Time: Two weeks after the events of Beside a Black Tan
Verin rubbed at his right ear. “What in fucking tar pits is that sound?”
“Not much for me to go on, grumpy pants,” Ms. Ivana scolded from the speakers in the pilot’s pod. “These poor old deck plates and ducts make a lot of sounds.”
“That!” Verin pointed to the back of the pod. “That damn scritch scritch noise.”
“Oh, that. Honey, you’ve got a tiny biological in the air ducts.”
“What, like a hermit crab?”
“Body temp’s too high for that.” Ms. Ivana paused. “Small mammal’s my guess. I can’t get a good visual in there.”
Verin snorted a puff of steam. “Thought you had fucking cameras everywhere.”
She laughed, damn AI. “Wouldn’t that be fun? Horny little vid cams screwing all over the ship. No, hot shot. I don’t. But I might have one over your bed. Your cowboy is to die for.”
“If your voyeuristic ass horns in on me and Corny, I’m finally gonna reprogram you. Should’ve done it years ago.” Verin cocked his head to the side. “There. There it is again. Can you track the little fucker?”
Ivana sniffed in obvious offense. “What kind of a question is that? Of course I can.”
“Don’t get your panties in a double knot.” Verin scowled, head down, arms crossed over his chest. “We need to get it trapped somewhere with a damn access panel.”
Corny stuck his head into the pod. “What’s got you all riled, Ver? There’s enough smoke in the corridor to make jerky.”
“We’ve got a ballsy mouse or something in the ducts. Noise is driving me bugfuck nuts.”
“Critter must’ve snuck on with Rosa’s feed. Guess we don’t have space mousetraps.”
“Fuck you, cowboy. Not funny.” Verin regretted the words when he glanced up to find Corny frowning at him. So damn hard to know when his cowboy was serious sometimes. Not that he’d apologize. Corny was a big boy. “Ivana, can you make it go toward the galley?”
“What do I look like, a mouse herder?” Ivana snapped.
“Don’t get pissy with me, Ms. Thing. I dunno, make the damn ducts colder here so it heads to a warmer spot? Then shut the vent closures either side when it gets to the galley?”
Corny’s lips curled up into a slow grin. “Not just a pretty face, are you? Might could work, Ms. Ivana.”
“You’re the animal herder, cowboy,” Ivana purred. “I’d try anything for you.”
The unsubtle sexual innuendo raised Verin’s hackles, and wasn’t that fucking stupid? Getting jealous over an AI’s flirting. Corny got an empty packing crate while Verin jogged down to the engine compartment and snagged a mag-screwdriver. Ivana’s play-by-play as she thermally herded the vermin followed him, as did the soft thump of each duct closure marking its progress down the ductwork. They probably looked ridiculous, crouched by the access panel in the galley, but fuck it. Extermination would happen, even if he had to do it with his ass sticking up in the air.
He took out the last screw, hands on either side of the panel. “Ready?”
“The big mean rodent is trapped, big guy,” Ivana sang out. “It’s all you.”
“All right, DeGroot,” Verin growled. “You go in high, I’ll go in low.”
Corny’s tongue protruded from the corner of his mouth as he crouched, crate in hand. He looked fucking adorable, or adorably fuckable. Verin snorted at his own sappiness. He yanked the panel. There was a squeak and a scrabble of claws as light flooded the shaft. A flash of gray zipped by on the left and Verin dove for it.
Too bad Corny did as well.
They slammed heads, or rather Corny slammed into Verin’s horn. Poor cowboy fell hard on his ass, shaking his head. Verin raced after the sneaky-ass vermin, cursing and sending up clouds of smoke as he kept diving for it and it kept eluding him. His damn horns clanged into doorframes and corridor plates.
“What in blazing sulfur pits is going on out here?” Shax stood in the doorway to his cabin, wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, the little twerp. He’d either been napping or screwing around. Yep. Mostly naked angel at his shoulder. That would be the second option.
Verin was too busy tracking the rodent asshole to answer. There. Down by the turn in the corridor. Creeping forward on his hands and knees, Verin stalked the little fucker, waiting for it to stop and sniff the air. Easy…easy…now!
He misjudged and smashed his head on the corner with a clang that resonated through his body. Bloody fucking troll shit. His head pounded. When the corridor stopped pitching from side to side, he was looking up into Shax’s face. Asshole looked like he was trying not to laugh.
“All right there, Ver?”
“Go fuck a Tesla coil.”
Farther down the corridor, Ness crouched with one hand held up near his face. When Verin squinted, he made out a moving gray thing on Ness’s palm.
“Poor little thing,” Ness crooned. “Did the mean demon scare you?”
“What…is that?” Corny asked softly, peering over Ness’s shoulder.
Now that Verin could focus, he saw the huge black eyes and the prehensile tail wrapped around Ness’s wrist. The freaky rodent flipped around and walked up the underside of Ness’s forearm, using paws with suction cups in the pads.
Shax’s smile had slipped. “That’s a spacer rat. Evolved specifically for ship environments. Ness, my darling, my own, it’s no better than a cockroach.”
“Don’t say that. He’s so cute!” The damn rat was on Ness’s shoulder now, nuzzling under his chin, the little suck up. “I’m keeping him.”
The shock on Shax’s face was hilarious. “But—”
“Leopold has an arthropod. I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a rat.” Ness’s jaw was set, and Verin started to enjoy this. Twinkles was standing up for himself these days. Didn't hurt that Shax still felt guilty about the whole Julian misunderstanding.
“Cupcake…” Shax started, then trailed off and shook his head. “Fine. Don’t let me catch him in the food stores. I suppose you’ll want to name him.”
“Yes.” The rat had taken a defiant perch on Ness’s shoulder. Verin swore it was laughing at him. “His name is Nicodemus.”
Corny’s face hove into view. “Need a hand there?”
Grumbling, Verin recalled he was still flat on his back on the deck plates and he let Corny haul him up. No hardship to let his head rest on Corny’s broad shoulder while he got his balance.
Just as the world was steadying, Ivana’s voice broke through the soft murmurs of conversation. “Excuse me? Is someone going to put my access panel back, please? A girl could catch her death from the draft, you know.”