The sky is the color of an old blue egg bleached in the sun. We walk along the beach the same way the clouds are going.
He is squeezing my hand with the rhythm of a heartbeat. I wonder if he knows he’s doing it. It’s a light sort of question, a net cast over the deeper ones below. I realize I’m squeezing back, continuously. No rhythm. Flatline.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and there’s a catch in his voice.
I don’t know if he’s speaking to me or to the thing inside me that they have implanted. That thing inside me, growing, only half alive.
I don’t know who he’s apologizing to, but I answer for both of us.
“I’m not,” I say, and there’s no hesitation in my reply. We made a decision. We knew what it meant.
Already it is dark enough for our smallest moon, green and cracked, to take form in the sky.
This is how you do it. You take your surrogate and in the third trimester you change the meds. You have been drugging her already, drugging her and testing her, from well before week zero.
In the third trimester you change the meds. Before it was just three or four or five pills. Ordinary things. A surrogate will swallow what she’s told.
But in the third trimester there is the drink, which is a slang term for cryoprotectants, which is a pretty way of saying antifreeze, damn near magic if you look at the crystallography, the way ice does not begin to form, the way chilled blood goes on and on in waves. She begins to swallow it by the cupful.
The nursery is small and neat. He carved the crib by hand. I have always loved his hands, the way they turn and turn a knife around the grain in wood, the way they plant flowers and pick weeds. But I love them most, and secretly, for the way they are perfectly still in repose.
If it were on command they’d have made him a surgeon, but his fingertips buzz like dragonflies when he reaches for something important, and so he is a farmer instead.
I remember the buzz in his fingertips the first time he held my hand, the way the honeysuckle smelled as we fell, laughing, to the grass. I think about the honeysuckle, which is native, not a transplant; I think about how Earth gave us her cast-off names. I think about the Earth’s gifts.
The honeysuckle may not be the same as on Earth, but there is the same meaning to its smell and I kissed him under a thick quilt of summer. I have been ready for a child with this man for a long time.
There is a pattern on the wall of the nursery cast by the shadows of the drapes, curling and uncurling gently. I catch my fingers in the drapes and pull; the shadows stretch themselves taut and they stay, anchored for as long as I can hold them. The sunlight comes in somehow anyway. That’s good. A baby shouldn’t be in the dark.
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This is when the vomiting starts. And there are the meds for that, too, but she vomits anyway. You are used to reassuring them with careful half-truths. “It’s not that bad,” as though it were anything other than exactly as bad as it is. You will keep saying it those times that something goes wrong, when she cannot keep the cups down at all, when they switch to from oral administration to amnioinjection, as sometimes they must strap her down and wheel her away to cut it out of her, your lying face reflected in her sweat-stained brow, screams just beginning to unhinge her jaw–but this is fairly rare.
Once she can keep the cups down the dose begins to grow. She passes it, most of it, producing gloriously unfreezable runny stool, stool you could use to lube tank tracks on Europa, and so she must keep drinking it, getting it into her system, into the amniotic sac, through the placenta.
I was eight when my brother came to us. My parents swept and tidied and made things baby-safe again, stoppering outlets and moving vitamin caps to the high shelves.
I remember how carefully we dressed, the formal way that my father held open the car door for my mother. The shuttle sitting on the long thin strip of asphalt, fat and sleek like a bird full of young, a fish full of spores.
I remember how the grass had been burned away around the runway, the men and women in clean blue scrubs laboring about it, grass smoke curling between their legs. How the light from its metal womb was green like the sea.
What you do is ten days before the due date you take her into the delivery room. Preemies die in space, but ten days before is viable.
It is cold in there, cold enough that you take to slipping hand-warmers inside your double-thick latex gloves, which is against the rules, but fuck itand by the time you arrive she is shivering, her fingers and toes bluing alarmingly and the blood under your knife is colder than blood should be.
My brother dreamed himself to death.
Earth is a very long way away, and the sleep is deep and dark. We bring them down into the world on a long, thin path of flame, and most of them wake. But some do not; they remain somewhere in between the stars, dreaming forever of the smooth arcs that link world to world, the way it feels to be frozen and falling together, the passage of time beyond time.
Now is when you need to move quickly.
We made a decision. We knew what it meant.
Here is the shape of the amniotic sac, the way the caul wraps itself around the infant. Here are your hands, spreading apart the muscle and the membranes, pressing and pulling. Do not push; the sac must remain intact.
This is you inside her. She is open, now, like an empty box, like a forgotten gift. The cryopod is alongside the operating table, the tanks of oxygenated cryprotected saline beneath, chiller running already, chattering like your teeth. You lift the infant still in its membrane into the pod. The orderlies murmur and the pod’s mouth begins to fill with freezing spit. One last incision, long and wide like a smile, and it’s done, the spit is rising, the mouth is shut, the pod fills to the last inch of clear plastic. Already it is cold enough for frostbite, nipping at your fingertips; the baby’s face is lilac, still.
