Songbird and her crew were doing moderately well for themselves. The work was steady, the frequency of the bullets had decreased, and the ship was starting to feel like home to Mari.
In fact, when the slugs weren’t flying, Mari found her duties to be fairly minimal. A few scrapes and bruises and, in Ash and Jayna’s case, the odd hangover treatment. Besides studying pharmacology, she spent her time seeing what else she could do for the ship.
Ash seemed to need the most help. While Jayna only did navigating during the beginning and ends of their trips and Zane mostly flew the ship when they were passing in new directions, Ash was always in the ship’s engine room doing God knows what.
And lately he had been a little uptight. Inbetween jobs, Ash had spent most of his time in the engine room.
He had been fretting over the past couple weeks as the job that Martens had given them stretched long and the light weeks racked up. Mari found him one day in the engine room, swearing as he tapped through a diagnostics program.
“She tell you what’s wrong with her yet?” she asked, startling him a bit.
“Still working on it,” he muttered. “Zane and Jayna back yet?”
“Don’t think so,” said Mari. “So why not take it easy for a bit?”
“I’m worried,” he admitted, and took a deep breath, before looking up at her from his perch. Beneath his legs, Songbird droned. Mari could notice there was a funny… hitch to the vibrations the engines she’d never heard before.
“That’s it,” said Ash. “Our next stop is someplace where I can go over this rig with a fine-tooth comb and test out everything. Jayna will complain but I’m going to put my foot down.”
Mari looked at Ash, and then over the organized chaos that made up Songbird’s guts.
“You care about this ship a lot, huh?” she said.
Ash chuckled. “It’s my home and my livelihood. Someone has to. Zane’s good at the menial bits. Lubrication, organizing, that sort of thing, but he gets pretty woobly around the big concepts. Jayna’s hands are too big and she doesn’t have the patience for it.”
“Well, I have both a lot of patience and tiny hands, so aren’t you glad you have me on-board?” she said, sweetly.
Ash chuckled. “I could make a comment about those tiny hands but you’d probably slip me a laxative.”
“Nah, I’d probably just punch you in the groin,” Mari replied thoughtfully. “I’m an instant-gratification kind of girl.”
“Makes sense to me,” Ash said. “I think the problem is with the gravity dampeners. The part on this ship has been really fidgety for forever, and they are really easy to knock out of calibration on this model,” Ash said, beckoning her towards a scaffolding.
“It all looks like random bits of metal and glass glued together to me,” said Mari, “So I’ll have to take your word for it.”
She looked up when she heard heavy footfalls above them. “Guess they’re back.”
“I’ll stay down here for now,” said Ash. “Tell Zane to take it easy when we lift off, alright?”
“Uh, is that even possible? Are we going to be okay?” Mari asked.
Ash nodded. “Songbird’s a tough old bitch. We’ll get where we need to go. Nothing’s going that bad.” Ash said, and got to his feet and hopped over to another part.
Back up top, Mari arrived just in time to see Jayna and Zane coming in, dressed in white coveralls and gas masks.
“Guess the job went well then?” said Mari. Jayna removed her mask and exhaled.
“Went off without a hitch,” she said, holding up a metal briefcase. “Zane played his part perfectly.”
“Zane? Who’s Zane?” said Zane, peeling off his own max. “My name is Mr. Ramsbottom.”
“Well, Mister Ramsbottom, guess we’ve got about fifty thousand chits waiting for us at the drop point.”
“Actually, Ash wanted to talk to you about going somewhere for repairs first.”
Jayna nodded. “Probably for the best. We did just restock the pantries, but we could probably use some more ammunition. We had to use… a bit more than I’d like over the last few days.” Jayna said.
“You think you can take the wheel for a bit, Jayna?” said Zane, rubbing his temple as he tossed the coverall aside. “I feel a little… wobbly.”
“Yeah, no problem,” said Jayna. “We’ll lift off as soon as I have a quick shower. I’ve been marinating in my own sweat in there.”
“We can tell,” Mari said. “Besides, it’s your turn to make dinner, she hulk.”
A few hours later, the crew was full and Songbird was off. Zane was still sleeping in his quarters, Jayna was minding the cockpit, and Mari was in her bunk, reading about the history of the wormhole network.
Ever since Ash had pointed it out to her, she’d heard the funny hitch in the engine’s vibrations, and even that had been consistent after a while. But as she flipped into the next chapter of her book, she heard the hitch… increase in volume. Frowning, she looked up, and started towards the engine room.
