a flesh trader and I’m not a killer. But I am the quickest draw in the sky. “Shall we return the slave to her rebels?” I glance down at Orren, who offers the snicker of resistance I’ve grown so accustomed to.
Behind us, Perdin and Cap have all but thwarted the invasion. Only a few rebels remain, arms raised, guns dangling from wide fingers. I hate this lot, some more than others, but they’re resistors. Just like me.
“Doc!” I call out. Gun still on Liberty, I stand. “Orren’s bleedin’ out, again.” In a shuffle of movement, Doc passes me. She’s plenty of work. But most of them, we’ll simply loose in the vacuum. It’s a quick death. A merciful one.
Grabbing Liberty by the shoulder, I walk her to the Cap. “This mean ya’re not puttin’ down?” As churlish to me as the man is, he’s rather attached. I’d half say he’s acting my father.
“For now,” I answer. Whether or not it’s the life for me, it’s the one I’ve got. And Orren more than atones for the others. “But ya’re to promise me one thing. Remember I’m not a killer.” Cap smirks, eying my pistol. This is self-defense, it is. Bullets over trauma. Appeased, I toss Liberty to the ground with the other rebels.