Escape Pod 808: Win Again

Win Again

by Lina Munroe

“I want a do-over!” Zira crumpled her opponent’s collar in her fist and twisted it tight around his neck. Glasses shattered against the hardwood floor, spilling drinks at their feet.

Arkady Fabian just laughed. It was a harsh rasp of a sound, mean as sin, that didn’t quite match the sparkle in his left eye. His right eye was bisected by a long scar that ended somewhere beneath his thick brown beard. When he blinked, slow and mocking, the aperture of his right eye spiraled closed over the red glow shining from somewhere deep in his skull.

Zira scowled at the cards. She knew he’d stuck some up his sleeve, but she thought she was good enough to win anyway. She hadn’t accounted for the extras he’d stashed while she was focused on his sleeve. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen for the classic misdirection cheat like some amateur. Now he got to keep that glorious ship of his that she would’ve pushed out to the far end of the galaxy and back just because she could, and she was forced to pick her way through the mess below deck where she’d docked her hoopty starhopper. The old thing had nearly rattled itself to pieces getting her here and then had the nerve to start leaking fuel again when they docked. It was probably still overheated.

He laughed in her face again, the sound scratchy from years of smoking. “Deal’s a deal, Zira. Pay up.”

She tightened her grip, and he coughed. “It doesn’t count when you use cheap tricks!” She’d cheated too, but everyone that came to play on Autura 9 cheated. It was just part of the gamble to do it better than your opponent.

With a grin that would’ve been roguish if he wasn’t being so arrogant, he said, “You say that like you’re surprised.” His eyes glinted with the unsaid: This is for taking my loot last time.

She should’ve never come back to this gods-forsaken junk heap of a space station, but she couldn’t help but miss it when she was away for too long. Zira’s father had spent plenty of time there, coordinating people and trading secrets off the Alliance’s grid, and she’d practically grown up under these tables while he worked. It felt like home even when she was losing the shirt off her back.

She shoved Fabian away from her hard enough to make his chair tip back on two legs. Anger burned beneath her skin, but nobody in that bar was going to let her walk out of there without settling up. Even if she drew the blaster at her hip, its power cells had only been holding half a charge, and she was outnumbered besides.

“Starfire and damnation,” she muttered more to her cocky past self than the man in front of her.

Reaching into a pouch on his bandolier, he pulled out a small, silver tube the size of the cigar in his other hand. It was covered from end to end in carvings overlapping one another so much she couldn’t read them, but she could feel the weight of its magic from where she stood. He held it up so it caught the light, admiring it like he hadn’t been waiting all this time to use it. She wondered how he’d been able to afford it after she’d taken all his credits in last month’s game. “You sure you want those to be your last words?”

“Get on with it,” she snarled, all bravado despite the nerves swirling in her gut.

He laughed again and snapped open the thin lid at the end of the tube.

Zira recoiled, but two of his people flanked her and grabbed her arms to keep her from backing away. She refused to beg, but she knew her eyes were pleading anyway. Much as each of them hated to lose, they’d never been so cruel as to use magic on each other. Credits, drinks, ships, and clothes — once — were fair game, but magic? That was low.

But she’d still played. She had put her trust in their past and her own skill, and now she was getting burned.

The smirk on his face widened. Fear, she knew, was Fabian’s favorite thing in all the worlds. “Open wide,” he singsonged, cigar smoke coiling around them as he leaned closer with the tube tilted toward her. “Lotta people will pay handsomely for a tongue like this one.” He chomped at the cigar between his teeth and grabbed her face roughly, more roughly than he ever had. And he didn’t meet her eyes.

“Ark,” she said in an almost inaudible plea, and only then did he look at her. For a single breath she could’ve sworn she saw an apology flit across his face. Then the cigar smoke stung her eyes, and she blinked hard and fast so he wouldn’t think she was crying. Stars knew he’d never let her live that down.

One by one, the carvings on the silver tube began to glow. Zira’s voice uncoiled in the base of her throat, slow and heavy with years. She fought the pull, tried to swallow down the words she’d known since childhood, but the spelled vial dragged pronunciation and intonation from behind her gritted teeth, leaving her hoarse and cold and hollow. The grip on her arm released, but she barely felt it through the shock.