She noticed the door was open and Ash had been hunkered down next to a power terminal, looking as concerned as Mari felt.
The hitch grew louder and longer, and became more of a … grinding.
“Problems?” said Mari.
“Something’s definitely not working as it should,” said Ash. “I’m patching as fast as I can, but there’s only so much that I can work with. Hopefully she’ll hold together until we can touch down.”
Mari swallowed hard, looking at the engine room below them. It really was, as clichéd as it sounded, the heart of the ship. If a person’s heart stopped doing its job, then the person wouldn’t last too much longer after.
“Well, if you want me to climb down there, just say the word, it’s my ride now too. “
“I might just take you up on that,” said Ash. “You never know what you might–”
Something in the engine groaned as another piece gave way. . All of the lights went off, and the ship gave a mighty lurch. Mari felt herself fall forward down the hatch, plummeting downwards. Rather the impact of hard metal, she felt a pair of slightly greasy arms catch her and set her down.
“Hold on to this railing and do not move until I tell you to!” He barked as he jumped down into the hatch himself. All around her, sirens begin to wail.
Mari squeezed her eyes shut, holding onto the railing for dear life as the ship began to spin quickly. She felt her stomach roil from the sensation of hurtling through space.
“Attention all crew!” said Ash’s voice, and it echoed over Songbird’s intercom system. “We’ve got a Code Red situation here! Everybody hang onto something!”
The only illumination was from flickering lights on various parts of the ship’s engine, bathing the engine room in an ominous red light.
“I’ve got to shut the engine down!” said Ash, sidling along a railing. “Hang on!”
Mari opened her eyes long enough to see him hopping from one place to the other, and after a few minutes the spinning finally stopped, and he sighed, putting a walkie to his mouth. “Engines are shut off–emergency life support is on. Please meet in the cockpit in… uh, gimme about five minutes, Jayna, please turn on the emergency beacon.”
“What’s going on?” said Mari, rubbing her head. “What just happened?”
“I’ll explain in the cockpit,” said Ash. “Don’t want to have to say it twice.”
Mari nodded, and slowly let her fingers peel away from the railing. Ash sighed and hopped back down into the pipes.
Five minutes later, and Mari found herself in the cockpit sitting next to Jayna. Zane had holed up in the captain’s chair with a flashlight, watching the emergency beacon.
Ash walked up a few minutes later, holding a charred bit of metal.
“What’s that?” said Mari.
“A very small but very important piece of the engine,” said Ash. “And I’m kicking myself for not noticing it sooner. I’ll spare you the technical details, but the long and short of it is, all of our gravity dampeners had a catastrophic blowout at the same time.”
Jayna groaned. Zane paled. Mari scratched her head.
“And I’m guessing… we need those?” said Mari.
“To put it in a way you can relate to,” said Jayna. “The ship’s got an inner-ear problem. Directions are meaningless in deep space. We need something to keep the ship stable and continually pointed in the direction we need it to go. Without these, any time we try and push forward, we’ll have no control. The ship will tilt and can go off in any direction. Best case, we go around in circles.”
“Worst case, we veer into a sun,” said Zane, flatly.
“That seems very worst case,” Mari frowned.
Ash nodded. “There’s good news and bad news. We were heading towards a major wormhole entry point, which means this is generally a pretty well traveled route. Our chances are better than they’d be outside of a major travelway.”
“The bad news is that space is big, and we could be literally inches outside of the normal travel zone of most ships,” said Jayna. “There’s nothing for it but to hope somebody catches wind of our emergency beacon before the life support systems crap out.”
Mari swallowed heavily. “And… how long as that?”
Ash sighed. “I keep Songbird in the best condition I can, but she’s got a lot of mileage on her,” he said. “If I kill the power to everything but communications and life support… ten days if we’re lucky. Six if we’re not.”
“So we just hope we’re lucky and don’t talk so much,” Jayna said. “The other good news is we’re well stocked on food, and most of us are pretty entertaining. We’ll be okay,” Jayna said, squeezing Mari’s shoulder.
“I’m a goddamn comedian,” Ash said. “How many idiot mechanics does it take to strand a ship? Just one.”
Zane chuckled. “That’s the one big downside to the spacer life,” he said. “When things go horribly wrong, they go horribly wrong in space.”
“So what now?” said Mari, leaning against the wall.
“We wait,” said Ash.
Silence hung in the air.
“Got any alcohol?” said Mari.
“Thought you’d never ask,” said Jayna.