Vagrants chapter 2.

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I groaned as soon as the ball was released...I could see the arc led away from me and right to mouse. I cut as quickly as I could, leaving Joe behind and calculating my angle...there wasn't anyone between me an mouse, and Leif's throw had been poor, making mouse slow down to catch it rather than throwing it to where he'd be.

Otherwise I'd have no chance.

Eric managed to catch him after he slowed down, but made the mistake of going to low, and mouse simply hurdled him. This barely slowed him down...but it slowed him enough. I was now certain I would catch him, and I lined up.

I didn't make the same mistake, I came in aiming for his gut. But in a way I did, cause the damn monkey ducked under me. I managed to flatten myself and hold on to him, but that had been too close.

the buzzer sounded and I lept off him; I wanted to win, but I was half afraid I'd hurt him. I was nearly twice his size after all. The helmet that I hated for obstructing my vision had to come off, and I tried a verbal sally.

"Damn mouse, good moves, you almost had me."

I winced as soon as the words left my mouth, knowing how mouse would take it. What I had meant to say was 'damn mouse, if you hadn't been under thrown there, I'd have had no chance.' or something similar.

His look soured briefly, and he responded while taking off his own helmet:

"I did have you, till you sat on me."

I grinned, he really was touchy about his size. And his looks. I studied his profile till I noticed he was glaring....Oh right, her. He really hated her because of that tomato fiasco. He was too serious...I mean, she did catch it. Sure draining the hydroponic tank and replacing the fluids was a chore, but the food supply wasn't contaminated, just a few tomatoes.

"You're glaring at her again."

"she should be exercising, not sitting on her butt staring at you."

"You can't be working all the time mouse, I keep telling you, you need to relax."

His grin broadened, and I knew what was coming.

"I AM RELAXED!"

I found myself sticking my finger in my ear to relieve the ringing. Such a loud voice from such a little guy.

"Not everyone has to work as hard as you. You'll never make captain if you can't take personalities into consideration."

Despite what he thought I wanted him to make captain; I'd be more than happy with first officer.

"She spends all her time staring at you, you lady killer...which means she barely works at all. As my dad would say, you
pull your weight or you get off."

I gave Lissa a glance. She smiled and winked at me.

"Well she doesn't have that much weight to pull."

"About ten kilos more than you might think; I've had to re-calibrate her showers' grav plating, I know."

"No way!"

I held open the door as we reached the showers, and he entered first. To think that he knew one of the deepest kept secrets of any woman. Or perhaps he was yanking my chain, as my father would say.

I started my shower before a thought struck.

"Well she carries it well; all I'm going to say."

"Can't really argue that."

Mouse cut loose a small sigh of longing that I don't think he even realized he made. He didn't seem to understand that he needed to deal with people; treat them well or poorly, but at least talk to them.

He also didn't seem to understand that most girls just couldn't stand a man that looked cuter than they did. Why he couldn't see it was another mystery. For someone so brilliant, why couldn't he look in the mirror and see that the painfully thin small looking boy had the features they wish they had.

I mean sure they didn't do much for him, despite his obvious natural abilities.

None dared to tease him about it though; not since Eric. The little mouse was fierce. So far only I could really beat him with any consistency, though with the other guys starting to grow up that would probably change. His family art was really something though. He finished first of course, not being concerned at all about appearance, only being late. I knew how important it was, but I was really trying to blow time so Lissa would leave.

I ran a comb through my hair and left a good minute after mouse, as the other guys were just beginning to come in. They were even less worried about being late than I was. We were too focused, they all replied when I asked. The adults knew where we all were anyway.

Crap...Lissa was still here.

"Hi Roger!"

I nodded politely as I passed. Even Carla and Milla had gone on to their prospective jobs...she really should have taken that hint.

"Hi Lissa, can't really talk, need to get to the bridge or the captain will fire me."

"Ha ha, good one Roger! See you later!"

luckily she missed my grimace. That was a pretty awful joke. I needed a wit transplant or something. Wonder if the doc could pull that off?

You know you're too engrossed in your own inner dialogue when you almost ram a closed elevator. I waited impatiently, checking the time on my mini pad. I had been offered a watch as a birthday present years ago, but I demanded the pad instead. After all, a watch has one function...the pad has hundreds, and is only slightly bigger. Why not?

