AotS – The Man in White, Part 4 + An Announcement

There we go. Everything should be working as intended now. Our apologies for the confusion. And now, a little announcement

This post concludes the first three episodes of Apex of the Songbird. We do hope you’ve been enjoying, dear readers. Your feedback is always appreciated.

Starting next Saturday, we’ll begin posting episode four. Following the conclusion of that, we’ll be taking a little break so that we can build up a buffer and work on other projects. Stick with us!We’ll make sure you still have something fun to read once in awhile when you stop by.

And now, without further ado…

~*~

The tapping of fine shoes on the streets grew closer, and a shadow was cast over the alley.

“Trying to hide? You can do better than that!” called out Johnny Deuce, as he drew closer, gun in hand. “Come on now, Zane! This doesn’t need to be difficult!”

Silence was the only answer. If Zane was in there, it was clear that this was going to go the hard way.

“Seriously,” said Johnny, taking a few more steps forward. “I’m making an effort not to cause you or your friends any undue harm, but accidents do happen!”

He let out a little chuckle, seemingly amused by the thought of it. Then he sighed.

“Very well, then,” he said. “I’m just going to start firing randomly, and if you get hit-”

His monologue was interrupted when Jayna burst out of a nearby dumpster and tackled him into the opposite wall.

“Jesus woman, you’re a goddamn rhinoceros!” Johnny wheezed, quickly catching his breath and struggling against her. He aimed his gun over her shoulder and popped two quick shots into the dumpster before slamming his knee hard between the woman’s legs.

Jayna let out a pained wince. With a grunt, she lifted him up off the ground and brought her forehead down at great speed to meet his.

Johnny swore. He was dazed, he wasn’t unconscious but he’d have a little trouble with cognition for a bit. Jayna rubbed her forehead and tossed Johnny into the dumpster before slamming it shut. She then slammed her elbow into the top, denting the metal just enough to force the lid shut.

“We got some time to run, people!” Jayna hollered.

“I don’t suppose he’ll take some time to stop and think about his life choices?” said Mari, as she came out from behind a crate.

“Oh, no,” said Zane. “In fact, he’s probably even angrier now that we got his suit dirty.”

The sounds of muffled profanities could be heard from inside the dumpster, followed by repeated banging.

“Is this really the best plan? Piss off the assassin?” Aaron asked as he huffed along beside Mari.

“Look, you don’t have any room to complain right now, You’re the reason we’re in this mess,” Jayna said. “Get those legs moving!”

The four of them made a hasty exit to an abandoned factory that Ash had given them coordinates too. Songbird was just setting down as they cleared the rusted gates, and in the distance it sounded like sirens were already on their way–unauthorized landing was typically frowned upon.

“Hope you’re not scared of heights,” said Zane, as the group ascended several flights of rusting stairs.

“Not at this moment, no,” said Mari, looking back. “Next time I’m given the option to stay with the ship and I don’t like it, hit me with something heavy.”

“Will do, Jayna said, taking the steps to at a time.

Ash was waiting for them at the back of the ship, the cargo door open so that they could all get in at the same time. “I’ve already had two ‘friendly’ warnings from the Pokers. We need to get gone soon!”

“Alright alright, hold your horses!” Mari said, pushing Aaron into the ship first and then joining him.

Jayna and Zane were about to board when a ballistic flew past them and slammed into one of the four landing pads on the bottom of the ship, sending Songbird reeling. Ash managed to hold on just long enough to run back into the ship to stabilize it.

“That actually took longer than I thought,” Jayna said, tracing the arc of the missile back to the source.

Johnny was there on the opposite rooftop, discarding the compact rocket launcher and unslinging a long rifle from his back.

“I’m sure you all think you’re hilarious,” he called out, his voice amplified by means unseen. “But I’m done going easy. Either you toss the schmuck off the roof or I vaporize all of you, your ship, and maybe a few bystanders, just for target practice!”

Zane stepped onto the ship, shaking his head. “You know the rule Johnny!” he said, holstering his gun.

Johnny’s lips tightened into a line. He leveled the rifle and a moment later Zane moved to the right just in time to watch a bullet go past his head.

“Last chance!” he yelled. “Most people don’t get the courtesy of a warning shot, but you are family! What’s it gonna be?”

Ash ran up a moment later and hurled a small frag grenade over to the other side and tugged Jayna into the ship.

Johnny rolled his eyes, and caught it in midair and tossed it down into the street below, into the window of a passing car. The car didn’t even make it around the corner before exploding.

“Time to go!” Ash said, and mashed the cargo door button.

Zane dashed forward as another shot rang out, just as plumes of thick, noxious smoke began to rise up between the buildings. “Go, go!” he shouted, as more shots followed. “He won’t be firing blind for long!”

Jayna hopped onto the nav panel–getting clearance from the wormhole to take them somewhere, anywhere else, and fast.

Mari watched as Ash pulled up the defense shields in something akin to horror. She looked out at the windows and saw a man in a dirtied white suit grab something a little heavier duty and start to aim for the ship.

“That guy is a freaking psychopath!”

“Sociopath. And he’s a great shot with that RPG,” Ash muttered. “I just fixed those landing pads!”

“Better than fixing your everything!” said Zane, as he made a mad dash for the cockpit, trailing blood all the way. “Everybody hang onto something, this is going to hurt everything.”

