Vagrants chapter 12.

This day started much like any other. No sooner had I woken up and unstrapped myself, then a call came.

“Captain, we could use you at the mess.”

This time it was Claire, of all people. I thought that Mouse and Claire were fast friends. Why would he do anything to her? Maybe I was wrong and it was the mess hall itself that was hit... but if so, how? We had sealed the mess hall in the first few days, part of locking down our food supply. Maybe Marion had been the target?

Well no sense in just wondering; I would find out as soon as I got there.

“On my way.”

Getting dressed was faster now; I had long since taken up the idea of leaving clothes out on the corner of my bed after the first few middle of the night calls. My toes had thanked me; even with voice activated lights they had found every sharp corner of my furniture it was possible to stumble over.

I couldn't even drink the drink I had made, I'd run out yesterday. Maybe Marion would have some tea waiting for me.

“Yo Sieg, come in.”

“Yes, mon capitan?”

“I might be late to the bridge.”

A slight pause before the reply.

“Again?”

I nodded, even though Siegfried (as well was anyone else; the corridors were empty) were not in any position to see it.

“Hey, be thankful I'm not having you do it.”

This mess was my fault. So I should be the one to deal with it.

“Oh I am captain, I am. So where was it this time?”

“Claire called from the mess hall.”

Even through the customary burst of static, the worry was easy to hear.

“Ahh, shit. I hope she didn't do anything to the food supply.”

Siegfried had been the one to lock down the mess hall in the first place.

“Relax, I'm sure the food is fine and it's just something else.”

Of course, I was right. And in a way, it was worse. Marion handed me tea without a word, and crooked a finger at me. I followed her and found Claire in a hidden nook in the kitchen... wearing nothing but a tablecloth thrown clumsily around her. At her feet lay the remains of clothing, all in various pieces. Claire was clumsily resewing her shirt, muttering some choice words I pretended not to hear.

“So.. Mouse?”

She stood up and was in my face so fast the tablecloth was in real danger of falling off.

“You're darn right it was! Somehow she treated my clothes with dissolving nanite paste! Every stitch corroded to nothing by the time I got here for breakfast! I mean, I thought they felt odd but they looked fine and....”

I wasn't sure I dared touch her. Claire had a mean right cross, and she was pretty angry.

“Look calm down, OK? Explain it from the beginning, please. Any detail might be important.”

Both Claire and Marion were looking at me as if I had suddenly sprouted a second head. Marion took over while Claire went back to her needlework, muttering. Again I pretended not to hear.

“Look Claire came in dressed in her usual. She had spent the night at the Commisary, rather than her own quarters.”

I nodded. Some crew with jobs tying them to specific places, like Claire and Marion, spent nights there as often as at their own place. It was both laziness and a form of cheap security.

“Well she woke up, saw everything in the same place, and got dressed. On the walk down she noticed something seemed a little off. At first she just thought Mouse had gotten a little free with itching powder – but it turned out the truth was much worse. Her clothes started falling off her in pieces as she stepped through my door, and I ordered everyone out. I escorted her to the back, then gathered up the pieces while she called you.”

I inspected a piece. Only the thread was missing... which meant the nanites had been ever so carefully applied with no mistakes and an almost slavish focus. Without any doubt, the hallmarks of Mouse's handiwork. I winced as Claire spoke, a little more calm and matter of fact now.

“What's worse is I had welded my vent grates on myself, and they are still on and haven't been tampered with. I'm not sure how he got in, but assuming he did there is a hole somewhere. Which means he could have gotten into the commissary as well. I think we need to check that... once I get my clothes presentable enough.”

Silly.

“We don't have time for you to do that; Finish sewing them later; for now borrow something from Marion and let's go. Even if it's too late to stop her, we can at least find some clues. Heck if nothing else, we might be able to figure out where she is based on what she took... assuming she managed to get in, of course.”

