The city was, as Mari had indicated earlier, absolutely lousy with shipyards. It was a convenient stopover point on several trade routes. They had searched three of them so far, and found nothing. Before they went running to another one, they stopped in a little diner to eat and think.
Jayna pored over a directory, looking for something, anything that would give them a clue.
“What about this one?” said Mari, pointing at one. “It’s owned by… a few different companies, but one of them used to have ties to–“
Jayna opened up. “No go,” she said. “It’s going to be renovated next month, there’s going to be inspectors. No way would they pick that one.”
Mari crossed it out. There were red lines through a number of them, but there were still four or five left. Too many to just hit them all at once. “Zane, what do you think?”
“Why are you asking me?” said Zane, rubbing his head. He was shaking. “I don’t know about any of this stuff, I don’t–“
Jayna put her hands on Zane’s shoulders and looked into his eyes.
“Listen, Zane,” she said. “I know sometimes you think you aren’t as smart as us, or that you’re only good at one thing. But you make connections that the rest of us don’t make.” She leaned in a little closer. “So take a deep breath, relax, and listen to your spleen.”
Zane nodded. He looked at the list again.
He pointed out two entries on the list, Smithson’s Docking and Repair and Cosmic Corral.
“These two are the most out of the way,” he said. “And if I had to pick one of them to hide out in… I’d pick the one with the more boring-sounding name, so that people would be less likely to go check it out.”
Mari nodded, circling Smithson’s. “Let’s try this place first. It’s as good a start as any,” she said.
“It had better be,” said Jayna. “This is not a small area to cover and we don’t know how long Ash can hold out.”
Mari looked up from the directory, and then to both Jayna and Zane. Jayna hid it better, but they were both nervous wrecks. “We’ll find him,” Mari said, trying her hardest to sound soothing.
This was certainly the right sort of place to hang about if you didn’t want to attract attention. The abandoned shipyards were all industrial accidents waiting to happen, and even squatters gave them a wide berth.
It was set up like most shipyards. There were two main aisles with ships stacked three high on each side.
While few could afford a ship full time, a lot of upper-middle class people enrolled ship-sharing programs, where they could take the ship out for a couple weeks and return, getting offworld to go visit a garden planet or the like. When they weren’t being used by anyone, they were typically held in dry dock.
There were, perhaps, sixty to eighty ships on the premises.
Most of these were small personal shuttles, and most of them were in some state of disrepair, waiting to be broken down for parts or snapped up by some young up-and-comer looking for something on the cheap.
“This place is huge,” said Mari, looking around. “And he might not even be here! Where do we even start?!”
Jayna sighed. “Mari, Zane, start going that way, see if we can find indication that one of these ships has been disturbed recently. Handprints in the dust, tools where they shouldn’t be… I’ll do the same on the other side.”
The two of them nodded and scurried off. Mari had not been wrong. Where did you even begin with this sort of thing?
Jayna stalked through the aisles. She wove in and out of the bays as she looked for any sign of Ash. The only way she could avoid being terrified that she was going to lose him was by being angry at him, and that didn’t really help either. She let her eyes flit around and felt herself getting more and more frustrated with herself.
Why hadn’t she been able to see the signs. Ash was the smoothest con man she’d ever seen. And she’d seen quite a few while they had worked for Martens.
Jayna leaned against a wall and tried to compose herself. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream, weep, or vomit more. Maybe all three of them at the same time.
Suddenly, she perked up, faintly aware of a sound in the distance. It almost sounded like an engine warming up.
She struggled to compose herself, closing her eyes to try and suss out which direction it was coming from. After a moment, she sprinted to the left.
The sound grew closer and closer, and soon she could smell engine exhaust. It took her a little while to pinpoint the correct bay, but soon she came across what looked to her like a run-down cruiser, single-passenger size if she was any judge.
As she rounded on the bay, she noticed a pair of legs dangling from the back of the ship.
“Ash?!” she cried out.
She quickly turned the corner, and there he was, bound to the hull by several lengths of steel cable. His former brethren had really done a number on him. His clothes were soaked in drying blood, as was his face.
“Ash!” she called out again, as she scrambled for something to stand on, something that would let her reach him. Was it too late? He wasn’t moving…
His head jerked a bit, and he looked around. One eye was swollen shut, and he looked like he was having trouble focusing.
“Ash, please. Please. Can you hear me?” she said. “I have to cut you down, but if you can’t stand up I don’t want you to drop.”
