Vagrants chapter 14.

Well, here it was; the confrontation. I was good and caught, and cuffed with high strength plastic handcuffs that no one I knew of could break. While I could pick them, my hiding place for those lock picks I needed had all been searched. While they had missed a few, the ones they had missed weren't within easy reach of my hands; I didn't expect them to cuff my hands behind my back.

Eric was having his nose straightened and sprayed by Dirk, and all the traitors that were awake were here, packing this small hallway. There was no safe place to run to anymore, even if I could get to my feet. Security bot 14 was currently holding me down while Claire divested me of hold outs; she knew where I kept most of them. Roger looked on, an unreadable expression coating his face like ice.

“Let's see... smoke bombs, flash bangs, a device made to screw with equilibrium, two jury-rigged tasers, electromagnetic pulse grenade, two knives... and twelve lock-picks of various kinds. I think that's everything.”

Guido looked from the stash to me, incredulous.

“You could have taken these two easily with all this hardware, Mouse. Why didn't you?”

I shrugged as best I could. It was hard to explain something like that, especially when you didn't know yourself. But Roger wasn't about to leave it alone.

“Answer the question please, Mouse.”

“The tasers carried a slight risk of electrocution and nerve damage, higher than the standard ones we use. The smoke bombs and flash-bangs would have given me away in that situation, the pulse grenade would have shut down more than a few systems in engineering as well as the security bot, and the vertigo machine would have affected me too. The knives speak for themselves.”

Left unsaid was the higher level of acceptable damage they were willing to jump right to regarding me. Roger apparently couldn't understand it.

“So you just waited, tried to distract us with your drones, and then ran out of your hiding spot when their backs were turned?”

Why couldn't he just leave it alone?

“Yes, captain traitor, that's what I did. I don't have to be like you lot; I don't have to hurt my fellow crew members. I made the choice not to hurt those people that are ultimately responsible for the lives of my parents and mentor.”

Of course, I'd never trust them again, but that was beside the point. And if they didn't like the inference that they could be plotting something with the sleepers who weren't traitors, well, they had proven their loyalty to me already. They had proven what they were capable of in no uncertain terms, and the only real way I had to ensure they didn't pull anything else was with full computer access. That meant being in Oddball's good graces, which meant rejoining the crew.

Roger recoiled as if I had slapped him. I was wishing I could. Carla and Milla joined Lissa, so I turned to them.

“I owe you three an apology. I'm sorry for what I did, Lissa, Carla, Milla. You three may be incompetent, but at least you aren't traitors.”

Claire still had her foul hands on me, so I pulled away. The trio stared at me for a good silent minute, the others present staring at me in shock. I guess they didn't think I could admit to doing wrong... screw them all anyway. Roger found his voice.

“And now? What do you plan to do now?”

I shrugged again.

“You caught me. I'm done. I won't pull any more pranks or try to get revenge. I'll do my job and pull my weight like I always have; just don't expect me to like it, or you. Or you can kill me, freeze me, or lock me up, in which case you're still down a crew member and possibly need to ruin someone else's life to make your female quota.”

If they froze me or killed me after all, that left the count skewed, and I now knew that females would always be favored over males number wise. Easier to rebuild a population with more women and few men as opposed to few women and many men. Gen 1 and the Earthers made some interesting laws for the rest of us to follow. Roger sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“It was only to buy time while we thought of something Mouse. You made this difficult; you were supposed to help me find a solution, and then everything would go back to normal.”

What? This was our captain, a traitor living in a dream world.

“Gene therapy. Hormonal therapy. My genitals removed and replaced surgically. Most of that can't even be reversed, not entirely, and the rest not easily. You expected me to come up with a way to get Oddball to relent, but I'll look like this for some time to come regardless. Frick, Oddball even changed my musculature positioning! That wasn't even necessary, but the bastard son of alien tech wanted me to be as true to a real girl as possible! And as far as I can tell, he succeeded! How are we supposed to just reverse that, exactly?”