There was no doubt in my mind that she had managed to get in. The only real question is how. It obviously wasn't through the vents in Claire's shop. Could it have been through the vault itself? But if so, how did she get past the guard? Marion left to get something for her to wear. I'd ask why that didn't happen until I arrived afterwords; not sure it was important now.

And why target Claire at all? Weren't they friends?

“So why would Mouse target you anyway?”

She stiffened momentarily, the only sign of distress. Her voice was calm as she answered.

“I'd guess she found out about me voting for her getting Oddball's little tune up, and decided to show how displeased she was with me.”

….what?

Of all the people I had suspected of voting to screw Mouse over, Claire was the last on the list. Dead last on it, right behind Marion. They had been friends literally forever, and this made no sense. Marion was next to last because, well, I suspected Marion had a thing for Mouse. But Claire voting yes on Mouse changed everything.

“...Why would you ever do that? Why would you ever turn on Mouse that way?”

She gave me a loaded look.

“Why would you?”

Now that was very confusing.

“What do you mean? I didn't betray him. I tried to stop all this! I voted against it, because I knew what would happen. And it has, pretty much everything that I suspected would happen has happened. I do admit though, I did not expect you to vote against Mouse. You, of all people.”

Marion was taking a suspiciously long time to get clothes.

“Why? I think she'd be happier as one. She's far better suited to being a girl than boy. And she's safer as one too.”

Again, what?

“What do you mean?”

Claire opened her mouth, but closed it again as Marion strode in bearing a large frown.

“Well, I did the best I could, but it'll likely be a little... small. I guess it's better than sewing your own back together, since time is of the essence.”

“I'll make do, at least until I can get back to my place.”

Then she turned to me and pointed an imperious finger.

“Get out.”

Of course I got out. Marion, oddly enough, was right behind me. And while she was here, and no one else was in earshot (as the cafeteria was empty, oddly enough for breakfast) I decided to ask one of the invasive questions I'd been sitting on.

“So, were there any witnesses to this event with Claire?”

Marion took a moment to get what I was trying to imply tactfully; then she grinned.

“Nah, I mean her clothes were coming off by the time she came in, but I shoo'd everyone out and hustled her in the back before the big reveal. Which reminds me, since she's decent we can probably open up again.”

She had actually locked up? Since all the public doors save certain bathrooms let me in automatically, I hadn't noticed. There hadn't been a line outside, but a few people trickled in as she keyed the door. Seth and Joe, who always ate here, as well as Eric and Dirk. An odd set to hang out together as those last two were.

I shrugged as they walked up and grabbed their morning bread... I had much more important things to worry about.

“Alright, let's go. I hope she didn't ruin too much.”

We left before Eric could manage to corner us on why Claire was wearing ill fitting clothes and walking out with me. Chances were he knew enough, and would find out the entire story in gory detail later, but he wouldn't from me. How Claire could remain so stoic in light of her coming embarrassment among the entire crew was beyond me.

At least she wouldn't be the social pariah Mouse was doomed to become; provided we ever managed to talk her down. I was seriously beginning to doubt at this point. The only alternative I could think of was some kind of prison, and I didn't see that working; Mouse was the chief engineer, and the only one fully trained as such. We needed her. She couldn't do her job behind bars, even if the bars could be made sturdy enough to hold her.

The rest of the walk was silent; we did not encounter any other crew; the others were probably at breakfast or on shift. People didn't usually go to the shop until after their shift, and the lone corridor leading to the shop and vault was often empty for hours. I often wondered if the quartermasters were lonely, spending such time alone. The one time I'd asked, Claire had just given me a strange look and said no.

We both entered the vault easily, of course. Claire had access, and I always had access. A statement on our trust both from the ship (Oddball) and the community (our crew).

Walking right in, we crossed the small bridge like corridor meant to act like a medieval moat and entered the vault proper. We passed the obviously still active security drone along the way. Supposedly this entrance was the only way into the vault itself, so it made sense for any guards to be here.

