A simple farmer, wanting only one thing other than a good crop.
"From the Field"
Sharp, spiking pangs shot up the back of Sarah's legs as her feet hit the floor. Her back echoed the pain through her entire body until it gathered in her head and pressed against her temples without relent. Every muscle screamed at her grotesquely distorted body, which lost its naturalness eight months or so ago and wouldn't regain it for another three to six weeks--if then.
Sarah and Michael had tried three times for a child and every time she endured these last few weeks of pregnancy hating the sight of her own body, hurting from head to toe because of the twenty-pound weight she carried in her belly, which pulled against every muscle she had. She wanted out. Out of her body. Out of this miserable wilderness. Out of the anguish that shadowed her dreams. Their last two attempts ended in a tangle of sweaty, bloodstained sheets, with Michael carrying the remains out the door in a stainless steel pail to a spot under their Live Oak tree. That was where Michael had mortared together a fieldstone wall to enclose their burial plots, which lay next to each other with ample space on either side for generations to come. And that was where Michael had fashioned and set the tiny headstones. Michael cried. Sarah moved on.
Today, the birthing capsule was supposed to arrive and Michael couldn't sit still, so Sarah sent him to the fields where he could work off his impatience. Sarah reached for a match, striking it against the bedpost then lighting her cigarette. Her lungs filled with smoke and the burning stopped. She had already smoked her allotment for this hour, but she needed one more for her nerves; they were fried into a frazzled frenzy.
Sarah had been living her life from one mood to the next, day by day, for the past six months. Her grossly antagonistic moods, flopping her opinion from one side to the other of every issue of discussion between Michael and her, but one subject she remained steadfast on "This place." The place they lived in. She hated this place. It seemed so far away from civilization that current news must have been studied in public schools before it got to her. So far away from doctors and hospitals that she shivered with fear every time her mind grasped the vast uninhabited wilderness between her and them. She hated this place that she once loved so much, for the very reason she once loved it. It was a frontier.
Of course, Sarah had known Michael was going to be a farmer from the very first. He was studying for his Agri-license test when they met. Six years at the same university and they bumped into each other two weeks after graduation. He was gallant enough to pay for her lunch, when she left her purse behind that day. That was the part of him she fell in love with. That and the enthusiasm he showered her with every day since. His dishwater curls, bronze flesh and broad shoulders didn't hurt either.
She lifted the birthing capsule's operations manual off the table, where she had laid it the night before. "The filtration system will remove sub-micron particles and even fumes such as formaldehyde from the air before circulating it through the living chamber. 99.9999% of the histamine carrying bodies will be eliminated or neutralized on contact with the antihistamine membrane."
Her excessive sensitivity to the pollen out here in the frontier made this capsule necessary, just like it would be necessary for seventy-five percent of the world's population these days. This hypersensitivity came from decades of living in domed cities, where the air was filtered and re-circulated "Fresh from the can," as she used to say.
Sarah read on, "In isolated farm areas where medical assistance may not be readily accessible, the living chamber protects newborn babies from complications due to allergic reactions during those critical first few days and even weeks of their life."
Living chamber? A cube, twelve feet by twelve feet, where her and her child would probably have to live for the first three to six months of the baby's life. All because her baby's father was a farmer and they had to live in the wilderness instead of enjoying the histamine-free atmosphere provided by the city's domed enclosure. There were too many plants out here in the wilderness for Sarah's frail body to do battle with. Too many aggressive, poison-spewing "vegetables" armed by evolution to protect themselves from the murderous beast, who harvested them for food--Michael, her husband. Of course, their poison didn't affect him.
The medicated cigarettes eased her pain, coating her lungs with a thick layer of antihistamine and anti-inflammatory drugs, keeping the irritants out of her system, so her body wouldn't explode with a rash and then swell until her throat closed off. She saw it happen to a child once. He was no more than eight years of age. It happened in the Captain's store at the crossroads. The child's family had come to the "wilderness" to show him what "Nature" was like.
