The deep, strangely-accented voice managed to drip with disdain: "These engines are forty years old. When were they last overhauled?"
The previous engineer had gotten antisocial, had gotten sloppy, and then had cleaned out his Company account and jumped ship two-thirds of the way through their assigned itinerary. Mays shrugged. "Not my department. Carpenter kept it running, I just flew it."
"And you are content to fly it knowing it is in this sorry condition?" After a moment, the alien carefully wriggled his way out of the guts of the ship, and stood: he easily towered over Mays, all shiny black armor and sharp edges. "I will tear down the entire reaction drive and rebuild it. The Company will also need to arrange for a line of credit for the supply manufactory here: the tools are missing, presumably stolen by the previous engineer. Plan on being stationary for one standard week."
ELLE, hitherto content to listen, piped up through the compartment's speakers. "Rebbo, we are scheduled to arrive on Ahlstrand in five days."
"We will be delayed. "
Mays shook his head. "The Company will have my ass. We've never missed a pickup in two years of—"
"I will not take responsibility for the drive in its current state. You will be late, or you will lift without an engineer." It was his call, by law and tradition: if denied, he could always refuse to sign the contract.
"Given the circumstances of Carpenter's untimely departure, it is unlikely that the Company will hold us at fault. I will countersign the request." ELLE was, technically, the Company's representative aboard the ship, though Mays and now Rebbo were employees. Being largely artificial — and inextricably part of the ship — she was incapable of guile or larceny à la Carpenter.
Mays shrugged again. he didn't bother asking about the FTL drive: it was a closed system, bought already complete and sealed from a very alien manufacturer, and could not be repaired. "Have it your way. I've got reading to catch up on anyway."
Elle addressed Rebbo. "I have printed out your contract: it is in the communications hopper. And I have ordered the standard toolset from the manufactory. Fabrication should be complete in a little less than two hours"
Rebbo declared, "Excellent. I will be able to begin immediately after bringing my effects on board."
~ *~ * ~ * ~
After three days, Mays went down to check on the alien's progress. He found one of two drive assemblies completely dismantled and laid out in parts across a newly-cleaned deck. The alien — Rebbo, he needed to start thinking of him by name — was, from the sounds emanating from inside the now-empty shell, scrubbing and gouging at the interior surface. Mays imagined having to reassemble it himself and felt vaguely sick to his stomach. "Oh, God."
Rebbo, hearing him, complained: "I have yet to find a clean or adequately-maintained component. I am amazed that you were able to coerce this ship into making it this far from your point of origin."
"I do not care what it is called." Rebbo leaned out of the engine shell, one hand resting on the frame, and said, "Truly, your presence in this system is in and of itself a testament to your skill as a pilot. This ship should have been grounded at least two years ago."
Mays, with the toe of his boot, nudged a part he didn't recognize. "But can you fix it?"
"Of course. The second engine will take less time, as I will not need to survey its condition first. I will simply assume it is terrible. I have already ordered the replacement parts I will need, with ELLE's approval. The Company will regret the cost, but they cannot fault the necessity: I have documented everything."
"I just hate being out here in the sticks with the damn ship in pieces—"
"You would rather be forced into this repair on some airless moon where there is no manufactory? Or worse, in deep space? We could freeze to death before the work was done."
"No, I'm sure you're right." Mays turned away from the guts of his precious ship. "I'll be sleeping. Unless you need help—"
"No. This is work I must do, to know the engine. Once we are underway, and there is free time, I will be happy to train you in basic repair so that you can assist me in routine maintenance."
"Fine, fine. Let me know when it's done."
~ *~ * ~ * ~
Mays sat in the control chair for the first time in two weeks, and patted the console. "Time to see if Rebbo's worth the trouble, sugar." He pressed the comms button. "Ready up here."
"I am closing the main bus. You should have access to main power… now."
The control board came to multi-colored life. "I have lights."
"Feel free to leave the surface."
Mays was beginning to think that Rebbo had a sense of humor, a dry one, a knife-edge wit. "I think I'll do that."
ELLE agreed: "If we depart now we will reach Ahlstrand thirty-six hours ahead of our new rendezvous."
Mays' actions now were second-nature, but they had unfamiliar results: the ship failed to wobble as it lifted off the ground; it failed to lurch and heave with thrust varying in intensity; it failed to groan and whine against the effort. The ship instead responded like a late-training simulator.
He examined the readouts: the fuel-consumption graph showed numbers he had never seen before. Low numbers. When the ship had gained enough altitude, he threw the throttle forward, to full. He was pressed back into his chair and the atmosphere thinned and became blackness and stars. "Rebbo."
"I am here."