The vault itself was almost as large as the Ark below, and perhaps the cryo chamber where the earlier generations were kept. And of course it was filled floor to ceiling with vacuum packed boxes, as far as the eye could see through the narrow twisting halls. Each box was strapped in of course, the extremely tough mesh netting looped int eye-bolts rated for extreme weights or force.

Most of it was filled with things like denim, thread, certain plastics... things we could no longer make without a planet, no matter how sophisticated our manufacturing plant was. The true marvel of the Magellan was that it could manufacture or jury-rig a good 90% of everything it was made of; the other 10% was in stock here as well, by the dozens and routinely inspected by the quartermaster and an engineer.

So far, those parts that couldn't be manufactured had held, in some cases far beyond their supposed lifespan. The only one that even registered as a distant concern was the fission coils; magnetic coils built to very precise tolerances, one had already burned out, and the first replacement was considered defective upon inspection. That left the Magellan with around 70 less years in space than it had been allotted for, in the best case scenario.

We should find a planet of some kind to colonize well before then. At least, according to theory. We were headed to one of the closest systems to our former home, after all. The DaVinci was the one in real trouble; they had the farthest route to travel, and had been the last ship built. In fact, they were still under construction when we left. Who knows what kind of shoestring budget and parts they had been forced to make do with; the Magellan had almost bankrupted several countries.

Countries were an odd concept; nationalities meant next to nothing next to survival. Ideologies themselves meant next to nothing. Race, even less than nothing. Not that the old concept of race wasn't flawed anyway. Humans were a race, humans of a different color or genetic markers could still breed with each other. Like dogs supposedly, there might be many types, shapes, and sizes, but all were able to breed and therefore still the same race. Any other definition of the word made no sense at all.

“Hey, you there? Mind on task there, Captain.”

Whoops. Claire as staring at me, arms folded in front of her and tapping a foot. I ignored how it pushed her already tightly wrapped assets further up.

“Alright, sorry. So how do we find out if anything is taken?”

She gave me another look, but started off waving for me to follow.

“Well some of the boxes and crates have sensors in them, designed to activate an alarm in the even of tampering, but I doubt Mouse would have been fooled by those; after all she knew the system exists. So likely we will have to rely on a good old fashioned visual inspection.”

I stopped, staring down the hall. A visual inspection with just the two of us, no matter how cursory, would take HOURS, if not days. And if it was just a quick search, chances were we would never find the clues needed to tell us what Mouse took and why.

“Oh relax Captain, at the moment we are just looking for signs of entry. Mouse couldn't have covered all of those up, assuming she did get it this way; it'll be much faster to check for that. No sense jumping to conclusions yet.”

I nodded but didn't voice my thoughts. If Claire had been hit, I was all but certain the vault had as well. I didn't know why, but I was sure. Was it wrong of me to assume such? Was I giving Mouse too much credit? I caught myself shrugging again. Only time would tell. I did hope my intuition was wrong though. The first official hunt for Mouse would begin tonight after all, I'd need my rest for it.

All in all, it took less than an hour. Mouse had left a nice big sign or her presence; footprints.

They were small, lined in some sort of engine grease, and led back into the crankshaft of one of the engines powering the drawbridge. The access hatch was in place, but that was where the footsteps led. How she had gotten in there and through was anyone's guess. I couldn't fit in there to check, and I was fairly sure Claire couldn't either. She summed up our feelings nicely however.

“Well... shit. Wonder how long that hole has been there.”

“Probably isn't there, for anyone but the Mouse.”

We followed the footsteps to the other side. Unfortunately they cut completely off about halfway down one hall, as if done on purpose. I knew it was too good to be true.

“What is in this aisle?”

“Chemicals and samples of exotic metals, mostly. Like silver, used in microchip manufacture, or metallic hydrogen. Some of the samples from the home galaxy lie here too.”

Chemicals... ugh, she could be doing anything. From just bolstering her own stock of hydroponic supplies to building a bomb. Heck, she could even be experimenting on new sorts of floor cleaners. A check of the mesh down the aisle revealed nothing out of place. I guess I'd find out when we finally caught her. When she made a mistake.