The boy's parents didn't smoke. No one in the city smoked. They didn't have to. They didn't need the constant stream of healing drugs provided by the smoke. Besides if they needed medication in the city, they would just go to the med-clinic and get a shot. Out in the wilderness people had to treat themselves and the medicated cigarette has become the treatment vehicle of choice.
Michael tried to blow smoke from one of Sarah's cigarettes down the boy's throat as he lay on the tile floor, but it was too late. The silent, motionless child's airway closed and he became cyanotic within minutes. His tiny limp body draped over his father's arms as the man ran from the store and jumped into his shuttle, then sped away toward the city. Sarah never heard what happened to him, but she knew. The city was too far away.
Sarah wondered if her own child would inherit her malady. As she caressed the arch of her bulging belly, she wanted to know if this child would choke on the reproductive poison that filled the air of the wilderness twice each year for months. Would this baby grow up to live from one cigarette to the next, catapulting from the bed in the middle of the night, grasping for air and then grabbing for a light? Had she struggled and endured only to curse the one she love the most?
* * * *
Stinging droplets of sweat trickled into Michael's eyes from his brow. He wiped with his forearm, but sweat on sweat only intensified the burning in his eyes, so he dropped his hoe and crossed the furrowed soil to where he had hung his shirt. He used the shirt to wipe the sweat away, then tied it like a bandana around his head. Pushing a dangling sleeve from in front of his eyes, he reached for a canteen inside the cab of his shuttle cart. He turned it upside-down over his scalp and wet the shirt until the excess ran down his thick shoulders.
The weather would change tonight. He had ordered a reduction in ultraviolets from the Reflector Satellite for the remainder of the week, so he could help Sarah set up the capsule. The reduction in ultraviolets would allow moisture accumulation, maybe rain, and that would please Sarah. Michael found himself searching for ways to please Sarah these days, mostly without success.
Michael looked out over the tundra of plowed dirt, which stretched across two horizons, and took a deep breath. The earth's scent found its way through the pollen coating his nostrils and into a place, from which his mind retrieved it. It might have only been his imagination, since the pollen and dust had long since dulled his sense of smell, but he hoped not. That smell of earth was the thing that brought him out here in the first place. That and his love for all nature in this wilderness so far away from the antiseptic world from which humanity had retreated.
Michael dwelled on his most angst-filled memories, trying to crowd out the images of his soon-to-be-born child from the forefront of his consciousness. Maybe it was superstition, maybe premonition, but he didn't want to dream--not this time. He knew full well how savage this wilderness could be and he had decided to leave it if this attempt failed. He wanted a child for Sarah's sake. For him too. And he wanted to stay.
A child would fill the emptiness he felt each time that he looked over his shoulder in the fields. A child would be an attachment to his shirttail, an echo of his own childlike wonderment every time he sat for a minute and scanned the fields or the forest. Or when he listened for the coo of a dove or the chatter of squirrels or felt the mush of dew soaked grass oozing between his fingers releasing the clean fragrance of new burgeoning life into the air. He could see the tiny set of eyes jump wide, when a frog hopped into the creek and hear the screams of discovery, when the mirrored image shattered beneath a tiny palm and a splash. But again, he reminded himself not to dream. Sarah was right, "Dreams can be dashed."
"Michael." Michael's hip vibrated. It was the Tele and Sarah was on the other end calling his name. "Michael."
Michael drew the Tele from his hip, flipped it open and held it to his ear. "Sarah? Is everything alright?"
"Yes, Michael, I'm okay. The capsule is here. The cargo pod just left. I'm glad you had them send someone to unload this thing--it's humongous. Are you coming home now?"
"Just one more chore. I'm going to swing by field one-two-five and make a few observations before I come home, but that won't take long. See you in about an hour. Don't try to do anything until I get there. That thing's too heavy for you to handle."
"Okay. An hour, but don't lose track out there. I'm anxious."
Since the day NASA assigned Michael project one-two-five, he would disappear for hours then come back with a pocket full of tape recordings for Sarah to transcribe. But today he had more important business at home. "Don't worry I'm anxious too."
