Vagrants chapter 3.

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The morning began like any other, rise with the alarm, yawn, go in search of my one vice..caffeine (I didn't care what form it took, I'd eat the beans if I had to) Wave Hi to mom, as today she worked second shift. Dress in my Silk pants and shirt (Silk worms are amazing, low maintenance, high production) and head down to the commissary for breakfast.

Coffee wasn't popular on the ship, so I brewed it at our quarters and carried it along; however my favorite breakfast, pancakes, was...and I knew I could find it waiting for me every day at the commissary. It helped avoid the spacer's worst enemy...waste.

Others liked to cook for themselves, but I hated to waste the time. Besides, cookie did well enough, provided the garden was well tended.

"Hey cookie two!"

"Don't call me that mouse!"

Marion, or cookie two, (daughter of our first officer and current cook in training...whether that role stuck or she moved on had yet to be determined) completed the joke between us with a laugh. She had pale skin and dark red hair that she was forced to keep short. she wasn't the beauty that Lissa was, but she had a pleasant face and an easy laugh.

"I've got your usual right here."

"Thanks Marion, you're a lifesaver."

"you're welcome, we have enough for seconds today if you're interested."

"might take you up on that."

calories were normally rigidly monitored...with the adults busy, some of those restrictions had lapsed it seemed. Oh well, I wasn't in charge yet.

I sat down at my regular table and started in, before my first bite was gone Marion sat next to me. The place was pretty much deserted, so no one would call her on it.

"You should give up that devil's brew...I read that it stunts growth, and you don't need that kind of help."

I flipped her off and continued chewing. Just because she was 5cm taller....

"So, mouse, been thinking. What would you say to a party on vote day?"

Vote day, or more appropriately election day (though none of us called it that) was the day after our parents went into cryo. It was done this way to avoid the parents influencing the elections, even though technically that left a power vacuum for a day, in reality we all knew what to do, and how best to pitch in and help each other.

After six years of near constant training, we had better.

"I'd say it could work, but we should probably wait and gauge the mood of everyone else. After all, it's a pretty safe bet not everyone is going to be happy that day."

I know I wouldn't, I loved my parents.

"All the more reason to have the party. Would you do the music?"

I had a gift of sorts for music. Out of all of us, I could play it. Pick any tune from the database, I could play it live for you. That weird electronic stuff that was comprised from disparate sounds mixed together? I understood it, and could recreate it reasonably well. (One of my favorite music types in fact.) And if you couldn't find it, I could compose it for you.

All of us really had gifts like that, but I liked mine. Marion had a gift for growing plants. Useful, but I preferred mine.

"Provided we actually have one, yes I'll do the music. Hell I might have one of my jam sessions tonight; haven't decided."

"Just the hint of one of your jam sessions sees me here. You better deliver."

As I was about to reply my pad paged me, so I looked at it instead. It was a work order...for the sewage treatment plant seals. Fucking joy.

"Well that's an interesting look. Care to tell me what it means?"

"It's nothing Marion, just another intriguing day in the life of adventure as an engineer's assistant."

"Ahh, so it's either water treatment, or sewage."

I tapped my nose. Of course she knew, we all took our rounds.

"Better get started. If the sewage is turned off for any length of time, the gardeners will scream."

The gardeners were our nick name for the botanists that ran the garden. they used our feces (after it was treated of course)to help grow the plants we ate. Nature's cycle, or some such.

"Yeah true, not to mention with the maintenance cycle half the heads will be down."

wonder why we called our bathrooms 'heads'? Probably some old obscure military term that our grandparents knew. My generation used the old terminology with only half a clue what it meant, sometimes. I wondered if, should I thaw my esteemed ancestors out, if they would know what it all meant.

"Yeah, hurry up, don't want to have to walk 20 minutes to find a working bathroom."

"I'll do my best."

I walked out quickly, dancing to the tune of her shooing motions. The main tank seals were what needed replaced; it was a yearly thing, as no one really wanted crap to leak everywhere. The main tank was under the treatment plant itself, not far from the manufacturing wing, oddly enough.

Which meant one mistake and I'd be floating with poo.