Or when she allowed us to catch her.

“Look, with all due respect Captain... get out. I need to get changed and then clean this mess up. We both know there aren't any more clues here.”

The translation was: we both know she led us here to rub our noses in dirty grease and failure.

What else could I do? I left.

“Seig.”

“Yes Captain?”

Hmm, polite and respectful; the ship must be seconds from breaking apart somehow.

“Anything new to report?”

Translation: did Mouse screw up anything else while I wasn't looking?

“No, all quiet Captain.”

A minor miracle.

“All right Seig, I'm coming up. Be there soon.”

I really needed some more tea. Then I needed something stronger in it.

…................................................................

The camera monitors revealed all. Hearing her say it... hearing Claire, that betraying witch say it outright, had made me want to break things. Or faces. And to say I'd be happier this way.. to put this all on me in that fashion? What drugs had she stolen from medical? Even with the second trick I pulled on her, she got off lucky. I had a wide variety of pictures of her in shock, the remains of her clothes in tatters around her. They warmed my heart.

I could even send them to someone, or every member of the crew, were I so inclined. She got off easy after all though; no lifetime friend voted to have her breasts chopped off and put in a bell jar.

I was pretty sure Oddball had preserved what he took; artificial insemination was unreliable, but it could still work, and I was secretly hoping he'd pick Claire for the honors. That and make it painful. Maybe if I asked nicely... I mean, she wouldn't have to know, would she? Or maybe I'd tell her.

After all, I should know... pain did not necessarily prevent one from doing their job.

I'd gone over the repair schedule; it wasn't like they could keep me out. In fact I suspected that bastard A.I. of lightening the security on the work orders on purpose. It was all busy work mostly, I'd done the hard stuff before being stabbed in the back by my friends. No doubt Oddball had planned those events too; I knew doing all the heavy maintenance was suspicious. I should have looked deeper, not that it really would have mattered.

On the other hand, I really owed Lissa, Carla, and Milla really good apologies. The short list of people who didn't vote to shaft me have all three of their names on it. Claire, Joe, Seth, Marion, even Siegfried had voted against me. Eric had too, but that was expected. But the terrible trio had not, and that surprised me utterly.

It made me glad I didn't murder them, though I was very confused now. Having those three in my corner somehow while my own supposed friends happily vote to screw meant that nothing would likely ever make sense again. I'd have to ask them when I apologized.

Roger had voted in favor too of course. I owed him for that. And I'd save him for last. For him no expense would be spared. I watched as the team put together for the purpose of finding where I'd gone to ground, finally found my old, favorite home away from home. They were about two hours behind the schedule I'd given them. So many names, so little time....

…..........................................................

“Captain.”

The voice was scratchy and sounded old, somehow. I knew exactly who it was.

“Go ahead Guido.”

“We found one of Mouse's boltholes.”

We'd been finding those all over. All of them so far had been false trails.

“A real one?”

I could almost see the terse nod from the tone in his voice.

“A real one this time. Not much to see, but enough to be able to tell.”

Now I was curious.

“Where?”

“By one of the old airlocks; a decommissioned first generation medical bay. Seems it had leftover supplies, which Mouse made use of.”

Of course; she did know the ship better than any of us; I knew the dank chamber he was speaking of, but I'd only been there once and in passing, as a kid taking the tour with my parents. Mouse though, she had the run of the ship from an early age, much more than the rest of us. So of course she'd remember. Which led to me spending the journey to the spot wracking my brain for any other such places not yet covered. I couldn't think of any.

The room in question was indeed a decommissioned medical bay used for treat construction accidents. A quick glance at the flimsy glass cabinets, currently half empty, was enough to confirm that. Guido stepped up.

“The door had an older model sensor, but it was spoofed in order to allow no entry. She used the vent back there as her entrance. She cleaned up everything well but there are traces of blood under UV and we typed it as hers.”

Well that was new; there hadn't been blood in any of the other locations.