* * * *
Field number one-two-five was only a half-acre plot. The plants were nothing special to look at as Michael surveyed them, but he knew their origin and that was indeed special. He remembered the day he found out about the exploration vessel. NASA sent it into the farthest parts of the solar system. He also remembered the day Doctor Jamison told him about their discovery.
They were dormant, "in hibernation", packed tightly in the fossilized sediment of a large asteroid orbiting Uranus. Tiny seeds. They were all that survived some ancient world or at least the long dead flora of that once-alive asteroid. He only wished they had given him more information about what to look for, but they probably knew no more than he did about these alien seeds.
Not much had happened since the planting. The sprouts were about four feet tall with large flat leaves, waxy on one side and fuzzy on the other, and the root system was similar to any other plant found on Earth. The two translucent pouches that grew side-by-side near the top of the plant were odd, but not unheard of on this planet. They were not unlike some of the insectivorous plants found in eastern North America and northern California. Although, these pouches were a bit larger than those found on any of the pitcher plants that Michael knew of.
Those dicot plants, which Michael drew his knowledge from, would capture and digest small insects to supplement their nutritional needs. The soil they normally grew in was nitrogen poor and acidic just like the soil Michael struggled against on a daily basis. That was one reason NASA chose Michael for this experiment. They needed his poor soil and he needed their money because of that soil.
"Not much change today." Michael pulled a ruler from his back pocket and measured one of the pouches, while he spoke into the microphone of his headset. "The pouches have not grown since Tuesday of last week, so I think it is safe to say that they have matured at twenty-four inches. Wherever these things come from, they must have awful large insect life if they feed like their counterparts here on Earth." Michael backed away and leaned against the front of his shuttle cart, while sketching the plant with its mature pouches.
A high pitched chatter raised Michael's head from his drawing. It was a squirrel, braving the field from the sanctuary of the adjacent wooded area. He had come to investigate the activity in the field and probably to see if there was anything edible in it for him. It was Cotton-top, one of Michael's favorite pastimes out here in field one-two-five. Michael usually feed Cotton-top whenever he visited this field. Cotton-top had grayed from age and the top of his head had turned white and fluffy from thinning. Michael often fed Cotton-Top while he ate his own lunch and made notes on the progress of the plants. "Sorry, boy. I don't have anything for you today."
Cotton-Top turned and scurried back down the row of plants toward the woods from where he had come. But before he reached the end of the row, he started squealing like something had jumped out and grabbed him. Michael sat his drawing on the hood of his shuttle and went to investigate.
When Michael got near the end of the row, he saw Cotton-Top scrambling up the side of one of the plants and at the base of that plant a rattlesnake stretched his neck up the stalk. Michael could see blood on Cotton-Top's back, so he knew the battle was over and it was only a matter of time before the snake had his meal. Cotton-Top made it to the top of the plant and sat there clutching one of the broad leafs above the pair of pouches. After only a few minutes, the squirrel quivered then went stiff and dropped into the pouch on the left side of the plant.
Life was definitely savage here in the wilderness. Sarah had said it best, "This damn desolate place kills everything and everyone who loves it, so why do you want to stay?"
Michael winced, then flipped the switch on his recorder. "My old friend, Cotton-Top, was just killed by a rattler, Sarah." Michael kicked dirt at the snake and scared it off. "As he died, he fell into the westerly pouch on plant number sixteen." He started to reach for Cotton-Top's remains, but stopped. "I would retrieve him and give him a descent burial, but if I leave him, we can include him in the record of our experiment. So I would like to make an official request," Michael's voice deepened into a more business-like tone, "that his name be noted in the report upon its final publication. I'll check frequently for signs of decomposition. Since I have found no signs of acidic secretions as of yet, this event may supply us with a perfect opportunity to see what happens when the trap is sprung, so to speak. And at the same time, we can give my little friend a bit of immortality."
Michael decided it was time to go home. Sarah was waiting.
