If the clinic was in a shady part of town, then the apartment complex was doubly so.
“There are no rats, which is nice,” said Mari, rolling up a poster she’d retrieved from a wall. Jayna noticed it had been covering a particularly ugly water stain. “But I suspect it’s because the roaches ate them.”
Jayna looked around. “Um. You did what you could with it,” she offered. “Come on, let’s get you packed up.”
The inside of the apartment was more or less what was expected.
“Do you have to check in with your landlord or something?” said Jayna.
Mari shrugged. “I’m probably not getting my security deposit back anyway,” she said, as she threw some things into a large duffel bag. “She probably spent it at the brothel.”
Several changes of clothes were first, two thirds of which were sets of scrubs.
“They’re comfy and I didn’t have to pay for them,” she said, a touch defensively.
“No judgment,” said Zane. “Our mechanic pretty much wears the same coveralls three times a week.You, um, don’t have a whole lot here, huh?”
“You noticed?” she said, as a first-aid kit, a slightly battered tablet and a plush caterpillar followed the clothes into the bag before she zipped it up. “Things have been kind of rough. Kind of a big reason why I’m even considering getting into your space-van.”
Zane was looking at the front door, idly running his hands over it. They stopped over what looked like a large gash. “You got robbed recently?” he said, concerned.
“Twice in the same week,” said Mari, sighing. “Joke’s on them, I don’t have anything worth stealing. Look, are you guys going to keep dissecting my life or can we get out of here?” She sounded a bit exasperated at this point.
“Sounds good to me,” said Zane, shuddering. “This place makes me feel like I need a shower.”
“Just don’t try and use the shower here,” said Mari, slinging the bag over her shoulder as she made for the door.
The crew quickly moved towards the Songbird. Vessels fresh off the shipyards tended to come in a one of a dozen or so basic body shapes, but once a crew got a hold of a ship for an extended period, no two were alike. The ship became a part of the crew in itself, shaped by the personalities that drove it through the cosmos.
Songbird was Ash’s baby through and through. She’d been through a number of different owners over the years, but Ash had made her his own in a million little ways. She was all curves and aerodynamics.
“I was expecting something considerably more…” said Mari, trailing off.
“Ramshackle?” tried Jayna.
“Not the word I was going to use,” said Mari. “But let’s go with that.”
“Songbird is both our home and our livelihood,” said Zane serenely, as he nibbled on a cheeseburger. “We take good care of her, and she takes care of us. Usually the hull is less melty, though.”
Mari gave Zane a strange look. Jayna gave him a pat. “I think you need to rest.”
The bay door opened up as they approached, and Ash could be seen limping toward them. “Took you long enough,” he said. “Find someone?”
Zane, mouth full, gestured toward Mari with a muffled “Ta-da.” She and Ash met each-other’s gaze.
“Is this sack of sadness your mechanic?” she asked.
“What is this,” he replied, “and does it come in adult sizes?”
Jayna rolled her eyes. “Mari, this sack of sadness is Ash Wright. Ash, this tiny person is Mari Naoki. Play nice, kids.”
The spaceport went silent as the two of them sized each-other up.
“How far down the register did you go before you found her?” Ash asked.
“She wasn’t on it!” said Zane cheerily. “We found her.”
Ash’s face took on its patented ‘Seriously, Zane?’ expression. “So we’re taking in strays now?” he said.. “She may be cute, but who knows what she has?”
“Nothing that you’ll get a chance to catch,” said Mari, rolling her eyes. Zane let out an “oooooo”.
“She’s probably going to be our medic, Ash,” said Jayna. “So try and make nice. Do you want your leg looked at or not?”
“What’s wrong with his leg?” said Mari, her expression softening somewhat.
“Just a minor case of bullet,” said Ash, grumbling as the crew started to board. They all looked back when they realized that Mari wasn’t following.
“Nobody told me I was signing up to get shot at,” she said. “Does that happen a lot? Is what we’re doing legal? Am I a witness now?”
Ash gave a small frown. “You didn’t tell her what we actually do?” he said.
“I was trying to ease her into it,” said Zane, looking a bit sheepish.
“We’re facilitators,” said Jayna, peering over the deserted lobby. “We do move cargo. But some people want their cargo moved quietly.”
Mari blinked a bit. Then she coughed. “What… else do you do?”
“We move stuff people want moved,” said Zane. “Sometimes other people don’t want us to move it. Seventy percent of the time, there’s no guns, no mooks, and nothing illegal.”
“The other thirty percent?” chimed in Ash. “There are occasionally complications. We get hired because we uncomplicate them.”
“With bullets, if needed,” added Zane helpfully.
“But no human trafficking, no gun running, nothing like that,” said Jayna. “Call us grey-market facilitators.”
Mari’s features shifted from frightened to bewildered to thoughtful over the course of about four seconds.”I won’t have to share a bunk, will I?” she finally said.
