SFReader 2002 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
Wind whistled through the tear in the outer hull, a low, keening moan, the Yellowstone’s death cry shaking its frame. Sara Reed stumbled painfully to her knees, the off-axis spin accelerating as the cabin’s atmosphere bled into the frigid vacuum outside. The bomb had been small, but efficient, a precision strike that screamed assassination. She clutched the handrail, fighting panic, refusing to count the seconds she needed to reach the cockpit’s safety door. A second blast threw her against an open bulkhead, tossing her like a rag doll. Instinctively, she shielded her stomach, protecting the tiny life inside, her own safety a minor concern. A brown skinned man with short, curly hair, his uniform stained with his own blood appeared at her side, hauled her to her feet and dragged her down a narrow side passage.
“Get to the courier shuttle.”
“No.” She shouted above the noise of the dying starship. “I’m not leaving without you.”
“Like hell you aren’t.” His smile softened his words, but the worry in his eyes seemed more intense than the screaming wind. “One of us has to get the ambassador down safely.”
“Forget the slimy bastard. This is his fault.”
“Sara, please…” He kissed her, squeezing her as if he might weld their bodies together. She felt his tears on her cheek. “Don’t fight me on this. The shuttle only carries two. I can stabilize the ship or I can take the ambassador, but I can’t do both. Get him to Earth. I’ll be fine, I promise.”
“David…” She wanted to tell him about the baby, tell him what was growing inside her body, but couldn’t. Not yet. Not now. “David, I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He kissed her again, so hard it hurt, then shoved her down the red-lit corridor. “Now go. I’ve got to get to the cockpit.”
She tried to look back, tried to watch him leave but couldn’t. It would have been too painful. Instead, she hurried down the passage, falling more than running as she burst into the shuttle lock. Ambassador Boszla, the ship’s single passenger, was already there, his shifting features unreadable, the stench around him strong even in the failing atmosphere. She pushed him through the octagonal lock, the soft, almost fungal feel of his gray flesh repulsive. Larval buds wriggled under his skin, ready to burst open. She slapped the release button and dropped into one of the two seats aboard the tiny craft.
“Pilot Reed, where is your mate?”
“Staying with his ship. Strap in.”
She wasted no time getting clear of the lock, desperate to put distance between herself and what had been, until ten minutes ago, the finest starship in the Diplomatic Corps. Training replaced emotion as her hands flew over the boards, rolling the craft Earthward, praying under her breath they had enough fuel to insert into orbit and still make the long fall to ground. She forced her attention on her instruments, silently whispering, “Be all right. Please be all right.”
Somehow, she knew even before she saw the white flare in the rear screen that nothing would ever be all right again.
Time measured in units of fuel, of distance, of oxygen and batteries, of sheer endurance for the two frightened beings aboard the impossibly small shuttle. Sara scanned the slanting gray flight-board compulsively, burying her pain and the hatred under rote tasks, pretending to herself that she, and not mindless gravity, controlled her destiny. She corrected herself. Their destiny. As much as she would have willed it otherwise, she had a passenger.
She turned her head and studied the ambassador, not caring if Boszla noticed or not. He seemed to be asleep, an unmoving lump of pale, reeking flesh, a blue robe embroidered with gold thread sewn in intricate, indecipherable symbols covering his torso. Breath whistled out the single horizontal slit beneath his massive lower jaw. A faint odor of sulphur and decay clung to him like oil on a pond. She turned away from the somnolent Azverani diplomat and made a minor adjustment to the shuttle’s roll rate.
“You waste fuel each time you do that,” Boszla muttered, his Anglish surprisingly good for a creature with neither teeth nor larynx.
“Now you’re a pilot?”
“If you mean to insult me, Pilot Reed, please save your effort. I mean no offense with my opinions.”
“Then keep them to yourself.”