* * * *
The capsule went together without a problem. Most everything snapped into place with only a slight push or tug and tightened down with the supplied tools. The only problem came when Sarah saw that her bed wouldn't fit through the door and she realized that she would have to sleep on the twin size cot the manufacturer had provided. "I won't do it. I don't even have any sheets that will fit that worthless excuse for a bed. You send this mess back, right now. Right-this-instant."
Sarah's glare cut through Michael before she stomped away, leaving him with an open hole where his mouth was suppose to be and an argument dangling from the tip of his tongue. He would let her stew for a while, then apologize for being a man and ask her to let him and the capsule stay just one more night. Of course, he wouldn't really settle for just one more night. He would only hope for her mood to change before the next night came. If it hadn't changed by then, he would have to beg for another.
After a few days, Sarah must have realized that her bed would have taken too much space away from her and the baby because she allowed Michael to stay without any argument at all--the capsule too. That was a good sign for Michael because the rains were ending, the capsule was assembled and it was almost time for him to go back to work. It would be nice if the doors were unlatched when he returned from his first day in the fields.
* * * *
His first day back in the field was uneventful, except for field number thirty-three. It had flooded, so he had to rework the dike system. In the process, he became covered in slimy mud that smelled like fish. Sarah would have made him hose off in the front yard before she would have let him in the house and she would have been screaming at him the whole time. So he thought he might avoid all that by finding a pond with water clear enough to wash in. Besides, it had turned out to be a very hot day and a cool swim would be refreshing.
The shuttle cart could carry him only so high, just above the tops of the trees, so Michael's range of vision was limited. He sat just above the treetops searching the nearby ponds for one that had semi-clear water, water clean enough to bathe in. His binoculars were gaining a coat of mud from the drippy goo that covered his hands, so he used the sack Sarah had packed his lunch in to wipe them off. His sandwich fell from the sack and the sight of the bread reminded him of Cotton-top. He normally ate his lunch in field number one-two-five and used the crust from his sandwich to coax Cotton-top out of the woods.
He turned his binoculars on field one-two-five and zoomed in on plant number sixteen. One of the pouches swelled and wiggled like some other small animal had met the same fate as Cotton-top. Then, as he watched, the bottom broke out of the pouch and its contents spilled into the mud below. He focused his binoculars on a tiny, squirming, goo-covered sack that had fallen from the pouch and lay in the mud with something inside it struggling to get free. A spot in the membrane stretched, then tore and an animal's head poked through. It was Cotton-top.
Michael focused his binoculars carefully and squinted to make sure, then he jumped into the driver's seat and raced his shuttle cart to field one-two-five. When he got there, he went straight to plant sixteen and there sat Cotton-top licking himself clean, moving in groggy jerks like a newborn, but aware enough to lurch for the woods when Michael approached him. Michael scooped him into a sample sack and tied it off at the top. "Hey, little buddy. How did you survive that snakebite? Hmmm, maybe I was wrong about these pouches. Maybe they're not digestion vessels at all. Maybe they have some kind of symbiotic function that yields medicinal value to the animal trapped inside. This'll be a real puzzler for those brains in the lab."
Michael tucked the top of the sample sack with its wiggling contents into his belt and leaned over the plant to give it a closer inspection. "I'll need samples of this membrane and fluid," he said, lifting a piece of the amnion-like goo, which had enveloped Cotton-top when he dropped from the pouch. "And this pouch. I'd better make some notes on things just the way they are for the guys back in the lab."
His finger flicked away a crust of mud on his belt and he flipped the toggle to the recorder as he placed his headset on with his other hand. "I've just found my good friend Cotton-top alive and well, Sarah. He seems to have been rejuvenated by the plant, while he was in the pouch. Refer to my last entry and you will find that he fell into the easterly pouch on plant number sixteen--" Michael broke off his observations. Something he just said didn't sound right, like a tickle of dejavu, but it was telling him something was out of place. What was it? What was wrong with this scene?
