The next eight hours passed in a much better mood. Ash was down in Songbird’s guts, preparing her for her new parts, Mari and Jayna were, for lack of anything better to do, tidying up a bit, and Zane… continued to sit in the cockpit, waiting.
“So does this just… what do they do, throw out some chain link and fly us to the closest dirt heap?” Mari asked, yawning a bit as she dumped the last few chip bags that had been scattered around the table into the trash.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” said Jayna, as she compacted a huge stack of trash with her hands. “But more or less. ‘Course, they won’t have to if we can find some working parts. You ever seen a salvage ship before? They’re like huge, floating junkyards.”
“You know I’ve never seen one before. They didn’t normally come to our side of the world because Raulin wasn’t deep onto any of the major paths. We’d patch up a spacer from time to time and that was about it… Although it sounds pretty cool.”
“It is really, really cool,” Ash said, coming in from the back of the ship. “Alright. Ready for our new part. “The salvage ships are like…. huge huge ships, but they are all just connected to the core of the ship. So each unit can disengage and reconnect and all that. It’s really wicked.”
The intercom crackled. “Um, you guys might want to come up here,” he said breathlessly. “I think something’s wrong.”
Ash’s feet barely touched the ground as he sped up to the cockpit. Jayna and Mari soon followed.
“I’ve got a view of a ship approaching,” he said. “It’s a salvage ship, but…”
“But?” said Ash.
“But it’s not broadcasting any sort of identification signal. And that’s not all that’s weird about it. Look.”
Ash looked at the screen, gently guiding Zane out of the way and sitting down at the cockpit. He’d barely looked at the screen before he sighed, burying his face in his hands.
“Ash, what is it, what’s wrong?”
Ash looked up for a moment more, and then pushed a button.
“Steel Rider, is that you coming in hot? Please… identify yourselves.”
“They’re flying completely dark,” said Zane, his voice barely above a whisper. He was sweating. “Ash…”
“Scrappers,” said Ash with a sigh, flipping the communication switch off. “We’re dead in the water. We were as soon as they answered.”
“I thought that’s what we wanted? They have the scrap heap, right?” Mari said, frowning as the air grew tense around her. “What’s happening?”
“Scrappers add to their collection, not give it away,” Ash said, pointing to the ship. “They… they’re carrion birds. They trail along the outer depths of space, looking for stranded ships and consuming them for parts. Songbird is fine, except for that hunk of metal and our dampeners. They can cut a hole in the side of our ship, depressurize us into oblivion and have the ship back up and flying to sell to someone else.”
“They probably won’t, though,” said Jayna. “It would be much more profitable to board us and kill us personally and take the ship intact.”
Mari swallowed heavily. “So… we’re still just as dead as we were before,” she said.
“Possibly deader,” said Ash.
Mari’s face went pale, but her features, hardened. “We’re sure as hell not going to let them do
that without a fight.”
“No,” muttered Zane.
“Damn right,” said Jayna, patting him on the shoulder.
“No,” he repeated, his eyes watering. He was trembling from side to side.
“Zane, bud?” said Ash, looking over him. “Are you-“
Before Ash could finish, Zane sprung out of the captain’s chair, body-checking him out of the way.
Ash landed hard on the ground, and Jayna sprinted after their pilot. “Zane, wait!”
By the time the crew caught up with him, he was huddled in the corner of the dining room, shaking like a leaf. And clutching a long kitchen knife.
“Zane,” said Jayna, holding her hands up in a placating gesture. “Come here, it’s okay. Put it down…”
“Can’t… take me back,” he said. “Won’t let them… can’t go back…”
He swung the knife at nothing, and Jayna flinched.
She nodded, heading to the sick bay as Jayna bypassed the knife. “No one’s taking you anywhere,” Jayna said softly, slipping the knife out of his hand and setting it down on the table.
Zane took several deep breaths, looking up at Jayna. As soon as she laid a hand on him, he sprang up again. But she was reading this time, holding onto him tight as he thrashed and struggled.
“Hold him still!” yelped Mari, as she approached with a small hypo. Jayna tightened her grip, and Mari managed to administer it. After about a minute, his movement began to grow lethargic, until finally he was down and out.
“What did you just give him?” said Jayna, looking down at Zane.
“Heavy-duty sedatives,” said Mari, blushing. “I’ve… been carrying a bit on me at all times ever since that first night. It’s not that I don’t trust Zane, but…”
“No, can’t say we blame you,” said Jayna with a sigh. “I’ll take Zane up to his bunk.”
Ash slumped down into a chair, and looked up at the ceiling. “Can we never catch a break?” he said, laughing a bit despite the grimness of the situation. “Of course it’s scrappers.”
“And our ace in the hole is going to be dead to the world for the next six hours, at the very least,” said Mari. “Probably more, if he’s been sleeping as little as I suspect.”
“He hasn’t been sleeping,” Jayna said, shaking her head as she returned. “He’s strapped down good now, though. He’ll be out for the worst of it.”
“And by worst you mean, the rest of it?” Ash muttered.
Jayna shook her head. “No. The worst of getting what we need and taking what we want,” she said. “Bring the blueprints of the ship up to the cockpit. We’ve probably got an hour before they touch base. I want to be ready.”
“Ready?” said Mari. “What are you planning?”
Jayna smiled. It was not a happy smile. “We’re not dying today,” she said. “I promise you that. Not today.”
After about half an hour of planning, the Steel Rider had come to the horizon. Ash had diverted a small amount of power into turning the energy shields on, but besides that they still sat as dead in the water as they did before. Mari sat nervously by the control console. Waiting.
