“Brun. 21. Finest sharpshot in the local galaxy. Acting ringleader of the condign cartel. Warrant from high Asthaom for–”
The justiciar stops thumbing the corner of the docket. She purses her lips and looks up at Brun. “Pardon?”
“Former ringleader. It’s been over a year since I last called a shot.”
Wrong move: The justiciar lays the docket flat on the ironwood desk and leans in, slightly. “What made you leave?”
“… I got kidnapped.”
RANSOM is a ~20k word bout written in the fine tradition of a piece of fanfiction. It’s a joyride through the 24 hours that deadeye Brun spends staging her own kidnapping, alongside Handsome Idiot Who Shows Up and Ruins Everything, Sinuk Vauntariaq. It’s also the culmination of a year’s worth of on-and-off work, and my only longform piece of writing in about 4 years. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But I had a ton of fun, and I hope you do, too.
A big thanks to my friend Proxy, who generously lent me their time and expertise in editing this story. I’ve got no scale of reference for the quality of my writing, but I can assure you: It could have been a lot worse if not for them.
Please enjoy, and thank you for reading!
While RANSOM is a playful romp, it does include depictions of physical and verbal abuse, manipulation, trauma, and broken relationships. There are multiple scenes with fantasy violence, and a single scene with physical violence (and blood.) At the risk of being redundant, I want to exhaust that these are topics I take very seriously in portraying. In light of all that, RANSOM is geared towards mature audiences.
Brun takes in the valley with one broad stroke of her scope. Clear, as it's been for the past three hours. She rests a wrist over the barrel of her rifle and carefully recenters.
If Norbast has got one thing going for it, it's beautiful summer weather. Not as vivid as Mercasor, not as black as Scaiuq; just a humble, warm auburn, as the sun returns from its long exile spent beneath the mountains. The spindly conifers hugging the foothills make her fear for what it's like in winter.
Like clockwork, she begins again with the edge of the woods, scans over the heath and flats, the jagged foothills, and--
Brun's breath hitches. A burnished metalock pistol kisses her jaw. Very slowly, her hands leave the rifle and hover in the air.
“Easy,” comes Sinuk's voice. Brun wasn't aware the woman could whisper. It's a deep thing, and level, but a little rough around the edges. Sinuk turns her around on her heel, leading her like a spooked horse.
Brun steals a glance at the woman. Sinuk is as she ever is; a swagger and a smirk, under lidded, dusky eyes. Not a week has lapsed since she last invited herself to one of the cartel's little cabals. That night is still framed in agonized memory for Brun-- three drums of condign dye gutted under Sinuk's boot, running the river Roan, well, roan.
The rifle clinks as Sinuk retrieves it. Brun collects herself with an unsteady breath, and finds her voice.
“You wouldn't shoot.” There's less bite than she would have liked.
“And you,” The pistol tickles her jaw, “Wouldn't take a risk like that.”
Brun swallows, and lets Sinuk lead her.
They negotiate with the rocky footing leading down from the sniper's nest. Brun drums up a furious headache as she works out how anybody-- least of all her-- could have found it. She doesn't exactly know Sinuk to be a subtle woman, and yet nothing had betrayed her presence until the metaphorical bullet was lodged in the base of her neck.
The metalock pecks her as Sinuk takes a too-long step down from a boulder. “Pardon,” She says, with that Forge twang of hers.
Brun sighs. The literal bullet can come at any moment.
They reach the foot of the ridge. Sinuk is in no hurry. I'm not either, Brun supposes. She can't parse much of the gunslinger's face from where she's standing, but it would hardly matter, anyway. Sinuk volunteers the wrong answer with the same unfettered confidence she commands in her more lucid and calculated moments. The two take a sharp turn and follow the base of the ridge west, away from the cartel's camp.
Brun waits for Sinuk to speak up. Or slip up. Despite the long hours spent biding her time in her line of work, it takes a while for Brun to realize there's something blistering through the dull numbness in her stomach.
