Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Birth Will Take Place on a Mutually Acceptable Research Vessel

When they inform you the birth will take place on a mutually acceptable research vessel, you nod and smile as if it was your choice all along. Because smiling and nodding is what you’ve been doing since the beginning. Because this is bigger than you. Because at least this way it feels like you’re being honored and feted instead of herded and controlled.

Mr. Kagawa, courteous and diplomatic by profession, does his best to make it all seem like a request. His patronizing voice makes your feet itch. You remind yourself that he is under a lot of pressure, and that the eyes of two very different governments are constantly fixed on the space between his shoulder blades . . . until a savage kick to your bladder drives every ounce of understanding right out of your head. Your belly is swollen and stretched beyond what has hitherto been considered an acceptable tolerance level. Your appetite comes and goes with maddening inconsistency. Your back hurts, your hips hurt, your lungs don’t work properly, and despite the best efforts of the vessel’s crew, you are hellishly uncomfortable. Worst of all is the heat. No amount of refrigerated air, pumped into your room both day and night, can compensate.

Kagawa’s alien counterpart, Mr. H, is direct and unsympathetic, like most of his species. He explains that delivering on Earth is unacceptable and irresponsible. This is a scientific first. Scientific firsts result in breakthroughs, and breakthroughs are for the benefit of the Whole, not just for the Individual who achieved them. In other words, you realize, maybe your baby will be human and maybe it won’t be, but you are damn sure going to have to share it.

H, of course, is not his real name, but the name he has chosen to use when in liaison with humans. His real name is not pronounceable, and anyway, Tharkans can choose as many names as they want once they have achieved Individual status. He chose “H,” he once explained, because of its admirable symmetry, and because he prefers the simplicity of a single character to the needless verbosity of a more traditional human name, like “Frank.”

Your mate assures you Mr. H does not know that Frank was your father’s name.

Your mate—not your spouse, because neither planet has any legal precedent for intra-species marriage—is clearly uncomfortable in H’s presence. This is because H is an Individual, a status your mate has not yet achieved. The problem is that your mate is being given a level of attention and importance not usually accorded to non-Individuals. Despite being of the same species, H would obviously prefer to ignore your mate entirely, except you have insisted that, as the father, your mate be involved in any and all decisions. Of course, no decisions are truly yours to make, which means Mr. Kagawa has to pretend deference, while Mr. H has to pretend tolerance, while you and your mate have to pretend as if you don’t notice that it is all a farce. It’s all so terribly awkward and unpleasant, and that’s without getting into the fact that both parties are frustrated with you for putting them in this predicament, and that you did so without authorization (reproduction is a right, you reminded your boss angrily) and that both planets contain their share of xenophobes, fundamentalists, and scandalmongers who aren’t afraid to venture their opinions. Loudly.

And of course, your mother . . .

• • • •

The birth will be Cesarean, you are told. Goddammit! Your outburst prompts shocked expressions from the medical staff, but what the hell? You always planned on giving birth naturally, always dreamed of it. You want to have the experience, and anyway, it’s the only thing that will make all those years of blood and cramping worth it. The doctors—both human and otherwise—are unimpressed. You are giving birth to an entirely new form of life, they explain. We don’t know how your body or the child’s body will respond. There are too many variables, too many unknowns. With a C-section, we can at least exert some control over the proceedings.

“At least someone will be able to,” you reply sarcastically. The human doctors roll their eyes. Typical pregnant woman, you know they’re thinking. Everything’s a battle.

The alien doctors make no response. Their sarcasm glands must be vestigial.

• • • •

The next several months are spent in misery. Tests, tests, and more tests. There’s never a moment when some lead isn’t attached to your body. I am not an experiment, you think. But you are.

Forms, forms, and more forms. Everyone is anxious to avoid liability. Both governments have to hammer out the legal implications. War was only narrowly averted after first contact several years ago, and no one wants blood spilled now over a technicality.

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. You speak with lawyers and diplomats, pontiffs and politicians, both human and Tharkan. Each with a say regarding the child inside you.