Sara stared at the console, her jaw clenched, hating to admit he was right. The display glowed merrily in front of her, indifferent to the information it carried, a long, egg-shaped orbit highlighted on the navigation screen. Earth held them, but it was a tenuous lease at best, the planet’s mass barely enough to bind them to it. Six days lay between them and survival, six days in a craft designed for hours, not days, of use. She switched to a real-time view, Earth behind Luna, Sol a bright point deeper in-system, the three lined up like painted balls on an onyx billiard table. The shuttle, oriented tail-first against the sun’s harsh radiation, fell toward the planet, a flea chasing a dog. Slowly, her gaze drifted to the single, narrow window above the board, the shutters drawn back from the heavy glass.
A long, incandescent swath stretched across the stars, all that was left of the _Yellowstone._ And of David.
“Perhaps,” Boszla said, his bland eyes fixed on the window, “your mate reached another shuttle before the explosion.”
“There weren’t any other shuttles,” Sara said, the truth inescapable. “The bomb in your quarters destroyed the main bay.”
“Why must you assume it was a bomb?”
“Because,” she explained without emotion, ” The explosion came from your cabin. Your own people scanned our ship before allowing you to board. The only things left unscanned were your luggage. Someone you trusted wants you dead.”
Boszla said nothing, simply watched the trail of debris spread thousands of miles behind them. Along his neck a tiny bump, no larger than a fingernail, pulsed, flipping convulsively in the embryonic sac beneath his skin, another larva feeding off his lifeblood, waiting to burst out when it had ripened. The idea made her skin crawl. She thought about the tiny fetus within her own womb and despised herself for the comparison.
“I am cold,” Boszla said at last. “Turn up the cabin temperature.”
“No.” Sara took sadistic pleasure in her refusal. “We don’t have the power to spare. The fuel cells are going to be stretched to the max long before we’re in position to land.”
“Then, perhaps you should not waste so much of them fidgeting with our roll rate.”
She bit down on her reply, tired of arguing. Instead, she reached into the overhead locker for a thin, silvery blanket and tossed it to him. “Wrap up in this.”
“Thank you.” Boszla spread the blanket across his broad torso, the edges hopelessly inadequate to cover his bulk. “But it is still too cold.”
She closed her eyes, desperate to sleep, and hoped one of them wouldn’t be here when she woke up from their nap. At this point, she didn’t care which of them it was.
The cabin seemed stuffy when Sara awoke, her throat dry, a dull, fuzzy ache centered deep beneath her skull. She stared at the flight-board, the readouts swimming, their meanings vague as if written in hieroglyphics. She frowned, angry with herself that she couldn’t fly a ship as simple as the courier shuttle. A yellow sticky-patch was glued to the window strut, the center of the tiny monitor a sickly gray, the oxygen in the cabin dangerously low. Startled out of her drowse, she scanned the board, certain the hull was leaking. To her relief the shuttle remained intact. Realization of what had happened was slow in coming.
Her anger wasn’t.
“Why the hell did you turn down the O2 level?”
“The atmosphere was overly rich. It affects the young I carry.”
Boszla glanced at the console between the seats, a wet spot staining the dull brown plastic. Within the sticky fluid a tiny, almost colorless form wriggled, the segmented tail writhing pathetically, protruding eyes too large for the unformed head staring blankly as the larva died. Sara drew back, repulsed by the sight, a primal loathing. A drop of clear fluid leaked out the blister on the ambassador’s neck, a perfect, dancing sphere drifting towards the floor, driven by air currents. She gasped as Boszla reached toward the dying larva and crushed it with his palm, a gray stain smeared across the console.
“You son of a bitch. You could have killed me turning the oxygen down like that.”
“The level remained within your species’s limits.”
“Leave the environmental controls alone. Understand. You will not jeopardize either of our lives for a bunch of larva you don’t even care about.” She couldn’t read the expression on Boszla’s face, but was certain she had scored a hit against him. His skin flowed around his bones, his pale, featureless eyes boring into her.