I stepped on the elevator with a minute to spare; riding it up to the bridge should only take 31 seconds.

The door opened to:

"That better be you Mr Smitt."

"It is sir; on time and ready to work sir."

The medium built man whom I already had an inch on turned, an old hat on his head. Legend and rumor had that hat as the on awarded to a Russian captain upon achieving the rank and getting his first ship, on an ocean. It was white, with a gold emblem on it that I didn't know, and didn't bother to look up.

The first captain had owned it, and one of us would soon.

"We saw your game on camera; good save at the end."

"Thank you sir."

His demeanor turned serious, just like that.

"We need to talk; inside."

He gestured to the conference room off to the left of the bridge, set aside for bridge staff to discuss emergencies. I entered to find Viktor already waiting on us. Viktor was the first officer, and son of the former captain.

"Sit down Roger."

I sat while he paced. Something was seriously eating him, destroying his calm. I opened my mouth but then he spoke.

"As you know, the second generation is due to enter cryo in two weeks."

He looked at me for confirmation so I nodded.

"What you don't know, nor does anyone in your current generation, is that several things have to be aired before we get frozen."

I nodded again, spellbound. He had a bomb to drop, I could tell.

"The truth is we don't have full freedom on this ship; we never have."

"...what was that sir?"

"We don't have total control; we share it. Oddball is as much in charge as we are. It makes decisions based on its own ideas on what is needed for our survival."

"With all due respect sir...duh?"

"No mr Smitt, you don't understand.It has far more input in the care and operation of our little colony than you realize. One of the most important jobs for a captain of this vessel is to reason with oddball, or back it's decisions. You see, it votes too."

Viktor passed me his pad, with a red lettered document displaying. It took me awhile to understand what I was seeing...then it took even longer for the urge to throw up to pass.

"It's serious about this? Oddball really wants our male to female ratio to be even?"

"We triple checked, it's genuine. Oddball wants a girl for every boy, 'to maximize happiness and retain the family dynamic.' and it will take steps if we don't."

"What kind of steps?"

"We don't really know, nor do we want to...I wouldn't put a few accidents out of the picture though."

He had to be kidding.

"Why are you showing me this?"

"It's simple; along with this memo, we got another. Go ahead."

Obligingly I hit the next key and got a second memo; oddball's short list on generation 3's roster. My name was at the top for captain. Mouse's name wasn't even on the list. Oddball had him listed as the first pick for engineer. Without mouse on that list, I had no real competition for captain. The captain knew this.

"Congratulations Smitt."

"Your son is going to be devastated sir."

"Would you like to know another secret Smitt?"

"Sure sir. I am a sponge to the water of your wisdom."

"Ha. Careful what you wish for. Seems the captain, despite how it appears, is not considered the most important person on the ship... the engineer is. The engineer is invariably the smartest, most skilled, most capable person on the ship. The captain falls somewhere around third best, from a skills and yes genetic standpoint. Good genes are very important to Oddball. Can you tell me who are the personnel never allowed off ship, under any circumstances?"

"The chief engineer, the doctor, and captain."

"Yes and no. That is the textbook answer, but the truth is a bit different. I as captain, can in fact override that directive...but only for myself. Oddball will remove me from command if I tried to make Cargie or Dr Songer EVA to mine. Their skill set is just considered too valuable and too costly in time to have someone relearn.

Oddball considers the chief engineer the most valuable human on the ship. Cargie, contrary to appearances, is the smartest person of my generation on the ship, and can fill in or quickly learn any role needed. We can't fully learn his role without years of training. My son has learned all that Cargie knows about the workings of this ship...in six months."

"Which is why he's on the list for engineer; you knew, didn't you? that's why the extended learning under Cargie."

"Yes I knew. I've sat right where you are now. Cargie would be captain otherwise. Now the hard part. I could handle the first memo... but I won't. Consider this your first true test. You're an acting captain; Oddball will respond to you directly. Proceed very carefully."

"I will captain."

"You're dismissed."

"Yes captain."

I slid Viktor's pad back to him in a daze and left. I walked, not even sure where I was going.

I ended up at the observatory.

