Vagrants chapter 21.

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"Thank you for coming," Oddball told us both.

"Thank you for having us," I spoke the formulaic response without thinking. Mindless trivialities weren't really my thing, but this one did force focus on me. The proper mindset to get anything done was not to scream obscenities, after all. Another person might be impressed, but not so much an artificial intelligence.

Besides, I'd already done the screaming thing. I was tempted to indulge for the benefit of Captain traitor beside me, but he already knew how I felt about this too. I did have some leverage I could use now, should Oddball continue to stonewall me. I had the feeling I would be.

"Refreshments?" Oddball asked.

There was no way, not during this. "No, thank you."

Oddball turned to Captain Traitor, who shook his head no.

"Alright. I have asked you here today to discuss a solution to the personnel problem which currently faces us."

A personnel problem, was it? "By all means, go ahead and lay out your solution."

"My solution is a compromise between our views. You continue with your role in the breeding program, Chief engineer Zamir. After which I will reverse the operation which caused you such distress, should you still desire it."

Oddball was insane. "You want me to get pregnant and carry a child to term."

"Or two, for best results of the program, correct," Oddball answered as if he were discussing upcoming solar storms.

"And who would raise this kid? I go back to normal, that ruins our traditional family unit."

"You and your husband would, of course. If a female role model is required for correct socialization, one can be assigned."

This was beyond surreal. "I think I can choose my own role models, thanks."

Oddball drew back, arms out. "Of course."

"Do you actually have them? My balls in a jar?"

Oddball nodded. "Your testes have been cryogenically frozen in the event they were needed. reattachment would be a simple matter."

My mind screamed out at the lack of sense it all made. If the entire point was for humans to make children using the easiest, low tech, least expensive methods, then all of this was a waste, so-called emergency or not. I mean genetically having kids was one thing, but why was it necessary physically?

"And reductions elsewhere, hormones, and the other things?"

Oddball nodded. "You would be sterile, but everything would function as before once the operations were finished."

So no having kids as a guy. To be honest, I remembered my own childhood, and just the one Oddball was demanding would be more than enough. Not to mention the cheating aspect. Maybe I'd want to, but I didn't see it right now.

Captain traitor had been silent a long time. Probably pondering the idea of cryo-balls. But now he spoke up: "And who does Mouse need to marry for this? You have someone in mind, don't you."

"I do, of course," Oddball admitted. "That is why you are present for this meeting."

Wait, Oddball got to choose who I married? Oddball was playing match maker? But then why was Roger here?

Oh, no. No no no no. A thousand times, no.

"You mean...."

"For best results, Captain Smitt and Chief engineer Zamir should marry each other, yes. Of all the crew, they are most compatible with each other. However, if you do not like that choice chief engineer Zamir, I have prepared a list of compatible candidates, which I will send to your pad. You are free to choose your own candidate of course, but your husband must agree to both the marriage and the compromise set forth. Otherwise, the arrangement may lead to more personnel problems."

Sure enough, my pad pinged with a message.

This was a lot to take in. "Can I take some time to think about it?"

Oddball raised up, his hands wide again. A disarming gesture? Something meant to be like a shrug? "Of course. You may confer with me any time, by pad or in person, with your decision. I've nothing further to discuss. Is there a matter you would like to bring to my attention?"

Oh, he knew. Of course, he knew I knew, but he knew I wanted to bring it up; that I wasn't going to let it slide in light of other manipulations. Which I might have done in the past before Oddball decided to chop me up.

"Yes, I have an issue. Why are you putting additives in our food and water supplies?"

"All members of the crew are required to procreate to preserve humanity. My goals include keeping the crew at optimum health to facilitate such procreation. As you are now considered adults, the additives in your supplies, both food and otherwise, are meant to keep you in peak health and make procreation and births as easy as possible. If you have any questions, you may consult the Magellan's charter, pages thirty-seven and thirty-eight, starting at paragraph two."

I was aware of the passages Oddball was quoting. "Those passages don't mention anything about drugs or mineral supplements in our food. or water."