She can not know what Sinuk is pulling, but she can hazard a guess: The least-worst-case scenario has the woman scoop her up and exit stage left, pursued by ringleader Darrow. Once Sinuk has had her fill, she returns Brun to the cartel, leaving her record blessedly intact but the ringleader furious. In the universe that wants Brun to be bitter and miserable-- this one, naturally-- her luck would have somebody get the drop on Darrow while Sinuk is fooling around with her, and then everybody's spilling condign.
Brun grits her teeth. Does she know? Does she have any idea what a bad time she chose to pull whatever it is she's pulling? She isn't sure where it came from-- expecting basic decency from a moral wasteland-- but she finds herself doubting the idea of a malicious Sinuk.
She doesn't even know what's going on yet.
Sinuk leads her into a moor sheltered by a steep limestone wall. There's a ship slumped underneath it, ve velk decommission. A very old bird, very well-loved, but very well taken care of. Its emblem and name-- Brun can't parse the dialect-- are faded down to the bone, and its once-glossy veneer is scuffed to a matte finish.
The ship is stolen, and there's not one thing in it that Sinuk actually owns. She's lucky to have it. Or it's lucky to have her, Brun can't tell which it is, yet. She supposes she's not one to talk, given her current company. But that's different. She's hired arms. She's not actually a part of the cartel.
She looks up at Sinuk. And she's not a part of anything, she thinks. They make for the ship. Sinuk holds her up around the hull, pistol hugging her neck.
“Ransom,” Sinuk says, while she deliberates with the ship's underbelly hatch.
Brun's stomach might as well drop out of her body entirely. “Ransom,” She repeats.
“Did I stutter?” Sinuk shoots her a crooked grin. If they hadn't exchanged multiple volleys of gunfire, it might be charming, in the way a crocodile grins. The smattering of shrapnel and acne scars bunches up around her cheeks when she smiles, and that drives a knife deeper into Brun's gut. She isn't sure what to think of it.
Brun eyes her rifle, placed just out of reach against the bird's belly. The hatch swings inward, and Sinuk guides her into it with a calloused hand on her shoulder.
“By my reckoning, your lot will be missing the finest sharpshot in the local galaxy.” Sinuk snags the rifle on the way in.
“This is ridiculous,” Brun hisses.
“Kick up your feet and get comfy,” Sinuk swings around her, the pistol finally vacating her neck as she makes for the cockpit. Brun finds herself hyper-conscious of the cold cabin air against that spot on her skin. “I got some errands to run.”
Sinuk doesn't bother Brun while she simmers in one of the ship's bunks. That's for the best; Brun is doing her damnedest to ignore the noose slipping tighter around her throat the further away they get from camp. She watches Sinuk bring up the belly of the ship and glide lazily over the heath and mountains, at once in awe of her blasé definition of kidnapping, and deeply suspicious of her confidence.
But she isn't wrong. Brun ultimately doesn't do anything. She stares at the ribs of the bunk above her, the hum of the ship's engine comfortably filling out the silence. Her brain, however, would not shut up.
She rubs her temples and rolls on her side, staring out at the cabin.
She blinks. Her rifle sits square on the divider between the cockpit and the cabin bunks, well within her reach. Had she not seen it before? Sinuk's arm rests over the crown of her seat, a hair's breadth away from the rifle, but Brun need only slam the stock in the back of her skull and commandeer--
She manually stops that train of thought. She doesn't really know why.
She sits up and reaches gingerly for her rifle, running her fingers along the familiar grooves of the wooden stock, before pulling it into her lap. If Sinuk notices, she makes no indication. Her reflection in the cockpit window remains that same blank face, with a pursed lower lip.
The weight of the gun feels good in her hands, feels constant. She rubs out some scuffs along the stock, hugging it tightly to her chest.
Sinuk abruptly rises. “Wellp. We're somethin' like 4 hours outta Mercasor. I got some pocket money and I'm in the market for a gat.” She runs a hand the wrong way through her cropped hair, and turns. She must see the rifle, now, but she doesn't even glance down at it as she looks Brun in the eye. “How's that sound?”
Brun doesn't know where to begin.
“Nothin' you need to worry your pretty little head about.”
They share a stiff silence. Sinuk leans against the divider.