“Where and how much?”

“Just traces and mostly the shower. The recycling bin hasn't emptied itself yet today; we found old fashioned gauze, some traces of pain medication, and some of those old food tubes. Uneaten.”

“No surprise, they were probably bad. Those and the medication couldn't last forever.”

“Well the medicine was vacuum sealed capsules.”

I nodded. So he'd found the packaging for those. Old Earth stock. Pills like those would still be very potent. How Mouse had found some was anyone's guess; the Magellan was supposed to be out of stock on those, for at least ten years. Probably closer to twenty; after all, we could synthesize our own. Gen 1 had been fairly well pampered, but they also had the tendency to hoard things, especially things from Earth.

“Captain.”

This call was from Brunhilde, who was filling in as chief engineer. She was trying very hard, but despite the help I'd been assigning her she was slowly getting overwhelmed.

“I've found something. Something you need to see.”

I couldn't suppress the sigh. The master plan, finally being revealed perhaps? The bomb found? I turned back to Guido.

“Alright, try and track her by heat if you can, use the little drones if you have to. Try and find traces of where she went... you know the drill.”

He nodded.

“I do indeed; I'm on it Captain.”

It took some extra doing to find Brunhilde, who wasn't at the standard engineer's post. The tracker tied to my pad showed her in the cryo storage chamber. No doubt running the daily check. My blood went as cold as space itself.

Had Mouse done the unthinkable, and sabotaged the sleepers?

I ran, pounding down the corridor without a second thought. If anyone saw me do this, there would be rumors and consequences later; but I didn't see anyone. I didn't even see the corridor itself. My father had once mentioned a blind panic, but I hadn't thought he was serious. Evidently he was; it could happen after all.

Out of breath I stomped up to Brunhilde, currently watching the sleepers sleep. The cryo tubes I could see displays from all appeared to be in the green; functioning perfectly with no warnings.

“What's wrong Brun?”

She looked startled and wore a faint feel of shock like a blanket.

“Nothing's wrong, that's whats wrong.”

That made me pause.

“What do you mean?”

She pointed to the sensor panel leading to the sensors designed to detect intruders or tampering.

“Well, I was checking the sleepers when I noticed something.”

She pulled off the cover. A few of the sensors had been tampered with. I wasn't even sure what had been done; I couldn't understand the bypass.

“So what is it?”

“The sensors chiming an alarm have been rerouted; they now chime to somewhere else, remotely, in the even of an emergency. The ambient heat anomaly sensors have been shut off. When I thought about why I grabbed a portable unit and came back. Turns out there are traces of a person being in here no less than 4 hours ago, and that person isn't logged. The door wasn't used to grant entry.”

I stated it out loud, more for the ordering of my own thoughts more than anything else.

“So she's been here.”

Brun nodded and continued; there was more.

“This made me curious, so I followed up; not only has Mouse been inspecting the tubes, she corrected a flaw in one that could have posed a problem. I also checked deeper, and some work orders from engineering logged by Oddball never got to my pad. The reason for that is they were posted then completed before I ever came on shift, and then the work order deleted, at least for me. In every case the job was something that, well, I'd have a hard time doing properly, at least the first time. Ir no time for, as I was trying to seal vents. Fuel purity calibration in manufacturing plant 2 for example. I don't even know what fuel that plant is manufacturing offhand.”

I nodded absently.

“Hydrogen I believe; cut just enough with water to avoid starting a fire in the mixing chamber.”

So all this time, and Mouse had still been behaving as the chief engineer, all while dodging us. No wonder Oddball was silent. This situation confused me; no matter how good an AI is, something like this would confuse them too. Now, what to do about it?

“Brun, I want you to seal all the vents to this room, the same way we sealed habitation.”

“Understood. Want me to make sure the door isn't hacked as well, right?”

“Right.”

Knowing what I now knew gave me options. So Mouse was still doing her job, despite her anger with us. Perhaps a Mousetrap was in order.



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