Vagrants chapter 16.

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Another day, another round of vacuum packed Earth relic food. Another morning of Guido just walking right in and setting it down then waiting for me to get up. He read a book while I showered, dressed, and ate, never appearing to look up. But as soon as I was ready he closed the book; we entered the hall side by side.

There were a few hesitant waves today, a few muttered greetings as I passed; I responded with the best humor I could, which seemed to satisfy them. Everything was back to normal, and nothing was wrong…

Except it wasn't, and it was.

Guido left me at the entrance to engineering, and I checked the work orders. It seemed last night Brun had repaired the leaky tank I'd noticed. I'd have to check that later; for now my job was… engineering console maintenance? That was more busy work; unless a problem had been reported. Those consoles were so solid state they would probably outlive us all.

If crap went very wrong, then those consoles would be a rather unusual testament to humanity's engineering prowess for aliens to decipher, assuming aliens existed somewhere and could find them. There wasn't anything wrong with the consoles; the diagnostics checked out, and the tests I could run proved it beyond any doubt. I had them all finished by the time lunch rolled around; what that really meant was that I had no excuse to squirrel myself away somewhere private for lunch, much as I wanted to.

My customary corner table in the cafeteria was occupied; captain traitor was in it, with Marion. Claire was one table away, and they were talking.

I chose another corner as Marion got up and hustled over. She stopped at the counter and picked up a plate and a glass of juice. On the plate was… something I hadn't seen before. A piece of something that looked like our pressed vegetable patties, and some yellow-orange squiggly things, served wet. The plate was packed with it; I wasn't sure I could eat all of it.

“What the heck is this stuff, Marion? It looks weird.”

She set it down in carefully in front of me.

“Well, we were kinda hoping you could tell us. I had to run a search, and the results were confusing. This is part of the package that showed up yesterday, complete with cooking instructions. This,' she pointed at the patty 'is some kind of meat, and other stuff is called macaroni and cheese. How it lasted this long, I don't know… but you get to tell us how it tastes. So go ahead, test subject.”

She sat and waited, staring intently. I thought I saw a hint of drool; though that wouldn't be surprising… the food we normally ate was pretty bland. We did the best with what we had. I took a bit of the orange stuff first; I doubted it was poisonous since it was from the ship's stores.

It was weird; it had a rich creamy taste that I wasn't sure I liked… but I was pretty sure I didn't hate. I gestured as I cut the meat with my fork; Marion snagged a piece, and her face brightened as she chewed.

“Wow, those Earthers sure knew how to eat!”

The meat was… it made my mouth water, even as it dried up, and that tang… was that salt? If all meat was like this, I could see why my ancestors loved slaughtering animals.

“You have got to try this, Marion. It has salt in it.”

“Salt, really?”

She cut a piece and tried it.

“Oh. Wow; just wow.”

She hadn't volunteered, but I had to ask. After all, maybe we could do some gene mods and grow some of this if we tried hard enough.

“So, what animal is it?”

She was still chewing; I had to poke her before she came back to reality.

“Oh, um… the label said it was 'spam.' the search in the database didn't turn up any animal matching that description. Roger thinks it was probably extinct or something by the time the Magellan left.”

Well, it was true that more than a few animals had gone extinct before humans left Earth, but that still didn't explain why this spam animal didn't come up in a search. After all, that Tasmanian devil thing had shown up when we wanted to know what the animated kids show was about. No need to worry about it now, I supposed.

“How much of this stuff did you get?”

“A tub of the macaroni, with a smaller tub of the powdered sauce. It kind of took me by surprise how much a cup of each makes, so I'll make a little less next time. That said, about 20 servings? And the Spam, ten vacuum sealed bags of about five slices like that one, so 50 servings. The directions, however, said to space them out, or they could be unhealthy.”

Of course, moderation in all things. I had a suspicion.

“So what's for dinner then?”

“Uh uh. I'm not going to ruin Oddball's surprise. Let's just say it's probably not going to be a let-down after this lunch, and leave it at that. I have to admit Mouse, I am all kinds of jealous.”

Sure you are. You too can get a creepy AI to obsess over you and mutilate you for no good reason at all, Marion. It's easy.

“So what's on tap for the mighty engineer today?”

I shrugged.

“Don't know. I'm ahead of the game so far, so probably more vent repair.”

