Hanwi was a podunk little stopover moon in a nowhere system, which made one of the many towns on it terrible places for refueling stops.
“Come on, Ash!” called Jayna, down into Songbird’s guts. “We’ve got a few more hours while she’s being looked after, I want to go walk around a bit. Get some fresh food while we have the chance.”
“Fresh? In this place?” said Ash. “Good luck. It’s a shithole.”
“That’s what you said about the last place we stopped,” said Jayna. “And it was nice! There was that cute little thrift shop.”
“I don’t even know what you’re going to do with half of that crap you bought,” said Ash, shaking his head. But she was right. There was nothing wrong with the ship today, it just needed fuel. They could stand to get off boat for a few hours. Jayna wasn’t the best spacer, but she had adapted quickly.
Really, they had a pretty good arrangement. He took care of Songbird, and she took care of trouble. The women of Isocrateria tended not to travel far, and when people saw seven feet of solid muscle sizing them up the way one might size up a new punching bag, they tended to calm down.
As they disembarked, they looked the place over. It was… not much. But there were street vendors and bars and houses of ill repute, as there always were in places that spacers passed through a lot.
“Do you think we should get a car or just trek?” she asked, pulling her jacket on.
“I can’t imagine driving any length would improve the scenery much,” said Ash.
Jayna smiled. “Then we’ll walk then, there’s got to be something around here of interest.” she said, giving him a smile.
“Interesting doesn’t always mean good,” said Ash.
Despite Ash’s word of caution, Jayna helped herself to a questionable taco from a street vendor.
“It’s interesting,” she said, as she nibbled on the strange fried crust filled with meat of unknown origin.
“Yes, well, go easy on it, I only just fixed the head,” said Ash.
She rolled her eyes. “I told you that it wasn’t my fault,” she nibbled and walked along the pier. It was a Sunday, so the road was closed, just open for pedestrian traffic.
“If you say so,” said Ash, rolling his eyes as they walked. As expected, there wasn’t much to recommend the town as a tourist destination.
“…did you hear that?” said Ash, suddenly looking around.
Jayna looked up from her taco. “Hear what?” came out in a mumble, but then she heard it too. She tucked the rest of the taco into her mouth, and then moved towards the edge of the bridge.
“I don’t know,” said Ash. “Maybe it was my imagination. Sounded like… some kind of gas leak or something.”
“Maybe one of the pipes has a cover off? I’ll take a look and that way we can report it.”
“It’s not our problem,” said Ash, shrugging as Jayna looked down into the ditch. “But whatever, it’s your time.”
A few minutes later, Jayna’s head poked up again. “Um, Ash?” she said. “You might want to come down here. It’s not a gas leak.”
Ash poked his head out. THen he groaned. “Jayna! What did I tell you about finding strange men in ditches. How dead is he?”
“He’s not!” said Jayna, dragging the man up out of the ditch. “He’s breathing!”
Ash quickly jumped down to join them, looking the man over. He was shorter than Ash, pale as a ghost, and covered in filth. “Cripes,” said Ash. “How long has he been in this ditch?”
“Don’t know,” said Jayna. She started going through the man’s pockets, and pulled out a small packet. “This is the only thing he has on him,” she said, unfolding it. “Looks like… a citation for public intoxication. Maybe he’s wasted.”
“Doesn’t look like he’s drunk to me,” said Ash. “I’ve seen my fair share of black-out drunks. Been them, too.” He took the paper and looked over it. “It looks like Mr. Forde here has seen better days,” he added.
She knelt down, her boots undoubtedly filling with mud. “Hey… hey. Are you awake?”
The man twisted a bit, his eyes fluttering open for a moment as they tried to focus… though what they were trying to focus on was left as an exercise for the viewers.
“Get a load of those eyes,” said Ash. “Never seen anything like them. Gene mod, you think?”
“Or something,” Jayna said, looking at him. “Hey… can you hear me… anyone home?” she asked.
This time, he looked at her, if only for a moment.
“Come on,” said Ash. “We gotta take this guy to a hospital or something-“
With more speed than either of them would have anticipated, the man’s hand reached out and grasped Ash’s collar.
“N-no,” he rasped. “P-please… c-can’t… go back…”
“Okay, okay, no hospital…. can you get up?” Ash said, slowly prying the man’s wiry fingers away from his leather jacket.
But he was out again.
“Well, shit,” said Ash. “What are we going to do? We can’t just leave him in the ditch.”
Jayna slipped her arm under his pack and easily draped him over her shoulder.
“I guess that’s what we’re doing,” said Ash, shrugging. “Alright then.”
