Happy holidays, readers! Sorry we’ve been so quiet lately, but we’ve had a lot on our plates, between editing our novels, family crises and Nanowrimo. But we wanted to show our fans that we haven’t forgotten Songbird and her crew! Here’s Part 1 of a two part special for the holidays, the second of which will be posted on the first of the new year, along with a special surprise!
Also, for those of you who would like to read Apex of the Songbird on the go, watch this space for news about an upcoming eBook version!
And now, as we were…
Time was a tricky concept out in space. Humans typically measured time by the rotation of their planet around a star. But since no two planets had exactly the same orbit, this was tricky, especially where interplanetary trade was concerned.
And so, most spacers used an agreed-upon callender. It was the same length as one year on Old Earth, humanity’s origin point, and synchronized by means of atomic clocks in every system connected by the Wormhole Network. It was, for the most part, nothing more than a system for ensuring that people were getting their things when they thought they were.
For the most part. Spacers seldom needed an excuse to celebrate, but there was one particular day on the spacers’ calendar that all of them took a moment to observe.
Luisa had woken up early to the sound of… humming. Well, clanking and humming. But at least the clanking she was used to. She looked around for a pair of pants and a jacket and stumbled blearily out into the hallway.
As she checked the nearest clock, she groaned. “Ash, it’s four in the goddamn morning,” she said, before drifting into Spanish as she opened the engine room.
“Couldn’t sleep, so I decided to work,” said Ash, shrugging. “As long as you’re there, though, hand me that socket wrench, would you?”
She nodded, looking into the tool box and grabbing him a wrench. “The color coding still working, huh?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner,” said Ash, beaming. “I swear, kid, you were born to be a spacer. It just took you awhile to find space.”
She gave him a smile, and then sniffed at the air. “What is that?”
“Peppermints,” Ash said after a moment, sighing fondly. “Or, peppermint oil, rather. I got an infusion of it at the last stop.”
“Huh,” said Luisa. “I like it.”
“Me too,” said Ash. “Here, get in here. There’s a lot to do and I want to get a good start so I don’t have to work on Wormhole Day.”
Luisa expected him to explain. He did not. Luisa was still too sleepy to effectively think, so just nodded dumbly and got to work. “Right, Wormhole Day prep,” she said, and got hooked in.
They spent the next couple of hours tightening some things, loosening others, and basically just making sure that Songbird was in the best shape she could be in.
By the time they made their way up to the common room, the rest of the crew was awake.
Luisa followed Ash, and looked around at the festively concocted decorations. Everything was a mix of purple and blue and it was just generally… bright.
She squinted against the colors and headed to the coffee machine as everyone else chattered.
“Morning,” said Mari, beckoning them forward. “I made coffee.”
Zane, for his part, was humming tunelessly to himself as he hung paintings of brightly-colored galaxies all over the walls.
Luisa watched them all for about fifteen minutes, and drank her coffee patiently. And then she said it aloud. “Guys. You’re doing that thing again.”
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” said Zane. “I do a lot of things.”
“That thing where you’re all off in your own little world and not telling the groundling what the fuck is happening,” she said sweetly.
“We’re just discussing what we’re going to do for the Wormhole Day party,” said Jayna. “Nothing too fancy, just a little shindig with the crew.”
Luisa took another sip of her coffee. She waited patiently for another thirty seconds. When no one seemed to elaborate, she sighed. “Guys, what’s Wormhole Day?”
There was the sound of a tool clattering to the ground. Luisa sighed.
“Guys,” she said, “do I have to keep reminder you? Backwater vampire planet, all of that? Kind of out of the loop!”
Mari shook her head. “Sorry newbie, forgot what it was like around here.”
“Yes, well, it’s not that big a deal,” said Jayna. “It’s just-“
“Not that big a deal?” said Ash. “Not that big a deal?”
“Hoo boy,” said Zane. “You got him started.”
Luisa sighed. Ash was passionate about a lot of things.
“These guys don’t get it because they weren’t born with stars under their feet,” he said, shaking his head. “They’ve all adapted to the spacer lifestyle, but some of us were born here and will probably die out here too. We’re the ones who started celebrating it. People who didn’t have a place to call home planet. It is supposed to be a celebration of the event that truly marked the beginning of interstellar travel.”
“Say what?” said Luisa, who almost felt like Ash was going to blow her off her feet.
“Spacers don’t really do holidays,” said Zane, as he got back to hanging up his paintings. “Got too much to do. Except for one. Wormhole Day is the anniversary of the first safe wormhole traversal, and people celebrate the fact that it’s basically the reason we’re all here.”
“It’s the day that the first ship came back in one piece,” Ash corrected Zane. “It’s supposed to be a solemn day to remember the people who sacrificed their lives for the betterment of all mankind. Three ships never made it back.”
“We know, Ash, we know,” said Zane, nodding. “But it’s also a day to appreciate the people who make the voyages through the depths of space tolerable!”