“Always a pleasure.” Fabian slipped the cards and the vial into his pockets while his goons jostled each other, laughing again, and she hated them for it. She hated Fabian even more for the way his fingertips had trailed like a whisper down her cheek when he let her go. Her braids had hidden the gesture from his men, making it one more small apology just for her. “I’ll put it to good use.”

She bit the inside of her cheek, eyes burning and throat dry, refusing to watch them leave with every word she knew in her father’s dying language tucked away in a vial sealed with dirty magic. Yeah, she’d lost, but she never thought he’d really take it.

One of the servers ambled over, her tentacles slapping softly against the black tiles. “Finished?” She asked in a voice like soft wind brushing across sand. One slender, purple-blue hand hovered above the constellation of glasses they’d left on the circular table.

Zira opened her mouth to answer and found the words wouldn’t come. Couldn’t, because everything she knew had left with him. Nothing came out but air and a near-sob she forced back down with sheer will. She grabbed the two half-empty shot glasses and downed them in quick succession, then slammed them back on the table and stalked out of the bar.

She spent weeks stewing in silent fury with nothing but the clanks of her tools against her ship’s ailing parts to break up the quiet of space. Sure, she knew other languages, but barely enough to order a meal, let alone convey what she needed to any mechanic worth their dust. She usually learned what she needed for the necessities — eating and gambling — and not much else. She knew the word vintage in Vyrillian, for all the good it did her. Vintage was what you called things that were kept in good condition. Zira’s ship was just old.

At least the stutterwarp drive still worked. Her dad had installed it back before Zira was just a thought, but it had been on the fritz for a while. She’d had it fixed a month ago at the last rest stop on her way out of the solar system, and Fabian’s credits had gotten her the best service of the ship’s life and power cells for three series’ worth of jumps across the universe.

Her mind kept bringing up that flicker of apology, and she ground her teeth just thinking about it. The fact that she kept coming back to that instead of him using magic on her, swindling her out of the only language she was fluent in, and letting his lackeys laugh about it only added layers to her frustration. At least the anger kept the emptiness from consuming her. She twisted irritably at the charm on her necklace and felt the metal warm. Her dad had given it to her on what turned out to be their last trip to Autura 9, and years later, she still couldn’t bear to take it off for anything.

Her mother had pinged her twice. Zira didn’t have the heart to answer and explain why she couldn’t speak or understand her in either language now. Zira had always been closer with her father, and both parents had spoken Osnan, so there hadn’t really been any incentive for her to learn the language of her mother’s home world. Now that the Alliance had razed Udu to stop the riots her father had helped organize, studying would take some real digging. So she swiped the holo-notification of the call to the left again and went back to work.

Two days later, she was listening to as much news and music as she could find in Uduni. She couldn’t understand most of it for the first week, but if she was going to do this, she wanted to do it singing at the top of her lungs.

The Alliance had banned the language as one of violence and rebellion, but her ship was barely on their radar and wired to tap into alt-grid channels, so she found things to read easily enough. There was a whole trove of books secreted away for those that knew where to look.

Her mom had spoken Uduni to herself as she puttered around the kitchen, and Zira studied until the softly lilting words felt like a wide-tooth comb through conditioner-slick curls and tasted like lemon pound cake on her tongue.

Then, while she was combing through the books looking for something new and intermediate level, she absently rubbed at her necklace, warming the charm. Her screen shifted in the corner, and a file that hadn’t been there materialized next to the others. The title was obscured, a series of meaningless symbols jumbled together. For a minute she worried she’d picked up some virus trawling through other people’s data, but the ship would’ve scanned for those, so she took a deep breath and touched the file to open it. Her eyes went wide at the author’s names — her parents.

The book was part cookbook, part guide to the survivors’ safehouses, trade routes, and magical artifacts scattered among the stars. It touched on the history of Udu when it had been thriving, and though she couldn’t understand it well, she managed the basics thanks to what her parents had told her growing up. Quieting the growl in her stomach with a wholly unsatisfying protein bar, she read through the book in every spare second she had over the next two weeks, looking up words as she went. It took her at least three readthroughs to understand the rules to games were sprinkled throughout the text.