Maybe our new doctors knew of a way to pull a full reversal, but I didn't. Chances weren't good they did either; I was more intelligent and studied harder than any of them. Not to mention the last couple weeks I'd had more free time than ever before, and a thirst for medical knowledge. According to the latest scans, my brain structure had even changed subtly, and that was terrifying. Oddball could well have me stupid, tinkering like that.

The fact that tests showed he didn't – that I was still as intelligent as ever - were cold comfort. At least Roger admitted he was an idiot.

“I don't know. I was kind of hoping you would.”

“Idiot. Even with Oddball's help, what's been done to me will take months to undo. Maybe years. And that's if we can get Oddball to go along. Considering we'd need another woman to magically appear for that, it isn't likely.”

“Then what about the other alternative? The one we discussed before freeze day?”

He meant unplugging Oddball and doing it all ourselves. I remembered that conversation clearly; it was the one where he should have warned me what the psycho AI had in it's chip mind for me. Well, me and William. William wigged me out; he had taken like a duck to water to the new him, and what was now expected of him... or her. William, now Willow, was adjusting without a single complaint.

It was creepy.

“That would work as far as limiting any further damage to the crew... but then the multiple surgeries and the like to reverse everything would likely take years. I don't even know if Dirk can pull them off.”

I was sure I could given a little time, but I couldn't really operate on myself. I was willing to try for Willow, but I was positive she didn't want the help. I wasn't quite willing to give up yet, but my fate was looking pretty grim.

“And put the entire mission at risk.” Roger finished for me.

I felt the entire mission was already at risk, but the sea of faces staring into me obviously felt I was the only risk here. I felt like I was back in the cafeteria, just after the vote all over again. Oh well, it was just more confirmation that I had been wrong about a great many things.

“Apology accepted.”

Those words shocked me to the core. Lissa and her brood were forgiving me? I dumped crap on her! I'd put tablets that made stinky gas in their morning drinks! I'd scheduled them for gynecology exams at 3am! She held her hand out.

What the hell. I turned my back and stuck mine out too; and rather than take the opportunity, she shook it.

“Mouse, you mean it? You're done?”

“Yes, I meant it Captain traitor, I will prank no more... or at least no more over this. Why do you ask?”

Always try to reserve your options for the future.

“Alright. Guido, Eric, Dirk. Escort mouse to medical and give her a full check up. Guido, after that escort Mouse to her quarters and keep an eye on her. The rest of you, shows over here. Back to work, and let's relieve those covering for us. Move it people; a tired crew is a sloppy crew.”

And he walked off, back straight and head high. What a jackass. Eric lifted me easily as the security bot let go.

“Come on, princess. Time to go get probed.”

We all knew the alien reference, but I didn't find it particularly funny.

“Dirk only gets to try that if you get probed first, Eric.”

I found his nearly insufferable smirk more tolerable than Roger's attitude at least. Still his comment, his pet name, deserved an answer.

“You try and put a glass shoe on me, and you'll find it broken in a very sensitive place of yours.”

He leered down at me, not at all intimidated.

“Well you do clean up as nicely as Cinderella did. We will have to see about a gown though. Doubt we have any left on this tub. Hold still a minute.”

I held, not really having a choice, and a minute later the cuffs came off. I stared up at Eric and tried not to massage my wrists. He shrugged into my raised eyebrow.

“The boss isn't here, and there are three of us. Besides, you gave your word.”

“I did. No more pranks due to the vote. No matter how much I want to.”

We marched down the empty halls to medical, where I hopped up on the medical bed of my own accord. The bed was just as automated as it had been a month ago, and was already calibrated, so it scanned me through my clothes while Dirk watched the readings.

“Well, minor miracle considering the lack of care, but you're one hundred percent health and fit for duty. Though a few of these readings... you been snacking on multivitamins?”

“Yep, had to after you guys sealed off the cafeteria.”

