Morning – for a given value of morning, in space – came.
Mari pulled herself out of bed, ran a brush through her hair a few times, and made her way to Songbird’s kitchenette with the intent of finding some breakfast.
Zane was there, seated at the dining table. Various gun parts were lying on a large towel, and he was meticulously cleaning and oiling them, one by one. He looked up at the sound of her footsteps, and blushed when he saw who it was.
“Um,” he said, “hello.”
Mari looked at the pieces of the gun, and then to the pilot. “You and me need to talk,” she said flatly.
“Yeah,” he said. He put down a piece, then picked up another one and began anew. “Jayna told me I had an episode last night. I’m really sorry. And I’ll understand if you don’t want to stay.”
“I never said I didn’t want to stay. But as a nurse… I don’t want to have to turn you in, but if I feel you’re a danger to others, I’m supposed to,” Mari said, sitting down next to him.
Zane gave her a nervous smile. “We’re sorta-criminals, remember?” he said. Another part cleaned and put down. Another picked up. “I’ve been in places. With other people like me. I’d rather die than go back.”
Mari sighed. “So, how does this work? How do we figure this out? I can hold my own, but this kind of thing isn’t my specialty.”
“Sometimes I black out. Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare and then it turns out I wasn’t dreaming,” Zane said with a shrug. “I have some medications; I was gonna ask if you could help me find some better ones. That’s part of the reason I was so keen to find the ship a medic. Please don’t tell the others.”
Another part put down. Another picked up.
“I know I’m not well,” he said. “But I also know there’s no place I’d rather be than here. And that I’d never be able to live with myself if I hurt my crew. I’ve always told them to do whatever they have to to stop me if I lose control. I’m tougher than I look.”
She looked over the pieces. “I’ll see what we can pick up as far as fast acting sedatives go, and I still have access to a lot of old medical databases. Maybe I can find something that helps. But, I kinda need to know what I’m working with.
“Hard to describe it,” said Zane. “Definitely some shades of schizophrenia. Hallucinations are pretty common. Night terrors, the occasional manic episode. A few things I don’t know how to define. It’s a grab bag, really.”
There was something slightly unsettling about the frankness with which he described his illness.
Part put down. Part picked up.
“You don’t seem scared,” said Zane. “People generally get edgy around me, except for Ash and Jayna. You just seem curious.”
“Last night I was scared,” said Mari. “But this morning? I don’t know. If I was sane, I’d probably be scared. But you spend a couple years with your hands in drug addled pre-cadavers trying to ‘fix them’ and your whole worldview kinda skids a little.”
Zane chuckled a little. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re staying,” he said. “I got a good feeling about you. And not just because you downed a guy with a defibrillator.”
Mari nodded. “I don’t know how far we’ll go together yet. But I’m here now. And I’ll try to help as best I can,” Mari said, getting up. “Now. Who on this boat is good at making food. I need pancakes bad.”
One more part was finished.
“I think I can manage that,” he said, standing up. “D’you like chocolate chips, or… no, I bet you’re more of a blueberry person.”
“Actually, a little banana would be nice, if you’ve got it,” she said. “And first things first, no more caffeine. At least for a little while.” She pulled his mug away from him. Then she sniffed it. “What is this?” she added. “It smells like chocolate and prune juice.”
“Coffee makes me feel funny,” he said, as he scooted over to the kitchenette area, throwing an apron around himself and getting to work.
Mari watched as he started pulling out all the ingredients and then back down to the gun, perfectly reassembled on the kitchen table. She didn’t know what kind of ride she would be in for, but she could tell it would be more exciting than boring.
Zane scampered off after breakfast, leaving Mari to her own devices. Lacking anything resembling actual work to do, unless somebody slipped and fell on something, she decided to explore the ship a bit on her own.
The ship had been designed for a much bigger crew. She wasn’t sure what its original purpose was, but she could tell by the cock pit and by the living areas that there were supposed to be extra people aboard. She walked passed a room that she knew wasn’t occupied and noticed music and humming coming from within.
She pushed the door open and was met with her first look at the ship’s engine.
The machinery that made the ship function was a twisting maze comprised of humming, whirring pipes connected to a variety of huge consoles. A huge rack of circuitry here, a large glass tube full of pulsing light there, and at the epicenter of it all was the ship’s engine, a huge, gray block of metallic parts in seemingly-impossible shapes, all joined-together and somehow forming a working whole. Mari could feel the heat radiating off of it from the entrance.
There was a workbench set against one of the walls, and the mechanic was seated at it, fiddling with something that Mari couldn’t see.
He looked up, screwdriver in his mouth, and smiled around it. His teeth bright in the darkness. “Oh! Hey.” He spat it out and slipped it into his pocket. “Zane feed you alright?”
“That he did,” she said, as she shimmied down the ladder that led into the engine room proper and approached him. “So this is where the magic happens, huh? Somehow I always pictured more flashing lights.”
“Flashing lights aren’t very practical. If something’s going wrong, the mechanic should be in the engine room enough to have a feeling what finally gave up the ghost. “
“Makes sense,” said Mari, looking all around it. “All these parts… how do you keep track? Have you been doing this for awhile?”
Ash nodded looking around. “I’ve been tweaking her for a long time,” he said after a moment of reverie. “This is the beautiful part of the ship to me,” he murmured, giving her a grin. “A ship is ninety percent twisted, hulking metal, nine percent empty space, and one percent cranky human.”