They found a motel not far from the spaceport. It wasn’t much, but it had four walls, a bed, and clean water.
Before they’d made it all the way in, Jayna had stopped to pick up water, towels, and some food. Ash listened to a news ticker on his tablet while Jayna fussed over the young man, waiting for him to come to.
They didn’t have to wait as long as Ash had dreaded. About an hour after they’d settled him in, he spoke up with a start, eyes darting around nervously.
“It’s okay, Zane, you’re safe now!” said Jayna, sitting by his bedside. “That’s your name, right? Zane?”
He seemed to calm down as he looked at her. “Is… is that my name?” he asked.
“That’s what it said on the form,” said Jayna softly.
“Oh,” he said. “Okay then. Um… who are you? Are you real?”
“Last time I checked,” said Ash. “So where’d you come from?
The man looked up at them. “I… don’t know,” he said.
“Do you not remember?” Jayna said. “Sometimes that happens. Looks like you got mugged or something. Maybe they hit you in the back of a head-“
“No… I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever been anyone,” he murmured.
Ash and Jayna shared a look.
“Must have gotten hit pretty bad,” said Ash.
“Do you have… anywhere to go?” said Jayna. “Any family?”
Zane hesitated for a moment… then shook his head. “Not… really,” he said. “…Not anymore.”
Jayna looked at Ash and gave a shrug.
Ash shrugged back. “You pulled him out of the ditch. Zane… buddy, can I call you that?”
Zane looked a bit taken aback, but he nodded.
“Is there someplace we can take you? Someplace safe?”
Zane’s features shifted as he gave this some thought.
“…Not here?” he tried.
“We can… get you off world. We can take you wherever you want. We just need a little bit more time for our ship to finish refueling and–“
Zane curled up, withdrawing in on himself.
“Please,” he said. “I just… everything’s so… twisty, I just need to get away.”
Ash and Jayna shared a look. Ash’s look indicated that he did not want this crazy on his ship. Jayna’s indicated back that this man was clearly in need of help, and he wasn’t going to find it here. Ash sighed.
“We can drop you off someplace nicer than here,” said Ash. “What you do from there is your business.”
Ash nodded. “We’re going to be planetside for another few hours. Do you have anything you need us to pick up? Any belongings?”
Zane let out a shudder. “No,” he said. “Nothing… that I want.”
She nodded, sitting down on the bed next to him. “Okay. That’s fine. Are you hungry?” Jayna asked.
Zane shivered again. By the looks of him, he hadn’t been eating properly for some time. Then he nodded again.
It had taken some doing to find anything resembling healthy food on this rock, but Jayna had managed to find a corner store that had some freeze-dried fruit, which she carefully offered to him.
Zane regarded it dubiously, as if not sure what it was, but tore into it readily in short order.
“Um, before we take you out of here… Is there anything we need to worry about following after us?”
He paused in the middle of chewing on a dried strawberry. Then he rubbed his temples.
“N-no,” he said. Another look was shared. This was clearly a man haunted by something. The question was if it was in his head or not.
“There’s no harm in giving him a ride, at least,” said Ash.
By sundown Zane seemed to have calmed down, somewhat. Ash, who had been busy tinkering with a small part he had pulled from the ship, looked up and saw that his data-pad had lit up.
“Hey, looks like the refueling’s done. We’re good to go.”
“Good,” said Jayna. “I’ve had just about all of this place I can take.” She offered Zane a hand. “Come on. Do you feel like you can walk?”
With her help, he got up in such a way that put them in mind of a newborn foal taking its first steps. But he steadied himself quickly enough. “A-alright,” he said. “Thank you.”
She nodded and they checked the room a final time and then started to move towards the shipyards.
They were about halfway there before Ash pulled them into a convenience store.
“I didn’t think we needed anything,” Jayna said, frowning.
Ash sighed. “We’ve got a tail.”
Zane looked down and around, trying to scope out his own rear.
“He means somebody’s following us,” said Jayna. “Zane… are you sure nobody’s after you?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t want to say anything,” he said. “I really, really didn’t want to be left here…”
Ash sighed. “Jayna… why don’t you go say hello to the guys in the white car.”
Jayna nodded, stepping out of the store and trying to look nonchalant, inasmuch as that was possible.
Zane was shaking like a leaf.
“Hey, relax,” said Ash. “We didn’t pull you out of that ditch just to let someone else grab you.”
Zane stammered. “I-I-I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just want… I just don’t want to do what they wanted me to.”
Ash smiled. “You don’t have to hurt anyone. Jayna does plenty of that for everyone.”