She grinned. Games, she understood.

She switched the ship’s computer to Uduni and played the games against its old AI until she could not only understand the rules but win sometimes, then cheat so she won every time. Cheating was universal.

When her mom called again, Zira squared her shoulders and swiped to answer. What might’ve been an older version of herself appeared onscreen, brows drawn together in worry. “Zira, where have you —”

“Can we speak in Uduni?” Her accent wasn’t quite there yet. Zira pushed away the pang of embarrassment and added, however haltingly, “I’ve been practicing.”

The smile that crossed her mother’s face was sunlight in the black of space. “I was wondering if you’d bother to learn now that you’re older.” She spoke a touch slower, giving Zira a chance to hear how a native let the words spill into one another. The newsfeeds had been bleached of this sort of nuance even before the Alliance had jammed their fingers in the mix. Their conversation stretched across hours until Zira’s brain throbbed with the effort of understanding.

As if she noticed, her mother smiled softly. “Thank you for the wonderful surprise,” she said, and she touched her fingertips to her lips, then faced them toward the screen.

Zira did the same. She almost told her about the book, but the blinking icon in the corner said their connection wasn’t secure. Instead, she said, “Sorry it took me so long. I love you, mama.” The image of her mother dissipated, and the ship whirred as the power cycled back to other parts.

< voice input accepted. Hello, Zizi. > The message appeared across the navigation.

Zira gasped, tears already warm in her eyes. “Daddy?” Her voice came out a whisper, still in Uduni. He was the only one who’d ever called her Zizi.

The only response was an image of a snowdrop arching and blooming onscreen — the flower her father had kept pinned to the lapel of his coat and her mother had kept woven into her locs. The flowers in the design Zira had gotten inked over the curves of her hips the night after her father’s funeral.

It disappeared in a scattering of digital glitter, leaving behind the navigation screen and the words < proceed to new destination? Y/N >

She touched the notification and slid it aside to study the map. Wherever the boat wanted to take her was past any of the planets she’d been able to make it to on her own. Even with the stutterwarp fixed, it’d still take her about a week. The planet had coordinates instead of a name populated by the ship’s database, which set a flutter of nervous excitement through Zira’s belly. She didn’t need the name; she knew it by its placement alone. “Saraleth.” The planet’s name rolled off her tongue in a smooth rush, the r twirling across her tongue.

Her dad had told her the story of this moon for years when she was growing up, so many times there wasn’t a chance of her forgetting it. Convincing herself it had been a bedtime story, sure, but never forgetting it. The course plotted there was a route through the wreckage of countless wars and well past the edge of the safe zones.

Her dad had left this for her, she was sure of it. She had the food and the means, and before she could talk herself out of it, she spoke. “Proceed.”

Her dad’s face appeared onscreen, smiling like he could see her there in the seat he’d used for so many years. “Fly true, Zizi.” It was all he said and all he needed to say. They’d been the words he told her when she’d taken her first flight in the little skiff they’d built together.

She’d whispered them as his ashes had been jettisoned into space and become stardust.

Zira swallowed back the lump in her throat and leaned forward, both hands on the thruster levers, pushing them forward. There was a subtle lurch as the engines perked up. “Fly true, Daddy,” she said to the now-vanished image of her father. She pressed down on the pedal below the dash and prepared for the first jump toward a story made real.

When the moon enlarged itself on the nav screen, Zira stared at it in silence for a while. The stutterwarp had held up and she still had the fuel to get her back to Autura 9. Thinking about how she’d been swindled out of her father’s language still stung, but the long, lazy flight had begun to dull it. Well, that and the fact that she’d just dropped into orbit around a fairy tale moon.

She peered at it on screen and through the windshield like she could see the gems that were supposed to be there glittering in craters and caverns from where she sat. Of course she couldn’t, but it didn’t keep her from trying.

