Vagrants chapter 20.

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The little drone Oddball had given me was due back; I watched it go. It would get re-purposed again, the weapons re-attached and the software I'd used to control it removed. It was with mixed feelings that I watched it go.

Well, not really. I was more pissed at what it implied, now that I had a spare moment to think on it. None of the other engineers had been offered a chance to control a security drone, and I hated being coddled.

I finished up and replaced the panel; the power junctions were now fully restored. Sure, the panels themselves needed replacing to ensure there was at least some armor in place against the vagaries of ship life, but the patch I'd smeared on them would hold for now. I added the panel numbers to my ever-growing list of minor fixes and grabbed my tools.

"Mouse, come in."

I tapped the message button on my pad. "Go ahead Brun."

"You were supposed to be asleep almost an hour ago."

Whoops. Time flies when you're dealing with one of the few things that makes sense in your life anymore.

"Alright, I'm done and heading to bed. Clock me out?"

"Done," Brun told me before ending the call. She seemed angry; probably thinking I didn't trust her. Well as far as engineering and repairs, I did, but getting lost in my work was something any engineer could do. Things were still too tense between us, not that I really cared.

I hefted my tools with a sigh; I wasn't about to waste time going all the way back to engineering to drop them off, especially after having someone else break protocol and clock me out. I'm sure Oddball already knew of the transgression, but I was more than up to the task of making sure captain "Call me Captain" Roger never found out. He was turning into quite the martinet.

I wasn't really sure what was going on there, but he was surpassing his mandate with regularity; one oddball was enough for this ship.

My lights came on as I opened my door, and I set the tools aside. At least they would be easy to find in the morning.

And of course, I was covered in dust, some ash, some grease, a few traces of fire retardant foam, and other things that might be even less savory. So a shower first then, and one using a liquid rather than just sonic energy. Which meant more time not sleeping, and I had a shift in the morning. That ever-growing list wasn't about to shorten itself.

By the time I was finished the shower itself was in need of a cleaning, but my clothes and I were mostly fine. The overalls would never really be clean, but that was okay; the clothes underneath were what counted, and they were pristine. Any stray grease had luckily came out. I hung them up carefully in the stall to dry and hit the button to dry everything off.

That done, I left them there; it was the safest place for them and I was tired. I made it to bed and decided to forego the safety netting; it was too much work.

......

We had done it. Successfully navigated the rogue planet and his much more dangerous friends, and used the gravity well to slingshot toward our destination with speed. We would be hitting our target galaxy years earlier, maybe even decades earlier.

And all I could think about was Mouse. She was the same old Mouse - or was she? She acted the same, mostly, same gruff nature, same competitive streak, same anger... and yet she hadn't knocked Eric into the next universe when he interrupted her work and she told me Oddball had made a pitch to her and then said little more. That would normally mean she was actually considering it, but that was crazy.

And to top it all off, I was Captain here; with this ship and crew as my direct responsibilities. Maybe even all that remained of humanity on my shoulders. Why couldn't I think of anyone or anything else? Fuel concerns, what Marion was up to or why Brun was so mad at the moment were valid concerns, yet I really didn't care. Just a thousand other things I couldn't be bothered with.

I wanted to make it stop, but didn't know how. Did I dare ask advice? If so, from who? No, that was stupid. I'd just have to work on it; surely I could focus correctly like I used to.

"Yo, boss."

There, that report was done... wait, Seig was here. "Yes, Seig?"

"Your shift is over, boss. You can give up the chair and get some sleep."

"You know..."

Seig cut me off with a nod. "All caught up. We need to watch for rocks on the back end, but we have them all mapped now, there shouldn't be any surprises. Go get some sleep."

He didn't have to tell me twice.

My pad chimed as soon as the bridge door closed. It was a text from Oddball. A request for a meeting, together with Mouse... for tomorrow. I clicked in the affirmative, more than a little curious. Neither Mouse nor I had called for the meeting; what reason did Oddball have for it? To pressure us?

No, no more worrying about it. Sleep was a good thing and something I needed.

It was also something I'd have to put off a little longer; Lissa was standing in front of my door alone, wringing her hands. "What is it, Lissa?"

She jumped at my voice, even though she'd seen me coming. "I found something a little odd, and I'd like a second opinion on it."

Well, I wasn't the chief botanist. "You need to talk to your friends, not me."

She shook her head in a hurry. "No, I know what it is... I need help figuring out what it means."

Sigh. "Alright, what is it?"

She touched a button on her pad, and my pad chimed. I managed to keep my feelings on how silly it was to send me something from a distance of three meters and looked.