I missed my grape juice. Though I'd have to continue to miss it. Claire would want to get even after all, and Marion would help her.

“Well you used the wrong kind. You needed the pink ones. You're a bit out of whack as a result.”

The pink ones were for females, and the blue for males. Eric leaned in, looking over Dirks shoulder.

“Hey! Those are supposed to be confidential, jerk! You want your nose broken again?!”

“Let's see. Ahh, the question of the ages: breast tissue is growing in well. B cup already, looks like. I thought so!”

I hit him. I hit him, and no one stopped me; even through the obvious pain, he smiled down at me and opened his fool mouth again.

“Wonder if they'll stop there? How 'bout it, doc? Did malnutrition get to our cutie here?”

Eric was a pig.

“You know, for you... I'm not sorry. At all.”

He grinned again.

“I know.”

Then Dirk that fool, interrupted, his head still buried in the readout.

“Nope, doesn't look like it, but she should top out soon. Doubt she gets past a B cup personally.”

I hit him too. And his head rebounded nicely off the console. Glad he didn't break that actually, I'd hate to have to fix it. Eric's smirk grew, something I didn't think was possible.

“What about the violence? Could improper nutrition explain that?”

Guido's voice cracked through the room like an arc of lightning.

“Enough. Shut up and stop this garbage. Is she healthy, Dirk?”

Dirk nodded, too cowed to speak, the wimp.

“Alright. You two stay here. Dirk check those a second time, and take your time. But see to Eric first, he's bleeding again. Eric when Dirk is done, go to your quarters and sleep. Nothing else. Understand?”

Eric nodded, sullen.

“Let's go Mouse.”

And he just strode off; I had to hurry to catch up. I probably should just sneak off to annoy him; I had to fight down the urge. Where would I go anyway? The entire crew knew where I was supposed to be, and whose company I was supposed to be in.

Besides, I wanted an actual bed. The cot had been alright, but after that had been a succession of lightly padded floors. That and grape juice, which I dared not ask for. I could also use another shower; hanging out in some of the less used areas in engineering tended to make one a bit grimy, and it had been a few days. The cleaners could only do so much; something to work on perhaps, but well down the issue list.

We arrived and Guido waited for me to key it. I did and it opened. This day was full of surprises; I didn't expect Oddball to reinstate me so quickly. The place was much as I'd left it, the only differences were the vents were welded into their frames. Something I might want to undo... or not. The only food I had left here was powdered. The plants I'd been raising over in engineering, I could go back and get later. Guido would stick to orders.

I did at least have access to water, and some tea bags. Tea was one of the things that my mother had loved, and she had grown and bagged her own. I realized that I hadn't checked those plants in weeks, and they were probably dead.

“Guido, want some tea?”

He thought for a moment; a calculated moment designed just long enough to let me know he felt that I wasn't the only one who had to worry about poison threats. I could see it in his face; and that made me angry. If I had wanted to poison people, I could have and would have well before now. The cheap poisoning crap was more the modus operandi of the rest of the crew, not me. He must have seen something in my face too.

“Sure.”

I started the water, using the old fashioned kettle my mother loved. Hers, but mine now. Most people just waited for the water in our sinks to heat, but mom had always been old fashioned. I had taken after her, after a fashion; I hadn't even thought about making tea any differently. What other little choices did I make like that? Choices that made me different from the rest of the crew, that I did simply because it was how my parents had done things? Silly thought; it didn't matter.

I sat down on my couch, and Guido took my father's chair. My chair now, I guess. Both were old, but looked like new; they had been made with space and generational use in mind. My pad was handy, and with full access restored, I could once again educate myself.

I closed my eyes briefly and picked a book at random; which turned out to be an old text on languages. Not my normal fare, but the rules of random book picks were clear; if you did it, you stuck with what you got as long as you could, and I hadn't even started reading yet. It could be interesting... somehow. Even though we only used one language now, at one time humanity had apparently used thousands.