“But I'm gonna tell you anyway. See, there's this guy, real hat aficionado-- Eun's his name—”
“You know what? I don't want to know” Brun pinches her brow. “Why are you asking me?”
“Well it wouldn't do not to,” Sinuk says, simply.
Brun stares at her. When Sinuk doesn't clarify, she figures the courtesy is hers. “How'd you manage to fly this thing in here without anybody noticing?”
“Oh, no” Sinuk grins. “Nope! I've been camping out here for like, three days.”
“So this is a premeditated kidnapping.”
Brun waits for her to justify that one, too. She doesn't.
Brun flips up the cap on her scope, wiping it clean with her handkerchief, and continues. “How'd you know I'd be here?”
“Yeah, you keep all your outgoing signals on the down low, but one of your guys-- boondogger69-- plays shooters on unprotected public servers.”
“Oh, my god,” Brun hisses. “Castoff!”
“So do you have a funny nickname I can call you too, or is Brun the funny nickna--”
She doesn't let Sinuk get the rest of the quip in, when it settles in her mind. “You play shooters?”
Sinuk clicks her tongue. “I shoot people in real life, Brun.”
“Did you lose.”
“I did not lose.”
“You lost, and you got all suited up to ruin Castoff's day, and then this happened.”
“I may have gotten the idea after triangulating her location, yeah.” Like the ricochet of a bullet off the belly of a bird. Sinuk doesn't look terribly out of sorts, but she is smoothing the hair on the back of her neck. Of course she's a sore loser. And of course she forgot about her grudge not 20 minutes later.
Brun sits back, clapping the cap of the scope shut. “Then to what, pray tell, do I owe this honor?”
Sinuk rubs her thumb and fingers together. “Reckon it's so hard to believe you're worth a lotta money?”
That's a cop-out and they both know it.
“So how much should I ask for?”
Brun strains against the railing of the top bunk, mid pull-up, to look over her shoulder. Sinuk hovers noncommittally over a tablet. The ship skims along the surface of the ocean black on autopilot.
Brun pulls her chin up over the railing, steadies herself back down, and repeats. 16... 17... “You didn't think about that beforehand?”
“Hey, I know what my pay is, but I ain't about to ring you up and say 'Howdy hotshot, can you give me a quote? I'm gonna kidnap you.'”
“You very much could have done that,” Brun grunts. 18... Not that Sinuk has her number. 19...
“What, did I catch you at a bad time?” Sinuk grins, but when Brun doesn't muster a response in time, it fades. “Did I?”
Anxiety grips Brun's stomach. She struggles to finish the last chin-up of the set-- 20-- and buys herself a moment to think.
“No,” She says, and quickly changes subjects. “Hold on-- a quote?”
“Yeah.” Sinuk is visibly relieved, but that doesn't do anything to settle Brun's gut. A silence settles.
Brun presses. “I'm asking you to clarify that one for me.”
“Oh. Money? Brun, all I know about you is I can't afford whatever you're chargin' Darrow for your time.”
“I'm a luxury,” Brun mutters, then speaks up. “What does that have to do with holding me hostage?”
Sinuk cracks a wide smile that says she's been waiting a long time for her to ask. “What do you think I am, some kind of animal? Reckon this is a two-man job. We're splitting the difference. 50/50.”
“The ransom,” Brun clarifies. She lets herself down from the bunk and scrubs her face, refusing to look at the woman.
The rifle lays on the floor, propped up against the bunk. When Brun doesn't respond, Sinuk lowers her gaze and thumbs through something on her tablet with mild disinterest.
The polite thing to do would be not kidnapping me, she thinks. If Sinuk is trying to curry her favor, it's not working. Brun closes one eye and studies her gun, while the lactic acid leeches out of her arms. But most captors don't give their captives sniper rifles. Why would Sinuk choose to arm her only after they got on the ship? How could she know Brun would change her mind in such a short amount of time? Unless she's privy to how time-sensitive the cartel's business in Norbast was, and how hopelessly irreparable her situation is now, an hour later.
Brun's trigger finger fidgets as she stops the spiral. Or she doesn't know, and she's just stumbling through it like she does everything else.