Luckily of course, I had done the same thing last year, under the guidance of Cargie. I'd be solo this time, but I still remembered the procedure. When I reached my station to pick up my tools and protective gear, Cargie was already there.

"What brings you here so early lad?"

I showed him the work order.

"Poo, of course."

"Ahh, must be Oddball; I didn't assign anything. In fact I think the scheduled maintenance isn't for another few weeks..."

"Well you might be right, but it is Oddball after all. He probably detected a a minute leak or something."

A major leak would have been deemed an emergency. After all, even our waste was a valuable resource.

"Word of advice...Don't forget the vacuum unit."

"I'd never. Good luck with the shuttle maintenance."

"How did you...ahh, lad, my apologies. Didn't mean to insult you."

"It's OK, I honestly don't get how you old timers do it."

"We make lists lad, we make lists."

I nodded and waved. My memory was always good, my mother called it eidetic. I could remember everything if I bothered to try, since the age of 3. Lugging all the equipment to the center of the ship through the tubes was a chore, but ended up being faster than taking the long way around.

The waste tank was old, large (a good 67000 liters) coated with patches of rust somehow, and did in fact have a small drip. Luckily, the spill was easily cleaned up with the vacuum, a paper towel, and some bleach. Then of course I got started on the leaky seal. First I hooked the vacuum onto the inflow hose in question, and turned it on full.

Then I gloved up and carefully undid the side hatch, sliding the specially made partition into place (without this, the vacuum pressure start pulling the tank contents out...and I certainly didn't want that). After that it was simple; unscrew the hose, let it float free and the vacuum pick up the stray crap, then pull the seal from the outside edge of the hose and replace it.

I had heard the first seals were a substance called rubber. The ones we used now were supposed to be superior to that ancient substance. A chemical compound shaped into a ring that upon hitting our air for exactly 5 minutes, started to expand. you placed it on, waited a good 4 minutes, and then screwed the hose back on. By the time you were finished the seal had completely expanded to fill any space between the tanks outflow reception and the hose itself. Simple.

Of course they were originally designed to be replaced immediately, but I was trained as an engineer. I didn't want to wait 5 minutes for the stupid thing to seal with poo leaking out of it in the meantime.

I sighed and pulled the partition out. One down, 19 more to go.

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

Mouse's name wasn't just on the list, it topped it. There was a percentage of success for the process listed for each candidate, and his was 94.823%.

the next names down the list were William, our soon to be pilot, who scored a possible 73.12% success rate, Regi, one of those people pretty much inheriting a botanist position and sporting a 61.74% success rate. Chen, one of the all purpose craftsmen who knew how to do things like work with wood and work stone with primitive methods, rounded out the list with a 38.23% success rate.

The real story was why they had success rates at all. Oddball had been influencing all of us while we were fetuses in the womb, a tweak here, a tweak there. This was allowed to lower or remove any risk of genetic diseases and defects...but Oddball had taken it to extremes. He had in several cases attempted to control the gender of the child to be born.

The four people listed were those that managed to resist his genetic gender tinkering somehow, and while having been 'adjusted' to have traits of females, had been born male instead. They were also among the last to be born for generation 3, with mouse in fact taking that honor.

The only consolation I had was that because we were deemed children at the time and therefore different than adults, no 'corrective' measures were taken, as such measures would have endangered the children and the health of the colony as a whole.

Oddball was a bastard.

How could our grandparents have agreed to this? This wasn't population control, it was genetic tampering with our very species. I wasn't a doctor, I couldn't make much sense out of the particulars...but I knew enough to doubt Oddball's motivations. Problem was, Ana, the ship's doctor, was mouse's mom. I really didn't want her to sort out mouse's strange hormones and protein chains.

Besides, what if she knew and approved?

I liked Ana...I used to play with mouse all the time, I remembered Ana as a constantly smiling, laughing woman who would play hide and seek and tag with us. I really didn't want to ruin those memories with such an ugly truth. And if I was wrong, and doing her a disservice, what could it change really?

I was fairly sure that undoing the 'adjustments' caused in mouse's fetal stages was beyond our science. It was too widespread. I was also fairly sure that I didn't dare field Chen as a viable name...anyone with a 38% had lousy odds, and would only lead to us freezing or killing someone when he didn't convert.