The kettle shrieked and I made the tea, giving another surreptitious once over to my kitchen. The physical and mental inventory matched, and I really wish I was wrong. Guido sat in silence, watching me. Orders or not, it was unsettling how his gaze never wavered. He had abstained on the vote.

Ten minutes later I was done with my tea and done with the language rules on some ancient desert people's language, which I had to admit seemed silly. Babylonia was an ancient city, as I recall. I went into my room, returning with clean drawstring pants and an oversized shirt.

I had prioritized food and water over clothes when I left in a hurry, which meant that I couldn't grab more than a few changes of anything, and those old clothes had long since become more than grimy (I couldn't do laundry in hiding, or at least not well) or had ceased to fit. Just like I had ceased to fit in some of the more tight spaces the ship had to offer. Stupid traitorous hips. Guido looked at my bundle, so I made it obvious.

“I'm going to shower.”

I checked my shower and all the fittings. I wouldn't put it past certain crew members to try to one up me for revenge; everything checked out. Then I checked my shampoo and soap. Both clear of anything I or my pad could detect. With a shrug I adjusted the water and stepped in. It was pleasant but short; all showers cut off automatically. The few illegal showers I'd had while on the run had been much longer, and longer than they should have been; but now it was back to restraint and the proper spacer mindset.

The draw string pants were very large; they were built to be baggy, like the shirt; which meant they fit. Even so, it was a close thing. The shirt was still very roomy, which meant it didn't irritate anything... sensitive. My old clothes went in the recycler, rather than the laundry. Even if I could manage the impossible and get them clean again, they didn't really fit. I'd need new ones soon.

Guido was gone when I left the bathroom; he wasn't in the kitchen, my room or my parent's room. He hadn't somehow gotten into the bathroom without me noticing. With a shrug I returned to my reading. With my workload finished I didn't need to stress anything.

Guido returned with food. He plunked down a covered platter of stir fry vegetables and held out a fork. I took it, and he pulled the cover off the platter and started eating.

“It's from my own kitchen. Made with beef bullion added. I'm no Marion, but I do alright.”

And he was eating it himself; showing in no uncertain terms that if it was poisoned, he would be feeling it too. A quick taste revealed it was good. Guido did himself a disservice, though I suppose it was hard to screw up stir fry. Maybe if you added too much oil or something. I couldn't resist a little needling though.

“You left. I could have gone on the run again.”

He shook his head, eating a green bean.

“You said you wouldn't. I believe you. Besides, you look tired – and hungry.”

“Saw me looking through the pantry, huh?”

“Yep.”

Before I knew it the platter was empty. Guido collected the forks and put them in the platter and sealed it up. Then it was back to staring at me. Well I knew it wasn't because of the dirt anymore, and the clothes weren't an issue; everyone had at least one set like this. So he was noting differences. I knew there were some, but still, twenty minutes of it was a long time. I wasn't even sure he was aware of what he was doing.

I was now ready for sleep, but I didn't dare try to lock Guido out of my bedroom. I didn't want something to go wrong, and get the blame for it because I wasn't in view the entire time. Having Guido leave on his own to get lunch was bad enough. Besides, my couch was still plenty comfortable. Made of the same foam my bed was, in fact.

I heard my pad drop to the floor, but didn't care; it could survive it. The couch was big enough to stretch out on and I did so.

…....

For the fifth time today, I had to turn down a polite request from a crew mate that they be allowed to see Mouse. This time it was Joe; the first one had been Seth. The second had been Claire. Why they couldn't understand what a complete cluster of a drama that would be, I had no idea. They were on Mouse's excrement list as is, seeing them walk into her quarters to do... whatever they wanted to do, wouldn't help things at all.

“No Joe. Like I told Seth, now is not the time for any of this. Finish your shift.”

My surprise was total when he answered me in a complete sentence.

“Dude, today's shift is over.”

“My other point still stands.”