It was a document; a file really, which contained the chemical composition of our plants we grew hydroponically for food. It was easy to spot the chemicals which didn't belong. Vitamin C for example was naturally occurring in the plants, but the report was showing almost ten times the normal amount. The reports after that was an analysis of the hydroponic solutions we used to grow the plants - they showed varying degrees of the chemicals used. The iron specifically was almost at the amount needed to kill every plant exposed to it. There was another here, a synthetic that I didn't recognize.

"Lissa, tell me."

"Yes?" she asked, almost stuttering over the word.

"Did the cameras show anyone tampering with the fluids, or the plants directly?"

"No, it was the first thing I checked. But all the crew have alibis, as best as I can tell."

Left unsaid was the fact that Lissa was not the best among us with computers, and being able to fool her with a hack was possible.

"Did you check our chemical stocks?" The chemicals used here had to have come from somewhere.

"They didn't come from Botany or any of the labs I checked," Lissa answered, picking at her clothes.

I was mildly impressed she checked into this that far. That also didn't discount everything, but it did mean Lissa had checked everywhere such substances were supposed to be kept.

"I think we need a second opinion, here," This was an active act of sabotage, and while I knew from a glance it wouldn't kill us, I couldn't figure out what it would do. "We need to talk to Brian or Rig." Brian was off shift right now, but Rig was the night shift chemist.

"In the morning," Lissa replied. "I set up a filter which will remove most of it, and Marion assured me we are in no danger - I just wanted you to know, and you've been so busy lately."

I held up my pad. "You could have called; I'd have responded." Just what was she trying to say here?

"Someone put stuff in our food supply, and it wasn't me!" She replied with some heat. "I wasn't sure what else they may have done, and wanted this conversation as off the record as I could get it."

Whatever. "Fine, if Marion knows and you've filtered for it, then I guess it can wait until morning. But in the morning I expect you to report bright and early and back me up when we go to see Brian. We'll meet up at the cafeteria; I'll want to talk to Marion too."

"Sure. I'll see you in the morning." Lissa sounded almost happy under all the paranoia.

Well, that was unfair; someone was clearly out to get us. But I couldn't figure out how; none of these were poisons unless concentrated in much higher amounts. And for all the elevated amounts in these reports, they fell well short of poisonous levels.

I finally got into my quarters without anything else coming up; safe at last. I disrobed and fed my uniform into the chute, and fell into bed.

Maybe this time I'd actually be able to sleep.

......

Morning came too soon. I stretched then slapped my alarm off (Why use a button when a full slap was more satisfying? Best modification ever.) and almost rolled straight into the netting before I remembered it was there. Off to a great start; at least I didn't need to shower this morning.

I checked the clothes in the stall, which were just as clean now as they were last night, and spent my normal shower time actually cleaning the stall and making sure the grease hadn't clogged it.

I really should have expected it when my pad chimed.

The call was from our fearless leader, of course, and I now regretted almost running to get to it; it clearly wasn't an emergency.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Mouse, what are you up to?"

"I was just about to make some breakfast." He knew my schedule almost as well as I did; what was he even up to?

"I'd like to pick your brain about a matter that's come to my attention, before the meeting."

Meeting? "What meeting? I'm not aware of any meeting."

The answer surprised me. "Oddball scheduled one."

So Oddball wanted an answer. I wasn't sure I had one to give him yet.

"Fine, I'm on my way." He meant now, and that meant no breakfast here. It also meant the cafeteria, because there was no way he'd want me to skip a meal; he was a bit of a baby like that.

Sure enough, he was there sitting down at a table near the door and picking at a bowl of something vaguely porridge-like. Claire and Marion were sitting on either side, their own bowls empty and water half drank. Not sharing the same table, but not far, Lissa sat nursing her own food alone.

And at the empty spot which was conveniently facing the door, a bowl of the sludge and a cup of tea. Actual tea, by the smell.

Whatever, a show of trust was in order, I guess. They would only spike my food once.

"So what's going on?" The tea was passable if a little weak. The porridge was porridge, just a little blander.

My pad chimed; Lissa had sent me something. No one spoke, so I gave the file a glance. I could see why they called me now, and why they waited; the timestamp on much of this file was yesterday.

"I didn't do it."

"We know."

Well, thank you, captain Traitor, for that vote of confidence.

"We followed your movements through security footage and your signal. We know you were nowhere near the hydroponics section, and only passed biology once on your way to deck four." Lissa helpfully explained.

I rescinded the thanks for a vote of confidence in my head; it wasn't needed. "So, should I be eating and drinking this?"