“Do not,” Boszla said, each syllable sharply punctuated, “confuse a lack of action with a lack of concern.” He lifted his large, flat hand, palm out, the smeared remnant of the larva greasing his skin. Sara stared in disbelief as the tissue was absorbed into Boszla’s flesh. Nothing remained but a withered film, like the skin around a grape. “Though few survive to birth, I mourn their passage, cry for the lives that will never be.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I thought when I saw you kill it…”
“You thought my actions harsh.” Boszla bobbed at the waist. “Is it a kindness to prolong a death? Better that I take back the essence of what would have been than let such a helpless thing suffer.”
Sara nodded. Fresh air poured into the cabin, the scrubbers working harder to replenish the vanished oxygen. Already her headache had lessened, her vision clearing. Boszla sighed, an eerie imitation of the human expression rendered in alien shades. The ambassador leaned back into his seat, his head lolling in freefall. After a moment he spoke again.
“Do you and your mate have children?”
“No.” Sara moved her hand away from her stomach, the idea of the Azveran learning she was pregnant somehow repulsive. “We talked about it, but the timing wasn’t right.”
“It must be a blessing for your kind, this ability to plan your children’s birth. We…” his hand swept over his chest, past the dozens of larva sacs dotting his pulpy flesh, “must bear our young whether the time is right or not. There is no choice.”
Sara squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back the tears and a growing wave of nausea. Eyes peered back at her out of the darkness. David’s eyes. Boszla’s. The eyes of her unborn child. After a moment she turned toward the ambassador, forcing herself to hold his watery gaze. “At least you know you will have children.” She smiled, ashamed of her earlier outburst. “Boszla, there’s an emergency locker with a pair of excursion suits behind your seat. They won’t fit you, but I can put one on and still fly the ship. After that, you could set the oxygen wherever you want.”
“Thank you, Pilot Reed.” Boszla said sincerely. “I would consider it a kindness.”
Time slipped away. Sara watched the viewscreen, Earth’s crescent no larger than it had been the day before. Had she not known better, she would have insisted the shuttle was stalled in the emptiness between nowhere and nothing. More than a day since the explosion, and still no reply from Approach Control, no response to the shuttle’s beacon. She closed the screen, the image too depressing for he tired mind. Hidden behind the helmet visor, cocooned within the emergency suit, she let her tears flow, crying until sleep took her from the pain. It should have been a catharsis, an acknowledgment of David’s loss, of an end to her dreams. Instead, the tears only fueled the hatred she felt toward Boszla and his kind, an anger toward a race so myopic it would kill innocents for what it considered an affront to its collective dignity. Humans, so the Azverani claimed, were dirty and crude, little more than clever animals come across the stars to steal their pride.
David, Sara thought bitterly, had died for their arrogance while Boszla lived on.
The ambassador floated in her side vision, reflected in the visor, a distorted, ghostly image of his sleeping bulk. Almost as if it had become detached from her body and driven by its own volition, her left hand crept toward the airlock override. It would be so easy, a flick of the wrist and the air within the cabin would purge, Boszla’s last mortal thought the certain knowledge that he was dying. The idea coiled around her, snaking through the holes David’s death had left in her heart. Her glove bushed the purge switch, rested above it, so close now, so close…
“Stop it,” she whispered. Her voice echoed in her earphones, shocked that she could have been so close to murder, that she could have taken a life, even a life as worthless as the Azverani’s, without remorse. She focused on the flight-board, doing mental calculations to clear her head. Time divided by distance and velocity, numbers breaking in relentless waves against her. She double-checked the equations with a calculator, a cold pit opening inside her stomach as she confirmed her fears.
“Boszla?” Her voice sounded mechanical out of the intercom. “Are you awake?”
“How long have we been out here?”
“Twenty-six hours, eleven minutes,” he replied without hesitation, accessing the implants within his ocular nerve.
