Vagrants chapter 19.

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It was always the one you didn't see that got you; a bit of spacer truth. In this case, it might be incorrect; we were seeing this one, and it was well on it's way to ending us.

A rock so big it could be a rogue moon, showing a spin on our sensors that would likely make it unpredictable if I were using just math and not modeling software, was set to come in from our starboard side and crush us like a tin can in thrown into a gravity generator arm.

The good news was we had some time; almost an hour in order to make a course correction and avoid our fate. The problem was, where to? What direction should we burn in, in order to avoid all of those unseen buddies a rock like this would have?

It was always the unseen one that got you.

I felt there was another unseen thing lurking to get me; the deal Oddball was offering was a terrible one... but it felt like there was more going on there too. Like Oddball was planning something, something I couldn't see but was there, waiting to trip me up or kill me. Or kill something of me, at any rate. A bit of hyperbole, but not entirely untrue.No matter how I twisted and turned my point of view, I couldn't see the hidden trap which had to be there.

The space rocks were easier to find.

I guess it didn't matter, that particular trap only mattered if we navigated this one. I triple checked my figures; there were three different angles, three different tacks to take. We could slow down, burning a ton or more of fuel and missing our slingshot window, which would, of course, lead to burning more fuel. A terrible option but likely the safest.

The second option was under or below the moon, relatively. that direction had the benefit of burning far less fuel, but it involved a corkscrew of our own to maintain. It also had the added bonus of keeping us in our slingshot window without any extra maneuvering, if only just.

The third option was relative up, over the moon. This direction had the benefit of burning the least amount of fuel to start, though a little burn would be required once the rock was safely past in order to reorient to our window. It looked the most safe.

"What do you think, Oddball?"

"I can find no errors in your arithmetic. Based on the projections, the third course seems the best to take." He answered from my pad.

And that was why Oddball would never make a good captain. "Yeah, it's too good; I don't trust it."

I stood up and stretched, sending the bridge a message and forwarding the data and equations.

Roger called me back. "Chief engineer to the bridge, please."

Damn it, we did not have time for this; it would take me ten minutes to get there, and that was ten minutes we didn't really have; the longer we waited, the more expensive the burn to escape would be.

"What do you want?!?"

I could tell Roger was keeping himself tightly under control. "I want my chief engineer on the bridge, please."

"Fine, on my way."

I traveled there my way; it took less than five. As soon as the door opened I asked him: "What is so important that you need me here before a crucial burn?"

"The engines will either perform or blow up, with or without you, Mouse," Roger responded. "What I want is you in the most secure part of the ship."

Silly. "The most well-protected part of the ship is actually Oddball's server room."

You could light a nuke off outside the door of that room, and Oddball would survive. Well, maybe not, but close enough.

Roger blew a breath. "Second strongest, then. And while I have you here, I feel I should ask; which route would you take if the choice is yours?"

"The second strongest is the popsicle room. The bridge is third strongest." I thought about it for almost a second, mostly for the appearance of being thorough. "Under the rock."

"Not over?" Roger stressed.

I shook my head. "Too easy, and I don't trust it." Something also struck me as off about the rotation on it.

"Fair enough." Roger turned to our pilot, the one I had to admit was better than me, Billy Spetz. "Your thoughts?"

"Up seems the way to go, but I'm with Mouse - I don't trust it."

"If I may," Oddball interrupted through the bridge speakers.

"....You may." It was good Roger gave permission, since I wasn't about to and Seig wasn't here.

"The correct choice seems to be relative up, given the current orientation of the craft. Such a course would burn less fuel overall, and any added risk is marginal."

Added risk? That twigged my memory - there was something there, some reason why Oddball had mentioned it and mentioned it that way. Probably something to do with the spin....

It was on the tip of my tongue! Or mind, I guess; I was probably using that phrase wrong.

"Your opinion is noted, Oddball. however, I'm going to go with the opinions of my chief engineer and pilot, as well as my own."

Billy plotted the course before he'd finished speaking, and I could feel the engines respond and the ship turn. We were doing more course changes in the last few months than we had in my memory; they were hardly a mundane occurrence.

Alright, I didn't have to stay here anymore. Roger hadn't exactly ordered me to stay. "No Mouse, stick around."

I tried counting; Mom had told me that was an excellent way to keep my temper in check.

It didn't work. "Damn it Roger, why? If something goes wrong we're screwed."

