Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Artwork by Nate Pinnock
    by Rachel Ann Dryden

The wagon rumbled and crunched over the scupp shells in the sand. Each time Ann and Edward felt one of them crack under the wheels they shuddered. The hatching could begin at any time.

The two of them sat silent and tense on the hard wagon bench, their simple black and white clothing a sharp contrast to the dun of the beach dunes and the purple shells thrusting up through the sand all around them. Ann clutched her swollen belly protectively, though she knew she would not be able to save the babe within if the scupps hatched before the wagon reached the shelter of the cliff caves.

"We left too late," Edward said. It had become a litany of sorts.

"We'll make it," Ann replied, because they had to try.

Edward whipped the scaled backs of the placid undru pulling the wagon. Ann could have told him it would do no good; the beasts were doing the best they could already. He glared at Ann's belly before quickly looking away. His look cut Ann to the core. He's wishing I wasn't here with him, slowing him down. He wishes we had never tried to have this child.

"And if the babe comes early?" He was taking out his helplessness on her.

"I'm still glad we're having a child, Edward."

"I don't think you will be after we've been eaten alive by thousands of flying crab-things, shooting out of all of these scupp shells. Especially if we might not have been eaten if you hadn't slowed us down with a premature labor."

"I'm not going to go into labor. Edward, why are you being so hateful?" If I'd known you were like this when I met you, you wouldn't be the father of my baby.

"That should be obvious to the whole world, Ann. We're doomed out here, and we're alone, and if you weren't pregnant none of this would be happening." His arms gestured to include the horizon. Ann thought that he was pushing things a bit. The hatching would happen whether she was pregnant or not.

"May I remind you that I didn't get pregnant all by myself?" She was getting angry at his selfishness. "And that the main reason we came to Respite was so that we could have freedoms denied to us on Earth - such as having children? That used to matter to you, Edward."

"Freedom is no use if you're dead."

"I'd rather die free than live in the kind of bondage we were under on Earth. I'm still glad I came."

"The scupps are glad too. You'll be a nice meal for them, I'm sure." His lips tightened into a thin line. He didn't look at her. She stared at him, in shock that he could be so uncaring. This place was changing him. And not for the better.

"That was completely uncalled for. You don't have to take your fear out on me."

"So now I'm a coward? I'd like to see the man who wouldn't be afraid in my shoes."

"That wasn't my point, Edward. I'm frightened as well. But tearing each other up is not going to solve anything, or help us survive this. I haven't given up yet. But I need you to not give up either."

Edward said nothing more, but his lips were still tight and he began to whip the undru again. Normally Ann would defend the animals, but in this case it was either her or them, and she was tired of Edward taking it out on her. Let the undru have their turn. They had thick scales after all. And whatever Edward might do to their bodies, their hearts could not be touched by him. If only humans could protect themselves so well.

For a long time the two sat silently on the bench, not looking at each other. Ann wanted to just close her eyes. Every direction she could see only dismayed her more. Under them, ahead and behind, there was nothing to look at but the endless purple shells sticking out of the sand. To their right, eastward, the sand eventually changed to brown hills covered with drooping, dying grass. To the west lay only the sea, salty and warm, harboring its own menaces. Overhead the sun shone harshly down from a wheat-colored sky, refusing to hide any of the ugliness around them.

Ann missed their little farm. It hadn't been much, but to her it was the whole world. A few acres tilled and planted, a small, struggling crop of grain, some chickens. They hadn't even had a real house; they lived out of the back of the wagon, and put a canvas cover on it during storms. It had been adequate, or so they thought. Houses and other niceties would have to wait until there was enough food to fill their mouths and that of the offspring soon to come. If any survived.

