An ecological tale of disaster.
|Balance of Nature
Chapter One- Year 2108
“You know I can go to prison for what you’re asking me to do?”
Roger studied his old mentor with care, watching him pace furiously back and forth across the quarterdeck of the UCS Bamebridge, but said nothing.
He knew Sam well. The old miner spent most of his adult life wildcatting across the Asteroid Belt. Whenever they had the chance, he had done his best to teach him the mining business, the kind of knowledge you could not get anywhere except from an experienced pro. Roger had listened and learned but in the process bonded into friendship.
He knew that through the years Sam had made big money, and lost it big, but never considered himself a gambler. Yet now, Roger understood he was asking him to risk everything for nothing.
Sam finally stopped in front of a tall, younger man, shooting him a heated glare. “If the Feds ever find out about this they’ll lock is up and throw away the keys. And they’ll be doubly hard on her.”
Both men glanced through a nearby hatch at the very pregnant woman lying in bed in an ajoining compartment. She squirmed with the discomfort clearly etched on her face, a quiet groan the only acknowledgement of her pain.
“I’m desperate, Sam,” Roger admitted. “We didn’t plan it this way, were going to handle it ourselves. But when the complications began, I didn’t know what else to do. You’re the only person I can trust in the quadrant who has any experience with birthing. Besides, the Patrol ship wont be through for another week or more. If I thought you'd get caught, I would have never contacted you.”
“Tricked me, you mean!” snorted Sam. “ You were bloody crazy to bring a pregnant woman out here in the first place. You know as well as I do that having babies away from Earth just don’t go well, for anyone. Nothing but bad things can happen out here. It’s why they don’t equip these trawlers for having babies, dammit. To top it off, it’s illegal and for good reason. Now, if it wasn’t bad enough, you have to go and drag me into it. I thought we were mates?”
“You know why I did it, Sam. What choice did we have? Jewel only found out days before we were scheduled to ship out from Earth. We had already cleared our physical a couple of weeks prior. If I had reported it to the Company, they would have cancelled our contract, moved us to the back of the line. We would never have gotten another chance. We worked too hard for this opportunity, Sam, just walk away. But we also knew the risks.”
“Did you, now?” Sam snapped and opened his mouth to argue when a thin, strained voice from the other room stopped him.
“Gentlemen, if you’re done debating,” said Jewel through clenched teeth, “I think the time has arrived. The baby's coming right now, with or without your permission.”
Roger held his, breath. The old man obviously wrestling with his options when he finally a deep sigh of resignation escaped.
“All right, kid. I’ll do what I can, but no promises mind you. I’m no medtech and the odds aren’t in your favor. Just remember, if we get caught, we’ll have the next 20 years together in prison to figure who’s too blame.”
“Let’s just deal with one problem at a time, Sam. Jewel needs you now.”
They started towards bed when Sam put out an arm against his chest, stopping him.
“I don’t need you in there, son. Just you go fetch me a bunch of towels, warm water, and a medkit. She’ll be more comfortable right where she is. Mind you, if we put her in the MedCap, the Company will receive a complete report by radio. We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way.”
Roger took a hurried step when Sam added, “And if you’ve got a bottle of rum to go with that you’re a real daisy.”
The comical look on Roger's face compelled him to add, “Just relax. She’ll be all right.”
Roger darted from the compartment, almost tripping over his own feet. He gathered up the items from stores as quickly as he could, focusing on Jewel's well being, not possible outcomes. He kept one step ahead of the nagging fear trying to overtake him. Events were moving too fast for introspection now. All he could manage was to gather up the requested item and hurry back.
Sam was standing beside his wife’s bed, busy arranging sheets and pillows for her comfort. Roger deposited everything he carried onto a small nightstand. From under one arm he produced a bottle of dark liquor that he held back.
“You get this,” he said with a tip of the bottle towards the old spacer, “when it’s all over, not before.”
Sam looked longingly at the tall bottle but nodded his head in agreement. “All right then, you wait out there. Don’t know how long this might take so be patient. Try walking in circles. You’ll just be in my way in here. Close the hatch on your way out.”
Roger did as ordered, even pacing in room in slow circles until he realizing how useless and silly he must look. He settled down at the small table situated before a large observation portal at one end of the quarterdeck.