Oddball leaned in, his hands working. "They state specifically that I am allowed to use any means which are not harmful to the crew to ensure procreation as a mission objective."

Yeah, that bird has flown. "A little late there."

Oddball leaned back. "The case involving you, Chief engineer Zamir, was an emergency and thus fell under different clauses."

He stated that I was already aware of that by not stating it, loud and clear.

"So wait, what you two are saying is the additives are Oddballs idea, and that they are being used to get us in the mood?"

Roger, ladies, and gentlemen, finally catching up to the conversation. Why was he 'compatible', anyway?

"Yes Roger, they promote general health, and the healthier we are the more inclined we'll be to... procreate. It's science, of a sort. Leads to a healthier sex drive. And once the women get pregnant, it will encourage the proper growth of the fetus. Calcium supplements will still need to happen, but that's mostly aftercare."

Roger nodded slowly. "Right, I can see that, I guess."

Oddball nodded. "It's all simple biology."

I barely kept my myself from an outburst. There were other things that were simple biology too, and he felt no hesitation at all at screwing all that up. "Are you monitoring our intake, or are we responsible for that?"

Well, of course, I am monitoring your intake," Oddball said, this time clearly surprised. "The health and safety of the crew are one of my responsibilities, even if not mine alone. No one shall receive a harmful dose of any vitamin or mineral I am responsible for."

"Without any prior knowledge of your actions, one of us could have taken a supplement and overdosed." I knew for a fact several of the crew did when we had extra available.

"Already factored into my calculations," Oddball said, so smug I could almost taste it past the heavy metals I'd unknowingly ingested.

"If there are no other concerns from either of you?" A clear dismissal there.

"No, I'm fine for now." I turned to Roger.

Roger shrugged. "None from me; you have explained your reasoning well enough."

"Please do let me know of your decisions then. I must return to oversight of the Magellan's automated functions. Have a good morning."

And with that parting shot Oddball sucked himself back into his locker or cubby or indentation or whatever it was, and the door opened.

I wasted no time getting out, and Roger almost ran me over. We both pretended Oddball had stopped listening. He was supposed to, but I wouldn't put water rations on it, and from the look on Roger's face neither would he.

"Well, that was... something." He said, blowing a breath.

"Yeah, it was," I agreed. Best to dive right in. "What do you think?"

Roger stopped. "Well I think it's still not fair to you, but it's better than it was."

The gall of the man.

"It's a way out. What do you think of the list?"

Roger suddenly got very interested in the scuff mark on his right boot. "Well, I'm willing to go along with it if you are."

The sheer gall!

"As if. Go do your job Captain, I need to do mine."

"Mouse...!"

"Later, Captain."

The list was short... of course, since there were only twenty-five males (only for now, I would be again) in the crew. Siegfried was on it, and Eric. The names rapidly got worse from there. Guido? Dirk? Not like the idea of letting any man touch me was a good one, but those three? I mean Sieg was at least a decent guy, he might say yes...

But did I really want to go through with this? the idea of letting a man do.. that to me nauseated me. I was supposed to be the one doing that to women, not be on the receiving end. But the alternative was to stage a mutiny, find a way to shut off Oddball that would stick and risk us all. Or, stay female forever and still be expected to have a child or children.

It really was the same trap as before, the same cage, only with a door opened this time. Do my time and get out, or risk our entire colony and possibly all that was left of humanity and Earth on my genitals. I had to admit, genitals were closer to winning than it probably should be - but in reality, I'd already made that choice before, when I hadn't sabotaged the ship or killed us all.

So, who did I want to spend the next year or even two years of my life with? And who would be okay with that, knowing I'd be a man again eventually? It wasn't like there were a lot of options for sex, we took the family dynamic very seriously. Who could I trust to say yes to that and not try to back out later? I suppose if they gave their word, Oddball would force them to keep it, but hard feelings would still happen; I mean, it did for me.

I didn't have to decide now - but it felt like I did. But I needed to get my head in the moment; those air scrubbers on deck four wouldn't replace themselves, and after the hit the ship took, they probably needed it; better to do it before they failed.