Questions, questions, and more questions. Reporters are not allowed onboard, but they circle the research vessel in tiny ships like gnats in space. Besides, you’ve heard the speculation. What will the creature look like? Will it be human or Tharkan? Will it have the ability to vocalize sounds, or will it rely on Tharkan image-projection to communicate? Can it reproduce, or will it be sterile? Soon you begin to feel less like an incubator for life and more like the carrier of a disgusting disease. Patient Zero. A terrible thing for a mother to feel about her baby, and suddenly you hate yourself more than any fundamentalist xenophobe ever could. I’m not meant to be a mother, I don’t know anything about being a mother, I’m going to be a horrible mother, oh God, what if they take the baby away from me and won’t let me be a mother at all?

Your mate projects a soothing image of pink walls and a cradle into your mind—neither of which are aspects of his culture. The gesture means a lot, but it doesn’t make you feel better. What if the baby communicates the same way he does? It’s hard enough to communicate with an adult. Some Tharkans, like Mr. H, have learned how to use their mouths to shape words, how to speak using sound like humans, but it’s uncommon. And no human has ever learned how to project mental images, not that you’re aware of. That’s why the early days of human-Thark interaction consisted of a lot of arm waving.

It took forever for the relationship you share with your mate to reach the level it has. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, you were part of the first wave of envoys sent to live and work with your Tharkan counterparts. For months, you worked side by side with your future mate. You didn’t realize you had developed an attachment to him until the day he announced he was being sent home a month early. You didn’t know he was in love with you until the day he projected the image of the two of you growing old together.

“I don’t know anything about being a mother,” you say to him.

Your mate points to your belly and shakes his head. After a few mental images, you think you know what he’s trying to say. The fetus doesn’t know anything about being a baby, either.

• • • •

There will be no baby shower. Friends and relatives are not allowed onboard (they represent an unacceptable vector for infection) and besides, what gifts could they even bring? Onesies? Little woolen animal slippers? None of it would fit. A high chair? The average Tharkan’s digestive process lasts almost four weeks, and it would outgrow any high chair in a few months anyway due to the rapid growth hormones that have Earth’s scientists so astonished and its military so uneasy. A vintage copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting? Maybe as a gag.

The pressure is finally getting to your handlers. Mr. Kagawa and Mr. H erupt into a fight over taxation right in front of you, clearly a spillover from some previously unfinished debate. Kagawa slips into his native tongue, while Mr. H starts projecting imagery all across the room involving human contortions of a slightly pornographic nature.

Kagawa storms out. After a few deep breaths, Mr. H turns and attempts to explain that the infant must not be named. Names are earned, not given. You have been expecting this. On Thark, everything a young Tharkan is or does must be for the overall population’s benefit. At first, human researchers thought this to be indicative of some quasi-socialist form of government. Tharkan authorities, on the other hand, claim it as being closer in spirit to the human concept of meritocracy . . . if the traditional notion of meritocracy were taken to the extreme. There are no class distinctions on Thark, no castes, no specific restrictions or laws based on gender or race. Anything can be earned on Thark, so by extension, everything must be. Infants that sleep soundest are fed first. Toddlers who follow instructions soonest are given the best toys. Those who listen are allowed to speak. Those who speak well may speak more. Only when a Tharkan has demonstrated great value to the Whole may he or she earn the status of Individual. Only Individuals may breed; only Individuals who show outstanding care for their child may breed again.

Only an Individual can choose a name.

“My baby has a right to a name,” you say fiercely.

“Rights, as you call them, are an arbitrary justification for allowing some actions over others,” Mr. H replies. “You may as well say that your offspring is owed a name. On Thark, we do not speak of what is owed. Only of what is earned.”

“We are not on Thark,” you say.

“Nor are we on Earth.”

This is the crux of the matter. You are of one species, your mate of another. What your offspring will be is undetermined. You reside neither on Earth nor on Thark, but amidst the trackless nether between the stars where laws end and philosophy dies. This, you realize, is why two separate worlds are so obsessed with your baby. Not out of scientific curiosity. Not for taxation purposes. Those are but skirmishes within the wider war. A new form of life is about to be born inside disputed country. Whom will that life make alliance with? Earth, or Thark? The winner gets a leg up on the other.

To them, your baby is not a person. It is territory, newly discovered. Each world in a race to plant their flag.

