Jayna sat and listened in rapt attention as Chuck told the story of how he met Ash, with Zane and Mari patched in and listening via her tablet.
“…and there he was on my doorstep,” said Chuck. “I hadn’t seen him since his father died.”
“So… he just left the Brotherhood, just like that?” Jayna said, leaning back in her chair.
Chuck nodded. “He cut all ties, and we got him a scrubbed ID number and started new. When he was leaving he just told me he wanted to lose himself in the work.”
“I can’t believe this,” said Mari’s voice from the tablet. “I mean… do we even know him?”
“No, we don’t. We know whatever mask he put on. And now he’s gone and gotten himself kidnapped,” she said. “What do we know about them?”
Chuck groaned. “Not enough. Ash never talked much about it and we just assumed he’d slipped them and that they had bigger fish to fry.”
“Clearly they were holding a bit of a grudge,” said Mari.
“We’re still gonna help him, right?” chimed in Zane. “I mean… he’s still Ash, right?”
Jayna was silent for a moment.
“Janya. He’s our friend,” said Zane, arguing against the silence.
“Is he?” said Jayna.
“Yes!” snapped Zane, giving her a jolt. Zane never raised his voice. “Yeah, he’s been lying to us about a bunch of stuff but he… he’s still Ash! He still kept us flying! He still backed us up when we needed it! He still held your hair after you had that bad curry! I didn’t tell you everything about me right away either. Maybe he was waiting for the right time to tell you.”
“When we asked you who you were, you told us,” retorted Jayna. “I’ve asked Ash where he came from. And he lied. He lied to me. You never lied to me Zane. When he took me away–“
“You wanted to be taken away,” Mari said, interrupting. “And he let you do that. He helped you because he knew you needed to lose yourself too. And so did I. And so did Zane. We can’t just leave him to die, even if you are angry at him.”
Jayna went silent.
“…you’re right,” said Jayna. “He’s still Ash. We have to save him.” She took a deep breath. “But once he’s safe and sound, he’s going to get an earful.”
The group turned back to Chuck.
“Tell me what you do know about them, please,” said Jayna. “And then we’ll let you rest.”
“They’re not like most of these groups,” said Chuck. “They’re not in this for fame and recognition. They’re utterly devoted to their cause. They’ll die for it. And outside of the terraformation groups and law enforcement, almost nobody even knows they exist. They don’t leave a big bodycount behind, and they don’t get caught. They’re clean. And they encourage everyone to make their own builds, so the chemistry and forensics teams are always kept guessing because none of the bombs are the same.”
“While interesting,” said Mari, “all this doesn’t really help us find Ash.”
Chuck hesitated, trying to collect his thoughts. “There were four people around me,” said Chuck, closing his eyes as he racked his memory. “At least one was a woman, but I can’t describe them beyond that. But I know Ash. He’s got a fast mouth and a faster brain. If there’s a way he could get a message to you guys, maybe he was able to leave one in the shop, or on the ship. I dunno. But they’ll want to hole up somewhere quiet and out of the way.”
“Do you think they could be off-world by now?” said Mari.
“Doubt it,” said Jayna. “They came here to set a trap for him. They sound careful. Meaning they probably have a base of operations locally. Let’s go back to the shop.” She stood up. “Thank you for your help, Chuck.”
“Please keep me in touch,” said Chuck, as he relaxed again. “Everyone in this room… we’re the closest thing to family that Ash has left. We need to look out for him.”
Jayna mulled this over as the three left the hospital.
The garage had been cordoned off, but as it was quite late now, nobody was around. It was the perfect time to slip back in and poke around.
“I’m glad you’re so tiny,” Jayna said, and quickly lifted Mari up to a set of windows on near the roof of the building.
“It has its perks,” said Mari, as she dropped through. There was a crashing sound and some muffled profanity, and moments later, the front door was unlocked.
She opened the door a bit wider, ushering them in. Jayna flipped the lamp on then looked around again. “They knew Ash would come here.” Jayna said. “So they set this up purposefully.”
“How did they even know he was in a position to come?” said Mari. “I mean… space is kind of big.”
“Maybe they’ve been tailing him longer than we thought,” Jayna said, going back to where they had found Chuck and took a deep breath, looking around the area and starting to look for things that showed the signs of struggle.
There weren’t many. A few tools thrown about. Some of them stained. It was hard to tell what with.
Ash had been here less than a day ago. There had to be some sign of him.
But there was nothing. Jayna snarled, picking up a nearby shelf and tossing it across the room. Both Mari and Zane cried out.
“There’s nothing here,” she said, putting her hands on her head in exasperation.
“There has to be something,” said Zane. “Come on, think. If you were a crazy terrorist-cult-thing, where would you be?”
Jayna… actually considered that for a moment. Where would they be?
“They’ve come for Ash after… who knows how many years,” said Jayna. “He hurt them really badly. If I was a member of an organization with such an inflated sense of self-importance to have ‘Brotherhood’ in my cult name, what would I do?”
“If this was a schlocky drama,” said Mari, “what they’d do is make an example of him. Something that says to the world ‘We in particular are not to be fucked with. This is what you get.'”
“Yeah, but it’s already been what, 16 hours? How long would they wait?” Zane asked. “I don’t… we can’t go to the pokers on this. Ash is implicated, and if they fall they’ll drag him under too.”
Jayna grunted in frustration, turning and kicking a cart full of tools over. As it tilted, and the hundreds of pounds of tools fell onto the floor, a black leather jacket tumbled out from underneath it.
Curious, she picked it up and turned it over. “Was this always here?” she asked.
Mari shook her head. “It was underneath this cart full of crap,” she said, and then turned it around to see the raven that adorned Ash’s jacket.