Marion fell into step beside me as I passed the cafeteria. "So, how did it go?"

"Good I guess. Seems like Oddball thought up a way both of us can get what we want out of this mess. All I have to do is have kids, and he will reverse the surgery."

Marion stopped cold, then caught up. "That's... wow. So he wants you to do the whole thing, then he will undo it? won't that destabilize the family dynamic?"

"Yep! Shouldn't you be minding the kitchen? Someone might run off with the food."

"No one is going to dare touch the supplies. Not now, anyway. Which reminds me, what about our food problem?"

I turned, giving her my best smile. "all supplements in measured doses designed to keep us all healthy as we breed."

Marion blinked. "Sounds less romantic when you put it that way. We aren't mindless, we don't need the help."

It did indeed. "Oddball's words, not mine. And like it or not, we're getting it. He quoted the charter to me over it, one of those nice vague clauses the earlier generations wrote in to screw us."

"I really hate those clauses!" Marion exclaimed.

I stopped. "A little too much, there. I can hear the insincerity."

"I thought I might be overselling it. Sorry, I think the previous generations probably thought of something like this and wrote it that way on purpose. It's bad luck for us, but in the panic about the species surviving, I can see it."

"Yeah." Left unsaid was the other clause that came into effect. It might also have been a legitimate mistake or a happy accident. Not that blaming people long dead was in any way helpful - or healthy.

Enough of that; that way of thinking led down dark paths. I never needed to be so introspective before. I guess funny things happen when the people you trust conspire against you.

"Any further and you're going to be helping me collect my tools."

"Yeah, you're right," Marion said, stopping. "I better get back. Let me know what you decide, alright?"

"You'll be one of the first to know." I mean obviously, she couldn't be first, because my husband (still not used to that word applying to me) would have to agree.

Marion seemed to get it. "I better be. Call me when you decide, alright?"

"Sure." Whatever, it was annoying, but I'd do it.

Brun was waiting for me in the changing room, back against the bulkhead in a show of nonchalance. "So, how did it go?"

Was I going to have to do this for everyone? "Aren't you supposed to be asleep right now?"

"I am, but it didn't feel right to leave engineering unmanned."

She had me there. "Well, I've been given a choice. I can go back to being a man again, if I have kids first, basically."

Brun's eyes got wide. "So, you have to get married and everything?"

I nodded. "Yep, Oddball wants no deviation on that. Get married, have at least one kid."

"With someone else picking up the slack there," Brun mused. then she asked the question Marion failed to: "Who to? someone specific, right?"

I nodded again. "He was kind enough to send me a short list. And the person I chose would have to agree to let me have the surgery to reverse all this."

Brun's eyes got even wider. "Wow, that's... going to take some doing, I think."

"Tell me all about it. But tell me about it after you sleep, since you've already been up an hour longer than you should have."

Brun levered herself up with a sigh. "Right, I'm gone. just one more thing. My brother, is he on that short list?"

Brun was Eric's sister. "He's second on it. How did you guess that?"

"It wasn't really a guess - or at least, not completely a guess. Still, I bet you blew him off, right? He said something stupid, and you told him to get lost?"

She knew her brother well. "Yes, he did. Why?"

"Just don't cross him off yet; if anyone would agree to let you return to normal, it would be him."

And with that, she was gone, confident in her size and long stride to let her get the last word in. I let her keep it. Mainly because she wasn't wrong; even if Roger voted against me that night, now he would back me as much as he could; I felt sure of it.

Would anyone else?

I got suited up, grabbed my tools and my spare scrubbers, and headed back down to deck four.

Replacing air scrubbers was an easy job, as long as you had the boots for it. You simply pulled the old one out and slotted the new one. I'd just done the job earlier this year, and deck four wouldn't even need it except space rock had punctured the hull... leaving all kinds of particulates behind; at least, potentially. I wasn't going to take the chance of a rock or dust or the fire damaging one and having it fail later when we needed it.

My pad chimed just as I reached the halfway point in my journey. It was Claire.