• • • •

The doctors show you a few images of your baby. There appear to be ten fingers and ten toes, which is encouraging. There is also the unmistakable shape of a pronounced sagittal crest. Doctor Pelzer, one of the few who still practice the ancient art of bedside manner, assures you that most hominids had sagittal crests at some point, on Earth as well as on Thark. Australopithecus, for example, and some of the great apes today. Tharkan and human morphology simply evolved along slightly different lines. Grateful for his attempt at conversation, you do not tell him that you’ve known this since you were an undergraduate.

Suddenly, the image of a finger running along the top of a young Tharkan head fills your mind. At first, you think the image is of your baby, until you realize that it is your mate when he was young, and that the finger belonged to his father. You look over and see your mate smiling at the memory. His eyes are turned inward. Lately, it seems as if you can sometimes “see” what he is thinking even when he doesn’t intend you to.

The image makes you remember your own father and how he used to tweak the tip of your nose when you were being silly. Even once, before prom, he—

Hey! You blink, look around, and rub the end of your nose. Your mate retracts his finger and smiles.

“Could you see what I was thinking?” you ask, startled.

“Yes,” he answers. It is another first in human/Tharkan interaction. You decide not to tell Mr. H.

Only later do you realize that your mate answered out loud.

• • • •

There is little to do now. You have exhausted all possible diversions and distractions. Most of your time is spent practicing communication with your mate. You show him how to use his lips and tongue to shape different sounds. He teaches you how to project your thoughts, how to sharpen the images you send, how to ensure they only go to the intended receiver.

Then, at night, when both of you are too exhausted to continue any longer, you stroke your belly and talk to the little person inside it. He’s a wonderful listener. You send him loving images and sensations. Bright sunlight. Wind in your hair. Warm sand between your toes. And out loud, you whisper, “I love you.”

• • • •

More tests, more scans. The date is set and fast approaching. Your human doctors want to pour something called erythromycin into the infant’s eyes to protect against bacterial infection. Their Tharkan equivalents object. Tharkan infants do not typically open their eyes for several days, and anyway, antibiotics in general are not appreciated in Tharkan culture. Either the immune system will fight off the infection, or it will not. Relying on medicine instead of one’s own body creates a culture of dependency and places stress on the Whole.

A Tharkan infant has never endured the ordeal of emerging from a human female’s womb, the human doctors argue.

A human female’s womb has never had the honor of bearing a Tharkan infant, is the reply.

You have your own feelings on the matter. It’s all down in your birth plan, which you sketched out in a notebook over a month ago. You gave a copy to doctors from both species, but no one has mentioned it since.

Prisoners don’t make plans, you realize, unless they involve digging a tunnel behind the latrine. Alas, even your trips to the lavatory are supervised.

Your spouse tries to apologize for his species’ dismissiveness. “Most of them haven’t worked side by side with humans for very long,” he explains. “You are simply not recognized as an Individual yet. You haven’t yet proven yourself of value—”

“Stop. Who is carrying this child?”

Your mate projects an image of you into your mind.

“Who is the one that’s given her entire body over to keeping this space-grubbing, energy-sucking parasite alive for the past six months?”

Same image.

“Who is the one who can’t breathe, can’t eat, is always in pain, always has to pee, and who has seen her entire shape—pleasantly symmetrical, Mr. H would have said, and I worked damn hard to keep it that way—morph into a very unpleasing ovoid?”

Your mate has been among humans long enough to take the hint.

“The next Tharkan to suggest I don’t have value will get smacked in the face,” you declare. And just to make it official, you put it in your birth plan.

• • • •

D-Day—the “D” stands for “Delivery,” and never was the term more appropriate—is tomorrow. The ship is full to bursting with envoys, lawyers, dignitaries, scientists, and a select number of correspondents. You are introduced to every single one. (For some reason, this is the part people thought you should be involved in.) A few are even famous. A new wave of nausea hits, one that has nothing to do with the creature inside you.

They move you to another room on the ship, bigger and with more forbidding equipment. High above is a massive glass window, with an observation lounge just behind. Tomorrow it will be full of worthies and their spouses, sipping drinks and sampling delicacies both human and Tharkan. Each side will endeavor not to make faces at the other’s cuisine. You, on the other hand, will be on a repulsor table, screaming. True, the doctors will numb your entire lower half, but maybe you plan on screaming anyway, just to make it as unpleasant for them as this whole ordeal has been for you.

