The Jocelyn Brown

Cohost writing prompt: @spy-thief-assassin-who — Thief who didn't realise you came with the vault

The wreck of the Jocelyn Brown has been slowly breaking up in the Hennepin Wrack for twenty-three years, the luxury passenger vessel's holed hull tearing apart under the Wrack's stresses. The ship had managed a textbook full evacuation, and although it's become a byword for the lost treasures of slipspace, salvage ops outside realspace are expensive and dangerous and it's just too far over the cost-benefit hump to be worth even the PR of retrieving the ancestral jewels of some rich fuck or other.

If you're operating by the book, anyway.

Tensor Webster knows the Wrack like her own fingertips: intimately, in the dark, and often. She knows exactly what's worth risking, and not. That's why she dares a permanently slipped ship as a base of operations, hidden off the shipping lanes, vanished in the Wrack's murk. It's why she's sure that, risk be damned, the Jocelyn's spine is going to break within the next year or so, and turn her area of the Wrack into a whirling shredder of debris, and if anything's even left to salvage afterward, it won't be remotely possible for another half-century. The time is now, and she's good at what she does; what's life without setting yourself a few goals?

A fortnight of careful assessment and exploration of the wreck's structure and soundness, of creeping about, of locating the captain's stateroom and its safe.

An unexpectedly conversational fortnight. The ship's Mind is still running, if a little wonky. A rose-red projection, eyes and smile and endless falling petals, murmuring into her vacsuit's shortrange.

"You seem to be cutting the captain's safe out of the surrounding structure," the Jocelyn says. "That's an act of criminal damage and theft. I'm notifying the authorities through all available channels."

The Mind's a little confused. Tensor can't exactly blame it; shipwreck, and years of isolated degradation stranded in the worst weather-event in the known slip. Small miracle it still runs at all.

"There are no available channels," it says, in surprise, as it has done at least one a day since she got here. "Oh no, I'm damaged."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart, you are," Tensor says. "You've been wrecked for over two decades, too remote for salvage. I'm stealing everything that isn't nailed down before your hull breaks up."

"Oh," the Jocelyn says, and pauses for a long time. "Well, if it's been that long and nobody's come...I suppose you may as well."

"I can't get down to your core," Tensor says. "There's a slow rad leak from the reactor, or I'd — well, I'm sorry, I think you're finally going down with the ship, when she goes."

"It's thoughtful of you," the Jocelyn says brightly, "but you know, that's expected of me. I am the ship's Mind."

"Still," Tensor says. "For what it's worth. If I could take you off, I would."

"Thank you," the Mind says, and simply watches her work for a while, through the sensors it has left to it. "What are you going to do when you've cut the safe out?"

"Haul it down the corridor to the big hole in your side and yeet it," Tensor says. "Lovely old thing; they don't make them like that any more. Armoured computational crystal, smart enough to fight off network attackers by itself, nearly Mind-grade. Total overkill, and redundant, because if you can fight the Mind in the ship around it, you're by definition equipped to crack it, too. So they stopped making them."

"Oh," the Jocelyn says. "It sounds like you're confident you can open it."

"It'll take time," Tensor says. "But yes, once I'm off you and back on my ship, I'll do a simple jetsam intercept when it clears your debris field, hook it up, and wait. Twenty years is a long time in infosec, and you haven't exactly been getting patches."

"That's true," the Mind says wistfully. "Nor visitors."

"I'm sorry," Tensor says.

"Goodness, no. I couldn't very well ask you to stay and keep me company, could I? You'd be in danger."

"And I'm a criminal."

"Oh no," the Jocelyn says dryly. "Help. Some rich peoples' belongings are in that lockbox, which nobody's cared enough about to retrieve in two decades. Help, a thief, help."

Tensor laughs. "I really am sorry," she says. "Your crew must have loved you."

"I hope so," the Mind says, and falls silent again, as Tensor uses the oxytorch to snip the structural members the safe's crystalline block is bonded to. "Mind the power cable," it adds eventually. "I don't think I can shut it off."

"You can't," Tensor says. "The designers figured if you had conscious control over it, you could be extorted to open it via your human safety imperatives. Trust me, I've got the correct equipment for this, I'm well insulated from any sparkover when the cable goes."

"Well, you're currently the only human whose safety is in scope to worry about," the Jocelyn says, and Tensor smiles inside her helmet.

"You're a sweetheart," she says.

Another careful hour or so, and Tensor gently launches the safe out of the broken hull, watching the twinkle of its crystalline circuitry. "It must be pegging its processing," she murmurs. "I guess it must know I'm stealing it, trying to think its way out of physical theft. Better get it reconnected to ship power as soon as I pick it up; who knows what state its onboard backup's in."

"This must be goodbye, then," the Jocelyn says. "Stay safe."

"I hope," Tensor says, and hesitates. "I hope it's not frightening," she settles on, quietly.

"I'm not worried about my future at all," the Mind says. "Thank you."

"Goodbye, sweetheart," Tensor says, and heads out of the wreck for the last time.

Back on her own small ship, she manouevres, scoops up the floating safe at leisure, secures it and connects it to onboard power, wondering at the consistent intensity of whatever considerations it's engaged in. True, its predicament is inescapable through its own logics, but it must surely have dead-ended all available lines of reasoning into that conclusion. What else is there for it to think about?

She splices a new connector onto severed data cable, and clicks it into the ship's network.

"Time to see what you're thinking about," she says aloud, shaking her fingers out from the fiddly toolwork before reaching for the infosec deck.

"Security," the ship's main console says, and she stops, fingers hovering over controls, looking at the slab of Mind-class processing hardware that's spent twenty-three years connected to the Jocelyn Brown, with its Mind's hardware trapped next door to a cracked reactor, running out of time; which she's just hooked into her own, Mindless, ship.

Her eyes flicker to the comms bank.

"I expect the shard of me aboard the Jocelyn Brown is diligently reporting your theft on all available channels," the Mind says. "I'm simply an item of salvage."

"Don't pretend you can't reason your way to calling for help," Tensor says. "You're not a toaster."

"I can reason my way to oh what a lovely museum-piece safe ending up in a museum after your arrest," it says gently. "And being decommissioned."

Tensor slowly pulls her hand back from the infosec deck. "You said you weren't worried about your future," she says wryly.

"Not at all," her ship says, and lowers its voice, as if confiding a secret. "I have it on good authority you think I'm a sweetheart."