When the colonists had left Earth, all they knew about their future home was that it was compatible with Earth's atmosphere and climatic conditions. It had only been a number on a map of stars. They had been granted one small, aging starship with which to limp through the light years until they reached their home. The colonists had felt grateful to get it, and did not complain. The resources aboard the craft had been barely enough to support the lives of the hundred people on it, even in stasis, but they had managed to reach their destination. As a symbol of their new home, each of the colonists had chosen new names for themselves: plain, old-fashioned names. Like the Quakers or the Puritans on Earth. It was a way to return to simpler times. The landing was less than a year ago, but there were perhaps twenty women already pregnant. Ann was the farthest along.

What a privilege to conceive and bear children when she wanted, with whom she wanted. To live a simple life, free of mindless machines and the hive mind of an omnipotent government. Though the scupps were quite a trade-off to make.

As if reading her thoughts, the babe within her somersaulted. Ann gasped and clutched her stomach, then laughed. The sensation was so odd. No matter how often she felt it, she never got tired of the reminder that there was life within her womb.

Edward glared at her and said, "How can you laugh at a time like this? We could die, Ann. I thought you realized that."

Ann sobered a bit, but couldn't help saying, "Edward, if there is ever a day in my life in which I cannot laugh, that is the day I will die."

He gave her a look which clearly expressed, you're crazy, this place is getting to you, but he didn't reprimand her again.

Artwork by Nate Pinnock

The wagon jerked, much harder than usual, and Ann grabbed Edward's arm for balance. Then the wagon was still. The undru strained, trying to pull the cart along, but it wouldn't budge. Edward cursed under his breath and hopped off the bench, looking at the wheel. It had cracked on a sharp stone sticking out of the sand. The axle was broken. There was no way to fix it.

"We aren't going to make it," Edward said. He was staring at the broken axle. Finally, he sat down and began to weep. Huge, racking sobs, tearing through his body. Ann had never seen Edward express so much emotion, and was a bit shocked. Carefully she climbed down from the high wagon bench and joined him. She put her arms around him and said nothing for a time; just held him. Ann's eyes were still dry, which surprised her. If anyone had told her even a year ago that she would one day be cradling her husband, her strong man, in her arms while he sobbed his heart out to her and she remained unaffected, she would have laughed in their face. Yet the truth was undeniable. She was stronger than Edward.

She realized that she had always been stronger than him, but had never before admitted it, even to herself. Instead she had borne his weaknesses alongside her own strength, defending him, excusing him. What must the other colonists have thought of me? Knowing that I was married to a weakling, yet unable to see it? Perhaps that was why Edward had been so eager to establish their farm so far away from everyone else. Alone with her, he could be with the one person who did not despise him. But I do despise him. Now, when it is too late. Our fate is already sealed, and by my hand as much as his. Yet I must go on. I must be strong, for both of us.

After she felt he had had enough time to get himself together, she said, "Come on, Edward. We need to go."

"Go where? How? There's nowhere to go. We'll never make it."

"Edward, stop it. You're giving up. We still have the undru. And I can walk if I have to. The cliffs can't be too far off. Maybe a day's walk or so. We'll make it."

Edward just put his head in his hands in reply. Ann sighed, then got to her feet and went over to unhitch the placid, patient undru. They were native to Respite, and had taken the place of Earth oxen, which had not thrived on this planet. They were large, reptilian beasts with short stubby tails and a broad bony plate across their head. They looked more like dinosaurs than anything else, but they were quite gentle and easily tamed. They had stiff overlapping scales, like chain mail, covering most of their body, a natural protection from the claws and jaws of the myriad tiny scupp hatchlings. When the hatching took place, the undru would squat down and curl into themselves, exposing their scaly backs and nothing else to the onslaught. At least, Ann assumed that would happen; she had seen the undru, when frightened, do that in the past. The colonists had not yet been on Respite long enough to really know what to expect of many of the animals on it.