The observatory was an example of a good idea but bad execution. The room was filled with comfortable couches, facing a huge see through section of the hull, open to the stars. That was of course the problem, as with the ship rotating at varying speeds, the star scape could cause vertigo and motion sickness in all but the most hardy among us.

Especially when you realized up and down were all relative; the stars did not have the same directions we did. I mean
according to earth standards we were all walking on the outer wall.

I didn't take long to crack.

Wandering again I ended up in the mess hall, Just as mouse was leaving oddly enough. He pointed at our latest game dejour
with a cocky smirk and a thumbs up. Must mean he topped my high score.

I took a look. Damn it, he'd doubled it! How in the crap! I fiddled around in it, thinking, and Crashing far too often. After crash number fifteen I smacked myself. Damn it, hate it when my brain clears and I realize I just don't have enough information. I brought out my pad, right there in the game. I set up an appointment in the interface room...Oddball's room, where theoretically anyone could go and ask questions. With an appointment, the crazy thing would even answer.

My appointment was for tomorrow, early morning. I sent a message to the captain informing him why I might be late for my
shift, then went to get some sleep.

It was a long time coming.

*******************************************************

Mornings come, as they always do. Of course I almost overslept, my alarm taking a good 5 minutes of constant blaring noise to wake me. Going to have to work on that...5 minutes could be the difference between life and death some day. As always, I was cutting it close so I just threw on clothes and ran a comb through my hair a few times. I'd take a shower after exercise.

Running down the corridors is never a good occupation for a future captain, even if the people involved don't know you'll be captain yet. But run I did...if I missed this appointment, Oddball would just make the next one in a week. He was a petty machine in some ways. I wasn't sure I could survive a week without answers.

The good news is that it was still early by ship standards, so only two people saw me. Carla, Lissa's friend and biologist, and William, our pilot in training. Neither of them saw me duck into the Oddball's room. Which was good because none of us came here; if they saw me, I'd have a group outside waiting, wondering why I'd talked to the crazy thing.

I only had to wait 4 seconds for the robotic form of Oddball to peel itself from the wall. When Magellan had been built, the aliens (we called them Venusians; it was some sort of joke I didn't get) had helped us create the ship with their technology, of which Oddball was supposed to be the pinnacle; an artificial intelligence decades, maybe even centuries, above the best we could manage.

The crazy thing had promptly decided it needed a physical representation of itself, and with the earth still in the aft observatory view port, created one.

It was white, an immaculate and impossible white I'd only seen here. It stood 2 meters tall, with rounded limbs that looked human, but with visible joints at all the standard bend spots. It had no hair, no eyes, a general shape of a nose, and oddly enough it's mouth was perfect. It was in general, shaped as a man, but had no gender characteristics...and of course it was naked so you could tell.

All in all, the general consensus was that if it had wanted to fit in on the ship, it had done a poor job of it. To further mystify us, the added fact was that the Oddball never stepped this...apparition out of this room. It had never been seen outside. It's baritone snapped me out of my desperate wandering thoughts.

"Good morning Roger, what is your concern?"

"Good morning Oddball, you sent a memo to the captain that has me concerned. I came to ask you about it."

"Are you referring to memo g2-369874? I assure you Roger, you are qualified to perform the duties of captain adequately."

"No oddball, I'm referring to the other one."

"Memo g2-369873...in accordance with directive 7?"

"That's the one."

"What is your concern?"

It honestly couldn't guess?

"Refresh my memory on directive seven please."

One always had to at least try and be polite with Oddball...he took it badly if you weren't.

"Directive seven refers to colony population controls while aboard this vessel. The male population should never exceed the female population, barring unfortunate situations."

So it was saying females were more valuable. Why?

"Why?"

"Conception in space is difficult. Many of the methods of bringing human children to term are unreliable in a vacuum with low gravity. The most reliable method to ensure the colony's survival lies in the female of the species."

Well that's sort of clinical. He wouldn't win any points with the girls, that's for sure. Kind of ironic in a way that the low tech approach worked best. All that growing in knowledge and power and we hadn't escaped evolution's third most elementary action for any life form.

"I understand, you're saying we need wombs for successful reproduction of our species."

"Correct."