He clicked off and I looked at my pad. He was right, our shifts were over. I could finally sleep. Half the crew wanted me to punish Mouse for her... indiscretions, and the other half wanted to apologize. It was too much to deal with so soon after catching her; We could deal with it in a meeting, tomorrow. I'd just call the crew together and let them air their grievances at once. Once we were all rested, Mouse included. She had looked like hell. And to be confronted and captured by the two people she hated most; she had displayed amazing restraint, and so had they.

I still had no idea what should be done. This entire situation should be on how to deal with Oddball, not how to punish Mouse. Or make things up to her. The best way to make this entire debacle up to her would be to make sure Oddball couldn't do things like this ever again; that we either had the veto power over the insane AI or it was safely shunted away from critical systems and couldn't enforce it's ramblings. Instead the crew was still focused on itself; on symptoms of the problem, and not the problem.

It was maddening.

The walk to habitat deck did nothing to clear my head, and what I saw there only made it worse. There were no fewer than twenty people standing in front of Mouse's door, talking in either muted whispers or raised voices. I had to get through them to get to my quarters.

“All of you go home and go to sleep. Right now.”

“But Captain, I...”

“Save it. Whatever it is, whatever you all want, save it for tomorrow, when we have clear and rested heads. Clear out. Now.”

I waited until the last of them was in their own quarters, keeping my face as stern as I could. Only when the I was sure they wouldn't come back out, I keyed Mouse's door and went in.

She was on the couch, asleep. There was a large plate of something on the table, empty. Guido was there in the lone family room chair, just watching her sleep. He spoke so quietly I had to work to make it out over the ever present woosh of air. For an engineer, it seemed slightly scandalous to have the most archaic air unit on the entire ship, but it was. But it wasn't broken, and it would be used until it was.

“Hey boss. Had to disarm the door chime; everyone was pressing it and I thought it'd wake her up.”

Wasn't part of my orders, but initiative is good. I should have thought of that myself. I can only blame my own fatigue for not thinking that everyone would want to confront Mouse in some way before now, confined to quarters or not.

“She give you any trouble?”

Guido shifted, rolling his neck to work kinks out. He had been in that position for some time then.

“Nah, not a bit. Even tested her; went to get food. She didn't move, though she could have. I had to tell her the food was my own, and eat it first before she'd touch it.”

That was disquieting, but Guido shirking his duty was even worse.

“You left her alone?”

He shrugged.

“She was hungry; I was hungry. I had an alarm on the door she couldn't easily disable, and had that alarm protocol alarmed itself. She didn't even try.”

Left unspoken was the 'trust has to start somewhere' motto... the one which I had thrown in Mouse's own face months ago. I felt the irony bite with jagged teeth. Then Guido, the guy only slightly more wordy than Joe, offered something that surprised me.

“She looks so small and fragile, lying there. Doesn't she?”

I looked. I had to admit, she did. Much like a human version of those little birds with fragile bones we saw on nature vids. She seemed much smaller than when she was awake somehow, but for Guido to notice that, let alone say it... something was wrong here.

“Yeah she does. Look, you good to stay here? Continue watching?”

Just watching Guido; we don't need any other misunderstandings or issues poisoning the trust waters.

“Yeah. I'll sleep on the floor, nothing I haven't done before.”

“I'll get you some bedding man, wouldn't leave you hanging like that.”

I could understand the floor; he wouldn't want to take her bed, or her parent's bed, and the couch was taken. With a wave I went went out into the still empty hall, and to my own quarters. I snagged my own spares and brought them back.

Guido met me at the door.

“Thanks. Go get some sleep of your own, Captain. You look like shizz.”

I didn't want to go get sleep of my own; I wanted to watch Guido, watching Mouse. I wanted to watch Mouse myself, to make sure she wasn't still plotting something. But instead I went back home. My liquor stash called, but I resisted; I was close enough to a drunk as it was, and I remember those instructional videos well.

I lay in bed and stared at my ceiling. I always had trouble following orders; even if they were my own. Something else for irony to chew on me for.



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