"It's safe enough," Marion told me. "I filtered as much of the additives out as I could, and what's left shouldn't cause any concerns. Especially if you lighten up on the vitamins for a while."

"Don't look at us like that," Lissa continued. "We had to rule you out first due to recent events. The real problem is that no one else was in hydroponics either except us, and only Brian was in biology."

I assumed Lissa meant her and her followers by 'us'. Still, that was curious.

"Well someone could have accessed hydroponics by the emergency systems." Like all the critical systems on board the ship, there were redundancies for botany. The emergency systems were designed to kick in automatically if the standard systems were cut somehow, providing water sunlight and nutrition to all the plants until engineering could fix whatever the problem was.

Had the damage from yesterday knocked out hydroponics somehow? The time stamps suggested otherwise, as some of this data was a week or more old at least.

"I think we need more info. None of this is overtly poisonous; in fact, it is all beneficial in the short term, as long as we don't allow too much build up."

"A second opinion, yes. We were going to go ask Dirk."

Oh. "That hack? You'd be better off asking Brian."

"Hey, Dirk isn't that bad."

Yeah shut up Marion, Dirk didn't have your manhood preserved in a jar on ice somewhere. "He's bad enough; he's a hack. I had to help him pass about half his tests."

Marion blew an exasperated breath. "Mouse, you helped just about everyone pass their tests at one point or another. That's hardly something to hold against him... unless you're holding it against all of us for some stupid reason?"

Oh, now she was messing with me. "That's not what I meant and you knew it."

"You do have problems seeing the good in certain people," Claire stated softly.

"I'm still angry at you Claire, and I dislike lazy people on principle."

Captain Traitor moved, looming over the table. "That's one of the many things we like bout you Mouse - your terribly judgemental hatred of those you consider lazy."

So that's how he wanted to be. How all three of them wanted to be, it seemed. "You're lucky I'm still eating, or I'd walk out right now and just go to my shift. This isn't even my job."

Captain traitor thought of it a moment, the fake smile wiped off his face. "You're right, I'm sorry. Please help us figure out what's going on?"

"Sure. In fact, I think I already have. I'm not sure of the why, but I think I know the who."

Roger actually looked surprised. "Who? And how did they get past the cameras?"

That wasn't going to be how this worked. I finished my tea. "I'll tell you when I'm sure. How about we go see Dirk and get his opinion on this?"

Roger didn't need to be told twice - he stood up and started striding out like he was in full command of the situation. Everyone else followed his lead, including me, so I guess he wasn't that far off.

I was beginning to suspect his control didn't extend as far as previously thought, however; how many decisions had he actually made of his own free will since getting the job?

It was wonderful... a rare occurrence: Dirk was in, and not asleep during his shift yet. I decided to record the moment for posterity.

He lunged up from his past time of precariously leaning his chair and resting his feet on a desk he never used and almost fell. To his credit, he recovered quickly.

"Uh-oh. Um, morning Captain, Mouse, Claire, Marion. To what do I owe this visit? Are any of you sick? I don't see any injuries."

Roger held out his pad. "We have a question. What would those chemicals and nutrients do at those concentrations to the human body?"

"Nothing in the short term, but I'm guessing you already knew that. Hmm...."

He made a show of thinking. My guess is a few slipped gears would come flying out of an ear. But he surprised me.

Snapping his fingers, he delivered his verdict. "I got it! Babies!"

He really surprised me.

He also surprised Roger and Lissa, who both deadpanned "What." in chorus. I was too busy thinking to waste time with that.

Dirk explained. "Babies. The chemicals here are nutrients, natural ones where we're from, things our bodies need to operate efficiently. We all know that much, but in this instance and at these amounts they would act as a natural fertility boost with few to no side effects."

I knew it. "Can they be used for anything else?"

Dirk turned to me. "Not in those concentrations, no. The dissipation of the nutrients into the plants has even been accounted for."

Sigh. "Well, turns out we need to talk to Oddball after all. He's clearly the culprit."

"But how?" Roger gasped out. "Oddball has no means to tamper with the food!"

"But he does. The emergency back up system, in case the primary and secondary systems fail. Oddball is patched directly into it, and can both monitor our food supply and alter the content of the nutrient baths. The question is how... how does he justify it? There has to be some loophole there somewhere, the charter has us clearly in control of our own food supply."

"I'll figure it out," Roger said. "You go ahead and get your second opinion. Talk to Brian. See if it could be anything else. The rest of you, back to your stations - and Marion continue filtering the food supply. Not a word about this to anyone else."

Wow, that almost sounded decisive. "Got it."