"You're good Mouse, but you're not that good. If something goes wrong, you won't be able to fix it in time anyway."

"You don't know that!"

"I know that if we go off course even a little bit, we get pulverized. So either the engines work as intended, or we get holed. So just sit down and wait it out with the rest of us."

Did he just not trust me or something? If I was going to sabotage us, I didn't need to do it now - I could just do it.

Whatever. He was within his rights to order me around while on shift, so I settled in and linked my pad to the piloting console so I could watch the slow crawl of the rocks that wasn't actually so slow, and plot them from here.

There was a sensor echo. A sensor echo was a double image, much like you would get from an object moving fast in one of those ancient photographs. In today's day and age, it was caused by something traveling at high speed, while not being symmetrical. Symmetrical meant shape, sure, but in this case, it also meant weight or density. The differences caused the sensors to return images microseconds apart, further distorting the image.

The rogue rock we were dodging not only wasn't the same size, it was a different density, in front or the part facing us and guiding the spin. The gravity generated would also be different caused by the spin and density, and the density would draw more crap than originally expected. But it also meant I was right.

"Rides about to get bumpy."

Roger looked over. "What do you know?"

"The rock is denser than we first thought, by almost twelve percent."

Roger caught on immediately, to his credit. "....Sewage."

"It's fine, stay the course. We can keep the rock in between much of it and us."

Billy nodded, already making the adjustments. I helped by positioning the ablative shields. Oddball made a nuisance of himself by double and triple checking our math, which was perfect.

The hits we took were noisy, but minor. Engineering took a hit that caused some damage to one of the power feed junctions; which meant lights out for at least one deck of the ship; the fourth deck in this case. That was Ronald's emergency station, and he checked it out.

A chirp from my pad revealed a rock circling the other at an elliptical, pulled between the planet and the moon. A quick glance and projections proved that if we had gone up and over, it would have hit us before we knew it was there. As it was, we were going to be burning a bit more to keep away from it.
"Billy."

"I see it."

I plotted the return course, and Billy took it from there, adjusting so that we missed it again and getting us back on track. And then we were clear.

"See? There was no need to worry; the shields took almost everything. The sensors are showing clear at our front, and the signal boosters survived, so I'm willing to call the sides clear too."

Clear was relative, of course. Some rocks and debris were too small to show up on the sensors as anything more than a cloud, in cases where it was bunched. But for this case, it was enough. "I'm leaving to assess and repair the damage, Captain."

Roger winced but said nothing. He knew I was clearly in the right here.

Oddball was already tasking the bot he'd given me to check the damage from EVA again, without even asking. That was all well and good; I tasked the thing to check the hull along my own line of march; I hadn't heard anyone chime in with hull breaches or other damage from their stations, and my own pad did not show any other potential breaches to the ship, so deck four was first.

I wasn't really liking how routine this was getting.

Deck four was dark, as expected; there were emergency lights and they would last about two hours under their own chemical power, but they didn't do much.

Also, replacing all those chemical cells was going to be an irritating day job.

I stopped outside the first pressure door and double checked. There were no new damage reports popping up, and both the ship and Oddball agreed the corridor beyond had full life support.

I should probably wait and check the hull first, just to be sure. Safety first, and all that. But the drone was just so slow. I leaned back against the wall, an ear against it while I piloted the drone to listen in on the noises of the ship. There weren't any changes in what I could hear so far, at least for this area.

"Mouse."

I answered the call; Ronald was the emergency responder for this deck; he'd have made it there first and done whatever needed to ensure we didn't explode. "Go ahead, Ron."

"There is a breach, but I couldn't find it, so I dumped a couple foam grenades in the shafts and I'm monitoring the pressure, which is stable. I'm just warning you it's going to be messy in there."

"Terrific. Thank you, really."

"Don't mention it! I'm going to just be a few sections down... got a sensor ghost that might be a fire in section fifteen."

What a liar. Oh well, nothing I hadn't dealt with before.

The pressure door was a little sticky, but I managed. There was a little transfer of air, just enough to stir my hair, but nothing major and it settled quickly. The power cut was actually in one of the junctions, so that meant doing what I did best; crawling around.

I pulled my little flashlight and set to finding it. The best my pad could determine was the break was seven meters down. But that could just be the last relay capable of reporting an all clear for its section of power cables. It was best to take it slow and careful. I set my pad to keep monitoring the bridge in case there was something new on that front.