“Then why does the flight computer show us as being underway for less than twenty-three?” She leaned forward, the suit hampering her vision, and ran the diagnostic programs, forcing herself to breath as the systems scanned themselves one after another, her breath sour in her nostrils, the taste of fear coppery on her tongue. An error message flashed on-screen. “sh*t. sh*t, sh*t, sh*t.”
“Yes.” Sara stared as system after system flashed the same message. “The computers blanked on us three minutes after we escaped. I thought it was just a glitch. Damn it, I should have re-booted.” Again, she checked her findings. “We weren’t far enough away when the Yellowstone’s reactor flare hit us. It wiped the internal clocks back to zero and screwed up the nav-programs. We’ve been drifting off course.” She updated their position using the correct time, appalled with her mistake.
Something in Boszla’s tone made her stop. She turned to face him. He seemed paler than before, his flesh sagging as if he was slowly dissolving into the chair. She looked closer. Several wet spots stained his blue tunic, more ruptured larval sacs spilling down his torso. After a long moment he continued, his voice tight.
“How much radiation did we absorb?”
“Too much.” She shut her eyes, squeezing them tight, another mistake in a long, unraveling thread. She pulled up the flight records, the critical seconds following their escape from the dying starship missing. Hull sensors revealed an uncomfortable amount of heavy radiation had shoved through the cockpit – and their bodies – when the explosion obliterated the ship. “I should have checked. Damn it, I should have checked.”
She snapped her helmet off, twisting it off the neck seal. A foul, sulphurous odor hung in the air. She ignored it, desperate not to be sick and flung her gloves away. The tiny medical locker nestled beside the communication panel hissed as she broke the seal. She found two plastic wrapped syringes and tossed one to Boszla, then ripped hers open with her teeth.
“What is this?”
“Anti-rad. I don’t know if it works on Azverani, but it won’t kill you,” she said. “Shoot it directly into a vein if you can. It’s going to sting like hell.”
She pulled the tip off her own syringe, the needle silvery in the cockpit light, flinching as the sharp point punctured her skin, sinking into her flesh. Her thumb wrapped around the snap-trigger, ready to inject. She stopped, Something about the potent chemical cocktail tore at her memory. Her hand shook as she pulled the syringe away from her throat, crimson droplets rolling along the needle.
“A problem, Pilot Reed?”
“Yeah, a problem.” She turned the injector in her hand and read the precautions printed in crisp black letters along the barrel, a half-remembered warning dancing in front of her eyes. More than a decade of star-flight and she had never had reason to shoot herself with anti-rad. Now that she needed it, she couldn’t. “I can’t use the sh*t,” she said, unable to keep the quaver from her voice. “I’m pregnant.”
Within moments of updating their position and realigning the communication antenna, a call broke over the speakers, Approach Control breaking the long silence. “Yellowstone Shuttle Two, please respond.”
“Go ahead, L-Five Approach.”
“We’d given up hope on you when we saw the debris field.” The relief in the man’s voice was apparent despite the distance, the transmission strong.
“We had some trouble with our onboard equipment,” Sara replied, fully aware the flight recorder would confirm her mistakes as pilot-in-command.
“We’re tracking you now. A rescue craft will pick you up when you’re in range. How many are aboard?”
“Two. Ambassador Boszla and myself.” Sara took a deep breath. “Have you received any other distress signals?”
“Negative, Shuttle Two.” The delay lengthened. “I’m sorry.”
Beside her, Boszla moaned, his translucent skin sagging around his frame. Another pair of larva had broken free of their cysts only to die on the cabin floor. Boszla, Sara noticed uncomfortably, hadn’t bothered to put them out of their misery, leaving them to writhe and expire, exposed to the air. He hadn’t spoken in over an hour, not since taking the anti-rad injection. She keyed the microphone.
“Approach, we have a medical situation. We were caught in the gamma burst from Yellowstone’s explosion. I’m transmitting the data now.” Her finger brushed the send box. “I need some information about radiation sickness.”
“Acknowledged. Stand by.”