Last night. You beg to be alone with your mate. No doctors, no nurses, no functionaries. No one but you and daddy-to-be. They grant you an hour.

You have been covertly practicing mental projection with your mate. You send him images of baby books, flowers, and your parents. In your dreams, you knitted a blanket for the baby the old-fashioned way. There was a midwife and a doula and a cradle nearby. The whole ordeal was messy, painful, and ultimately magical.

Your mate looks nervous. He projects an image of you in a wedding dress. Question marks patterned onto the sleeves. You tell him it doesn’t matter, and mean it. Your parents never married and they were together for twenty-four years. There is only one thing that can bind two people together, and it has nothing to do with words on paper.

Your mate projects another image. You, old and frail. Him, older and frailer. It is the same image you saw on the day you learned that a Tharkan could love a human. The day you learned a human could love a Tharkan back.

• • • •

So. Many. People!

They transfer you to a repulsor table that can move to different stations around the room as needed. The room itself is so full you doubt you’ll be floating anywhere. Tharkans and humans not just rubbing elbows, but practically linking them. Everyone talking at once, above you, around you, anywhere but to you. And the various machines are beeping at cross-purposes like some avant-garde music ensemble. But worst of all is when you catch sight of Mr. Kagawa, whispering in the ear of someone who looks suspiciously like a military officer. Your breath catches in your throat. If something goes wrong, will this lead to war? Don’t you have enough to worry about? You’re going to be a mother in a few minutes, and—my God, it’s just hitting you now, how is it just hitting you now?

Oh, something is definitely happening.

You feel your lower half going numb, and then suddenly you don’t have a lower half at all.

I’m not ready; it wasn’t even nine months . . .

Get this thing out of me!

For about thirty seconds, there is silence. Wonderful, blissful silence. The first you’ve enjoyed in months. Even the machinery seems to have gone quiet, as if listening. History is about to be made. You lift your head up, trying to see what’s going on, but they’ve put up a shield and it’s impossible to tell.

Suddenly, a human nurse makes a move to your left. Someone hands someone else a new instrument. A Tharkan doctor steps forward; a human doctor squeezes in front of him. Someone asks a question, and then two, three, four, five people are talking at once. The machinery is beeping again. You hear the word complications, and realize dimly that it is in response to a question posed over the intercom from the observation lounge above. More movement, more scuffling, and now Tharkans and humans are arguing with each other, and the beeping is louder than ever. The shield over your abdomen is still blocking your sight, and no matter how you try to sit up, you can’t see what’s going on. Your mate beside you is squeezing your hand so tight it makes you cry out in pain, and now the doctors are paying attention to you, calling for the anesthesiologist, why are the drugs not working? Another voice comes over the loud speaker, someone starts swearing, and you wonder for a brief moment if an international incident is about to start.

Now the beeping blurs into a single, continuous noise; a ringing in your ears. A cold, clammy sensation creeps up around you. Suddenly, it’s hard to lift your head up; your neck protests as if you are asking it to lift the weight of a small boulder. At the same time, your head itself feels light—so light that maybe it’s not attached to your body at all, but is in fact floating through an airlock and out into space.

“—too much blood,” you hear a doctor say. “—into shock.”

And when you hear that, you’ve simply had enough.

They took away your freedom; they took away your right to choose what was best for you and your baby. They took away your plans, your dreams. They took away everything that makes bringing another life into the universe personal, memorable, magical. True, they had reasons, but so did you. And now, at the end, at the finish line, your own body wants to turn against you?

I will not faint, you say to yourself. I will not go into shock. I won’t!

Then don’t, your Self says back.

Focus on something. Focus on your mate. No, focus on the baby. But how can you focus on the baby when you can’t see anything, when you don’t know anything? Oh, how you wish people would actually speak to you, include you, instead of treating you like a problem to solve, a diplomatic crisis to avert.

So include yourself, says your Self.

And you think, yes.

“Doctors!” you say out loud, and at the very same time—

Doctors! you say in your head, and project the image of every Tharkan present turning to you, the Queen, attending on your every word. Just like you’ve been practicing with your mate . . . well, not the Queen part.