“…if you say so,” said Mari, peering over to the workbench. What was tinkering with was a metallic rectangle about the size of a lunchbox that was full of brassy cells and colored wires. “Looks complicated as hell. I think I’ll stick to working on bodies.”
He chuckled. “Well, this ship’s like a body. Sometimes it gets sick and needs a little love, sometimes a bandage, or even surgery.”
“Maybe so,” said Mari, “but if it was this easy to get replacement parts for bodies, my job would be a lot easier.”
“You’re telling me,” said Ash. “So, are we dropping you off somewhere, or are you in it for the long haul?”
Mari’s lip twisted as she considered this for a moment. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “I’m tempted to stick around purely out of morbid curiosity to see what happens to you lot next.”
“Well, whatever your reasons, there’s no passengers aboard Songbird,” said Ash. “As long as you’re onboard, you’re gonna be kept busy, no matter how long or short your trip is. You any good with machinery?”
“Not even a little,” said Mari bluntly. “I could just barely work my toaster. But I have very small and very steady hands.”
“I can work with that.”
Ash nodded, and settled back down. “Okay, so this is a dampener. There’s three sets of this type. They’re gravitational dampeners and they keep the ship from going its own way and stranding us in the middle of the Bumfuck Nowhere Galaxy. ”
She looked down at the little box, a worried look crossing her features. “So these little boxes are the only thing keeping us from falling out of the sky?”
“We’re in space,” said Ash, rolling his eyes. “We can’t ‘fall out of the sky’. And don’t worry, everything’s got redundancies on its redundancies.”
“Well excuse me, Mr. big-shot spaceman,” she said. “Us mere dirt-dwellers don’t know these things. So what do you want me to do?”
Ash ran a hand through his hair. “Well, these ones are getting pretty worn out–I can probably get another good month out of them if I just recalibrate them. Make the ones that take us left and right go up and down and what have you. It’s kind of like… I dunno, giving someone with the flu some antibiotics. Doesn’t do too much, but may placebo enough to get you where you need to go.”
Mari stared at him for a moment. Then she rubbed her eyes.
“Let’s pretend for a moment that this is how medicine works,” said mari. “What do you need me to do?”
Ash chuckled. “Take out the shiny things and put these replacement shiny things in their places.”
“I can do that.”
He nodded, and beckoned her forwards as he hunkered down on a pipe, opening up a small door. Inside were a number of lovingly labeled wires, color coordinated and separated with twist-ties.
Mari let out a whistle. “Alright then, now you’ve impressed me,” she said.
“Is this what it took?” said Ash. “Want to see my closet now?”
“Don’t push it, spaceman,” said Mari, as she fiddled with the fittings. “So where are we headed, then?”
“Major resupply run,” said Ash. “Last few jobs paid off well. We’re headed to Exeter, in the Lahmu Sector.. Refill everything, maybe find some new work.”
“What’s in Exeter?” Mari asked, as Ash carefully disconnected some things and pulled out another bright blue cylinder that seemed to be blinking rather weakly. “Here, hold this one. Be careful– damage that one and we’ll fall out of the sky.”
“Our… benefactor,” said Ash, shrugging.
Mari cocked an eyebrow. “Okay, I heard the pause before the word there,” she said. “Thought you lot were indipendant agents. Rogues drifting across the cosmos answerable to no-one but your wild hearts and all that crap.”
Ash let out a bark of laughter. “You’ve been reading too many comics,” he said.
Mari rolled her eyes. Ash waved her off and continued. “Okay, so cargo and stuff has to get from one place to another, but keeping track of what needs to go where when? That’s not really any of our specialties. We could go out and connect with one company and run for them and try it that way, but going through an agent like the boss streamlines the process. We are still independent, in that we can take as many or as few jobs as we want, but he gets a cut of the delivery fee and provides us with discounted supplies.
“Sounds… reasonable, I guess?” said Mari, as she passed the worn-out fitting down the line and was handed a new one in return. “I guess I never really thought about the logistics of space shipping.”
“Don’t feel bad, most people don’t,” said Ash. “They don’t care how their freight gets there, long as it gets there.”
“And here I thought it grew on trees,” replied Mari. “So how much further is it?”
“In about two hours we’ll be coming up on the wormgate,” said Ash. “After that, just a short jaunt.”
Mari paused in mid-fitting. “Wormgate?” she said. “We’re going to be taking a wormhole?”
“I would go the scenic route, but we’re on a bit of a timetable and don’t have a decade to spare.”
Mari blanched. Ash looked up at her, messing with a screw driver. “Uh… did you… jesus, have you never been off world?”
“Not never,” said Mari. “Me and my family took a spacebus when we moved to Raulin. From another world in the same system. …when I was eight.
Ash sighed. “The known universe has not been fully explored, not yet, but the two habitable planets furthest away from each other are something like light years apart. Obviously, there’s no way that you’d be able to get from one side to the other without some… interesting physics. Once we found how to exploit wormholes, the world began to get a lot smaller and a lot bigger at the same time.”
“You make it sound a lot more interesting than all my teachers did,” said Mari, as she squeezed the last fitting in place. “There you go.”
“Much obliged,” said Ash. “You can go and do whatever now. But you should go up to the cockpit when we’re about to slip through the wormgate.”
Mari smiled. “Is it a sight to see?”
Ash smiled. “I wish. The cockpit has harnesses though, and the wormholes can be… rocky. Especially for a first timer.”
“The spacer life is just full of surprises, isn’t it,” said Mari, sighing as she made her way out.
“You have no idea.