Ash looked at her, as if he was still trying to figure out if she was a hallucination or not. Then he blinked. “Jay?” he managed. “…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
“I know, I know. We’ll talk later. But right now we have to get you out of here,” she said, going to find what the cables were hooked up to. “Just stay awake, stay with me.”
Ash ‘s head drooped again. The cables, it seemed, were welded directly to the hull. These assholes weren’t taking any chances, it seemed. There would be no way for Ash to struggle out of this.
Well. Maybe not Ash, but she could. She quickly tore off a segment of her shirt and wrapped it around her hands. That done, she gripped the cable hard with both hands, and with a resounding groan, started to pull.
It was a really secure weld. It wouldn’t give at first. But she did not come all this way just to leave him here.
He was not allowed to die until the two of them had a looong talk.
She felt fire shoot up her arms as she strained hard, pushing past the pain as she began to feel some give. “C’mon, c’mon,” she said through grit teeth.
The metal started to creak as she pulled and pulled. She felt like she was about to dislocate both shoulders, but she doubled down. Then, with a snap that made her ears ring, the cable came free.. Jayna felt lightheaded from the comedown, but there was no time to recover. As gently as she could imagine, she wriggled Ash out. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He fell bonelessly against her shoulder, and she gently made her way to the ground with him in tow.
Mari and Zane ran towards the bay just as they were leaving it.
“He’s alive,” Jayna said. “But he’s in really bad shape. We need to get out of here before–“
“Wait,” he rasped.
He managed to lift his head again. “We have to… the ship,” he said. “Autopilot… gonna… crash!”
“What? Ash, fuck the ship!” Jayna said. “You’re about two more punches away from death. We need to get you some medical attention.”
“No,” he hissed. He swallowed heavily, then said, “The ship… it’s loaded with… bombs. If it takes off, it’s gonna…”
“Blow up something big.” Jayna sighed. “What are you going to do?”
“Get me to… engine room,” he said, panting. “Can make… ship… no go.”
Jayna looked at Mari, and gave her a questioning look regarding Ash’s condition.
Mari in turn looked over Ash. After a moment, she sighed. “In my opinion as a medical professional, this man has been beat to shit,” said Mari. “But at a cursory glance, I don’t think he’s going to die in the next ten minutes. And if we don’t try and do this, he’ll hurt himself worse trying to do it himself.”
“Okay,” Jayna murmured, and started to help him towards the cockpit. “But be quick, please,” she said.
“I’ll help,” said Zane, following behind Jayna. “Mari, stay here, and if you see anyone coming, scream. And shoot them. Um, not necessarily in that order. Use your discretion.”
The cockpit turned out to be no good.
“Controls are security-locked,” said Zane. “Can’t change anything without the password. And considering that the autopilot is going to engage in… about fifteen minutes?”
“Told you,” said Ash. “Engine room…”
“I don’t know if you can–“
“No time,” Ash slurred, and started stumbling that direction.
“Careful!” said Zane, holding him up. “That leg doesn’t look good!”
“‘m fine.” Ash said, and slowly looked about the cockpit. He let his good eye wander for a moment, and then found a crate with a bunch of tools left behind. “Need a couple minutes…”
“I’m not sure you’ve got ’em!” said Zane.
“Zane, keep working here,” said Jayna, hoisting Ash up once again and taking him down to the engine room. It was barely a fraction the size of Songbird’s.
Ash crawled, carefully through the tightly packed coils, and disappeared from sight. “I’m never going to forgive you if you die in there where I can’t get you,” Jayna said, unable to keep the break out of her voice.
“You already… got me,” said Ash.
“Hurry it up in there,” she hissed. “How long can it take to make this thing inoperable, anyway? Just hit something until it breaks!”
“Can’t… do that,” groaned Ash. “If I do… they’ll know. Need to make it so that it… takes off… and then fails. Somewhere safe.”
There was a sound of metal hitting metal a few times, then an electrical surge followed by a hiss, like gas escaping.
After what felt like a terrible silence, Ash finally reached a hand out for Jayna to grab.
“Did you do what you needed to do?” she asked.
“Yeah,” panted Ash, holding up a little chunk of metal with some frayed, multicolored wires dangling from it, which he tossed aside. “We gotta go now. This thing’s… ugh…”
He tried to right himself and stumbled, falling forward.
“Easy, easy,” she said, motioning for Zane to help her on the other side.
The two of them hoisted Ash up and started walking him out. As relieved as Jayna was that he was okay, she began rehearsing the verbal evisceration that Ash was going to get once he could see straight again.
She felt him move, and when she turned to look at him, meeting his eyes. She nearly stumbled. Was he… crying?