The grey Vista outside revealed the stark expanse of the Asteroid they now called home. It was daytime, for as long as it lasted, and the sun cast long, black shadows on the flat plains where the Bamebridge was tethered. A few miles beyond rose a dark range of mountains, jagged and unweathered, like broken teeth snarling at the heavens.
Staring out at the bleak world, Roger thought back on the long road that led them to that harsh place. For people like them, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Life on Earth wasn’t easy under the best of conditions, but poverty exacerbated the problem.
Overcrowding, exhausted resources, polluted air and water, made comfort difficult to attain, even with money. Without it, life could be hell. Decades ago, people believed colonizing the solar system would free mankind from it’s accumulated environmental sins.
Nature has other plans. Artificial gravity was invented 30 years before by using floor panels that created electromagnetic fields. But it was discovered soon after that human reproduction would not function normally. Any large scale plans for the human evacuation of Earth came to a screeching halt.
Now the problem became one where if you could not move people to where fresh resources were, those resources must now be brought to Earth. Even with fleets of ships, supplying the human race with enough to maintain civilization was next to impossible.
So life aboard a huge vessel like the Bamebridge was an improvement compared to the realities of city life on Earth. Clean, filtered and recycled air, all the pure water they could hope to use, and privacy and intimacy unknown before, took much of the sting off the danger and isolation of working in deep space.
A chance to hit it rich only came with the risks of space mining for average people. The required training and following lottery kept most out, leaving only a few hundred out of the millions that apply.
For that lucky few, the chance to secure their future was in reach. But it was a one time deal. After five years of space duty, you were never again allowed off world. That was the limit of human endurance to the complex and alien conditions of space.
Roger did his research and knew this particular asteroid was a proven winner when they got the assignment. The far range of mountains was a honeycomb of mining tunnels begun more than half a century earlier, pushed deeper with each succeeding generation.
Some hit it big-time, coming up with a fortune in precious metals and minerals. Most, like he and Jewel, were content to slog it out for the three years of their contract with the guaranteed minimum salary and profit sharing. It would still be more than ten years wages back home, and enough to cushion them for the rest of their lives.
Of course, he realized it would be all for nothing if anything happened to his beloved Jewel. He prayed that their string of luck would hold a little longer.
Their luck held as they were able to hide her pregnancy the last few months from the occasional visitor. The Marshals stopped by every couple of months, just to check on Company property or detect anything not normal. Sometimes local miners got together for conversation, hard drinking, and swapping goods. The last 90 days they made excuses to avoid them and kept out of sight. The Bamebridge made a comfortable sanctuary while Jewel readied for it’s coming new passenger.
The hatch opened and Sam stepped forth, drying his hands on a wad of towel. He walked straight to the table, snatching up the waiting bottle of rum, downing several large gulps before coming up for air. He dabbed at the sweat streaking down the lines in his face with the towel.
Roger searched the old man’s face for clues but it was stone. “Is everything alright, Sam?” fear rising in his throat. “Is Jewel okay?”
He waited with impatience while the old man took another long pull off the rum.
“She’ll be fine, lad,” he offered, voice tired. “It wasn’t easy, and she lost some blood, but Jewel's a tough girl. You’re the one I’m worried about,” he added with a sigh.
A flush of anger reached Roger's face before he realized the implication. “What about the baby, Sam? Is it okay?” He was suddenly sick at his stomach, not ready for the answer.
“It’s doing fine too, for now, though it might be better if it wasn’t.”
Roger wanted to ask him to explain but the words stuck in his dry throat. Waves of icy fear swept over him as he moved around him to make his ways to his wife’s bed. Sam’s arm restrained him long enough for him to say quietly,
“You just remember I warned you, shipmate,” he offered without malice, then let go his grip.
Roger made his way to Jewel’s side, each step carrying its own measure of dread. He stared down at her now peaceful face, the sheet pulled up to her chin, her long red hair scattered in tangled ringlets against it. He was struck again by her beauty, how delicate her features for such a hard life, how badly he needed her in his life. Again he reminded himself that she was all that mattered.