Michael stood still for a moment, afraid to move anything until he could determine what it was that didn't fit. He counted the plants in the row and it was plant number sixteen. He opened the sack and lifted Cotton-top by the scruff of his neck. The squirrel was groggy, but it was Cotton-top. Michael recognized his fluffy top and there were two scars from puncture wounds on his back, where the snake had struck.
Then he examined the pouches again. A syrupy liquid dripped from the jagged edges of the ruptured pouch, but the other pouch on the plant sagged at the bottom too, like there was something in it ready to fall out. Michael lifted the undamaged pouch with its bottom resting in his palm. "The westerly pouch seems--" that was it. The "westerly" pouch.
Michael dropped Cotton-top back into his sack, then rewound his recorder to the last set of notes he had made on field one-two-five and listened, ". . . as he died, he fell into the westerly pouch on plant number sixteen . . ." It was the westerly pouch. Michael used his mud-crusted fingers to spread the top of the "westerly" pouch opened. Inside, he found several half-digested bones along with a small skull that had one hair still clinging to its cap. One cotton-white hair.
It was definitely Cotton-top's skeleton because one of the snake's fangs had punctured a shoulder blade in the exact spot where one of the two healed wounds appeared on the squirrel in his sack. "But if this is Cotton-top, then who are you, little buddy?" he asked the squirrel as it squirmed in the sack that dangled from his belt.
Michael's Tele buzzed and he snapped it up. "Sarah. You won't believe--"
"Michael! I need you!"
"Sarah? What's wrong?"
"It's happening again. Please come--now! Aghhh! Please!"
Michael ran for the shuttle cart, screaming into the Tele: "I'm coming! I'll be there Sarah--hold on!"
* * * *
Michael smashed his fist into the dash of the shuttle, releasing a burst of frustration and trying to will the shuttle into going faster, but he knew the governor wouldn't let it. "Damn it! Why didn't I disconnect that damn thing when I had the chance? Sarah, hang on!" he screamed into the Tele that sat on the seat beside to him.
He jumped from the moving shuttle, tumbling to a stop in front of the house as the shuttle smashed into the barn. He didn't stop to take inventor of his injuries. Instead, he slammed his shoulder into the door and burst through. "Sarah!" He ran through the living room, where the capsule sat, and into the bedroom, where Sarah lay in the bed unconscious. The sheets of the bed clung to her body showing the color of her flesh through, where her sweat had melded with the cotton fibers.
Michael checked her pulse and breathing. He had seen this before and she would be fully recovered in a week or so. Between Sarah's spread legs, under the sheets, there was a lump. A slightly bloody, motionless lump that Michael was afraid to look at. But he did look and his soul drained away with the sight of his lifeless daughter. He checked everything: pulse, breathing. He tried CPR and finally resolved himself to what he knew he had to do. He had done it before and he had to do it again before Sarah regained consciousness. He had to spare her as much pain as possible and if this time were like the other two times, she would be unconscious for several more hours.
Michael used a fresh cloth from the bathroom to wipe Sarah's body clean of sweat and the small blotches of blood that mottled her inner thighs. His movements were mechanical, cold, unfeeling because his mind was numb, tangled with thoughts, all of them swirling and slicing though his heart like a surgeon's blade. He lifted the bloody sheet in a tangled mass, swaddling the tiny body in it and cradling it in one arm as he spread a clean sheet over Sarah's naked body. Then he left the cottage to retrieve the crumpled shuttle cart from the toppled barn and headed it for the Live Oak tree.
Michael's mind churned through the past two-and-a-half years, gladly stopping to dwell on memories of Sarah during her first pregnancy. Her eyes danced with happiness then, even near the end when her body began to rebel against the seed he had planted in her. Her mood was a song that she gladly sang from morning till night, dancing around the house in nothing but her smock, covered with dried clay from her pots and droppings from her paint brush. She said she loved the feel of the clay against her skin, its silky texture spreading between her palm and the top of her rounded belly. She was alive then--imbued with life.
But those fleeting moments of hope gave way to the gnawing, hopeless pangs in his soul and the placid lump that lay in the seat beside him. And when he awoke from his thoughts, he was nowhere near the Live Oak tree. He hovered in his shuttle cart over field number one-two-five. He landed and stepped out of the shuttle cart.