"Is it true?" She had asked.

I rolled my eyes; of course, Marion had talked. Probably the entire ship knew by now. Still, perhaps playing dumb was best.

So I sent back "Is what true?"

"The marriage thing. The balls thing." She sent back.

I didn't see any reason to deny it. "Both true."

She sent back one word. "Congratulations."

I wasn't so sure congratulations were in order, but I guess it was kind of a victory. It was kind of insulting that she just thought I'd roll over and take the deal - even if I was contemplating exactly that.

I received three more messages before I reached deck four. what was Marion doing, just going down the list? I ignored them; they weren't priority flagged so they were just people too curious for both their and my own good. The wonders of a small ship, I supposed; I was once again top news. I hated it just as much this time around.

Maybe I could set a keyword related automatic response, and that would end the distraction. I couldn't really just leave my pad behind, I might need it for something important.

I had just gotten settled in to fix my first scrubber when someone called into the vents: "Mouse, you there?"

It was a bit distorted from distance and echo, so all I could tell was whoever wanted me was male.

I might end up leading a mutiny after all. "Yes, hold one and I'll be right out."

It was Eric, of all people. "Don't you have a job to be at?"

He shrugged and displayed his teeth for me. "No, not really. You going to rat me out, Mouse?"

Oh, he was so proud of that one, I could tell. "Maybe. If Oddball or the bridge hasn't already logged it. Why are you here?"

"Why else? I heard something interesting through the grapevine, and came to the source to confirm it."

I grabbed another scrubber and started for the next conduit. "Probably all true. Oddball offered a compromise of sorts. I still haven't decided if I'll accept."

"Well, if you decide on a mutiny, I'm with you; I don't like Oddball."

I could believe it. Then Eric just had to continue.

"But out of curiosity, who was on that list the dumb computer sent you?"

I just had to stop, turn and stare him down. "Yes Eric, you were on the list."

He pumped his fist. "Good, not out of it yet. If you decide to go along with this weird deal. I don't see how it's even an option, really. Just the idea of marrying another guy...."

I had to stop him there before he got the wrong idea. "Trust me, I feel the same way. And let's be honest, anyone marrying me is marrying another guy."

He gave me a look. "Really? Hate to break it to you, but you've never been that guy like, Mouse. And right now you are not a guy. You can become one again, but for now? Nope, and that's the only way to see it. I'm not the only one who thinks so, go ahead and ask around if you don't believe me."

I turned away and kept my hands locked.

He noticed. "Look, that came out wrong; I didn't mean to insult you, I was just stating facts, and I wanted to say that if I was on your list, well, I'd back your play, alright? You have my kids, and I won't object to anything you want to do."

My mind locked on the first part of that I could bore into. "Kids, huh?"

"However many are needed," Eric affirmed. "The normal requirement is two."

"I've been told one is enough." Let's see what he does with that.

He didn't even hesitate. "Great, one is fine with me. Whatever the deal is, I'll be fine with it - so at least consider me, please? I'll do right by you."

I couldn't lie to him, but I couldn't lead him on either. "I'm considering everyone on the list. Even Dirk."

That got a blink. "Dirk? That guy? How does a guy like that get a shot?"

I shrugged. "Oddball's criteria, not mine. I've got no idea how he thinks."

"Yeah, I can see that. Probably some genetics thing. But still, Dirk."

I lunged into the next vent. "I know. Dirk's not as annoying as some people, but still. Anyway, you better get back to your station before you're noticed. Captain traitor will have you up on charges."

"Heh. Captain traitor - I like that. Alright Mouse, I'll see you later. Just remember what I said, alright?"

I heard regret... melancholy? I turned and caught a glimpse of an expression I couldn't read as he passed out of sight. Whatever, he was probably just staring at me as I crawled into the vent. I wouldn't put it past him. For all I know it could have been something he ate; giving a guy that large more additives seemed counterproductive anyway. What was the point of making him bigger?

Enough of that, time to work.

......

I headed to the bridge, my mind a million light-years away. Something about the way I'd said it had set Mouse off, but I was just trying to be sincere.

