{7} Fray

She knows Kin’s trying to be gentle, but being jolted in his arms while he sprints down a smoky hallway, dodging debris and corpses—not exactly the kind of ride Fray generally prefers.

Although, she muses, trying to ignore the pounding against all sides of her skull, this isn’t the first time.

She knows how badly the blast hurt her. She was so unprepared. She wants to curse herself, a real curse, but she doesn’t have the strength. She can only sass herself. Bad move, Sintre. Much more like that, you’ll have to ask Riph to take your place. The Proxregent should never wait or be sentimental; the Damn Shames were structured to replace the Regent as soon as they proved themselves unable to be the sharpest, the deadliest, the most ruthless.

That split second she’d taken her attention off her surroundings and focused it solely on what Tarsus had to say… Well, it could still very well be her death, if they can’t find medical help on this little planet. She doesn’t deserve to lead a gang of pirates if she can’t avoid hitting her head on a sex toy to the tune of a serious injury. (And not even for a good reason.)

But this is it. This is what she has. This is what she’s made her existence about, and so it’s her life, all of it, encapsulated in a ragtag band of relative idiots for whom she’d give her life without hesitating. She’s not about to give that up without a fight.

Fight me, Riph, she thinks fiercely at her second-in-command, but first come find me.

Kin’s armor pinches at her bare skin like a vicious fly, but it’s a pleasant distraction compared to how her head wound aches. The bars her skull was smashed into were probably for lashing helpless little (eager and willing) victims to, which would have been a much nicer way to interact with said bars. Instead, she got very intimate with a chunk of one of them; she’s not even sure it isn’t still lodged in her skull.

Kin yells something incoherent and grinds to a stop. Fray tries to crane her head and gasps with the force of the pain that lances up her spine with the movement—but she sees Rahab’s two pistols flash, and someone further down the hallway falls. Kin dodges to one side as a stray bullet whisks past his shoulder, flying wide.

Fray’s heart is in her throat. She’s aching to be on her feet with a weapon in her hands, taking the lead, doing something to keep her people safe. Instead, she’s the burden that’s tying up the arms of the most capable of the bunch, besides Rahab anyway.

Kin starts to move again, and they come up alongside Dog, who’s similarly burdened.

“Dragon,” Fray croaks. There’s no answer.

“She’s out,” Dog says. Fray can tell they’re tense by how clipped their vowels are.

She purses her lips. “Sorry. Kin, can you spare an arm?”

He demonstrates that he can, and rather well, without any arrogance by tucking her into the crook of one arm in a very painful way. He frowns as he sees how much it’s hurting her, and she frowns back, wishing he’d focus his laser beams of caring elsewhere long enough for them to get out of here. “Grab the beacon. Find Riph.” It’s all she can manage; there’s a fog of pain pressing against the backs of her eyes.

Kin catches the little box off her belt and fumbles with it until it makes a trilling noise. Fray nods and closes her eyes. “Good. He’ll be here.”

“Don’t fall asleep on me, Fray,” Kin says.

She snaps her eyes open. “Okay. You’re right. Now run.”

He obeys, and even though the jostling hurts, she’s grateful he’s got an athlete’s endurance. The crystal hallways, lit no longer with magic but with the ominous glow of flame, rush past at a dizzying rate. Fray struggles to keep her eyes open.

Just when she’s afraid she’ll drift off and never return, she finds a point of interest to focus her eyes on: Dog’s tight ass, nestled into a pair of tailored pants, the folds of which exaggerate their hindquarters in an incredibly flattering way.

Fray finds she’s grinning and much more awake, despite everything.

Rahab yelps up ahead, and Fray jumps, but she knows immediately it’s a sound of joy and not something worse. She feels Riph’s presence before his jubilant shout confirms he’s found them, and she starts to shiver with relief even before she hears him catch sight of her and gallop in their direction. Then he’s lifting her out of Kin’s arms, trading her for his rifle. He cradles her now in a much more comfortable way, which she can only describe as not against armor.

She sighs and sinks against his chest. “Riph.”

“It’s burning down,” he whispers.

“I know.” Fray’s trying not to think about the beautiful Spyglass; if she does, she won’t be able to maintain this wire-thin focus she’s clinging to. “Have you seen Urand?”

She feels Riph swallow. “Yeah. C’mon.”

Rahab bellows for Kin, who joins her at the front of the scraggly pack. Fray lets her eyes half-close and fights the urge to flail out of Riph’s arms as more sounds of gunfire and screams echo down the hallway.

But she never does get that gut-dropping sense of loss that she always feels when a Shame falls, so she’s not really surprised when they burst back out into the main chamber and Kin and Rahab are standing, panting, side by side and unscathed.

Riph gently rolls her in his arms so she can look at the room, though the sight is almost as painful as her wounds.

The cavetrees are burning. They belch up great plumes of smoke that darken the room and dim the colored lights ominously. Shattered crystal makes the ground sparkle wherever there aren’t corpses. The bar is mostly in the lake now, overturned and blast-blackened, bottles smashed into the ground. Their contents smear together in a sickly brown river.