“Maybe he knew you would be the only one able to toss all that crap aside so easily.” Mari said, looking up to see a chain that looked a few links short.
Jayna looked at the chain, and then at the cart, and then up. There was a length of chain hanging from the ceiling, with the last link broken. Directly below it, where the heavy tool rack had been, the floor was dented.
“Ash, you dumb genius,” she said, reaching into the jacket. Stuffed deep into it was a tablet, old and a bit cracked but still perfectly functional. It was open to a notepad. Somebody had rapidly tapped some letters into it:
“Shipyard,” said Jayna, mentally translating the hasty spelling error. “Of course. They’d have to go poetic for this one.”
“That’s not going to be super helpful… There’s got to be at least half a dozen shipyards in the city and they’re all abandoned right now because of the strike. They could be anywhere!” Mari sighed.
“We’re better off than we were a minute ago,” said Zane helpfully.
“And it can’t be just any old abandoned shipyard,” said Jayna. “Most of them have owners who’d object to people setting up shop, and they’d have to be already established there.”
“It’s a start. Let’s go, we’re losing time.”
Ash had been spending an indeterminate amount of time drifting in and out of consciousness. He wasn’t sure how long it had been. There was no way to know how much time had passed. There were no windows, no clocks. Only the beating of his heart indicated that time was passing at all.
He rolled over, and his other parts took up the chorus of pain. Who knew how many ribs were broken. He pulled up, and felt his wrists rub raw against the cord and cursed. He knew they didn’t keep rope in such terrible condition–they’d gone out and purposefully bought shit rope just to tie him up with. That kind of thing really sold it home. He had to get out of here.
He chuckled to himself. It hurt to laugh. There was nothing he could do here. The only comfort that he had was that Katrina hadn’t mentioned the crew at all. Good.
The door opened again.
“‘Bout time,” he groaned. “The room service here sucks.”
He was met with a kick in the head as a response. He refused to let himself cry out in pain, and instead looked up to his current tormentor.
Katrina was back, and she had brought company. Two more people, a man and a woman, were with her.
“Getting tired, huh?” said Ash. “Gonna let… someone else take a whack?”
“No… I could sit here and beat you until you were unrecognizable, but that wouldn’t be enough,” Katrina said.
“Are you sure?” said Ash, managing a smile despite. What did he have to lose. “I think there’s some unbruised tissue near my leg. Come on, maybe if you hit me hard enough, candy’ll fall out!”
Katrina looked at him, kneeling down. Her eyes were hard, but he could still see the pain beneath them. “I’m glad you still think this is all funny.”
Ash managed something approximated a shrug. “What are you gonna do? Kill me more?” he said. “I don’t suppose it’d help if I apologized.”
Katrina looked at him as if he’d slapped her. “Like I would believe anything that comes out of your mouth.”
Ash spit out a mouthful of blood. “Good, because it would be insincere,” he said. “What did you expect, really? You recruited a stupid kid who was half-mad with grief and anger. And it blew up in your face. Really, the only surprising thing is that this shit doesn’t happen to you people more.”
Katrina leapt forwards, but the man on her side pulled her fist away just in time for it not to take Ash’s head off.
Ash rolled his eyes. This, too, hurt. “Still a hothead, Katrina,” he said. “Now, what say you kill me and get it over with already?”
“Unfortunately, it won’t be over that quickly for you,” The other woman said, and removed a baton from her jacket. “Sleep tight,” she said.
And the lights went out once again for Ash. But he felt a strange sense of satisfaction as he slipped into the abyss.
When he woke up, he felt… much, much worse. Okay, so maybe pissing off the girl with hams for fists wasn’t the best idea.
He was no longer strapped to the wall, which was a plus. But he was now strapped to something else. Which… wasn’t much better.
At least his wrists didn’t hurt as much.
But that’s only because his arms and his shoulders and his back were burning. He blinked as he saw sunlight for the first time in who knew how long. Also, at the small of his back felt like there was a piece of hot metal jammed against it.
“Comfortable?” said Katrina’s voice once again. Though this time it was coming through an earpiece.
“I mean, I don’t need a tan, but I appreciate the sunshine,” Ash said, his eyes finally clearing. As soon as he figured out where he was he laughed. “You guys are so much.”
“What can I say?” said Katrina’s voice, and Ash could hear the smirk. “I have a flair for the dramatic. Some of the others wanted to just strap you to a bomb and call it a day, but I know you. You’d find some way to survive that.”
“I’ve been tracking your bombs, they’ve stalled out. Sounds like you need fresh blood in there,” Ash said, grunting as he strained against his bindings. “The last few were shite. Like, really? Cesium? I had to steal it just to be sure you idiots wouldn’t try and blow up anything important with it.”
“You know, part of me is going to miss your snarky banter,” said Katrina. “But most of me will get over it. In about three hours, the shuttle you’re hitching a ride on will engage its autopilot. It will then be delivering a very special package to somebody who very dearly deserves it. And you’ll have a front-row seat.”
Ash put the pieces together too quickly. With a sigh he stretched upwards. “This won’t make you feel better. It won’t change a thing.”
“It may not change anything, that’s true,” said Katrina. “And you’re right about that. But on the other hand, I feel much better already. Goodbye, Ashton. Have a nice flight.”
What followed was the sound of an earpiece being crushed.
Well. Now he only had himself.
He sagged against the ship, his eyes stinging with tears almost immediately. He’d always.. he’d always had people around him. He’d always been able to sink into whatever role anyone wanted him to play. Doting son, the good spacer, the confidant. But it had been people he relied on. He was an extrovert. he needed… he needed people. By himself he was just… lost.
As terrifying as this ordeal was, he knew that, somehow, he’d get Katrina to see reason. If he just said the right things, he could… he could buy time. He could weasel out.
Now there was just silence.