I was trying to tell her that I'd do right by her; that I'd at least make up for my earlier bad choice.

Maybe it was how unsure I'd sounded, for a moment there. It wasn't very leader-like and maybe I'd made her think I wasn't really interested? But that was silly; She was my best friend, even if she hated my guts at the moment. You don't just turn a friendship like that off like flicking a power switch; it would be easier if you could. Well, at least i couldn't; I had no idea how Mouse felt, other than angry.

I was tempted to stop by one of the viewing rooms and watch the stars a little. But I was already late, and if I wanted I could do that on the bridge. The view was boring anyway; it never seemed to change. But it was soothing, knowing the stars were out there. Somewhere out there were the aliens who had helped Earth; we hadn't seen them at all. I wonder why that is... surely they know where we are, or at least have some idea.

Jennifer's message to me as I hit the bridge summed it up: "You're an idiot, little brother."

My response was for her to tell me something I didn't know, of course. Like how exactly I had messed everything up in my show of support.

The bridge was silent except for the little boops and beeps and whirring background noises the place made when active. Everyone was looking at me - all four of the normal day crew, plus Seig.

"What?"

"Nothing," Seig said. "All quiet here, nothing to report. How did the meeting go?"

Of course, that was what they were staring for. "Well, we got a possible resolution to Mouse's problem, but the final decision is up to her. We"ll know soon enough."

Seig wasn't about to let it alone. "What kind of solution?"

"Not my place to say."

Seig gave me a look as if to say 'you can't be that stupid', but it really wasn't my place. "Alright boss. I'm going to go sleep; see you tonight."

"Wait a minute Seig. Join me a minute." I guess it couldn't hurt to tell Seig, after all, it did affect him - his name was on the list.

I didn't bother sitting, this would be quick. Seig followed me in and shut the door.

"As part of her deal, Mouse has a list of people to marry. She marries, has a child, and Oddball will undo the surgery."

"Damn, that's...." Seig interrupted.

"And I'm telling you because your name is on the list. If Mouse decides to go through with it, she may come to you, and if she does you'll need to agree to let her go back under the knife once her time is up as part of the deal."

Seig's eyes grew wide and he sputtered a bit before finding his voice. "That entire deal is kind of crazy, boss."

"Tell me about it."

"Is your name on the list too?" Seig asked.

"Yeah, it is."

"What do you think of it?"

"I think Mouse is getting a raw deal again. But it's a better arrangement than before." I didn't think anyone could disagree with that.

"If Mouse says no, you'll support her turning Oddball off, won't you? Us taking our chances?"

That was a loaded question - the type to remind me that Seig wasn't as uncaring as he pretended.

My voice came out strong; more sure than I felt as I replied. "Yes, I will. Oddball shouldn't be making decisions like that."

I couldn't say I was happy about foisting such decisions like who gets screwed over onto the crew either, but I did see the logic in having us used to making snap judgments for the good of us all, so I left that part unsaid. The choice itself was stupid, however; optimal or not, having one of the girls have one more kid was a better prospect than spending all the resources we did, with the blow to morale we had as a payoff for it.

Seig searched my eyes a moment and nodded firmly. "Can't say I'm happy about that idea, but I do understand it. Next time Oddball could be thinking one of us isn't useful, and we'd be voting on who to space."

I was pretty sure the charter and Oddball's programming prevented that, but anything short of that I'd not bet my food ration on. It was enough to get Seig's point across at least.

Seig left with a muttered "bye, good luck" while I was still pondering what to bet on. Good luck with what, I didn't know. Probably surviving Mouse's wrath, again. Not to mention my sister's.

I joined my day crew back on the bridge to add my eyes to those on the lookout for more space rocks. The danger looked to be past, but there could always be more; it was crazy really, we should always be this aware, but this was the first time we watched our screens like those proverbial sighted birds, the hawks.

An hour into this, just as I was getting a bit bored, a call came for me.

"Captain, can you come to hydroponics for a bit?"