“Ah, the glamorous life so far. Well, you won't have to worry about mine, I did all my vents yesterday.”

I looked at her.

“Hey, don't give me that look. I was bored, alright? Not much to do around here once the cooking is started… or done. Not like it hurts anything to do it myself, as long as I'm careful.”

“Well, I'm fine with it. Just leaves about a thousand to go.”

Marion shook her head.

“A few less. Some of the others might be willing to do the same in between shifts. What can we say? Space is boring.”

Space wasn't that boring, and the vents were supposed to be part of my punishment. So other people chipping in meant what, exactly? A peace offering? They had someplace other than my back to 'bury the hatchet'? I had to admit the last thought seemed nice.

Captain traitor was staring at me.

I finished lunch with Marion glued to my table. She was talking about movies and hobbies and strange historical trivia.

“So, Mouse, want to come over and watch movies? I'm kind of interested in what your new favorites are; last time we did anything like that we were still watching Disney.”

I remembered that day. I had argued on how unlike reality those Disney movies were. Marion had been part of team “Disney was how it was”, and we had shouted each other down for a good hour while Claire kept things from getting violent; our parents had to break it up. Those were good times.

After that I started watching more action oriented movies, and I knew from my various delvings into network usage that Marion had started watching more fluff, but we three hadn't gotten together to watch a movie like that in our quarters since, unless it was a pick for the entire crew to watch. The invites had stopped coming, for some reason. But still, it wasn't as if I had anything to do tonight.

“Sure, guess I can.”

“After shift tonight then?”

“Sure. But for now, I got to go and finish up my shift.”

I finished up my juice and rose to leave, and Marion got enthusiastic – and loud.

“Alright! Say around six then, I'll expect you.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw captain traitor flinch. I waved on my way out the door, managing to skip out of Eric's way. He shot me an appraising look, then a leer. I rolled my eyes in response. Seth and Joe were right behind Eric, oddly enough; I thought they hated him. Guess it had just been me.

On my way back I checked the sleepers. The fix Brunhilde had done was a good one and was holding. I was looking it over in more depth when the door opened. I looked up to find captain traitor framed in it.

Oh, Damn it.

“What are you doing, Mouse?”

Was he insinuating what I thought he was?

“Going over a repair job done by the night shift. You know, my job. It looks good, so if you'll excuse me….”

He just stood there, in the way.

“Why didn't you do it yesterday? I know you found it and logged it.”

“To avoid questions like these, actually. Another plan that didn't work. Now, did you have something that needs repair, or are you just in my way to annoy me?”

His gaze sharpened as his face tightened.

“Yes, I do. I just wanted to let you know that if you found such problems in the future, you can just feel free to repair them, no questions asked. Brun said that patch was top notch and probably would have held at least a week.”

Time to twist the knife maybe? No. It would only be speculation on how the unit got messed up, and it could be wrong. Sometimes hoses just rupture, and coolant hoses tend to rupture or split more often than others due to what is getting pumped through them. So no need to mention unfounded accusations about people being less than careful while trying to trap me here before… yet.

“I don't take chances here, you know that.”

He ran a nervous hand through his hair.

“Look, I've got a bit of a problem. My suit is in need of maintenance, but I don't really have the time to look at it. Can you please do it for me?”

I… what? That made no sense, Roger's suit had been checked and cleared about a month ago, by both himself and I. I know for a fact I hadn't missed a thing, and he'd used it since. What was his game?

“What's wrong with it?”

“I think it's got a micro-rip somewhere. The readout keeps saying it's losing pressure.”

Well, our suits were old and many of them ill-fitting. Rips or wear around cuffs and seals were not uncommon. Even fast developing ones. We did have the facilities to make our own suits (my own was of a newer make, because of my size) but usually it was one per customer, for life. Roger's suit was an older model, however….

“Fine, I'll take a look.”

“Great, I'll just log the work order for tomorrow then; Oddball just has you cleaning the vents the next couple days anyway. I'll let you get back to work; got to triple check some possible course corrections. We probably won't use them, after all, it's not like there's much out here to hit, but doesn't hurt to be on the safe side.”

So that was his game. He left while I was pondering the ramifications. By posing a suit check as an actual work order, he was making it public. He was making the fact that he trusted me with his suit, knowing how I felt about him right now, public. If I screwed him over, the crew would know… but that wasn't his aim. He knew I wouldn't, so he wanted to show the crew I wouldn't either.