Something blinked on at the view screen. Mari pressed the button for the intercom.
“They’re requesting permission to dock with us,” she said.
“I need more time,” said Ash’s voice. “But if we wait too long, they’ll get suspicious.”
“Tell them they have permission,” chimed in Jayna. “I’m ready for them.”
“Okay,” Mari said softly, depressing the button. “This is Songbird checking in..”
“Hello, Songbird, this is Steel Rider. We’re requesting access aboard… in all of the excitement earlier, we plumb forgot to ask you about schematics… We’ll just need to come on board with a few of our crew and take a look.”
Mari swallowed heavily, glad that they couldn’t see her face. She followed the script she was given. “No problem, Steel Rider,” she said. “Our docking bay is ready to link up with yours whenever you’re ready, and we’ll be right there to receive you.”
“Fantastic. See you soon.”
The connection cut off, and Jayna stood at the doorway. “Go ahead and join Ash in the engine room. I’ll take care of everything else from up here.”
“Are you sure you want to go out there alone?” said Mari.
Jayna nodded. “I can handle this,” she said. “I’ve got a plan, remember?”
She nodded, even if she didn’t really understand it. “Yeah… just. Be careful.” Mari said, and then ran to the back. Jayna sighed, and flipped the light off. “Alright, you bastards.”
Down in the docking bay, she had set up several empty shipping crates, left over from various deliveries. They had kept meaning to dump them somewhere, but never got around to it. Right now, she was thankful for Ash’s repeated procrastinations.
Quickly, she disengaged the locking mechanisms. When Steel Rider linked up with them, they’d be able to get right aboard with no confirmation from Songbird.
There was a moment of still silence, where the whole world seemed to turn off. With the ship’s engines off and the lights off as well. Jayna closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. On one hand she clutched a small hunting dagger.
Then, with a pneumatic hiss, the door opened. Two of the Steel Rider’s crew came through, and Jayna could tell even from here they were armed to the teeth.
“See anyone around?” said one of them, a gruff-voiced, pale-complexioned woman in a workman’s coverall.
“Naw,” said her companion, a lanky man with an eyepatch. “Got an automatic response when we sent the request to link up so I s’pose these are really trustin’ folks.”
“There’s a lesson to be learned there,” said the woman, nodding sagely. “Shame they won’t live long enough to learn it. Boss says to vape ‘em quicklike so we can start poking around the ship. Nice-lookin’ little bugger it is, too.”
Jayna crouched behind the console, watching as they walked out of the cockpit and towards the back, where Ash was smiling, wiping his hand with a cloth.
“Glad to see you guys. You have no idea,” Ash said, his smile wide. Jayna had never seen him look more earnest. “Hope you have parts on there for a C-51572 Model. We just need a small amniocentric converter to connect to the gravity dampener unit. Everything else is in pristine condition.”
The scrappers shared a look.
“Did you say 51572?” said the man. “Oh, yeah, no problem, we got like, three of those. Why don’t you show us the engine room and we’ll take a look?”
“Sure,” Ash said, smile unwavering.
“This is a really well-kept model,” said the woman, as she looked Ash up and down. “Normally these ships are fragile. But this one seems like she’s had a lot of mileage…”
The conversation kept up as Jayna crept silently behind them, her hand at her waist.
She finally got within earshot, and heard a gun clicking.
“Yes, this is a might well upkept ship. You do very good work,” the woman said, unslinging her backpack.
“Thanks. So, do we just go back to your ship to get the parts?” Ash said.
“That should be just fine,” said eyepatch, taking a step toward Ash as his hand reached for an unseen holster. He froze in place when he heard a rapidly-cut-off yelp, and turned to see his partner with a knife protruding from her throat. Before he had a chance to react to his, something hard hit him upside the head and he fell to the floor.
By the time his head stopped swimming, he was pinned down, Jayna holding her now-bloodied knife to his throat.
“You listening? You with us? Five words or less for every answer or I start cutting. How many people are on board that ship?” she asked.
“At least ten,” he said, swallowing heavily.
“Are they expecting a report back?” said Jayna. Her captive nodded.
“There’s two ways this can go,” said Jayna. “The way where we tie you up, stick you in a closet and drop you off at a time and place of our choosing, or the way where I slit your throat right here and now. Which one of those sounds better to you?”
“First way, please,” said the man, face turning white.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Buzz whoever you answer to and tell them everything went as planned but you need some help with something. No code words, no ‘this ship has a nice purple shade’ or any of that shit. If I sniff you out, I will put this through the worst part of you.”
She took the comm and pushed the button down, waiting for him to speak.
“What is it, Dobson?” said the voice on the other end.
“Everything’s… taken care of,” he said. “We could use a few extra hands clearing this rig out, though.”
“Alright. We’ll send Hutchinson, Jeffrey and Carlos over. Think that’ll be enough?”
“Should be fine.”
“Alright. Just keep the doors open. The bodies can go into the incinerator and we’ll strip as we go. Hang tight.”
The comm fizzled, and Jayna smiled. “Nice work. Thank you for your service.”
Then she wound up and punched him twice, knocking his head into the metal grilling. He was out cold. She got to her feet and looked at Ash. “I’m going to head over when they start coming through. Put him in the spare room and keep your head down,” she said.
Ash nodded. “You need help, you radio. You don’t have to be a juggernaut.”
Jayna smiled. “They can’t scare me.”
“They scare me enough for both of us,” said Ash. “I’ll be back in the engine room. Stay safe.”
Jayna grimaced as Ash ran off She wasn’t worried about her safety at the moment.