Oops, in all the excitement I forgot to tell Lissa about what was going on with the food. But that didn't really warrant a personal visit. "Do you have a problem?"

"I do, actually. It's rather important."

I could hear her concern through the small speaker in my pad. I looked at the bridge crew. "Billy, you're in charge."

"You got it, boss; just leave it to me," she said. "When it rains, it pours, huh?"

Odd expression, considering it was one of the few things we knew about rain. Only ever seen it on video.

"Yes indeed. Try not to hit anything until I get back."

She laughed as the door shut behind me, a joy-filled sound. being female seemed to agree with her. Why couldn't Mouse be that way?

Why was I bitter that Mouse wasn't that way, that she wasn't happy? What did that say about me? Did I really want to know? Considering how the situation made her feel, could I make her happy, if she came to me? Would she even want me to try?

That was silly, of course, she'd want to be happy, right? No one liked being depressed or angry all the time.

It was stupid to think about, really. Mouse would pick me last, if at all. She could hold a grudge forever.

Lissa was waiting for me at the door. "Alright, what's going on?"

She pointed to her pad, set up in the center of a table. On it, Eric was front and center, talking to Mouse. From the looks of it, he was on deck four, which wasn't his assigned post, interfering with repairs. "Why that...."

I was startled out of my invective when soft lips crushed themselves against mine; Lissa all but knocked me over, pressing against me.

Her lips tasted faintly of berries.

I stiffened and she let go, her deep blue eyes boring into me. That look told me I'd disappointed someone else.

"What...?"

She sighed. "Eric made his play - and I just made mine. Looks like we both lose."

What? "Lose? What are you even talking about, other than trying to dock?"

I wanted to say unwarranted advances or assault, but I didn't want to make this worse. Whatever this was, she was already sad enough.

Lissa produced a bottle of something clear but smelled like fuel - right in front of me, while on duty no less - and gulped a good amount of it down before I could wrest it away.

"You're on duty."

She waved me off. "It's fine, it's fine. the plants can take care of themselves, and if they can't, well Milla and Carla have them under control."

Lissa pulled up a portable chair and sank into it. "Did you know the only time our food supplies were ever in danger was when I took my first shift in hydroponics? I was ten at the time and made a perfectly innocent mistake with the water feeds. Mouse came along and chewed me out for it, and reset them for me. I hated her ever since. Absolutely loathed her."

What?

"She was too smart, too good, too beautiful, too perfect. Even as a boy. She was everything I had to work at being, and it was so effortless for her. When Oddball tapped her to become one of us, I didn't vote for her because I knew this day would come."

This was... resentment, bitterness, and jealousy. The kind of feelings that festered among a crew and affected performance. So why had Lissa not taken advantage when she could?

"What day?"

"The day when I lost you to her," she replied, piercing me again with her gaze. "It was already bad enough when she was a he, you two were inseparable.Best buddies, the greatest of friends, only apart to sleep, and sometimes not even then; how was I supposed to compete with that? I knew if Mouse joined us, I'd simply have no chance at all.

She made a clumsy grab at the booze; I held it up, out of reach. she sighed, slumped back in the chair, and continued. Her eyes glistened in the light.

"But I can't actually hate her. Mouse is egotistical, barely social, and unsufferably competent. She used to hold all my mistakes against me. But it was all for good reason, and she is...genuine. The type of human we should all be. The only thing I have on her is size. She didn't even try to steal you away, you know? She was just herself."

It took a moment to find my voice; my throat was clenched tight. "Yeah, I know."

Lissa snorted a messy laugh, her nose running. "It's a bunch of fertilizer, you know? I don't even have the words. I'm not bad, either, I'm just not her."

I handed her my handkerchief. "I know. I feel the same way, from time to time."

She took the cloth and honked into it. "Thanks.You know what she told me? The nicest thing she ever said to me was when I beat her at tennis: 'nice game, I'll beat you next week.' And she will, too, I don't doubt it. Maybe it's just current events, how the crew and Oddball screwed her over, but I can't even hate her."