Michael feared the thoughts that were running through his mind. His conscience told him that these were alien plants and neither he nor anyone else knew exactly what happened during their replication process. Was the product alien? Was Cotton-top alien? What sinister purpose lay skulking inside this unexplored alien process?
Cotton-top squirmed as Michael lifted him from the sack by the scruff of his neck. His chatter was lively enough. His will to be free was natural and vigorous. The squirrel's thrashing intensified and Michael felt a sudden pain in his arm, when the squirrel's nails pierced his skin. He dropped Cotton-top and watched as he ran for the woods. The Squirrel stopped before he entered the woods, convulsed, then regurgitated the contents of his stomach into the mud. He sniffed at the vomit for a moment then with a flick of his tail, he was gone.
Michael's curiosity led him to the spot, where Cotton-top threw up. In the puddle of clear mucous, he saw several dozen seeds and they looked exactly like the seeds that NASA had originally brought him. "It's all an elaborate reproductive cycle! That's all. They use the animal, the replica, to spread their seeds."
Michael squinted his eyes, peering through the shadows of the woods to where he saw Cotton-top sitting on a limb with his tail held high, chattering at another squirrel. Then the two squirrels scampered off, bouncing from limb to limb, bantering and playing like any normal pair of squirrels would. "It has to be harmless. Life can't be this cruel."
* * * *
The warm suckling at Sarah's breast filled her with a feeling of relief and contentment. Michael's presence just outside the Neoglass walls of the capsule intensified that feeling. He told her how he found her drenched in sweat, unconscious, with a squirming bundle between her legs. She passed out like that every time, but this time Michael got there. He cleared the baby's air passages inside the capsule. Then he watched over her and the baby for a few days, waiting for her strength to return and using the gloves on the wall of the capsule to feed and change and burp the baby. All the while the baby stayed safe inside the capsule, waiting for Sarah to join her.
Sarah had fought him at first, struggling to reach her baby, wanting just one glimpse, but Michael convinced her to wait. He convinced her that if the baby didn't make it, she would be better off not knowing, not carrying the image with her for years afterward. And now she was glad she waited not because of that, but because the baby was perky and bright eyed, and not at all ill and Sarah need never know how close they both came to death.
Michael was on the other side of the glass now, getting ready to leave for the fields. He approached the com-unit with a grin and leaned on the "Talk" button: "Hey you two, your 'old man' has to go out and earn us all a living. How is she doing this morning, Dear?"
"She's absolutely perfect."
Michael opened the passthrough slot and dropped a tape inside the Evac-chamber. "I'll need you to transcribe this for me today, if you get a chance. But don't bother if you can't get away from your 'motherly' duties. We have priorities, you know."
"I know." Sarah crinkled her nose at the tiny face beneath her own. "We'll do our best, Daddy. Won't we, Michelle."
The air in the capsule smelled sweet and clean. Sarah thought she would have missed the cigarettes a lot more than she did. The Medpage technician had told her that her cravings would subside after a few weeks and indeed, she hadn't wanted one since just before she entered the capsule. She came down off of them during her two-week recuperation. Michael had kept her so groggy on painkillers and sedatives that she slept right through her withdrawals.
Michael walked out the door as Sarah hoisted Michelle to her shoulder to be burped. Sunlight streamed in and Sarah could see the lush of her garden outside the door. "Oh look, Michelle, it's our garden. Can you see all those pretty plants in our garden? We don't have to be afraid of those plants they're the good ones. It's those nasty old plants out there in the fields that cause us pain and discomfort not our sweet little garden. Do you see it?" Sarah turned and stood Michelle in her lap and pointed Michelle toward the open door. Michelle bounced and giggled until she belched and threw up. "Oh, my goodness." Sarah grabbed the towel from its place on her shoulder and wiped at the vomit running down her legs. "What has your daddy been feeding you? Doesn't he know that anything with seeds in it isn't good for little darlings like you?"