Or this is some extra-level mindgame. What a headache. Let's see if it's conditional.
She stretches, massages the soreness out of her shoulders, and picks up the rifle. The barrel lists in the air, trained with a good amount of reasonable doubt on Sinuk.
Brun sighs. “Why the gun.”
Sinuk looks up from the tablet. She squints at the rifle, as if she'd just noticed it for the first time. “I consider it a part of your personality?”
Brun feels her nose scrunch up. The barrel falters. “Two thirds.”
Sinuk sticks out her lower lip, eyes lidded. “What?”
“I want two thirds of whatever you manage to get out of Darrow. And commission, for my time.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sinuk smooths her neck again. She's giving Brun a look she hasn't seen before; lips barely parted, eyes now at rapt attention. “Whatever you want.”
Brun catches herself staring at Sinuk, who stares right back. Sinuk lurches, shaking them both out of it. “But I'm not a debt kinda woman. I don't know what figures you got in mind, but if it all goes to shit, this never happened.”
Brun lets her head loll as she gives Sinuk a look. The rifle droops, and she offers her hand. “Deal.”
Sinuk claps it in hers, shaking roughly. “No promises.”
Suddenly, the tablet is in Brun's face, camera frame trained on her. Sinuk grins through the semi-opaque interface. “But now you gotta help me make out my demands to that ole' mossback.”
Brun can feel the color drain out of her face. She seizes her hand
back and turns her cheek up at Sinuk. “I'm not doing that.”
Sinuk examines her for an agonizing moment, chin propped against her palm. Brun doesn't waver. Sinuk sits back, finally, pulling the tablet out of her face. “Whatever. But can I have you, like, heating up pizza rolls in the backgrou--”
“Well damn it, Brun, how else am I gonna show her you're alive?” Her tone is mock-exasperated at best, but Brun still flinches. Sinuk studies her for another moment, the shadow of a question hanging over her face.
Brun stiffs her. “Just hold a gun to my head like a normal person.”
“'Ight,” Sinuk says, and she's sailing sacred seas again.
Brun can't help but think it's by design that Sinuk pre-records the ransom note and leaves her phone on silent. Darrow is not the type of woman you negotiate with face-to-face.
She glances at Sinuk, who is looking downright self-satisfied as she plays back the minute-long video. Brun cringes. The recording of the woman's voice blithely rattles off her list of demands, like she's ordering take-out. As far as Brun knows, Darrow and Sinuk have interacted maybe once, and only at the receiving end of one another's gunfire.
It's impossible for her to picture Sinuk cowering. She's dauntless, even in the face of somebody as formidable as the ringleader. Brun hears her own traitorous voice crack from under the pretense of Sinuk's pistol, as she confirms that she is, in fact, alive.
Sinuk leans over the divider and pulls the ship up a notch, to keep it from coasting too close to the ocean black. “Hell of an actor.”
“Have to be.” Brun says.
Brun settles back into the bunk and leans her head against the divider, sighing loudly. “This is why people keep trying to ruin you.”
Sinuk snorts. “What? 'Cause I'm honest?”
“'Cause you take their stuff and then tell them to their face you're gonna doubledeal the minute they look away.”
“It's 'cause I'm honest.”
“That's really gonna do you favors when you're rotting in a ditch somewhere.”
Sinuk grins broadly. “I can't die.”
Brun levels her a look.
“Honest. Only person who could've killed me is,” Sinuk middles her hand pitifully at her chest. “Yea high, strawberry blonde, sharpshooting legend, name rhymes with gun-- Hey, was that on purpose?”
Brun scowls. “No.”
“You're gonna tell me the story behind your name one of these days or I'm gonna make one up.”
“Do that, and I'll snap you like a twig.”
Sinuk shrugs, unfazed. Her gaze flickers up to the cockpit window, where a shadow stretches long and dark above them. She lurches from the bunk, knocking her ankle against the divider as she rounds it, and plasters herself on the cockpit window. “Ahhhhhh, shit.”
Brun rises. “What? What is it?”
“We got company. Do me a favor and take the stick.”
Brun gapes at her.