It happened in my fourth month. My husband was not with me.
I was walking in the hospital’s garden past the wall where the honeysuckle climbs and there was a knot between my hips. Out of nowhere. I sat down on the path suddenly, woozily–the drugs had given my fingertips and skull the texture of felt–and blood pooled between my legs.
The nurses rushed me to the OR and stripped me in a dream of hands. I do not know when they gave up on trying to save it. Their voices were the same throughout, the susurration of wind through tall grass.
All that is left are the leavings. The orderlies wheel the cold cart away, slipping it off somewhere, into the river that leads to the Thread and to space. You sew up your surrogate and pat her hand, tell her she did well and that you’re proud of her, moving your tongue like a scalpel, carving out familiar patterns. Tomorrow you will look in on her, and begin to count the days until she can do once more. But you are done for tonight.
It never lives. This is what she told us, my husband and I, sitting in the hospital office.
“I wish it were otherwise. It never lives. But you live. And the next ship has your child on it–has your new baby on it already, just waiting for you to make the brave choice, the generous choice, to give some months of your strength and hope to science, to medicine. To the hope of natural births on this planet. Already we are better at it–the average pregnancy lasts a whole three to six months, now!”
“That’s how it is,” she said. “I hope you make the good choice.”
Sitting in the office in the hospital, in our two chairs, hand in hand, we did not discuss it. We knew what we wanted, and we made a decision.
Some nights you go out to see the Thread and watch the bubbles rise. Not on the nights after you operate; on those nights you take an unwise dose of kavalactones, the only thing left that gives you dreamless sleep. And you sleep.
Babies come from Earth. I learned this in my childhood, from parents and picturebooks. I do not know how I imagined Earth in those days. I have memories of rows of harvest infants, like lettuce heads. Crowded but comfortable.
Just before my brother came, my mother explained to me about the List. We had to wait our turn, she said. They did not tell me where we were on the List. They did not tell me that those high on the List are given survivors and the low receive only the dead.
I was sixteen, a month before my sister came, and I found my father crying and he explained to me how babies are made and bought. How long it had taken to learn that you could not reproduce under our sun.
He told me: “If you volunteer to conceive a child–a fetus, a thing–if you let them test treatments on you, even though you know the thing in your belly won’t survive, they move you up on the List. It’s the only way to get ahead.”
He said my mother had volunteered, had spent the month in the Maternity Ward. A Maternity Ward from which no child had ever emerged alive. That thanks to her sacrifice, I would get a live sister, where I had gotten a dead brother.
That evening I walked out under heavens like a bowl of pure water. You can see the Earth’s star on a clear night from my childhood home, but I did not look up. I was feeling the grass and soil beneath my toes, and I was wondering, the way a girl wonders, just what I would give to be a mother. Now I know.
We are a young couple. The List is long, and there is only one way to get ahead. We made a decision.
We knew what it meant.
At night the Thread is lit a soft, crisp white, nothing gaudy, and it goes on and up forever. Sometimes you must wait a full fifteen minutes to see the next bubble rise.
This is how you do it. When you see the bubbles you must let the idea of their cargo, the frozen infant faces, slide softly across the surface of your mind. You must not think of girls and boys taking first steps under distant suns, and you must not think of men and women growing tall in a strange land, wondering what it sounds like when their lips form the words “mother,” “father.” You must not think of how far away the stars are, trying to fit the scale of space inside your skull, you must not think of your own mother, the way she smiles at you, the way her nose is your nose and your hands are your father’s hands, you must not wish for a change in the order of things–
This is how you do your job.
I am standing in the field now, wearing my good dress, waiting for the stork. Unbidden, my hand rides up over my collarbone. His hand joins me, envelops mine. Soon there will be a twinkle above us, and here I am, looking into a clear blue sky.
I am standing in the field with my husband, waiting for our child to fall from above, waiting–
Louis Evans is a speculative fiction author. He writes sci-fi and fantasy, along with essay nonfiction about politics, nerd culture, and especially their intersection. His fiction has appeared in Analog SF&F, Interzone, Escape Pod, and loads more places that you can read about in the “Fiction” tab. In his copious free time, he’s also a comedy writer, literary performer, and event producer, who’s contributed to BAHFest West, Shipwreck SF, and Cliterary Salon. Louis Evans is a member of SFWA and of the plague-delayed Clarion West class of 2020. He was born and raised in Manhattan and now resides in Brooklyn. It’s the little differences.