Or worse, he didn't fully convert. Assuming such a thing was possible. (I was well versed in Murphy's law.)

I had to see the captain, so I paged him. the response came almost immediately:

"Come to the bridge conference room."

I didn't waste time, walking in to see the captain already seated, with a small glass of something before him. He pointed to the bottle.

"Go ahead, I have the feeling we will both need it."

It was rum, a drink from earth. The bottle looked old enough to be from earth as well, sporting some sort of weirdly dressed man on it. I sat down, shoved my pad over his way, and poured myself a tiny glass full. Looking up from the glass I could see the shock form. Then came the frown, much as mine had some minutes before.

The look of utter outrage however probably formed more quickly than my own.

the last look however, was most telling. Resignation. A complete concession omitting any hope of victory.

"With all due respect sir, what the hell!?!"

He looked up from the data, eyes seeming a thousand years old.

"Oddball is a computer Smitts; it views us as parts of the same whole it is in; parts to be manipulated towards the purpose of survival. Our people tried to make it understand how important happiness was to us, and how important freedom of choice was to that happiness. They only partially succeeded."

"I get that sir, but...!"

"No, listen Smitts. Just listen. Oddball presented you three options, that's our freedom. The freedom to choose that our ancestors fought so hard for. All three options admittedly suck, but if you don't choose, or your generation doesn't choose by vote...the choice will be made for you, in the most expedient and cost effective manner. I know, believe me I know, what this is like for you...but I can't make this one for you. these problems...might even get worse. I can't help you out here."

"...I understand sir."

"One thing though Smitts."

"Yes sir?"

"None of us knew. Whatever you do, don't tell Ana; news like this would break her."

"Yes sir. One last thing sir."

"Yes Smitts?"

"Have you ever had a decision like this?"

"No...nothing this bad. Worst I had to make was whether to remove life support."

He had removed it, as I remembered.

"Smitt's, it is entirely likely that the decisions will only get worse each generation. While we are nearing a new local solar system, It may be years, decades, or even a century or more before we find a sun and planet for us. Our best bet is Epsilon-Indi, but that may not have any planets capable of supporting us."

"Yes sir."

"I know, I know, you know all this. The point I'm trying to make is simple. I understand your feelings...but we need Oddball to survive. Keep that in mind that we may be all there is left of humanity. Our happiness is secondary, much as I hate to admit it. If you do decide to take...steps, let mouse handle it. Short of waking the dreamers, mouse is your best bet."

"Let me guess, Oddball won't let me wake the first gen."

"Or us once we go under; only the ship failing is grounds for an early awakening."

"I feel like I need a list of do's and don'ts."

He smiled at me, a wan thing, barely alive.

"So did I, it'll pass. If you're finished Mr Smitts, I'd really like to be alone now."

I nodded, looking down in surprise briefly at the empty glass cradled in numb fingers. Replacing it on the table I beat a hasty retreat.

He knew...he knew what I'd choose. He never called his son mouse, that was our nickname for him, given because of his size and habit of crawling through the tubes and duct work as a child, rather than walking the halls. The captain always called him Mo'ar, his given name, or son. Instead he'd called him mouse, tacitly highlighting the choice he knew I'd pick.

Maybe even the choice he'd pick.

I wasn't even captain yet, and already I hated the job. It hadn't escaped my notice that I was technically supposed to be on duty and yet was just summarily dismissed.

Maybe I was going about this wrong. Maybe I should actually seek advice from the brightest mind on the ship. Maybe there was a fourth solution I was missing, and with a little help, I'd find it. I looked up just in time to avoid slamming into Eric.

"Hey man, watch it!"

"Sorry, heavy thoughts."

I noticed he was dressed in his football gear. Hmm, odd for him to wear it around.

"No worries. Hey you coming to exercise period today? We could use your help."

"Sure, crap time sure flies."

"It's those rusty gears in your head man, they can't turn more than one way...so slow."

"Don't make me hurt you man."

I replied with a smile to match his. He was joking, and I knew it...but he knew if he pushed me too far I'd break him. Eric was the closest thing we had to a pure asshole. At least, if the old movies we watched were any indicator. A classic macho man and bully.

For some reason he liked me, never quite catching on to the fact that I detested him.