Ash sighed. “I know, I know. Commercialists,” he said, but he did still have a grin on his face. “There are two traditional celebrations that we follow here. One is a silent vigil. I do about half an hour. Zane and Jayna usually do–”
“I can’t sit still and focus for that long, but I do my best,” said Zane, winking.
“Zane and Jayna,” Ash said, giving a look at Zane. “Normally do about minutes and then do the more… commercial Wormhole Day experience.”
“We exchange little gifts to show our crew members how much we appreciate them,” said Jayna. “And drink heavily so that we forget how terrifying the depths of space are for the rest of the year.”
“We are on a run, but we stopped and picked up lots of supplies on our last planet-stop,” Zane smiled. “Especially for you and Mari, since you’re the newbies.”
“We just have to watch out–a lot of new wannabe spacers try and set out to make their first runs around Wormhole day, so you get a lot of idiots in the networks. We’ll just have to stay towards the outsides.
“Man,” said Luisa, shaking her head. “It’s true what everyone says. You spacers really are like aliens.”
“Well, you know,” said Zane. “We haven’t found any actual aliens yet, so we had to make our own.”
Jayna set two floppy purple and blue hats on Luisa and Mari, and then grinned. “I bought stuff to make french toast.”
Luisa felt her stomach lurch a bit. Being able to eat at regular intervals – as well as whenever she wanted – was taking some getting used to. And she was enjoying the process of doing so immensely.
“So what are we hauling again?” she said, as Jayna got to cooking. Mari rolled her eyes.
“Honestly, don’t you pay attention?” she said.
“As little as I can get away with,” said Luisa.
Mari shook her head. “Right now, we’ve been asked to quickly get some spare terraforming parts over to a new garden planet they’re designing in the Mutsvene system.”
“It’s fairly low risk, but they did need to get there in a hurry and we were nearby,” said Ash. “Should see us through to the next big haul.”
“So it’s not trying to kill us then?” said Mari. “I’m good with that.”
“Not yet, anyway,” said Zane. “Knowing us, I wouldn’t rule it out yet.”
Luisa smiled. “So… I didn’t get anything for you guys, because I didn’t know it was happening… so… if we’re gonna do this whole gift giving thing, I guess I could give services as gifts?” she said. “Anything you want fixed or constructed or whatever, just let me know.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Mari, giving Luisa a pat on the shoulder.
Songbird was cruising at a sedate pace. Zane always liked it when there was no need to hurry. He could set the course, and then sit back and get lost in the void.
Mari came in to join him a few minutes later. This far on the outside of the wormhole channel, the temperature had dropped considerably. Mari had taken the opportunity to wrap up in a huge festive sweater. She settled in the co-pilot’s chair. “Do you mind if I sit up here with you?”
“Not at all,” said Zane, taking a moment to admire the swirling nebulae streaking across Mari’s chest. “Might I ask why? You don’t normally come up to the cockpit for no reason.”
She shrugged. “Ever since we’ve kind of had an even keel of no one bleeding out in the medical ward, I’ve been kind of… trying to find other ways to be useful. I started taking over some navigating duties from Jayna and… it’s just kind of fascinating out there.”
“It really is,” said Zane. “I love it. I mean… back before Asimovium fuel cells were discovered, everything that humans knew – everything – was confined to a single planet. A really big one, yes, but still just one planet. And until we discovered and learned to harness wormholes, we were still confined to just a single galaxy.” He let out a deep, dreamy sigh as he considered the vision before him. “Who knows how much bigger the universe can get?”
She nodded. “I was honestly prepared to be born and die in the same quadrant,” she said, shaking her head. “Maybe even on the same planet. I just couldn’t fathom… flinging yourself out into the cosmos to explore… well, everything,” she said.
She was silent for some time. “Jayna got me a map of the wormhole network,” she said. “It’s really pretty.”
“Very nice,” said Zane, grinning. “She got me a vid about painting techniques. Almost made me feel like I should have waited before I just made everyone a painting.”
“Well, they were lovely paintings,” said Mari, smiling at him.
“Yes, well, I tried extra hard to–“
They both looked as a light on the console flashed. “What is it?” said Mari.
“We just detected a signal,” said Zane, flicking a switch. “A pretty faint one, but… Hello? This is Songbird, calling out for whoever might be listening…”
The message was faint, but they could just make it out. It was a ship’s code and coordinates–the automated distress beacon that sounded when there was structural damage to a hull of a ship.
Zane groaned, then hit the button for the ship’s intercom. “Hey, get up here!” he said. “We’ve got a problem!”
Soon enough the other three joined them in the cockpit.
Jayna listened to the coordinates. “Some poor bastard got caught half in and half out of a wormhole, sounds like. Maybe a temporary thinning without the right indicator equipment?
“We’ve got to go after them, right?” said Zane, nodding. “They probably need help!”
Jayna hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “The thing about distress signals is that you never know what’s on the other side. And we’re on a pretty tight schedule.”
Ash shook his head. “I know. It could be more scrappers trying something new. But we have to go out. You don’t leave people stranded in space. It’s just… not done.”
