Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Space station engineers initially bred spacer rats as diagnostic assistants. Even the best spider bots have difficulty navigating certain angles of duct and pipe, and rats, notorious for getting into everything, ended up being a better choice in certain situations. With head-mounted cameras, they could be trained to seek out sources of wiring and pipe leakage issues.
Several modifications in the domestic rat became essential, though. Rats have poor eyesight, which was addressed with some avian gene splicing, resulting in the spacer rats keen and somewhat disturbing red eyes. Gecko DNA borrowing resulted in the suction-cupped feet and a bit of harvest mouse genetic borrowing in the prehensile tail, both of which allow the spacer rat to operate in zero-g with ease.
Unfortunately, spacer rats are also notoriously curious and independent. It didn't take long for portions of their populations to escape their handlers and spread out to the spacer community at large…
Mac tapped off the article's audio and leaned back on his bunk to think. The Brimstone wasn't a huge closed system like a space station but she did have spots that were harder to reach. Could Nicodemus be trained to carry a camera and check in tight spaces? And come back when asked? That was probably the trickiest part. Nic was something like a toddler in that regard and did what Nic wanted to do when he wanted to do it.
Maybe if he knew there was an incentive for doing the job right? Mac scratched at the stubble on his chin. He'd never trained animals before. Corny would probably have a better idea of how to go about it and Ness would have to agree. Nic was definitely his rat and ran to the fallen angel whenever he was in trouble.
He stood, stretched, and had just exited his cabin when an unholy shrieking rang out from the galley.
"Get out! Get out! Get your dirty little feet out of my flour bin now! What in all holy feather boas are you doing in there!"
Not something one heard every day aboard a space freighter. Mac hurried down the corridor and turned the corner into the galley to find exactly…nothing. The galley was empty. Ms. Ivana's screeching jumped from galley com only to all ship.
"Ness Angelus! You come and get your filthy little disrespectful rat right now!"
Mac leaned against the counter to wait. It didn't take long on such a small ship. Deck boots pounded on the plates as Ness, dressed only in his boxers, careened around the corner, wide-eyed and breathless. "Where is he? Ms. Ivana, what's happened?"
"He's in my flour bin!" she wailed in repulsed distress. "He's…he's excavating in there!"
"Oh, dear." Ness folded his wings to his back neatly but otherwise stood frozen, obviously not equipped to puzzle through the problem.
"Above decks or below, Ms. Ivana?" Mac asked in the steadiest voice he could muster. Laughing right then seemed a poor choice.
Ivana let out a miserable sniff and said in a much smaller voice, "Belowdecks. I feel so violated."
"All right, sweetheart." Mac patted the com. "You just hold tight. We'll take care of this."
He motioned for Ness to follow and strode down the corridor to the ladder leading to stores. Everything in storage was properly fastened and strapped down—Heckle saw to that. Nothing worse than loose articles once the ship hit the hard acceleration of Copernicus drive. Small things became missiles. Large things became wrecking balls.
Ivana's supplies lay toward the inner wall of storage, a long line of specialized containers that her picking arms and feeder vaccum tubes used as needed. Empty carton? The feeder arms unlatched and retrieved a new container and refilled. The only time galley transport wasn't a closed system was during refilling, and that was a matter of two minutes at most. Nic had to have been watching. And waiting.
Obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed, Ness put a hand on the release for the flour container. "In the feeder bin?"
"Yes!" The AI voice trembled and Mac could have sworn he heard a muffled sob.
"I'm so sorry about this, Ms. Ivana. Truly. I feel terrible." Ness fumbled with disengaging the feeder tube and Mac stepped into help, making short work of sealing the tube and disengaging the lid catches. As soon as he could open half the lid, Ness leaned over and whistled. "Nicodemus! You come out of there! You know you're not supposed to be in the food!"
A rodent head immediately popped out of the flour, Nicodemus even whiter than usual. With a bit of a struggle, he fought free of the flour and climbed up onto Ness's hand. Rather sheepishly, Mac thought. He climbed up to Ness's shoulder, trailing flour and squeaking miserably.
"I told you not to go in the food," Ness scolded softly. "What if he hears about it? What are we going to do then?"
"Oh, he heard," Shax purred from the ladder. He stalked over, eyes narrowed on Nic. "Difficult not to hear with Ivana so upset. What was our agreement, rat? That you stay as long as you stay out of my food stores. Someone doesn't listen."
Mac had the uncomfortable feeling that he was watching a deadly collision in slow motion. Shax was about to do something he would very much regret later. Ness was about to have his heart broken and his love shaken to the core. No, no. I can't stand here and let this happen.
He put an arm around Shax's shoulder and turned him back toward the ladder. The demon prince resisted but Mac pretended he didn't notice. "Captain, perfect. I wanted to talk to you about Nic, an idea I wanted to run by you. I've been reading up on spacer rats in engineering roles and I think there's a way to harness Nic's excess energy…"
Shax's interest diverted, he relaxed in Mac's grip and allowed himself to be led back up to the crew deck while Mac kept talking. He was going to have to do something nice for Ms. Ivana to smooth over having Nic scrabbling around her ducts but that would have to wait.
Behind him, he could've sworn he heard Ness whisper to Nic, "Yes, I promise. We'll get him to like you. Just don't go food diving again."