Sara waited, dreading the answers. She had already scanned everything the craft’s limited library had on both human and Azverani physiology, but needed more specific questions answered. She swallowed, her throat dry, the headache returned. She thought about putting the helmet back on, but decided against it until she had the answers she needed. The cabin speaker crackled.
“Shuttle Two?” A husky, feminine contralto, broke over the commo. “My name is Dr. Corelli. Can you tell me the extent of the radiation you absorbed?”
“We probably took in the neighborhood of 400 rads over a twenty to thirty second period. The shuttle was oriented with our back to the explosion, so the engines would have shielded us somewhat, but at less than ninety kilometers from the blast I’m sure we took a heavy hit.”
“Are you feeling any effects?”
Sara thought about it. So many of her symptoms could be from stress and exhaustion, or even imagined. “I’m feeling all right. Boszla is the one I’m worried about. He’s complaining of chills, and keeps asking to turn the oxygen content down. He’s also losing larva at an increasing rate, and spends most of his time sleeping.” She hesitated. “I administered a standard dosage of anti-rad. Could he be having a bad reaction?”
“I doubt it,” Corelli said. “The shot is tailored for human use, but should be at least partially effective for an Azverani. You did the right thing, if that’s what you were wondering.”
“Well, at least I did one thing to be proud of in this mess.”
“Say again, Shuttle Two?”
“Nothing. I was talking to myself. Dr. Corlelli, what do I do for him?”
“Keep him alive. We should rendezvous with you in three days. I’ll stay on-line and try to talk you through any crisis, but to be honest Ms. Reed, I’m no expert on the Azverani. No one is. Just do what you can.”
“Roger that,” Sara said, expecting little more.
“How about you? Can you fly the ship if the sickness increases? You gave yourself a dosage of anti-rad, didn’t you?”
“About that…” Sara paused. Now more than ever, she missed David. He had been the strong one, the one to face the hard choices. But David wasn’t here. Only herself. She tipped her head back, steadying herself for the emotional barrage ahead. “I haven’t dosed myself because I’m pregnant.”
“I see. Stand by.” Corelli’s voice returned a few moments later. “How far along are you?”
“Five weeks since my last period.”
The delay became interminable as Sara waited. “Ms. Reed, I can’t tell you what to do, but were the decision mine I would give myself the anti-rad as quickly as possible.”
“And the baby?” Her voice broke around the word.
“The drug will most likely lead to the fetal death. I’m sorry. But, I have to be frank. The radiation you absorbed will probably have the same effect. Even if the fetus survives the next few weeks I would council an abortion. The odds of a healthy pregnancy at this point is minimal. I’m truly sorry.”
Sara tied to reply, but couldn’t. Tears clouded her eyes, refusing to fall away. She swiped them off with her forearm, blood roaring in her ears. Corelli’s voice returned.
“Your husband was still aboard the starship when it exploded?”
“Did you and he save sperm or fertilized ovum in a tissue bank at home?”
“No,” Sara admitted. “We thought we’d have plenty of time later.” She reached for the comm panel. “I’ll keep you informed about Boszla. Shuttle Two out.”
Sara leaned back in her seat, crying. She let her head fall to the side and sat unmoving, staring at the Azverani, tying to hate him, but was too drained even for that. Cold to the bone, she reached for the syringe.
Sara leaned toward Boszla, straining to hear him. His skin was the color of ash and wet newsprint, streaked with spidery blue lines. Dozens of weeping sacs stained his tunic, draining his strength further. She reached for a squeeze bottle of glucose and electrolytes and pressed it against his mouth, fighting to keep her hand steady.
“Drink, damn you.”
Boszla brushed the straw away, muttering in his native tongue, tortured, guttural croaks punctuating his brief periods of lucidity. “I can not drink. I am dying.”
“Shut up, we’re going to make it.”
“No.” He coughed, blueish spittle dribbling down his chin. “My race is not so hardy as yours. I will not survive.” He coughed again. ” I apologize for the loss of your mate… and of your child.”