“We’ve actually got a couple empty rooms,” said Ash. “Songbird is a six-person ship. Feel free to claim an unused bunk.”
“It’ll be kind of spartan at first, but we’ll be going on a major supply run soon,” said Jayna. “Then you can personalize it however you want.”
“Guess I’ll give you the ten-minute tour,” said Ash.
“Have fun with that,” said Zane. “I need to go rest before you guys start turning into dragons again.” Without further explanation, he drifted off.
“You get used to him,” said Ash.
“Really?” said Mari.
Ash limped along, waving her through the cabin, showing her the flight, navigation, and weaponry consoles, before going into the common area, the galley, and then towards the back of the ship. There were three doors on each side of a narrow hallway.
“We’ve got something resembling a sickbay here,” said Ash, popping a door open, revealing a sparsely-furnished room. It had an examination table and one shelf that contained a roll of bandages, a bottle of disinfectant fluid and half a sandwich.
“That’s where I put it,” Jayna murmured offhand.
“…I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t seen worse,” said Mari.
“Like I said, we’ll stock it properly soon,” said Jayna. “Now, are you ready to take a look at your first patient?”
Ash grumbled as he hopped up onto the slab and rolled up his pant leg.
“Might as well,” said Mari, peeling the hastily-applied bandages off. She made a face as the wound was revealed. “Eesh, what butcher did this to him?”
“This butcher,” said Jayna, holding up her hands. While, in proportion to the rest of her, they weren’t overly large, compared to the rest of the crew’s…
“Great for heavy lifting and fisticuffs,” she said. “Not so much for fine dexterity.”
“Grab the first-aid kit out of my bag,” said Mari, grabbing the bottle of disinfectant and sniffing it. Satisfied, she poured a measure onto Ash’s leg.
Ash hissed in pain, and tried not to leap off of the observation table. Jayna tried to stifle a giggle and almost succeeded. “How bad is it?” she asked with a cough.
“It’ll heal,” said Mari. Her kit was placed beside her, and she pulled out a few things. “Doesn’t look like you’ll have any lasting damage aside from a rather nasty scar. You can make up a nice story about how you got it. Hand me those bandages.”
“We’ll tell people you were mauled by space badgers,” said Jayna.
“If this is the worst you have for me to do, this could be a pretty cushy gig,” said Mari.
Ash grunted as he sat up. “Oh we didn’t say it was the worst thing you’d have to do. What about sponge baths for the injured?” Ash asked.
Mari rolled her eyes hard. “Unless you want that sponge dipped in engine cleaner, I wouldn’t suggest you have me do that. Hire a candy striper.”
Jayna smiled. “Oh, you’ll fit right in. Yeah, it’ll pretty much just be patch up jobs.”
“Sounds good,” she said. “Are we gonna be off this rock soon? Can I give it the finger on our way out?”
“Sure–Ash can get us up into space–our next destination is already logged in the databases. Let me just get us cleared to take off.”
Mari’s newly-claimed bunk was slightly bigger than the bedroom in her crappy apartment. And the bed was softer. She was moving up in the world, it seemed. She’d settled her caterpillar down on the bed next to her pillows. After a moment of searching for storage, she unpacked her things and put her clothes in the small slide-out drawer in the wall. The final touch was her prized poster of a cyborg mermaid riding a unicorn through space. That made the place home, for now.
She still had no idea what to make of these lunatics, but she couldn’t argue with a free ride off of Raulin. They had lifted off a few hours ago, and she had enjoyed watching it vanish into the blackness. And she did, indeed, give it the finger.
Most spacers, she was vaguely aware, kept their own time, usually measured in solar hours, which was a convenient unit that humans adjusted to easily. She wasn’t sure what time it was by the hours that Songbird kept, but by her internal clock, it was getting late, so she settled down to rest.
She didn’t know how long she had slept for, but she was shocked out of her rest when the door to her bunk burst open with a loud bang. A figure darted into the room and crouched in the corner, covering its head with its hands and visibly trembling.
Mari jumped up, dragging the comforter with her and nearly falling off the bed. “What the fuck–“
She saw sandy, unkempt hair. It was Zane.
“No,” he murmured. “No. No. Not going anywhere. Never catch me. Not going anywhere. Never catch me.”
“What the fuck are you–” she stopped, because suddenly there was a gun pointing at her. The captain stared over it, his strange eyes wide and bloodshot. They had looked so… funny before. But now…
Mari had seen her fair share of crazies. Mostly people either on drugs, looking to steal them, or both. They were easy enough to deal with. But in those eyes was something she had never seen before, and it terrified her.
“Never catch me!” he repeated, louder. The hand holding the gun was shaking like a leaf. “Never never nevernevernever!”