"By the way, if you end up sidelining someone due to questionable hits, I will stop playing football. Get me?"

I hadn't forgotten him aiming for mouse's knees. We didn't need people getting hurt and being unable to do their jobs just to salve his ego. I knew if I stopped playing football, most of the guys would too, migrating to whatever game I chose. Being considered the alpha male did have a few perks. He knew it too, and football was his favorite game.

"Hey man, I'll be careful...don't worry."

I didn't reply. I didn't need to.

We reached the exercise room, waved at it, and walked through to see most of the gang here, or at least those that weren't working night shifts. The girls were out in force of course, most of them dressed to please the eye and knowing it, a few actually appeared to be arranging a tennis net.

I secretly approved...and wondered what Lissa would look like in those short skirts favored for the sport. Very briefly, as Lissa was a can of worms I did not want to open. I walked past her with a wave, trying to ignore the way her eyes lit up.

"Afternoon Lissa. going to work out today?"

"Yes, I think my ankle is well enough today. Thought I'd try some ballet dancing."

Lissa had complained of an ankle problem yesterday as her excuse to watch instead of do. She hadn't been limping. Of course a certain amount of exercise was mandatory, and she had greater expectations on that score, since as a botanist she didn't really do anything too strenuous.

Of course Lissa was the closest we had to an accomplished ballet dancer, and the dress she was in made her look rather like those ballet artists of old, in costume and waiting to take the stage.

"Hey Lissa, how are you?"

I took the distraction afforded by Eric to make a break for it and get my clothes.

"Be right back!"

Not for the first time I thanked the ancestors' foresight in using the tags.

When the ship first started off, leaving earth behind...the other Arks were still in communication with each other, sharing problems, solutions to those problems, navigational information, and just plain comfort that such contact brings. The hatches and airlocks of the ship were all open; anyone and everyone had free run of the place.

There were...incidents. No one currently alive knew exactly what those incidents were, but stress and some sort of
space developed psychosis were mentioned as factors. Viktor's father, captain Sergei, ordered everyone on board to be injected with a certain type of self replicating nanite which changed shapes in specific sequences. These tags as they were called, would be scanned by doorways across the ship and those who didn't have the correct tag...couldn't enter.

There were no incidents aboard Ark 14.

Of course what that meant for us today...is that Lissa and her people couldn't enter the men's room. A fact which I was thankful for.

"Hey Rog, how's the bridge treating you?"

He was taking a shower...before we exercised.

"something wrong? Old man didn't tell you I won already did he?"

I stared into his easy grin, cursing the slip of my poker face. He always could read me it seemed, or well enough.

"Nah man, just posed a problem involving Oddball to me, as a hypothetical, and I'm having problems solving it. So why the shower before the game?"

"Simple, sewage tank seal replacement day. I didn't even want to take this.' He held up his zero-g tablet before popping it in his mouth; 'until I was sure I was clean. I take no chances."

How could I have missed it before? How could anyone have? He wasn't painfully thin, he had the slight build of a young girl. His features weren't small, they were proportionate...for a girl. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see it clearly. The girl he could be stared back at me; delicate, waifish...but strong.

And oh so very beautiful. A younger version of her mother. Lissa couldn't hold a candle, really.

And that last thought was oh so very wrong.

"Man, you sick or something? That problem that bad? If it's that bad tell me, and I'll see what I can do. The old man doesn't have to know.

I looked into my best friends face and collected myself.

"That'd be great. See it's about a space 2001 scenario, where Oddball goes off the rails..."

He nodded and I noticed, really noticed for the first time, his swan like neck. He had no adam's apple. I saw it now...we had just thought his voice change was late, and it likely was, but it probably wouldn't get any deeper like mine had.

"...so how would you reprogram Oddball if it were you? What protocols would you use? I mean it's clear we need it, but in that sort of scenario...."

"It might be best to just hope against hope and shut him off if he pulled something like that. I mean, yes we need him for deep space and by twenty years or so we'd be risking much without him; he does so much around here on automation. Ship would eventually fall apart without him. I don't know man, can't think of a solution off the top of my head, that's a doozy. But I'll work on it."