As promised, it was messy; there had to be the remains of our fast acting grenades down here; I had to slide through feet of the thankfully rapidly settling and non-toxic garbage on my way to the problem.

The guts of the junction spread before me, and showed that I was right to be concerned; the wiring and more massive cables were both holed by something that had penetrated the hull and then broke up from the impacts, spreading the joy. The just about everything from this junction was holed and sparking, and would need either a major patch job or replaced. Ronald had done an amazing job with at least one foam grenade; it had hit at nearly ground zero, expanding and sealing all the holes; it was messy, but it gave us (or me) time to fix other things before welding the hull. Though in this case I might be better served by making another plate and replacing it.

Microscopic holes could kill us too. Then again, I had a drone tasked to me by Oddball. I could do the EVA work with it while I did this. I had time for either route, really; unless we had another impact here the foam would hold for around twenty hours.

The cabling and wiring of the ship was done in twenty foot sections and then set into junctions like the one I was staring at for this reason' a significant upfront cost in time effort and resources, it made field repairs during the life of the ship a snap; The main cables would all have to be replaced, but the minor wires could be re-braided by me right here, sprayed with insulator, and simply snapped back into place. I shut off both sides of the junction with my pad and got to work.

I was on my third wire when someone grabbed my boot.

"Hey Mouse, you clear?"

Well, it was nice that Eric didn't want to actually hurt me by pulling me if I was hung up on something. But I wasn't sure I wanted to be pulled.

"Hold on a minute, and I'll back out."

He didn't wait. "Hello, Mouse. Can we talk?"

I shrugged and handed him part of my fistful of wires. "Sure, but if we're talking, you're braiding."

He wasn't supposed to be here, in the dark unpowered possibly dangerous section with me; his emergency station was two decks up. At least he had his fire extinguisher with him, so he wasn't technically in dereliction of duty.

Eric shrugged right back and took the wiring; he looked a little nervous in the dim light. "That's fair."

We braided in silence for awhile before he spoke. "The cameras in this area are out, you know."

I nodded. It was pretty obvious they would be since I was currently re-braiding the power wiring for the camera network in my hands.

Another moment passed before he spoke.

"We can say anything, do anything here, and Oddball wouldn't know."

I nodded. A twinge, but I wasn't afraid of Eric; not really. If we fought, really fought, I'd win.

Eric glanced up and met my gaze. "Look, I'm not good at this sort of thing. I'm trying, okay?"

I nodded. Everyone deserved enough of a chance to space themselves, and Eric would have his.

Eric took a breath and shocked the hell out of me. "I admire you."

"....You what?"

He grinned crookedly. "Is it that shocking? You don't take shit from anyone, you don't let anyone control you; when someone pushes you, you push right back. And all of that with a delicate little body like yours. You've never let anything stop you; not even me."

He stopped ticking points on his fingers and leaned back with a sigh. "You'd have made an excellent Captain; much better than that weaseling scumbag Roger."

Well at least I could agree with him there, though that thought was promptly followed by one of Roger as chief engineer; he'd screw things up in a hurry.

"When you checked on our parents while pranking those who voted against you, that was real telling," Eric continued.He would know that much, had been one of those people. He looked down again, twisting the next wire in his hands. I'd probably have to check that one before reinstalling it. "It really showed who you were - your character. Ugh, I'm really not good at this."

I wasn't sure where this was going anymore, so I couldn't really help him out... but I felt for him.

Another moment passed while we worked in silence.
Eric spoke again. "Every time we played football, I aimed for you, you know."

"I know." It was pretty obvious; he couldn't have made his intent any clearer if he'd hung up banners and broadcast it over the intercoms.

Eric set down the wire he was working on, carefully. "Every time I went after you, it was to do this."

And then he lunged, almost but not quite knocking me over, and trapping my arms.

He wasn't attacking me though or slamming me around. He was... hugging me? A gentle cradle, his own hands wrapped around me but not roaming anywhere, his own face close to mine and his breath in my ear. He tightened a little and breathed in, and I tried a few experimental punches to his kidney.

He winced but smiled. "Not an inch. Peace, I'm not going to do anything else. But I needed to do that."

He released me and backed off, his hands up.

"What in the name of all of humanity was that, Eric?"

At least he had the dignity to look embarrassed. "That was a hug, Mouse. Something I've wanted to do for a long time."