“Seems like that’d bring some pretty bad karma on wormhole day too, no?” Luisa asked aloud.
Ash smiled. “Now you’re thinking like a spacer,” he said. “If we’re a couple of sol-days late, then the client will just have to understand.”
“And if it is a trap?” said Jayna, folding her arms.
“I just said we couldn’t leave them stranded,” said Ash. “If they try and start shit afterwards…”
Zane nodded. As if to drive the point home, he withdrew a sidearm from under the pilot’s console and gave it a once-over.
Mari blanched. “Can we try not to start with shooting first? Maybe a stern talking to would be a good first step?” she squeaked.
Ash just shrugged.
“Changing course,” said Zane, making the requisite adjustments. “If I do this right, we won’t be off-course for more than two sol-days. Three at the most.”
“Good thing we stocked heavy,” Jayna said. “Now… is it cocoa time?”
Zane looked affronted. “Are you implying that it’s ever not cocoa time?”
Mari peered into the cup curiously. “And what did you say you called this stuff?” she said, jiggling it around. It was oddly viscous.
“Spacenog,” said Jayna, nodding. “The traditional ingredients don’t travel well and stuff from the food printer is never quite the same, so I improvised a little.”
Luisa looked at it, raising an eyebrow. “What the hell is nog supposed to be?”
“That is a mystery lost to the ages,” said Jayna, winking. “Try some, there’s nothing like it.”
“I really hope that’s the case,” said Mari.
Luisa sniffed it and gagged. “You sure you’re supposed to drink this stuff?” she asked warily.
Jayna took a swig of her own and visibly relaxed. “Warms you up inside,” she said.
She nodded and took a sip. And nearly fell over. “How much of this recipe comes from the engine room?”
Jayna’s lip twisted in thought for a moment. “About twenty-five percent,” she said. “Definitely no more than thirty.”
Luisa took a smaller, more cautious sip. It was creamy, and strong, and… warm. She settled into her seat and looked and then looked at Jayna. “So… what is your favorite thing about being a spacer, anyway?” she asked.
“I think it’s the freedom,” said Jayna. “Seeing all the places that you’d never get to see otherwise. What about you, Mari?”
Mari was nursing her own mug of spacenog curiously. She made a face every time she took a sip, but hadn’t stopped yet. “Same, really,” she said. “I mean, shit… look at where I was when you lot scooped me up. I never even considered that I’d have an opportunity like this.”
Luisa looked at her cup for a moment. “I guess for me… this is the first time I’ve felt… safe, in a long time. I think I wouldn’t feel like this even on another planet. I’d be constantly… watching the news cycles, waiting for a shoe to drop. Planning.”
She looked out of one of the nearest keyhole windows. “If something bad is happening down there… you guys always have a way out.”
Jayna beamed at her. “Not always,” she said. “But most of the time.”
“Attention, beloved shipmates,” came Zane’s voice. “We’re coming up on the target.”
Those of you that are good at fighting, get down to the cargo bay and look angry. Those who aren’t, be somewhere else,” Zane said jovially.
“Showtime,” said Jayna, downing the rest of her nog and cracking her knuckles. Luisa and Mari made their way up to the cockpit, where Zane was fiddling with the comm rig.
“…this is Songbird hailing. What seems to be the trouble?”
A gruff voice, distorted by damaged equipment, responded.
“This is Starcleaver. We read you, Songbird. Shit’s fucked.”
Ash gave a brittle smile to Mari. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific, Starcleaver. Is your hull breached? What other systems are down?”
“We got hit by something,” said the voice. “Life support’s stable for now, but our hull’s shredded, our thrusters are double fucked, and we’ve got no gravity.”
“Okay. We’ll set up a connector with you. But you need to tell us what your business is here. What are you running?” Ash demanded.
There was a burst of distortion from the comm rig.
“Raw minerals,” came the reply. “We’re hauling to the Livada system.”
“If you are lying to me, I will shoot at least one of you,” Ash said calmly. “And I’ll be a lot less efficient when helping you repair your ship. Do not lie to me. The Livada system is the biggest exporter of raw minerals, not importer.”
There was a crackle, followed by a distant sound. Though he couldn’t make the words out, it sounded like an argument.
“We would prefer not to discuss the precise nature of our cargo,” came a different voice, light and raspy. “It’s… sensitive. And we don’t know you from any bunch of scrappers, either. But we would be willing to compensate you for a patch job.”
Ash looked at Mari and Luisa for a moment.
Mari shrugged. “If that was us out there you wouldn’t want to be left hanging on the hook. Remember how it felt,” Mari said.
“You don’t need to convince me,” said Ash under his breath. “You don’t leave someone stranded. End of story.”
He leaned back into to the comm console. “We’ll come aboard,” he said. “Don’t worry about compensation, just know that we won’t hesitate to put a hole into anyone who gives us a good reason to.”
“Here are our most recent coordinates. We’ll try and stay in one place as much as we can.”
“We’ll link up with you there,” said Ash. “Hang in there and try not to bump into anything. Songbird out.”