The humans shut up. The Tharkans turn toward you, and you can see the shock on their faces, that a human has learned in a few months what took thousands of years of evolution back home.

Very slowly, very clearly, for the benefit of the entire room, you ask what is happening with your baby.

The lead doctors from both species try to answer at once. You hold up a hand. One at a time, please. And because Dr. Pelzer actually tried to talk to you once or twice, you motion him to go first.

He takes a deep breath through his mask, his shoulders rising and falling dramatically. “The baby . . . your baby . . . it’s not what any of us are used to. When the embryo implanted, it must have . . .” Another deep breath. “There’s a lot of bleeding. We can’t get it to stop. In fact, the more we try to remove the baby, the more bleeding occurs. It’s too . . . attached. It’s not just the umbilical cord. There is a kind of tissue connecting the baby to your uterine wall, and it’s proving very resilient.” He wipes his brow in the crook of his arm. “If resilient is the word.”

You feel a surge of fear, then suppress it. “What do we do?”

Dr. Pelzer looks at his colleagues, looks back at you. “Frankly, none of us here have ever seen this before. Our Tharkan friends assure me that it is usually harder to keep the fetus within the mother than it is to deliver it. And of course, this doesn’t occur in humans. It’s . . . new.”

New, you think, just like my baby. Neither Tharkan nor human, but something else entirely.

“We’ll keep trying,” Dr. Pelzer says, and bends over again.

All you can do is wait, blind behind the shield, paralyzed from the chest down. All you can do is wait, which is all you ever do, while the experts, the learned, and the powerful make decisions and have their say. Controlling everything down to the last detail. Leaving nothing to chance. Preparing for a new arrival into the universe after an eon of reruns.

But is that truly all you can do? you hear your Self ask. Is it truly all you have done?

All I’ve been doing, and all I can do, you tell yourself, is lie here.

That is not true, your Self responds. You may have spent most of the past few months in bed, but you did far more than just lay there.

Right, you think wryly. I created a birth plan. For all the good it did.

What else?

You close your eyes and remember. Tests, forms, one-sided conversations with doctors and officials. Blitzing through your collection of immersivision streams. Reading old books, scanning news reports regarding yourself and your baby. Teaching your mate how to speak vocally. Learning how to communicate using mental projection.

Yes! your Self exclaims. Pretty damned busy, I would say.

But what good does all that do?

A mental shrug fills your mind. If you did more than just wait before, your Self says, perhaps you can do more now.

You cycle through and dismiss your various options. Option 1: Lie there and faint. Not acceptable. Option 2: Try to get up. Not possible. Option 3: Try and help in some way. All right, but how? Your legs are useless. Your arms not much better. And because of the shield, you can’t even see. In fact, the only two things that seem to be functioning are your ears and your mouth. But the former is filled with the babble of doctors, and the latter, well . . . when has anyone listened to what you have to say?

When people don’t listen, says your Self, sometimes the only recourse is to find new people.

But who else is there? Your doctors don’t listen, the officials are even worse, your mate can do nothing, and the only other person in the world you’ve spoken with this whole time is the baby inside of you.

Your baby.

The words are already on your lips. You’ve been saying them for months. I love you. I love you. In spite of everything that’s happened, or maybe because of it. I can’t wait to see you. I’m your momma, do you know that? I love you.

Out of the corner of your eye, you see one of the doctors wipe his sleeve across his brow. Two nurses shoot each other meaningful looks.

There’s too much noise in the room, you realize, and your voice will never carry. And besides, what if the child is more Tharkan than human?

Your mate has been teaching you how to project images to specific people. How to reach out with your mind and feel for the recipient. Like recognizing someone by the sound of their footsteps or the smell of their hair. So you close your eyes and reach out, seeking your baby, invisible fingers creeping through the darkness, searching for something to grasp onto.

Then you find him—and he is most assuredly a him. You feel a rush of psychic feedback: pain, hunger . . . terror. All being projected along a very specific path, a path that leads directly to you. With a shock, you realize you never found him at all—he has been crying out for you. There is only one thing he wants, one thing he needs, one thing he cares about. He is unwitting and indifferent to everyone else in the room. All these Very Important Persons, all their opinions, plans, and machinations mean nothing to him. Birth plans and procedures, taxation disputes and ethical dilemmas . . . these philosophical sideshows are of little account. In a room full of egos, the child has his own Will, and it centers around one thing and one thing only: his mother.