"Eric, I was a guy not that long ago, and I'll be a guy again."

Eric stopped looking down again, meeting my gaze. "No you weren't Mouse, and regardless of what happens in the future, you won't be because you never were. You were always playing with the boys, but you never were one. I wasn't the only one that saw it, or sees it now. Just... when the time comes, and you make that choice... just consider me too."

"I think you should leave, Eric." How could he think I wasn't a boy, even growing up? Size didn't make a boy or man. Just what was going on here? What did I miss?

Eric gave his lopsided smile again. "Not a single inch. Alright Mouse, see you later." Were his eyes shimmering in the low light?

I stopped braiding as he went out of sight. He could still hear me. "Eric."

The footfalls away shuffled to a stop. "Yeah?" his response held something unidentifiable in it.

"What you just did took guts, man. Major bravery."

"...Thanks."

......

The crisis was averted, for now, the major damage already dealt with and life on the ship was due to return to normal at any moment now... but Eric was not at his post. A standard hourly sweep (something done during emergency situations like this one) revealed everyone present and accounted for but him, and I had a sneaking suspicion I knew right where he was.

There were only a few sections of the ship not covered in cameras and sensors, and fewer now since Mouse had shown us where a few were by hiding there (she refused to reveal the remainder, and given our suspicions of Oddball that was fair) and the last section that Eric had been spotted in.

And there he was, striding out of the darkened section of deck four with his fire extinguisher in hand. The front of his suit was covered in the remains of one of our adhesive foam grenades, which was a little unusual. His jaw tightened and his eyes started to burn when he saw me. He altered course to stop directly in front of me and ground out: "Don't."

And just what was this? Eric could be a little abrasive, but he wasn't usually this... belligerent.

"Don't what, Eric? Don't bother looking for a missing crew member?"

He sighed. "Don't go past that door. Look, we both know why you're really here. Mouse and I had things to discuss and I was more likely to find a fire here than on deck two. Just don't go past that door; I didn't hurt her or anything, but I gave her a lot to think about, and I'd rather she actually think about it then get interrupted."

Despite the tired look he gave me, he was flexing his arms; getting through that door wouldn't be an easy thing. Just what was going on here? "You'll forgive me if I don't take your word for it, given your past history with her."

Eric blew another breath. "That's fair. Call her instead; she had her pad on her."

Left unspoken was Eric's truly horrible skill at coding or hacking. There was no way he'd be able to fake a call on the fly - and it was pretty sad that I had to think something like that. I drew out my own pad.

"Mouse. Status on repairs?"

"I haven't even been working half an hour, Captain. The status is I need to rewire junction thirty-one twenty-seven and until I do power isn't getting to fifteen meters of this deck. Power is rerouted through thirty-one twenty-five and six until I get things back up. So far I haven't noticed any pressure loss, But I'm double checking with the drone Oddball lent me."

She was fine; she sounded fine. A totally normal tone of voice and totally normal sarcasm heaped on my new title. A little anger for the interruption.

"Alright, keep me posted."

"Will do... just as soon as I have something to post about."

I closed the call. I wanted to tell Eric to stop looking at me that way, but I knew how that would go over. "Come on Eric, let's go find deck two. It might burst into flames without you."

He rolled his eyes and his shoulders but fell into step.

The lack of pressure drop was a little worrying; anything that hit with enough force to shred a cable junction had to have left holes in the hull; even if it was something small and widespread, something with that much force should have depressurized this entire section. Ronald had gotten to it in time, clearly.

It was good for us that nothing of the sort happened, but a little worrying.

I checked on the status of the bridge and the plotted courses of the rogue planet, it's moon, and all the debris we could mark; there were no surprises there; I could afford to look further into things.

"Ron."

"Yes, Captain?" It was rather refreshing not to hear sarcasm or simmering hatred in a response. I decided not to dwell on it.

"Where are you now?"

"Deck four, section fifteen. Why?"

Well away from Mouse, in one of the still lit sections of deck four. Technically not a bad place to be, central to the deck for a rapid response to any more damage, and I hadn't called an all clear. I would have expected him to be helping Mouse though; had Eric scared him off?

I shot Eric a look and he shrugged, his face relaxed and open.

"I'd like to talk to you about the damage you saw."

"Alright, on my way."

I stopped to wait for him; Eric went on; I tracked him all the way back to his post.



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