Sinuk stops, and gapes back. “You don't know how to pilot one of
“Not ve velk.”
Sinuk rolls her head and her eyes go with it. She pries herself from the window, and corners Brun into the cockpit.
Brun holds a palm up and skitters backwards, bumping into the pilot's seat. “Hey-- Hey hold on, I'm the sniper--!”
Sinuk slaps a hand on her shoulder, causing Brun to go rigid in the spine and empty in the brain. The woman leans in, casually lifting the ship's belly up from the sea. “And you should know your way around this ship. Nothin' like a little trial by fire, right?”
Brun blanches at her.
Sinuk tries again.“Right?”
Brun doesn't manage to get a word out before Sinuk takes the seat herself. Brun hesitates, blinking between her and the growing shadow, before moving to leave.
Sinuk cuffs Brun by the wrist. She guides her hand to the stick, pulling Brun down with it. The handle is warm between her hands and Sinuk's steely grip.
“Now you got nothin' to worry about, I'll do all the piloting. I just want you to watch and get a feel for it, is that alright?”
Brun is staring at the grease stains between Sinuk's fingers. She feels herself nod.
“Alright. Lemme take her off auto.” Sinuk fishes for the gearshift with her off-hand. The ship lurches underneath them when she finds it, struggling to catch up. “See here, she's real old. The newer models like to accommodate human hands.”
She pulls up further. Brun braces against gravity, her elbow jutting awkwardly in Sinuk's line of sight. She doesn't seem bothered, but raises an eyebrow at Brun, indicating the cockpit seat with a quirk of her head.
Brun stares at her, before automatically maneuvering around the chair and into the seat. She's nestled uncomfortably between Sinuk's splayed legs, with the woman's chin resting on her scalp. Sinuk is blessedly humorless and doesn't regard the look that Brun imagines is on her face right now. “Here. You take care of the brake. We won't need it. Probably.”
“Probably?” Brun hisses.
“What do you think a chase is?” Brun can't see her grin, but she can feel Sinuk chuckle against her back. Brun shifts. Sinuk does, too.
“Now-- I don't think they know we know this-- But you know how old that looter is. They fly with the storm bird for a reason. All their tracking is manual.” Sinuk shifts gradually into a higher gear, pulling the bird almost vertically into the sky. Despite their best efforts, Brun is sandwiched between Sinuk and gravity.
Sinuk brings up the rear display at their left. The looter trails directly behind them, leeching speed off their drag. It dips, marginally, pulling to their underbelly. Sinuk stubbornly dives lower.
She grunts. “They're gonna try to board us. You know there's no
hiding our trail out here, but what's the next best thing?”
Oh, god. Brun can't think, can't hear through the pulse in her ears. She can feel Sinuk's steady breaths, and her resonant voice humming deep through her chest.
“You're gonna have to repeat that,” Brun says, a little thinly.
“Make it absolutely meaningless.” Sinuk eyes the rear display, before jerking the stick to the right. The ship bowls over and Brun's breath goes with it.
They tumble over a cloud, drifting, for a breathless second, belly-up and upside-down. Sinuk rights them, and dives directly into it. The window fogs up. Brun finally remembers to breathe. “What--”
Sinuk laughs once, ribbing Brun's back. She doubles the ship over itself, retreating up and over the looter, and diving deep into the throat of another cloud. She does this again, and again-- picking an arbitrary direction, following it for as long as she wants, and then abandoning it. The looter's helplessly strung along in what is probably nothing more than a playful romp to her.
Brun struggles to keep up. She's jelly between Sinuk's arms, mewling exasperation uselessly between breaths. It occurs to her that Sinuk insisted on this lesson for a reason.
The bird straightens out in the heart of a cloud. Sinuk switches the rear display to the tracker. Nothing shows.
“That easily?” Brun manages.
“Nah.” She leans over, forcing Brun to ball up. Sinuk brings up a menu and fiddles with the settings. “Looter won't ping because it's got no onboard programming. Means we just set it to detect life, instead.”
A dim speck runs diagonally away from their current trajectory. Sinuk grins, and sits back.