In all this vast universe, you are his world entire.

Just like that, your doubts and frustrations vanish. Feelings of helplessness, unimportance, disenfranchisement . . . all of them cease to exist. Suddenly, you are the most powerful person here. No one in the room wields more influence than you.

Well have you earned it, your Self says.

You start projecting a stream of images and sensations. The feel of your bare skin against his. The pleasure of a full belly. The warmth of a swaddling blanket.

“Something is happening,” Dr. Pelzer announces.

“I’m here, my love,” you say aloud. Your favorite song, murmured into his ear. “I love you.” A cool finger on his cheek. “I can’t wait to see you.” The gentle movement of a rocking chair. “It’s time to come out now.” Nuzzling, nose to nose.

“My God,” says Dr. Pelzer. “It’s you. Keep talking. The tissue . . . it’s relaxing.”

You can feel him listening, feel him seeing, neither Tharkan nor human but a bit of both, something new, needing and wanting what both provide. “Let go, my love,” you say.

Momma is here.

A shrill cry pierces the air. The unmistakable sensation of want fills your mind.

“We have him!” says Dr. Pelzer. “By God, by God, we have him. Here, Dad, do you want to cut the cord?”

And your mate comes forward, finally with a name of his own.

• • • •

They take him and wash him before handing him to Dad, who in turn gives him to you. The others in the room all cluster around, staring down at your Son. An unspoken question hangs in the air: Human, or Tharkan?

You look at him, and Dad looks, too. Hid body is big and heavy. Ten fingers and ten toes. A pronounced sagittal crest. Two deep brown eyes ringed with bright green irises. Lots and lots of teeth, incisors particularly. Breastfeeding is going to be a bitch, but you look forward to it all the same.

“He looks like you,” you both say at once.

• • • •

Now the doctors are shaking hands, and even Mr. Kagawa and Mr. H have seemed to make peace. Up in the observation room, the VIPs are talking and pointing or placing calls. You stare up at them with dwindling interest. Their time has passed. The weight of your Son nestling against your breasts draws your attention back downward.

“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” you ask him.

You inform the room that it is your intention to feed your Son now, and that they are welcome to come and visit later at a mutually acceptable time that will be entirely of your own choosing. You do your very best to make it at least seem like a request.

A few gapes, a half-mumbled protest that there are tests to be done, experiments to be tried, measurements to be taken. This is a Scientific First, after all, and—

“No,” a voice says. You look over, eyes widening. It is Mr. H. “This is not a ‘First.’ This is her Son.”

• • • •

Slowly, the room clears. The observation lounge stands empty. One of the nurses presses a few buttons and the repulsor-table begins to move.

An admirable symmetry, says your Self. And then you realize that Mr. H is still there, has been there the whole time, standing as close as the doctors would allow throughout the entire procedure.

“Did you . . . was it . . .” The words won’t come. “Why?”

Mr. H emanates a mental shrug. It feels oddly familiar. “A mother has the right to raise her baby.”

“But I thought you didn’t believe in rights,” you say. “They’re just arbitrary justifications, isn’t that what you said?”

He closes his eyes and projects a band of golden light connecting you and your Son.

“There is nothing,” he says, “arbitrary about that.”

With a nod to your mate, he leaves the room. And at last there is only you, your mate, and your Son, floating down the hall, heading towards home. It’s as if the ship is devoid of other life. As if all those diplomats and dignitaries, lawyers and legislators never existed. As if none of that drang and dross ever mattered.

Maybe, you think, it never did.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

Matthew Bailey

Matthew Bailey

Matthew Bailey hails from Salt Lake City, Utah, having also spent time in California and Alaska. An aspiring fiction writer by spiritual calling and a professional ghostwriter by trade, Matt devotes his free time to huffing and puffing on several different instruments, the saxophone first and foremost. He is currently working on adding a fifth instrument, the tin whistle, to his repertoire. When not battling a severe case of B.A.D. (Book Acquisition Disorder), Matt also loves romping in the Wasatch Mountains with his wife and three sons. Jazz music, history, and sports are his other obsessions. He writes about Brazilian soccer at