"Alright, all I can really ask. OK you know they won't pair us up no matter how we ask, so I'll see you on the other side of the line. Just got to talk to Lief a sec."

"Sure thing."

The other boys really wouldn't let us group up, not since the last time. Together mouse and I dominated.

"Hey Lief."

"Hey Rog, here to spike my game winning arm?"

"Not at all, here to give you advice. You quarterbacking again?"

"Probably."

"OK...then when you throw to mouse, throw at least three steps ahead of him on the route. If you manage to do that, he'll catch it every time, and I won't be able to catch him."

I returned his puzzled look before he gave in.

"Why tell me that? I mean, it sounds like you're setting yourself up for a loss."

"Maybe...but we won't know if I can stop him at his best unless you play at yours. I don't like to lose, but I absolutely hate losing due to other people screwing up. It cheapens the win if I cant beat you all at your best."

"I...sort of understand that. Well you'll see the difference today."

I nodded in replay and went back to my regular team.

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

Things were finally looking up. After a shitty morning (literally), and a quick but thorough shower, my team and I had slaughtered Roger's team. I don't know what roger said to Lief to piss him off, but he was an entirely different player afterwards, throwing the ball with reckless abandon, almost daring the other team to pick him...and forcing me to make the catch or spoil the interception every time.

He still threw to Brian and Chen with his customary reserve, but for me he kept pushing it.

I was of course delighted, and rose to the challenge.

The game ended with them playing zone defense in a desperate bid to stop me, and us up 42 to 17.

I ran up as the buzzer sounded and gave Lief a high five.

"Not too shabby man, what did Rog say to piss you off?"

"Said I threw like a girl, all timid and scared of hurting someone."

He replied with a laugh.

"Man don't let Claire hear you say that, she threw a wrench at me a week ago that damn near broke something."

His eyes widened alarmingly.

"Noted. Not someone I want pissed at me."

amidst all the other high fives and great games and other celebratory noises, we entered the showers. I didn't need another of course, one a day was plenty. So I simply changed clothes. I was putting on my shirt when I noticed Roger was staring at me.

"What's up man?"

He shook himself rather violently.

"Nothing man, great game today, guess I shouldn't have mouthed off to Lief."

"yeah you lit a fire under him. Now Eric will try to poach him for the dark side."

"He can't, Guido throws well enough, and likes to quarterback. One word and Eric gets broken."

"Wouldn't really break my heart. Got to go man, impromptu concert tonight. I sort of shot my mouth off to Marion, and you know how she is. Got to grab my stuff."

"Excellent mouse, It's been too long since the last one."

"It was only two weeks ago, idiot. Anyway, I'll think on your problem. If I come up with a solution I'll let you know."

"I appreciate that."

I hustled down the corridor to our living quarters, thinking.

What the hell WAS that?

Roger had been staring at me. With a look on his face that I didn't recognize. Now on a ship this small, everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was friends with everyone else, more or less. I knew all of Roger's looks; we had been friends all our lives.

But that last look? I had no clue.

Probably just gas.

I keyed our door and was greeted right off.

"Hey son."

"hey dad, what are you doing home?"

"I felt I deserved some time off."

Stepping closer I realized he smelled like booze; couldn't recognize the type, but likely not the stuff from Cargie's not so secret still.

"Caught your game though, you played well."

"Played well? Played well? I was amazing, and you know it."

"Careful, your head will get too big for your body to support."

This was not a short joke; he meant that my ego was growing...but I still caught myself bristling a little.

"So dad, was just getting my sound mixing equipment. I plan to do another concert at the Commissary."

"I'll be there. You set up, I'll round up the crew. We'll make a night of it."

"If you want, I'll even play some of that wub wub music you like."

"Quiet you, you know dubstep is good."

"Yeah, well mom likes it too. Counts for something."

To each their own. I knew I'd be playing a bit of everything tonight. Shipboard entertainment was stale under the best of circumstances, unless you made up the entertainment yourself. My poison of choice was music. We had a few other people who could act out old plays, or write entertaining things based on data from old earth.

Otherwise it'd be movie night every night, and let's face it, there are only so many times anyone can watch a Hugh grant movie or movies about British child wizards before wanting to space themselves.

What the hell was magic supposed to be, anyway?

(tbc)



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