A proximity scan revealed only a junker ship floating near a gravity well with no warp capabilities and thrusters barely strong enough to push it through space. They were far enough away that she could get down to the surface, look around, and be back in her seat in plenty of time to rumble if they decided they wanted to, but she doubted they’d try it.

Zira set her destination to a safe-looking place on the surface and set a timer to beam her back to her ship in an hour unless she issued another command from her watch. She took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and stepped into the transporter bay.

Beaming down to the surface always left her skin crawling and her heart beating a little too fast. When both faded, she opened her eyes and gasped. Grass covered the ground, grown tall enough to reach halfway up her shins, softly waving in a breeze that smelled like fresh mango and green leaves. Rocks jutted up from the ground at random angles along hazily defined lines, speaking to the fault activity her dad had told her about in the stories. Some had cracked open to reveal glittering stones inside.

She stepped toward one and shined a light into the crevice, eyes widening as the beam bounced between the planes of the amethyst inside. The next one she approached had broken further and spilled a fortune of gray-white selenite shards onto the grass around it. Lifting one of them the size of her palm, she couldn’t help but gape.

Natural stone had all but vanished from most of the explored universe as people sucked the planets dry in search of a profit, and the rarity had made what people could still find worth that much more. By quick calculation, the amount of rock at her feet was enough to buy herself ten new ships and a house, and she could see at least twelve more from where she stood, not to mention the caverns and craters that were supposed to be here, too. There was enough here to set her and everyone she ever met up for generations.

There was enough here to have funded a revolution.

“Zira?” The rough voice behind her sent anger and anticipation snaking through her.

She turned to face him with a smile on her face that said she would just as soon kiss him as she would tear him limb from limb. “Fabian.”

A sliver of relief pinched between his thick eyebrows. “You’re all right.” He slipped into Uduni as if they’d always spoken it to each other, but his accent was rough like his hands instead of soft and rolling. Wrong.

“No thanks to you.”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t flinch, either. “Never expected to see you here.” Instead of telling her he was sorry for what he’d taken from her, he asked, “How long have you known about this place?” Anger stalked the edges of his voice.

Zira let herself smile slowly, hoping it came off as predatory. “Long enough to get here.” She relished in the way his eyes narrowed, trying to see through to the truth behind her reply. He’d been searching for the lost planet of Saraleth for years longer than they’d known each other.

But he’d taken what little she had left of her father, and her anger still burned too hot to give him the satisfaction of knowing she’d found this place because of what he stole. She hated that she owed him.

“You should go. We’re going to start mining —”

“On my planet? Oh, I don’t think so,” she said with a chuckle.

Fabian frowned, but Zira saw that glint in his eyes. He advanced again, and she met him in the middle. “Your planet? I think that bit of magic might’ve crossed your wires, girlie.”

She raised her brows. “I found it first.”

“And I was tracking it first.” He cocked his head to the side as if asking her to be reasonable.

Zira was done being reasonable. She held his stare, feeling the fire in her shift ever so slightly. “Oh, come on, Ark. I’m sure we can come to some agreement.” His name in her mouth was a knife edge dipped in honey.

His fingers grazed her waist so lightly for hands so large. “What did you have in mind?” His voice rumbled like a landslide.

Shoulders squared, Zira lifted her chin and pulled a trio of dice from her pocket. They’d been hard to find, but the directions in her parents’ book held true even after all these years. Watching them float above her palm, her lips curled into a wicked grin. “I’ll play you for it.”

About the Author

Lina Munroe

Lina Munroe

Lina Ingram is a speculative fiction writer and thunderstorm enthusiast who believes in the healing power of an excellent cup of tea. When she’s not writing or reading, you can find her playing video games, gardening, or talking to her cats.

Find more by Lina Munroe

Lina Munroe

About the Narrator

Joniece Abbott-Pratt

Joniece Abbott-Pratt is a Audie nominated and multiple Earphones Award winning audiobook narrator. Some of her titles include Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. She has appeared on the television shows Evil, Luke Cage, Law & Order: SVU and FBI: Most Wanted. On stage she has worked at The Public Theatre, Yale Rep and New York Theatre Workshop.

Find more by Joniece Abbott-Pratt