“Thanks… for coming for me,” he said.
Jayna sighed, hugging him closely. “Rest now. We’ll work everything else out later.”
He nodded at her, and then… he was out.
“You son of a bitch,” said Jayna, as the two of them hauled him out.
But she was smiling as she said it.
Ash was checked into the same hospital that Chuck was in. For the second time since they arrived, a number of small but well-placed bribes were made to hospital staff. It prevented them from asking too many questions.
It would have been too coincidental for them to be in the same room, so Mari spent her time bouncing back and forth between both rooms. Jayna stayed with Ash and waited for him to wake up.
It had actually ended up being worse than it looked. Concussion, burst blood vessel in his good eye, black eye on the other side with a slight hairline fracture to the eye socket, bone, whatever. Broken ribs, broken collarbone, pulled leg muscles, severe abrasions around the wrists and ankles. Bad. But nothing life threatening, at least the doctors hoped so.
He had slept for almost a full day. But when his eyes finally opened, Jayna was there.
He looked over at her, then shut his eyes again.
“So on a scale of one to completely fucked,” he said, “how high on your shit list am I?”
“Infinity,” Jayna said after a moment, setting her tablet down and looking at him. “Are you thirsty?”
“Parched,” he said. A water bottle was passed over to him, and he drained it.
Moments passed in silence.
“…I never lied to you about anything but my name and where I came from, you know,” he said.
“Speaking of which,” said Jayna. “Ashton to Ashlar? Really? That’s the best you could come up with?”
Ash laughed. Then he winced. “I was in a hurry and it was easy to remember.”
Jayna shook her head. “You didn’t just lie to me about where you came from, Ash… you lied to me about who you were. Everything you were before I met you.”
“Sounds about right,” he said. He closed his eyes. “You weren’t missing much. Just a stupid kid who got in too deep and hurt a lot of people in the process. I buried him deep and I hoped he’d stay there.”
“How many other things have you lied about?” said Jayna. “I asked you.. and… and I trusted you with things.”
Ash sighed. “What else would I need to lie about?” he said. He turned his head to look at her, and judging by the look on his face, immediately regretted doing so. “Jay… I’m not going to just ask you to trust me again. I know you better than that. But please believe me when I say that the person that left Isocrateria with you is the same one you’re talking to right now.” He paused to take a breath. “Everything we’ve been through together was real. I was utterly torn down after I fled the Brotherhood, and I spent a lot of time building myself back up into a complete person again. You helped a lot with that.”
“I guess we could say that you rose from the Ashes?”
The two of them turned, and there was Zane. He looked tired, but then, he always looked tired. But he was smiling.
Ash groaned. “Nevermind, strap me back to the ship. I give up.”
Zane sat down at the opposite side of the bed.
“Don’t bother,” said Zane. “I mean… all things considered, it would be pretty hypocritical of me to hold this against you.”
Ash seemed lost for words.
“Look, everyone struggles with who they are, who they were, and who they want to be,” said Zane. “I mean, I would know. But, y’know… all that really matters is that you keep trying to be better than you were, right? If only in little ways.”
Jayna looked up at Zane. Then she smiled. “When did you get so deep?”
“I’m working through some things right now,” said Zane, nodding. “The painting and the meds help.”
“I’ll say,” said Ash. “It’s been months since you woke up in the middle of the night and pulled a weapon on us. I kind of miss it.”
“Don’t push your luck,” said Zane. “Now, you need rest.”
“You’re telling me,” said Ash.
“Mari talked to the staff,” said Zane. “You’ll have to spend a couple weeks recuperating here before we can move you back to Songbird. But they’ve got good medical tech, there shouldn’t be any permanent damage.”
“So no escape attempts,” said Jayna, patting him. But Ash had already nodded off, as exhaustion took its toll, aided in no small amount by heavy-duty painkillers.
“He looks oddly contented,” said Zane, as he watched Ash’s features relax.
“Yeah,” said Jayna. “He does… I hope he’s someplace nice right now.”
“Wow… dad, is this ship really ours?”
“Yup, it’s all ours. Isn’t she a beauty? Admittedly, she’s a little bit rough around the edges, but we’ll take good care of her.”
“I know we will. You’re the best mechanic I know!”
“And someday, you’re gonna be better, mark my words.”
“So what are we gonna call her, dad? …Dad?”
“…I was thinking Songbird.”
“Isn’t that what you used to call–“
“Your mother, yeah. I guess it is a bit sappy.”
“No, not at all. It’s perfect. Songbird... we’ll take good care of you, girl. And you’re gonna take us everywhere.”