“You heard me talking to Approach?”
Sara sank into her seat, the last of her reserves stripped away, feeling empty within. Boszla continued. “If it is any consolation, I also die childless.”
She frowned at the dozens of empty larval sacs. The idea that he hadn’t left any offspring behind seemed impossible. “I thought Azverani were born pregnant.”
He gurgled something which might have been a curse, or a laugh. “Do all outworlders believe such nonsense? We mate, but choose not to make a spectacle of it.” He paused to catch his breath, his chest heaving in long, looping contractions. “Few buds ever ripen to birth. Of the three hatchlings I brought into the light, none survived past infancy. I pass into darkness without heir.”
For the first time since she had met the lumbering diplomat, she felt no revulsion toward him, only pity. She slipped her glove off and gently patted his large hand. Boszla drifted asleep once more, then, with a sharp cry, flinched awake. Weak as he was, he threw his hand against to his chest as if fighting an invisible demon. Sara grabbed his arm and drew it back before he could injure himself. A dull plop accompanied yet another wet stain near his left armpit. Something slick and yellowish flopped from his sleeve and lay quivering on his lap. Sara stared at the larva, unable to look away.
The creature twisted and curled, fighting for breath. Larger than the others she had seen, the hatchling seemed a miniature version of Boszla, the tail all but gone, hands and feet fully formed, searching desperately for something safe to cling against. Even its tiny face seemed complete, gray, featureless eyes imploring. Boszla tied to find the hatchling with his hand, but was too weak to move. He whimpered in pain.
“Pilot Reed, please dispatch… kill it. I can not move.”
“I…” Sara continued to watch the hatchling, afraid to touch it, unable to ignore it. “I can’t kill something so helpless.”
“You must. Do not let it suffer. Please, I beg you.”
She closed her eyes, raised her left hand, the glove still in place. Her arm ached with the effort. She opened her eyes to make sure she didn’t miss. The hatchling was fighting less now, its movements weaker. She brought her hand closer, ready to strike. The infant turned onto its back as the shadow fell across it and closed its tiny eyes, as if it knew what fate hung above it. Shaking and weak, Sara stripped her other glove off and reached above her head for another motion-sickness bag.
“What are you doing?”
“Shut up.” Softly, she scooped the helpless creature into the bag, cradling it in her palm. “What does it need to survive? What’s the fluid it swims in?”
“It can not live…”
“Damn it, answer me! Sugar? Salt? Acid? For God’s sake, what do I put it in?” She had filled the bag with water from her own squirt bottle. Boszla finally nodded.
“Sugar. As much as you can find.”
“Sugar, right.” Sara snatched up the drink bottle with the glucose mixture and upended it into the bag, then sealed the opening. “Now what?”
“Keep it warm.”
“That I can do.” Dizzy from the effort, the adrenaline rush fading, Sara opened the front of her E-suit and carefully slipped the bag inside, nestling it between her small breasts. She felt the hatchling move, swimming slowly as she sealed the suit again, holding in the heat.
“Thank you,” Boszla wheezed.
“No promises, okay? But I’ll do what I can.”
“Then I die in peace.” The Azveran shuddered, flesh rippling like water on a windy day. “I do wish I could have seen your Earth. I have heard it is beautiful.”
“It is.” Sara reached across the narrow cabin and laid her hand on his, the tiny hatchling calmer now inside its artificial cocoon. “I think you would have liked it.”
“Tell me about it… please.”
“Earth is…” She faltered, tying to find the words. She thought about a park where she and David had once made love during a summer shower. She lay against the seat and smiled. “Sometimes, on long summer evenings, the air turns green and gold, especially after a storm. And rainbows. You should see the rainbows.” She talked, rambling, letting the memories pour out, speaking long after Boszla had stopped breathing. And when she was certain he was gone, she took her hand away from his and laid it gently against her breast, the hatchling swimming quietly beneath it, and started over, telling it about rainbows.Share