Which kind of aggravated me; if the crew didn't know by now how badly things could have gone by pissing me off, and how much they owed to my own restraint, then what was this move going to show? If it worked any better than my own actions since, I was going to be beyond pissed.

I stepped out of the sleeper's chamber and was immediately set upon.

“There you are! Come on, it's time! We have to get this done before lunch hour ends!”

Lissa grabbed me by the arm and started dragging me along. It took actual effort to shake her off; was she always this strong?

“What do you want, Lissa? I've got to get back to work!”

She stopped and turned.

“No, what you have to do is finish taking care of your clothes. Your exercise clothes are sitting in a locker, crying for attention! 'Help us, help us' they are saying… and you're not listening!”

Urk, I'd forgotten all about the clothes treatment thing.

“Alright, I'm coming, no need to be grabby.”

I checked my pad; we still had twenty minutes, so plenty of time. Lissa wasn't trying to run or anything, and she did this more than I, so it was probably enough. Carla and Milla met us at the gym entrance, and walked with us, breaking the silence with a lively debate over the various strengths and weaknesses of their current modified lettuce over past versions. Apparently lettuce in the past wasn't as big as what we had now, and didn't have as much nutritional value going for it.

They were also discussing ways to prepare said lettuce so it didn't taste awful. I didn't think there was any way to manage that miracle, but I didn't tell them that. Volunteering that little tidbit without being asked (or at all) might see me getting hurt.

Of course, Oddball's recent attempts to bribe me might have influenced my sense of taste, but I wasn't about to admit that under torture.

Claire was just leaving the locker room as we entered; she gave me one of her typical pointed glares. I glared back as the door chimed our entry, and she said nothing.

My locker was as I left it, the moisture from my clothes collected. The clothes themselves did seem more clean than simply using the sonic method, more vibrant. It made me wonder how effective sonic showers had been on myself, all this time; had I been running around dirty most of the time, and just not known it?

At any rate, the treatment now was just taking a typical everyday sonic brush, and rubbing it across the clothes in order to remove any crap bonded to them; anyone could do it, and only a few passes later the clothes were spotless. My plastic had some accumulated junk that I really didn't want to inspect in detail. Carla took it with a nod towards their own small piles of… stuff and mixed it in.

“All fertilizer now.”

Lissa came up and made a show of inspecting my exercise outfit.

“Looks good; not a spot missed that I can see. Okay, we're done. See you in a few, Mouse.”

And they walked out just like that, still talking vegetables (this time it was radishes) while I hung my stuff up and flushed the excess water down the sinks. Folding up the plastic wrappers, I resolved to make a better collector for the moisture; I didn't want to carry clothes around all the time, treating them. There were plenty of girls that did, if memory served, but I didn't want to be one of them.

There actually was a bulb burned out on one of the indicator lights in monitor console 21. I changed it and recycled the bulb.

…..

Well, she hadn't ripped his head off or stuck him with a knife, for all that she looked like she was going to. Oddly enough, it was the implication that Mouse didn't know what she was doing with the patch that set her off. I didn't see why that would affect her more than questioning her on why she didn't just fix it, but I had a way to make her and the crew both understand that she was trustworthy.

If she was going to break, it would have been long before now. It was pretty humbling, in a way; Mouse would have made a much better captain than I did. I know I'd have broken long before this, and all Mouse did, really, was make her displeasure felt.

It said something about her, and the mission in general, that Mouse could do more damage to morale with pranks than anyone else probably could with actual sabotage. He still had to meet with Oddball again over the decision that sparked all this. It was done, it could be undone.

Claire walked past with a measured stride, crying silently past a stoic mask; if I hadn't noticed the tears, I would never have guessed.

“Claire, what's wrong?”

I wanted to ask if it was about Mouse, but that would be stupid. These days, it was always about Mouse, in some way or another. She read my mind anyway.

“It's nothing. Probably not what you think at all. My fault really; I just made a mistake, and I'm paying for it.”

She slipped my grip, shoved me away, and walked on; rubbing at her eyes. I got the message. Yet another problem I couldn't fix. Unless that is, Oddball suddenly decided to be reasonable. As if that could even happen.

The bridge was far from the laid back place I was used to.