“URAND!” Riph roars. The shout shakes Fray so that she glances up at Riph. His expression is twisted in a way she’s never really seen on his face—cold and haughty and angry, very angry. It chills Fray’s blood.

Then she catches sight of the huddled form of her friend and once-lover Breth skulking out from behind the fallen bar. He’s soaked through from the lakewater, but nothing about him is more miserable than his expression. He’s been crying, and his mouth is set in a curl of grief and self-loathing.

They lock eyes, and she wishes she could remember him as she saw him earlier that evening, and not like the broken wildman he is now.

“Fray, you’re alive,” Urand gasps, stumbling as he tries to scramble out of the lake. Riph stiffens and holds Fray high in his arms, his biceps rock-hard with tension.

“She’s hurt, bad,” Riph says curtly as Urand approaches. “We have to get her help.”

The room feels off-kilter, more than just from Fray’s own loss of blood. She squirms in Riph’s arms. Something is very wrong. “Breth,” she says, her voice growing very small at the end of his name. “What happened? How did you survive?”

Kin and Rahab, who are conversing with Dog, stop talking. The Spyglass goes silent, except for the crackle of flames. Urand bows his head, and Fray spots a deep gash on his shoulder, under his shirt. He doesn’t speak for so long that Fray starts to hear the blood pounding in her ears.

“I can’t afford to keep the Spyglass open anymore,” Urand finally says, thick and hoarse. “Haven’t for a long damn time. I’ve been fighting promiskers, health inspectors, gratuitous audits, and rising costs for a long time, not to mention how many people have been deterred from visiting my corner of the galaxy, afraid they’ll get caught in Fringe crossfire.” He’s babbling now, gesticulating wildly.

“She’s dying, Urand. Get to the point,” Riph snarls. Again, Fray looks up at him, bewildered by the hatred in his voice.

The whole time he’s been speaking, Urand has kept his gaze on Fray. He blinks, and she realizes he’s almost crying. Her head aches and she wishes he’d just spit it out already.

“I took Silver money,” Urand finally snaps. Fray feels the revelation lance like forked lightning through her body. Urand spits blood and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Six months ago, a couple of them approached me and told me if I gave them a portion of what we took in, they’d keep us afloat when we needed it. Turns out that portion got bigger and bigger, and so did the pressure from the UEE. Silvers were supposed to show up next week to collect the usual insurance, but instead they came early for that…Tarsus character.” His whole body shudders. “My boys and girls, they’re—they’re the best. Were the best. They didn’t tell a fucking soul where Tarsus was or who he’d been seen with, even with guns shoved in their faces. So Silver killed them all.” He chokes back a sob and turns away, clearly on the edge of a breakdown. “I’ve got no one left. They left me alive because I can still make them money. But my kids…they killed them all. What do I tell their families? Fuck.

Fray feels like she’s going to be sick. Tens, maybe hundreds of sex workers dead in a club renowned for its standards and safety. Gang money funneling through said club, damning Urand and anyone else left alive to prosecution or worse at the hands of the UEE promiskers. And a squad of reckless freelancers in possession of an item poised to set entire factions against one another.

It’s too much for a princess.

She reaches for her empathy, and finds only exhaustion and chilling reality. “Tell them what happened,” she says, looking Urand straight in the eye. “Silver left you alive so you’d do that. Do what they want. Maybe someone will take it to heart and refuse Silver money, even if it means going under.”

Urand looks away, devastation rending his features. Fray wonders if she’ll ever see him again. Her heart crumbles, and so does the world. She sinks into her senses.

She feels blood, hot in her hair. She smells Riph’s pungent, fearful sweat. She closes her eyes. Everything is distant now. Fuzzy. Felt and seen and heard through a veil.

“Shit,” Kin says. He’s ragged, frayed. “Shit. She’s passing out. We have to find a doctor.”

“No doctors.” Riph, rumbling and close. “She’ll get tracked. She can’t afford that.”

Edgy, fierce Rahab: “Maybe a gun in the mouth will make Doc forget to type up the report.”

Kin again, forcefully: “I’d rather risk a database entry than Fray’s life.”

“I can erase a database entry.” A voice Fray only sort of recognizes in her daze; it must be Dog.

“It’s not that simple.” Riph, with a bit of apology. “Fray’s flagged. She’s important to the UEE. And not in the good way.”

“Wait,” someone cuts in gruffly. Urand. “There’s a naturopath. She lives down the road from me, on her farm. Sells remedies and herb, mostly. She—”

Riph interrupts: “Wouldn’t have to keep records.” He gently touches Fray’s face, and she forces her eyes to flutter open. “Hey. Can I take you to a healer?”

Fray gazes into her Proxregent’s sorrowful brown eyes and scolds herself again. Cripes, Sintre, you’ve really put this poor man through the ringer today. All of them, really. Way to lead.

“Yes,” she manages. The single syllable takes more out of her than she has left. There’s no longer anything left in her to fight, and so Fray surrenders to the darkness that comes rushing up to swallow her.


Source image captured in game (Star Citizen Alpha 2.4). The UEE and all elements of Star Citizen belong to Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium.

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