She honked again, then tried to hand the handkerchief back. I waved her off. "Keep it. I have a few extra."

She sniffled. "That's so like you, Roger."

I wasn't sure what to say to that. "I appreciate you telling me this, but I'm still not sure what you mean by it all."

Lissa burbled another messy laugh. "Come on, you're kidding, right?"

I shook my head.

"Men, I swear. Look, I kissed you as a test. I could tell, your mind was a million light-years away; you felt nothing, and you didn't return it. You're a gentleman Roger, but the only reason you wouldn't try to take advantage is if you were already spoken for. The mind may not know yet, but the heart wants what it wants. And Mouse, damn her, feels the same way. She had you all staked out and didn't even know what she was doing. Call it destiny or whatever you want - but can you really see yourself with anyone else?"

I tried. I really did try. "For the good of the colony...."

"That's crap and you know it," Lissa countered. "You can't.see anyone but Mouse. Not Marion, Not Claire, not even Carla or Billy. She stole you from us, and if it wasn't for the true horror of Oddball doing it, I'd hate her forever. Most of us would."

She held out her hand for the bottle. "But that's neither here nor there. You don't need to worry, Mouse will come to you soon enough. Tonight or maybe tomorrow at the latest. And when she does, you'll accept."

I gave her the bottle back; she took it gratefully. "Go ahead, but Milla is in charge for the day, alright?"

She gave me a sloppy salute. "Already did that. I'm going to miss our workout period as well; I don't feel much like exercising right now."

I could see that. "I imagine not."

She waved me off and downed a good portion of the rest of her stash. "Go on, I'll be fine. See you around."

Her dismissal held a note of finality to it - and buried hurt.

"Yes, I'll see you tomorrow." I doubted I'd be seeing her at lunch either.

The door shut behind me, and I heard the lock engage. I made my way back up to the bridge, and to my own stash.

......

I didn't feel like running around while getting stared at and whispered about, so exercise period was skipped. I sent a message to Oddball about it and he gave me a pass, so long as I showed up tomorrow. Keeping muscles toned and bones strong wasn't something you could skimp on, even with more than normal supplements.

Instead, I just worked through it, replacing filters and checking scrubbers. Exercise enough, really, and with less of an audience.

I couldn't ignore lunch, however, no matter how much I may have wanted to.

The cafeteria was packed, and silent the moment I stepped foot near the door. Every head was turned my way as I cursed my lack of cooking ability.

"Marion, one of those noodle things, please."

"Sure thing, Mouse." Marion set to work while I got descended upon.

Claire was the first to reach me, and she hesitated, wringing her hands.

"What is it, Claire?"

With that prompt, she blurted out in a hurry: "Is it true?"

"Is what true?"

"That you... have to marry?"

Well, that escalated quickly. "I don't have to marry, it's a choice. A choice I'm not sure I'm making."

She gave me a once-over, clearly wondering how I had some kind of choice now. The rest of the crew didn't. "A choice how?"

I was already sick of explaining it. "I do the normal thing for a female of the crew, marry up and have children, and Oddball allows the surgery to make me male again. Or I don't and try... alternatives."

Oddball had many cameras and microphones in the cafeteria, it was best not to forget that.

Claire's eyes widened briefly, which was odd considering she already knew at least a little of our plan B.

"Sorry, guess I just wasn't thinking ahead that far. The idea of you with kids is...."

"Yeah tell me about it. But it's duty after all, and one we all share," I just wasn't really looking forward to it, especially with all the body problems I'd be facing on this side of the fence. "Speaking of, Marion I got an answer from Oddball on the food additive thing."

"Food additive thing?" Claire asked.

"There are additives in our food right now. Nothing dangerous, but we were trying to figure out how they got there." Marion informed her.

Claire's eyes widened again. "What? but...."

I waved her off. "It's solved. Oddball did it, in order to ease the crew into its new duties. Specifically the ones regarding childbirth. He wants us all to be in peak physical condition."

"Yeah for when we're laying on our backs doing nothing but eating and watching our stomachs expand," Claire said sourly.