"But why do we need an equal number? Surely a womb can be used more than once."

"Variance of the species. All members of the colony were chosen in part for their ability to provide the necessary genetic difference that keeps a population healthy. Also when dealing with humans it has been confirmed that a family unit is most advantageous."

"Can't we artificially inseminate for the needed variance?"

"In short term that might be possible; however such an act could lead to potentially ruinous long term effects."

"So you're saying by the 10th generation we'd run out of couples, because we'd all be related too closely."

"correct."

I took a moment to collect myself. I was shocked I actually understood the thrust of the quirky AI's arguments.

"So you're saying the population was supposed to be equal, in every generation; what went wrong?"

"With reliance on natural means success is guaranteed, however control is lacking. Despite genetic and hormonal manipulation 27 children were born male and 23 were born female."

I was cold. This thing had admitted to openly manipulating our genes in the womb to provide what it felt was a favorable outcome. What else could it do? What else had our grandparents given it permission to do?

"Why is this only coming up as an issue now?"

"Current active population is 94. 44 adults, 50 children. 57 females, 47 males. In two weeks current active population will be 50, with 27 males and 23 females. This is a situation not conducive to the survival or happiness of the colony."

Ahh shit. It made sense, if you were a computer. I guess. It obviously differentiated between children and adults, or it'd have sprung this on the captain before the accident. Sigh, I had to ask, but I was really going to hate myself for it.

"Recommendations?"

"Allow this unit to correct the problem. This unit will suggest personnel to fit the necessary criteria. Hold a vote after personnel selections are chosen, in the same manner. Two of the males in that vote will be chosen to become females."

I caught myself gaping at the thing.

"You can do that? With wombs and everything?"

I was pretty sure human tech alone couldn't do what Oddball was suggesting.

It made a show of looking up at me and I swear I could see surprise on it's non face.

"Of course."

"Any other options?"

"Early cryogenic containment, or the subtraction of 4 males from the population. Neither recommendation is ideal, as either option inhibits population growth."

It was seriously talking about forcing 4 of us into cryo, or murder. I had half hoped the captain was making a joke...but this, this was sick. Even if we were just talking cryo, we couldn't afford the loss of man power so early in our shift. The captain's generation had a hard enough time covering the loss now, with our help.

"Who are your recommendations for these procedures?"

"Those personnel that procedure 1 is most likely to succeed on are still being calculated. If you wish, I will send you the appropriate files once complete. The personnel most likely for early stasis or liquidation are Seth Castillo, Brian Moore, Guido Patrucci, and Ronald Simmons."

So right off the bat, we'd lose an EVA/heavy tools specialist, one of our better chemists, our lone combat specialist, and our astronomer. Completely unacceptable.

"You have another concern?"

I must have spent too long pondering the problem.

"Not at this time, I need to think about the solution. Should I require more information, do I make another appointment?"

"It is not required, you may text me with your pad, using the subject 'G3-c1'. Will there be anything else?"

"Not at this time, thank you."

I knew the machine had thrown that last bit out to force me to be civil. It placed great emphasis on civility...even as it blithely discussed the murder of four people important to the future of our little bit of humanity. But not quite important enough it seemed, as they didn't have wombs or weren't quite the cream of our small crop. I wonder if the other Arks have to deal with problems like this, or already have.

What would another captain choose I wonder? Letting the damn AI have it's way with two people would hardly sit well with the whole. After all, what was to stop it from doing it again if it deemed it was required? Then again, letting the AI kill or forcibly inter 4 people we needed wouldn't go over well either.

In the end it was kind of a simple choice. Let the AI alter two people, but keep their functionality and make them what the colony needed to procreate...or completely lose the functionality of four people, with the same morale loss.

I'd only made it back to my berth when my pad chimed. Oddball had answered me, both slower and faster than I had expected. I felt fairly certain that oddball had people in mind when he suggested his crazy plan, and hadn't wanted to tell me on purpose. My finger paused in opening the message.

What if that was because I was on the list? Could I deal with that?

It would be a relief actually. One less person to convert against their will; I'd do it gladly for the colony, if just to avoid making someone else do it. I thumbed open the list as I entered my room.

My name wasn't on the list.

Mouse's was.

(tbc)



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