He carefully moved Zane to the side and a minute later another guy was thrown through the front door.
Jayna walked in right after him, dusting off her hands. Then she lifted the guy up again, holding him firmly in place.
“We swear we weren’t gonna hurt him!” the man squealed. “We just want to know where Deuce is!”
Zane blinked. “You’re looking for… Johnny?”
Ash looked at the man. “Who is Deuce?” he asked and flashed a chit stick at the protesting shop owner.
Zane swallowed. “My… um, brother,” he said. “Sort of.”
“He was an enforcer for us!” said the man in Jayna’s grasp. “He just stole a shitload of chits from my boss and took off in one of our shuttles!”
Zane gave a reedy little laugh. “Yeah… that sounds like him.”
“We know that these two lived together. We thought they both had skipped town, but then he showed up at one of the boss’ motels.”
Ash sighed. “Just our goddamn luck,” he said. “Alright, time for us to leave, I think. We won’t take the scenic route back to Songbird.”
“That’s a pretty name for a ship,” Zane said softly.
Ash smiled at that. “Come on, let’s move it.”
“Hold on,” said Jayna. She leaned down to meet the guy’s eyes. “Any surprises waiting for us?”
The man gulped. “There’s… a hit squad camped near the spaceport,” he said. “Just in case…”
Jayna groaned. Ash did too. “All of my weapons are on the ship.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” said Zane, crouching down and covering his head. “Please don’t make me…”
“Hey, hey… you don’t have to do anything. Jayna will get you on the ship. I don’t typically do emergency takeoffs, but you know, I can give it a good go. As long as they don’t do any sizeable damage I can do patchwork from the inside and just get us to the next major shipyard on this planet.” Ash said, running a hand over his shoulder. “We’ll be okay.”
Zane took a deep breath. “A-alright,” he said.
Jayna set the man down onto the floor. “You have to go to the bathroom now,” she said. He nodded and ran off. She looked over to the car the man had been in. “Pretty sure he left the key in that,” she said thoughtfully.
Ash smiled. “Well then, I guess that’s our ride.”
“Uh… is it a convertible?”
“With the right attitude,” Ash said, and smiled at Zane. “Come on, buddy.”
It was a good thing that there wasn’t much traffic. It was an even better thing that the gate to the spaceport wasn’t particularly well reinforced.
Jayna squeezed into the back seat, her long legs taking up most of it. Zane rode up front with Ash, and he seemed to start at the slightest noise.
Ash was the one who jumped though when he saw the squad waiting for them outside of the shipyards.
“”Your brother sure knew how to make friends, Zane!” said Ash, as he pushed on through. Gunshots rang out almost immediately. “Hang on!”
“He was never really good at seeing the big picture,” Zane said, rocking back and forth as Ash weaved through the hail of bullets. Finally they made it to the relative safety of the docks.
“Relative” being a relative term., of course.
“Come on, everybody in,” said Ash, as they quickly ditched the car and made a break for Songbird, Zane being half-dragged by Jayna.
Ash quickly got them inside, and ran to the control room. Jayna settled Zane down in one of the seats. “Just stay here. Ash has to run a few customary checks and then we’re out of here,” she said.
Ash quickly ran off while Jayna did her usual preflight checks. She stopped when she heard something ping against the hull. She quickly went to one of the viewports and peered outside. She quickly pushed one of the many buttons for Songbird’s intercom system. “We’ve got trouble!” she said.
“Tell them we don’t want any,” came Ash’s reply. “Idiots de-aligned the gravity dampeners, I have to fix this before we get spacebound!”
“They’re shooting at us, Ash!”
“Slugs won’t do them a whole lot of good against the hull of a ship.”
“The plasma rifle they’re charging up might!”
There was string of muffled profanities in reply. “Get the ship into the air!” he said. “I can do the repairs on the fly before we leave the atmosphere!”
“Are you crazy?” said Jayna. “I have no idea how to fly a ship!”
“Learn fast, then,” said Ash, cutting off. Jayna sighed.
“Zane, don’t worry, everything will be-” she said, turning around. “…Zane?”
The young man was nowhere to be found. And a moment later, the whole ship began to lurch.
Ash’s head poked out of the engine room. That way, the profanities weren’t quite as muffled. “Uh, what the fuck?”
“It’s not me!” Jayna said, and then headed towards the cockpit. “It’s… Zane.”
“WHAT?!” said Ash. “Dammit, this is what I get for taking in strays. Go stop him!”
Jayna made her way up to the cockpit, where Zane was… flying the ship. And he looked more relaxed than Jayna had seen him since he had woken up.