Brun looks up at her uneasily. “But they'll find us.”
“Yeah. Bought us a little time. That's all we'll need.” Sinuk relaxes. Brun knew she was relying on the woman to keep from becoming liquid, but now she might pool at the bottom of the cockpit. Sinuk's chest rises and falls in even breaths.
“Pardon,” the pilot mumbles.
Brun looks up at her blearily. Sinuk doesn't meet her gaze-- not that she could.
“There's not, uh, a lot of handlebars back there. You're really not supposed to fly a bird this way.” She laughs. “Lesson one! Bad piloting. Do not do as I do.”
Brun lets her head loll into Sinuk's neck, and empties her lungs completely.
“Oh, uh,” Sinuk releases her grip, and sidles her hands down the sides of Brun's. The air prickles against her bare skin. “Sorry.”
Brun stares at the stick for a hot second.
“You can, uh,” Sinuk cocks her head at the cabin. “I think your gun got thrown into the engineroom.”
Brun lurches, and evacuates Sinuk's lap. Her face is burning up, and she can't summon the air to apologize. She flees into the back, instead.
The rifle is lodged in the nook between a cupboard and the siding of the ceiling. She climbs on the counter and pries it down.
Brun collapses into the pantry. She lets out a long and shaky breath.
“20 minutes outta Normunt! That's 20 minutes out of Normunt.”
Brun yanks the bunk curtain open. “Normunt?”
“Home turf! Literally the last thing they'd expect.” Sinuk grins, and stoops to peer into the bunk. “That's good. We're on speaking terms again. Hey, sorry, by the way.”
“Don't press your luck.” Brun pulls the curtain closed.
Sinuk's silhouette lingers around the bedframe. Brun folds her arms, bunching herself into the far wall.
The curtain cracks. “You have a plan, right?”
Sinuk screws her face up and half-shrugs. “Name one time I had a plan.”
Brun pulls the curtain to the wall again, but Sinuk shoves her hand between them like she's stopping an elevator. “Jokes, Brun! I make 'em! I have a plan!”
Brun stares at her from the darkness of the bunk, and flings the curtain open. She rights herself and stretches, adjusting the straps of her undershirt.
She looks to Sinuk, who in turn looks away and smooths the back of her neck. Brun scrubs the heat out of her face before it can start, and grabs her shirt and overcoat.
“What do you want me to do,” Brun says, buttoning up her shirt.
“What, you don't want to hear it?”
Brun shoots her look.
“Nothing. Just,” Sinuk makes a noncommittal hand-wave. “Do you.”
Brun slings the overcoat around her shoulders, but droops before she can get an arm in. “That's your plan.”
“I have a plan. I didn't say anything about you.”
“Sinuk, that is asinine, we both need a--”
“I'm not gonna tell you what to do!” Sinuk snaps, but steeped in her clenched teeth and the whites of her eyes is something that doesn't make Brun lock up. It's wiped away immediately.
Brun studies her. There is a vulnerability there-- one that is frankly fucking with her perception of reality-- but it is underscored by an innocent and utterly ignorant audacity.
“Really? You weren't telling me what to do when you literally held me at gunpoint and kidnapped me?”
“I thought--” Uncertainty doesn't suit Sinuk. She carefully moderates her voice. “I thought you were kinda on board with it.”
The heat leaves Brun's breath. Her legs are about to give out again.
“What even gave you that notion?”
Sinuk doesn't meet her eyes. “You always looked kinda relieved when I'd show up and start shit. Like, we'd pretend to hate eachother, but we both knew it was bullshit. I was gettin' miserable-at-her-job vibes, I don't know.”
They share a long silence.
“We should get ready,” Brun says, softly.
“Wait-- wait, I really did catch you at a bad time, didn't I?”
Brun grabs her rifle, and levels her long and difficult look.
Sinuk blanks. Her cheeks push against her eyes as a nervous smile spreads across her face. She hisses out a string of curses, bunching a fist up in her hair and digging her nails into her neck. “Damn it. Damn it! Fuck! I did, didn't I?”
Brun swallows. “I can't talk about that. I'm sorry, Sinuk.”