Moments later, everything began to violently lurch as Songbird started to make a break for the atmosphere. Mari winced as the ship rattled. She’d never questioned the integrity of the vessel before but Zane was riding it hard and almost directly upwards. Mari could feel her teeth vibrating in place.

Even at that breakneck pace, there was a large collision with the right side of the ship and Songbird veered hard to the left before beginning to wobble in place. Ash swore, unbuckling himself and grabbing a hammer as he headed to the engine room. As he opened the door the whole thing was awash with red and yellow flashing lights.

Zane never stopped pushing them upwards, but, after a few minutes the wobbling and the veering seemed to work itself out and Ash walked out of the room with a piece of charred metal in his hands. “We’re good for now.”

Mari looked at him. He was even sootier than usual. “What did you even-”

“Don’t ask,” said Ash, as he stalked out. “I need a shower.”

Aaron, who had been watching the whole spectacle with his eyes wide as plates, put his hand over his chest and exhaled.

“Are… are we safe?” he said.

“He won’t be able to catch up with us once we’re through the wormgate,” said Zane. “But just to be safe, I’d think about a name change. Have you considered Barry? You kind of look like a Barry.”

He frowned. “My dad’s name was Barry.”

“Good, a family name,” Zane nodded.

Mari, still a little dazed, looked up to see that Zane’s ear had been clipped and was dribbling blood down his neck and onto his worn leather jacket. “He actually hit you with that shot with no scope from across the building?”

“Yeah, nice of him to mis-aim.” Zane said, touching his ear lightly. “I think that’s probably the last time I get a warning shot.”

“Hey, we got out,” said Jayna. “And between our paycheck for this job and our bonus, we’ve probably got the repairs to Songbird and the fines we no doubt racked up covered with just enough leftover to grab brunch.”

Mari ran a hand over her forehead. “Definitely staying on the ship next time. If these last few missions were supposed to be walks in the park, I’d hate to think what the hard missions are like. Zane. When you’re done flying, come to the sickbay and get patched up.”

“Will do,” said Zane. “This is gonna hurt like the dickens once the adrenaline wears off.”

~*~

One wormhole later, they met up with another ship and handed Aaron (or possibly Barry) off.

“But what about my work?” he huffed, looking at the other ship, a passenger vessel heading towards Raulin.

“Send your most pertinent findings encrypted to a close peer, sell the patents, and go live on the beach somewhere and publish in your spare time. You’ll be fine,” Ash said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Or don’t, and possibly be tracked down and killed when we’re not around to save you. Either way, not our problem. Have a good day!”

They didn’t wait around for an answer as Ash pressed the button that closed the docking bay. “No more living cargo,” said Ash. “Not for anything less than a quarter-million chits with a complimentary massage.”

Mari leaned against the threshold to the sickbay. “Are you guys gonna make me ask how you knew that psycho?”

Ash didn’t answer right away. Mari narrowed her eyes at him.

“Zane’s past is… complicated,” said Ash. “At least, from what I could gather. He doesn’t like talking about it. All I know for sure is that long before he met any of us, something bad happened to him. And whatever it was, he wasn’t the only one it happened to.”

Mari looked to Jayna, who shrugged. “It’s Zane’s story to tell. He was… worse than he is now when we found him. He’s at least a person now. Whatever happened in his past has probably turned Johnny the way he was, and Zane the way he is. Best not to go much further than that.”

“Is… is that really the healthiest way to handle things?” said Mari.

“Probably not,” said Ash. “But, gunfights aside, we’ve got something resembling stability in our life. Best not to upset the balance without a really compelling reason to do so, y’know?”

Mari nodded. She had been able to see the ordinary moments, and there were days, hell, maybe even weeks at a time where Zane would be just fine. But she also wondered in the quiet moments if everyone went a little mad in space. Even she was starting to feel it. “Well, you know where to find me,” she said, and headed back into the sick bay to hop into her cozy office chair, pharmacology book in tow.

~*~

Most spacer crews kept odd hours, and the Songbird’s crew was no exception, but there was generally a time every few days when everyone on board could be counted on to be sleeping at the same time. The addition of Mari to the crew did not change this at all.

This was one of those nights. Once he was satisfied that he was alone, Zane crept out of his bedroom, walking as lightly as a cat, and made his way up to the cockpit. The autopilot was still engaged, and Songbird was drifting to her next destination at a leisurely pace.

Zane tapped the touchscreen and opened up the messaging system. he typed in a recipient, followed by a very, very long encryption code. Then he activated dictation mode.

“Hey,” he said, as he looked out into space. “It’s Zane. Sorry I haven’t written lately, haven’t had a chance. I’m doing really well. We just got a new crew member. Her name’s Mari and she’s a nurse and she’s really nice. I like her.”

He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.

“We saw Johnny today,” he said. “He’s… well, he’s Johnny, you know how it is. You know I don’t want to hurt him, and I don’t think, deep in whatever he has instead of a heart, he wants to hurt me, but… I’ve got my crew to look after, and if he keeps pushing…”

Another pause. He sighed.

“I miss you,” Zane continued. “But… I mean it, I’m doing well. Better than I have been in a long time. I’m in a good place.”

One more pause. “That’s it, I guess. I’ll write again as soon as I get a chance. Take care of yourself, alright? Send and close.”

The message sent, and the screen winked out. Zane relaxed, watching the cosmos float by as he nodded off.

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