Mari’s eyes widened, and she held up her hands in the classic ‘I don’t want any trouble’ gesture, hands up and off to the side slightly, signifying she wasn’t armed. “Uh, Zane? I-it’s Mari,” she said, trying to force a bit more calm into her voice, instead of just the blind panic that made it tremble now.
“NEVER!” he shouted, waving the gun at her, though that may have just been his hand shaking. There were tears in his eyes. “You can’t… I won’t… I won’t… please… don’t make me…”
She jumped, startled. In her mind she was going through a dozen different rationalizations.
There’s no way that gun is loaded.
I’m just having a bad dream.
He’s just hazing the new girl.
But she couldn’t convince herself of any of those things. Her fight-or-flight reflexes were screaming, only there was nowhere to run with him blocking the only exit.She was trapped in the middle of space, where nobody would ever find out what happened to her.
“Zane! Where are you?”
Mari heard the soft, soothing voice of Jayna in the background. The big woman came in, kneeling down next to Zane. “It’s alright, no one’s going to hurt you.”
Zane’s focus, as well as that of the gun, shifted to Jayna. He said nothing. Slowly, she reached over and, with the utmost care, removed the gun from his hand and flicked the safety on.
Mari felt her heart drop as Jayna pulled him close, trying her best to calm him down. She looked up at Mari, trying to look apologetic.
Zane let out a deep sigh. It sounded like he was deflating. Jayna lifted his trembling form up and carried him out of the room.
Mari watched the door, gaping as the sound of Jayna’s footsteps faded away.
After a few moments, Ash came by, eyes looking just as bloodshot as Zane’s had been. “You okay?”
She locked eyes with Ash as he entered. “What the fuck was that?!” she snapped. “Your… he… he was going to shoot me!”
“He probably wouldn’t have shot you,” said Ash, sighing as he leaned against the doorframe.
“The word ‘probably’ there is not reassuring,” said Mari. “So here comes the part where you tell me the goddamned fine print in our contract.”
Ash considered his words for a moment. “I saw you roll your eyes a bit when Zane said he was crazy,” he said. “Most people do. I’m sure you have that friend that’s like, ‘Woohoo, I’m crazy’ and puts lampshades on his head at parties.” He paused and took a breath. “Zane isn’t like that. He’s… not well.”
Mari’s gaze hardened. If looks could kill, Ash would have been a stain on the bulkhead. She wanted to say a lot of things. The first one to get out was “And you let him fly your goddamn ship?!”
Ash looked away first. “That story is… long. Not necessarily complicated, but it definitely takes a while to tell. Tonight probably isn’t the night for it. Zane’s stable more often than not, if loopy. And extremely capable when he has a task to focus on. But he occasionally has… flare-ups. I’m guessing he was hoping you’d have a chance to get to know him before he had one.”
“So I only have a one-in-five chance of the captain of the ship killing us all,” said Mari, rolling her eyes. “I’m not sure I like those odds.” She paused for a second, as if something was sinking in. “And why is he the captain, anyway?”
“He called first dibs on the hat,” said Ash.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Mari let out a snort.
Ash gave a small chuckle, and then rubbed at his face tiredly. “Zane’s a friend,” he said. “We do our best to look after him, give him a safe place, something constant in his life. And trust me, he more than pulls his weight. He is a very skilled pilot, and gets done what he needs to do on jobs. But dealing with him can be taxing sometimes.”
Mari continued to stare Ash down, her sleepy brain still processing information. “Is it… safe for me to go back to sleep?” she said.
“You’re fine,” said Ash, stepping closer. “We usually strap him to his bed when things get really bad.”
Mari cocked an eyebrow at that. “Seriously?” she said.
“His idea,” said Ash. “But I won’t lie to you, sometimes it blindsides us. Like tonight.”
“Does he get… any sort of treatment for it?” asked Mari.
“He takes some meds sometimes,” said Ash with a shrug. “I don’t know how he knows which ones to take. Sometimes they work, sometimes… you know. Want something to help you relax?”
He held up a glass bottle. It was full of something amber-colored. “Jayna concocts it down in the engine room,” said Ash. “Promise it won’t make you blind.”
Mari accepted the bottle readily, uncapping it and taking a deep pull. It was smooth, and only burned a little going down.
“We’ll be planetside in a day or two,” said Ash. “We’ll set you up with transport elsewhere and you can start over.”
Mari looked into the bottle for a moment, watching the liquid slosh back and forth as her thoughts whirred.
“Don’t think you know me, Mr. Mechanic,” said Mari, gesturing with the bottle. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Ash’s eyes opened up in surprise. “Really?” he said. “I was expecting we’d have to warm you up to this a bit.”
“Yes, well,” she said. “I’m complicated. And I’m going to try and get some rest. Leave the bottle.”
“Whatever you say,” said Ash, giving her a smirk. “Rest well.”
Mari watched him leave until the door shut. She took another pull, set the bottle on her nightstand and collapsed back onto the bed.
Just what had she gotten herself into?