Jayna sat down next to him, and watched as he easily navigated the two other ships nearby and was up into the blue in less than half a minute.
A few minutes later, Ash dashed up to the cockpit, panting. He opened his mouth to yell something, but Jayna held up a finger.
Zane took a deep breath, hitting the appropriate buttons and switches without even looking at them. Songbird started to pick up more and more speed as they started to break through Hanwi’s atmosphere, until finally… everything went quiet as the entered the blackness of space, the moon rapidly disappearing behind them.
“Wow,” said Jayna. “That was… smooth. She shakes way less than when you break out.”
“Shut up. Anyway, Zane, how… how did you learn this?”
Zane blinked, like he was waking up from a trance. “It’s… what I was made for,” he said. “But… it feels… nice.”
Ash and Jayna shared an additional look. Ash gave a look that said ‘well, maybe we don’t have to get rid of him so fast.’ Jayna simply beamed.
“So where are we going, anyway?” said Zane, kind of dreamily.
Zane touched them down at a nearby space station, where they could take a breather and not get shot at while they discussed plans for the future.
Particularly, Zane’s future. Currently, he was seated in the little lounge area on the lower decks, while Jayna and Ash had a chat in the other room.
“So, once we get you a new identity, nothing tying you to Deuce on any other planet, right?” Ash said, sipping on a milkshake.
Zane shook his his head. “He paid our landlord cash and basically told him to stay out of our way. I didn’t have any paperwork. Far as i know… I don’t actually exist.”
“I mean, I guess that’s good then,” said Ash. “We can make you a clean identity, fresh and clean, and then you’d be good to go.”
“Th… thank you,” said Zane. “And… after that you’ll drop me off somewhere safe?”
“I mean…” Jayna looked over at the two of them. “You could always… stay with us for a while.”
Zane blinked. He clearly hadn’t been expecting that answer. “R… really?” he said. “Um… is there anything I can do to help out? If I’m gonna be staying…”
Ash shrugged. “I am normally not a humble guy, but you’re a much better pilot than I am.”
Those strange eyes almost lit up. “I can… fly your ship? We’d be… a crew? Like, a real crew? On a real ship?”
“This definitely isn’t a fake ship, is it?” said Jayna with a shrug.
“You caught me, it’s all just papier mache,” said Ash, rolling his eyes.
Zane looked like he couldn’t quite process everything that was happening to him. Then he looked up again. “If we’re a real crew,” he said, “can I be the captain?”
Ash shrugged. It wasn’t like they had anything resembling a hierarchy. “Sure, why not,” he said.
Zane gave a relatively looney looking grin, but he seemed.. happy.
Jayna smiled. “Well… you know, if you’re going to be the captain, you’re going to need a hat.”
He looked curiously at her as she walked off, and came back with one of her prizes from her previous trip. Ash had thought she was a lunatic for purchasing it, but something about it had called to her.
When Jayna came back, she offered her prize to him. It was an aviator’s cap, in a style that had been common on Old Earth some centuries ago, made of synth-leather with a pair of adjustable goggles built in.
If Zane had looked happy before, now he looked like all of his hopes and dreams were coming true.
She set it down on his head, masking his blond mop and his ears.
Zane stood up straight – not that he had very far to go – and gave a clumsy salute.
“We’ll be ready to take off soon,” said Ash. “Prepare the ship for takeoff… captain.”
Without further ado, Zane took off for the cockpit once again.
“…and this weirdo’s been flying my ship ever since,” said Ash.
Luisa nodded, looking at the three of them, who looked very satisfied. Then she looked at Mari who was grinning.
“So… I’m convinced you’re all crazy. But… the good kind of crazy. Like seafood in tacos.”
Zane’s features suddenly went stony. “You can put seafood… in tacos?” he said. “This changes everything!”
“Well, this has been a fun little storytime,” said Ash. “But we’ve got actual work to be doing. Zane, go check our heading, see what our ETA is. Luisa, with me to the engine room, there’s a few more things I want to show you. Mari, Jayna… you two just do whatever it is you do in your offtime.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Mari, giving a thumbs up.”
The crew scattered as Ash lead Luisa back down to the engine room.
“So,” she said. “This is the life of a spacer. Meet exciting new people and get shot at by them.”
“They don’t always shoot at us,” said Ash, a trifle defensively. Luisa just laughed.
“Hey, as long as they don’t try to eat us afterward, I can deal with it,” she said. “Onward to adventure, huh?”
“Adventure is seriously overrated,” said Ash, patting her on the shoulder. “Onward to the next paycheck, I always say.”