He then noticed the white bundle of cloth cradled into one arm. He stared, numb, until the blanket moved and he heard the unmistakable gurgle of a newborn child.
Hesitantly, with trembling fingers, he reached to uncover the bundle. Only the sound of Jewel’s tired voice stayed his hand.
“Roger, dearest,” she whispered, as if taking all her strength. “It’s all over, darling. Everything will be okay now. You’ll see. It’s a boy! We’ll call him Sol, just like we talked about. Sol…”
Don’t talk, honey,” he cooed to her. “Sleep.”
He waited patiently as her breathing evened out and watched her slip into a deep sleep.
The bundle moved again. This time he took hold of the blanket's corner without hesitation. Gently, he lifted it just high enough to peer within.
One look, and he recoiled as if punched in the face. Staggering backwards, knees weak, his thoughts began to spin. This was too much process.
He crept back to the bed, pulling back the covers. In shock, Roger took stock of the strange creature.
The child was hairless, like many newborns, but in an odd way, without eyebrows or eyelashes. The head was tear drop in shape, with an exaggerated skull cap and tiny chin. It’s neck was too long and the eyes three times too big, black orbs of fathomless depth, hypnotic and frightening.
Suddenly, the child focused on him for the first time, erupting into a broad, innocent smile. Stretching long arms out to him, it desperately wiggled six fingers on each hand trying to reach for him.
It was all too much too fast. Roger withdrew in revulsion, causing the disappointed child to begin crying. As if by instinct, Jewel reached out and pulled the baby closer. With her other hand she opened her robe to expose milk swollen breasts to the newborn's eager mouth. It began to suckle nosily, it’s black eyes rolling shut in bliss.
Roger shuttered in horror at her obvious disregard for the child’s condition. He wanted to run but there was no where to run to.
He retreated backward only to collide with Sam who stood waiting behind him. The old man grumbled something unintelligible under his breath. Roger wasn’t sure just what he said, but was certain he didn’t like it.
“What did you say?” he asked, a vague anger rising in his chest.
“I said kill it!” snapped Sam, the, rum thick on his breath. “Kill it now, before she wakes up. Make up any story you want. I’ll back you up, but get rid of that abomination before we all hang for it. Just put it in the airlock and we’ll tell her it died of natural causes. It’s the merciful thing to do.”
Roger again studied the child nursing at his wife’s breast, very much like any normal baby. He knew even then he could not destroy it. Not without first convincing Jewel it was the right thing to do. Anything else might drive a wedge between them.
“I can’t do that, Sam,” he countered. “Not without her say so.”
Sam shook his head sadly. “No one could blame you, son. It’s the right thing to do. If the Feds ever find out about it, that’ll be it for you and her. Even if you were crazy enough to keep it, you’ll never get it back to Earth through quarantine. If I were you…”
“But you’re not me, Sam,” growled Roger. “I’m the one that has to live with the consequences. Jewel will know what to do. Maybe it’s time you got back to your ship. That roughneck crew of yours should be plenty drunk by now with you gone so long.”
“Maybe you’re right, lad,” he answered with restraint. “It’s your call but I wash my hands of it. Your on your own.”
They walked in silence to the airlock linking the two ships. Sam punched at the control panel and the thick hatch slid open. Before entering, he turned one last time to face Roger.
“Look, if you come to your senses, radio me. I’ll help any way I can.” He stuck out a hand which Roger shook gratefully.
“We’ll see,” was all he offered. “Thanks for everything. I mean it. But one last favor, please.”
“Sure, why not?” Sam responded, with only a touch of bitterness.
“Please don’t say anything to your crew, to anyone. At least until I’ve had time to talk to Jewel about this, after she’s had time to let it all sink in.”
Sam’s smile was genuine. “Are you kidding me? As of now, I’ve never heard of you.” With a wink, he disappeared into the airlock, the hatch slamming home with a loud clang and a hiss of rushing air.
Roger returned to the bedside where mother and child were sleeping peacefully. He stood watching them for a long time, their steady breathing the only sound.
Hot tears erupted down his cheeks and his hands once again began to tremble as he realized the worst part was still ahead of him. That he must convince his wife their worst fears were realized.
They gave birth to a monster.
End Chapter One