I shrugged. "It's something that has to happen."

Claire sighed. "I know, but I didn't think it'd happen so soon. I thought we'd have at least another year, at least. You know, settle in, do our thing, then settle down."

My mom and Dad had me last of all the current crew, and they were still young enough for more. "I know, but the sooner the better. At least for the colony we'll all be making."

That was the whole point behind the cryo in the first place; my grandparents were still in their thirties at least according to telomere aging, and my parents were just shy of that. our population would all be viable; there would be no retirement at the colony for some time. And my children would probably be as old as me when we thawed. If the trip took that long, my grandkids would be too.

It was doubtful though, we were on pace to have our kids settle the planet that was to be our new home and thaw us out.

Marion left while Claire picked at her food. I noticed a few people leaning our direction; including some friends of mine.

They weren't being all that subtle. "Seth, Joe, what's up? Do you need something?"

"Nah," Seth denied. "I was just wondering about the rest of it. Rumor is you have a small list of guys you can marry, as part of that deal."

"That's true. And before you ask, no, neither you or Joe are on it."

"Ouch," Seth exclaimed loudly, clutching his chest. "You wound me, Mouse. Are you saying I'm not good enough?"

Really? Why had I liked Seth again? "No, I'm not saying anything. Oddball is."

"She's got you there," Joe told his friend, a small smile on his face.

"So who is? On the list, I mean."

I could feel the collective people in the room's attention; the collective inhale as they all took a breath and leaned in closer to listen.

"Five guys are on the list, that's who. five guys who have to agree that I go back to being a guy myself at the end of things."

I heard the onrush of breath, the collective exhale, so I didn't just imagine it before. Seth's face fell a bit. "Yeah? Oddball said it would approve another surgery?"

I nodded. "After children. And yes, that could mean abstinence for me and whoever I pick. Still want to be on the list?"

Joe backtracked for both of them. "He never said he wanted to be on the list... just asked you who was on it. If you don't want to answer, just say so."

Fair enough. "It's private and I don't want to answer."

"Okay. Did Oddball give you a timeframe to answer?"

"Nah, I can take as long as I need, theoretically." People were going to pair up quick, now that all the recent excitement was over, I had no doubt. Some of the stuff Oddball was pushing us to take in our supplies would increase sex drives. If any of my five paired up, that naturally made my choices fewer.

Whatever, I only needed one. Just one guy who would wait for me and Eric had already volunteered if it came to that.

"Here you go Mouse, your noodle stuff."

I dug in, to the envy of those around me. Screw them anyway; maybe I'd share later, maybe I wouldn't.

Hm, there were a few people missing lunch - or maybe they were eating in their quarters or something. Speaking of Eric, he wasn't here, and neither was Lissa. Carla wasn't here.

Roger wasn't here. Probably too busy up on the bridge; it would be just like him to forget the time.

"Slow down Mouse, jeez!"

I didn't want to be here, getting stared at. "Those scrubbers on four aren't going to fix themselves, Claire."

"You're going to choke," She told me.

I slowed down just a bit.

"Alright, so why are you being so nice to me!?!" Claire blurted suddenly.

So that was what was really bothering her. "What good would treating you badly do? No, I haven't actually forgotten, and no I haven't actually forgiven. But we have to be a crew, which means we have to work together. So I can at least be civil, the same as I will be for everyone else."

I finished up, drank my water, and got out of there while Claire stared at me, her mouth open.

Oddball had been very smart. By offering an alternative, he had split the crew; there were at least a few of us now to which an open mutiny no longer appealed. Not so long as I had an alternative, no matter how distasteful it was. I was only one person, after all, and not even that well liked; people would weigh that against the survival of our species just like they had on day one. The preferential food and clothes might even have been a part of that too. Offering me a choice was brilliant - and it put the entire thing on me. If I decided to mutiny, well then I was the one being bad, not Oddball. I might only have support from as little as half the crew now at most.

If I hadn't told people myself, no doubt he would have let slip the details as a way to stop his own disabling.

Whatever, I had scrubbers to fix.



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