Will Spets (just Billie now, please), who I felt guilty about thinking of as 'the well adjusted one' but did anyway, was triple checking something at her station. Ronald Simmon was right behind her, despite not having a reason to be on the bridge, normally. I certainly hadn't called him up here. Hitomi was at her station, but not paying any attention to it; not that I blamed her; communications had been a dead station, with nothing going on, since before generation one had been in cryo. It was manned more out of habit and regulation, now.

But if something was going on, they could have called me.

“What's up?”

Billie looked up.

“Something odd, Captain. There is some form of hole in the regular background emissions we normally get, day to day. It's almost directly ahead of us, and it's weird.”

I linked my pad up to the astrogation station and looked.

“You didn't think something unusual was worth calling me for?”

Ron and Billie shared a look. She answered, nervously.

“I just discovered it five minutes ago. And we did call you, we just didn't flag it priority. Because, best we can tell, there isn't any priority; whatever it is, it's almost a full day away.”

I checked my pad. They had, in fact, placed a call. It had been while I was watching Mouse, and I hadn't even realized. That also meant it was actually closer to eight minutes ago, but bringing that up would just be pointless.

“Alright, so what is it?”

Billie answered first.

“We think it's a rogue planet. Some kind of large planetary style body thrown from a nearby system.”

Ron butted in with a look.

“To be more precise, we think it's a gas giant since it seems to be eating some of our sensor emissions. And we aren't sure yet, but it may be completely frozen.”

If it was, then it might have water. It probably already had hydrogen and helium, both very useful gasses. Probably a nice radioactive isotope or two, which would be even better; there were all kinds of uses for those… but wait.”

“You said planet big, right?”

They nodded.

“Exactly how big?”

They looked at each other nervously; they didn't have the answer.

“We aren't sure; the object is almost completely dark; if not for some of our more advanced sensors on the ship we never would have spotted it in time; you see, the object is headed pretty much directly for us. It will either hit us or pass by so close it'll throw us off course and damage us.”

So this wasn't a mining opportunity, like the asteroid; we needed a course correction. That was Billie's job.

“Start calculating the burn to avoid it. The sooner we start, the less we'll have to burn. Ron you can try to take all the readings you want, but Billie your job is making sure we don't smack into it. If you have to, bring people in.”

A bit insulting, with a slight implication that I didn't trust her, but she didn't take offense.

“Will do, Captain.”

She turned back to her console and I was able to catch a glimpse; she had clearly already been laying the groundwork, and hadn't said a word; entirely too easygoing. I wondered if there were more out there; had the rogue celestial body pulled anything else out of orbit with it? Did it have any hangers-on? Sure there was one headed straight for us, but what about those headed at an angle?

If there was one headed at us at an oblique, or ahead of us and moving in a direction where we'd intercept… well, we'd be dead, mission failed. The only option I saw was a complete burn to slow down. Otherwise, at the speeds we were going our computers, even Oddball, wouldn't have the microseconds necessary to complete a full image of obstructions; and worse, some objects, like certain types of rogue planets, would actually absorb some of our ways to detect in front of us, like radar.

A good reason to talk to Mouse; she'd be thrilled, of course.

I'd better see if I could come up with options on my own, first. Pulling up the Magellan's full current schematic caused a headache, instantly; all the last minute modifications and notations that should have been collated into one coherent whole… weren't. Past event logs weren't much better, I knew from experience. Generation 1's were fine, all clipped proper speech and time lines, but Generation 2's? A complete mess, even the incident that screwed us, later. Nothing in either generations event files like this, so no precedent to go by.

To order the slow, or take the chance? So far it was only my speculation that had more objects out there. Oddball hadn't even chimed in, which was… well, a little odd. This far out, the only object with any significant gravity at all had to be that rogue planet. It can't be traveling that fast, probably less than 32,000 kph, which was our speed rounded down...less than 20 minutes, to be conservative. That wasn't even enough time to come to a full stop unless we did an emergency one. No, best not to risk it.

“Full reverse, all engines, three-minute burn. You have that long to calculate a course to avoid the gravity well of that object, or as much of it as you are able. Hitomi, patch your console into astrogation and start running sweeps; full sweeps, with every scanner and means of detection we have.”

Now it was time to bite the bullet.

“Bridge to engineering.”



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