Whatever, I moved. Roger called out as the door opened: "Don't be late to the meeting, Mouse."

"I won't."

Brian didn't take long to find; he was working of course. It looked like a new acid compound, something that melted rock but not a suit, judging by the testing.

"Something I can do for you Mouse?" He hadn't even looked around.

"Yes, there is. I need you to take a look at my pad a moment and give me your impression on what you see."

Brian carefully put his compound down and carefully stripped off his gloves. "Well, that's cryptic," he told me.

"I can't help it," I told him back. "I don't want to color your perceptions."

He washed his hands first, something I was grateful for. "Alright, hand it here."

He eyed the screen for a second then looked up and half-joked: "So when does the aphrodisiac get entered in?"

I didn't get it. "A what?"

"An aphrodisiac. Something that increases a human's sex drive. Because this is for fertility, most likely. The aphrodisiac would be the second part."

I'd sooner gargle engine exhaust. "Let's go with never. You've officially been sworn to secrecy by the way."

Captain traitor hadn't told me to swear Brian in, but it was pretty obviously an oversight on his part. Brian gave a curt nod as if he expected it before asking the expected question.

"So who did this? It wasn't you, or you wouldn't be here."

"None of the crew actually, as far as we can tell." I left unsaid who that left out.

Brian was no slouch, he caught on immediately. "Oh... interesting."

"Not the word I'd use, but we can go with that."

"So, are steps being taken?" Brian's question took me by surprise. He almost sounded disapproving of any such special measures.

"Yes, we're filtering the food pending further notice."

"Well, that sounds stupid. The stuff we were being hit with is good for other things, and it could help us in other many other ways, like building up our bones before we hit a planet or improving our immune systems. Normally Oddball won't let us tamper with our food supply, citing some very real dangers - but with oddball doing it? I mean the only thing it'll do is increase fertility. Now if oddball actually adds an aphrodisiac, then we all have cause to worry, but the crew has to have babies sometime.

"We aren't ready yet at all," I countered. "And the standard procedure is to form families first. Get married, move in together, that sort of thing."

"But why?" Brian asked. "You ever wonder that? And how soon did our parents settle down? Our parents are all in their thirties or younger. How soon did they get together after generation one was frozen?"

I'd never really thought of it, actually. My parents hadn't talked much about it, except to stress how important a family was to maintain a proper human society, and proper ship morale. I knew they loved each other, and I knew they had married before I was born.

I guess I had some research to do. Later of course, in between all work I had and the meeting later.

Out loud I admitted my lack. "Honestly, no idea. I don't suppose you have one?"

"A little," he admitted. "My parents were silent about much of how they got together, probably because we were considered too young to know the gory details as kids, but I did little digging, and most of the marriages were recorded seven to eight months before the first child was born; very few marriages were over nine months old before a child was born. Incidentally, your parents were one of those older marriages."

That much I knew; I was the youngest, after all, with my conception happening a year after my parents got married. And my condition as an only child was one of a kind, and highly suspect. It could even be the start of all of this, not that I'd blame Mom for something she couldn't help.

I had no doubt Mom's issues would not be repeated, either. Not by any of us; steps would be taken. I also had no doubt those steps would be moral, at least within some framework of morality; there had been no euthanizing, and there would be no euthanizing.

There were some fates which could be worse than euthanasia, potentially.

Well, I needed to work the problem at hand. "Well I'll see what I can do about testing for any further contaminants, but until then if you have anything stashed away from prying eyes, you might want to test it."

Most of the crew had some spare stocks of food and water stored, either in their own kitchens or in an undisclosed location. At least, if I knew human nature at all. Even if a few extra weeks of food and water wouldn't really mean much if everything we had went bad. I had three myself, and my emergency plan called for us to freeze early and let the ship go fully automated as long as it could.

Leaving Oddball in charge wasn't ideal for us, but I was beginning to suspect more and more that he didn't need our help at all, and our careers were more a formality to keep us busy and out of his way. Before this morning, it never would have occurred to me that Oddball was allowed to tamper with our food supplies in this way.

"Will do Mouse, thanks. Any reason why we're keeping this quiet?"

"Captains orders - he didn't explain and I didn't ask. My guess is he's waiting to make the announcement."

It did make telling people to b wary of their food difficult; perhaps it was to avoid a panic? But that was silly; we didn't panic.

The alarm on my pad chimed. I snagged it out of Brian's mostly slack hand. "Sorry, that alarm means if I don't hurry I'll be late for a meeting."

"Good luck." No, Brian was not a dummy.

"Thanks."



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