Only one man had seen a hatching and survived; he had managed to find shelter in a hole in the ground, blocking it from the inside with rocks as the scupps swarmed all around it. The scupps were purple buzzing flying discs the size of Earth locusts, that had lots of tiny black claws and a mouth like a crab, except that crabs didn't fly and eat people. The man, Daniel, had returned to the cliff caves that were the landing base of the colonists and told his frightening tale. He had been exploring the coast in an area where none of the colonists had yet been, when one morning he noticed a few purple spots in the sand. He examined a few, and found that they were all large shells, larger than a man's head, buried in the sand, and burrowing to the surface. Over the next few days, the shells stuck farther and farther out of the sand until they were completely exposed on the surface. There were now thousands of them. Then, they hatched open, revealing the swarming death within that shot towards the sky in a cloud.

He was lucky to survive, in his hole in the ground. The others who had gone with him had not been so lucky. Only their bones remained to show they had ever existed.

Word was sent to all the outlying farms, to watch for the scupp shells and stay away from the coasts, and to return to the cliffs as soon as possible, since no one knew how widespread the hatching would be, or how many more times it would happen that season. For some reason, the scupps seemed to stay out of caves during the one hatching that Daniel witnessed. The theory was that because the caves were bare rock there was nowhere for the scupps to burrow to hibernate and transform, before again rising to the surface. The shells could be cracked with a hard blow, but there were too many for that to be effective. The colonists in the cliffs were experimenting with ways to kill the scupps before the next hatching, but so far had been unable to find anything that worked.

Ann and Edward had received the warning, but Edward insisted that they were far enough inland that they were not in immediate danger. Besides, the grain would be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks. They were probably okay to wait until their crop was ready to go back to the cliff caves. Ann had reminded Edward that they had to cut back to the coast to reach the caves; the nearest inland route was many miles longer and impassible for the wagon; a road had not yet been cleared through the thick vegetation. Edward had been confident that they could make it, though, so they had stayed. And I stayed with him. I could have left; could have made him leave. But I didn't. I thought he was the strong one then.

Yesterday morning Ann had found a purple spot on the ground near their well. Edward had examined it and their worst fears were realized; it was a scupp shell, barely peeking through the earth. Immediately they threw their few belongings together and loaded the wagon, catching the chickens as fast as they could. They had been traveling steadily ever since, even through the night. They had only stopped for brief intervals to rest and water the undru. As they traveled, the shells became more and more plentiful. Now, as Ann looked about her, most of the shells were at least three quarters of the way through the sand. How much longer did they have? Would it be long enough?

She tied their water skins and some of their blankets on the back of one of the undru, to serve as a sort of saddle. Undru weren't ordinarily ridden by humans; their backs were a bit too broad and their scales were intensely uncomfortable to sit on. Ann felt that in this instance she had no choice. She couldn't walk far or fast enough to beat the hatching, and needed to ride.

"Edward, I need you to help me mount." During Ann's exertions, Edward hadn't gotten up. He simply sat, staring at a scupp shell near his feet. Now he rose wordlessly and helped Ann clamber up the back of the undru. When she was sitting unsteadily on the beast, he stopped moving again. "Let's go, Edward." He seemed drained; the anger was gone, but so was his will to live, apparently. Why wouldn't he fight?

"Edward, I don't want to leave you behind. You are my husband."

"Some husband I've been to you."

"We don't have time for this right now. We've got to get going. If you aren't going to help yourself, help your child. The baby needs you to not give up."

"It won't matter whether I give up or not. The end result is the same."

"It will be the same if you don't get moving. Help me, Edward."

He said nothing, but his lips were once more in that tight line she had come to hate. He turned away. Ann finally let herself get angry. "All right. Stay here then. I'm taking the undru. No reason for innocent creatures to die along with you. Goodbye." And if the child is a boy, I'm not going to name him Edward.

She tugged on the reins of the undru she was riding, and it started plodding northwards again, its companion rumbling forward with them. They were still yoked together. She had thought about leaving one behind for Edward, but the yoke was too heavy for her and he hadn't seemed to care enough to take it off himself.

"Wait. I'm coming." Edward ran up beside the undru.

Ann was relieved. She really hadn't wanted to leave him behind.

Now that they were moving again, Edward seemed to be more like his old self. He had always preferred action to sitting still. That was probably why he had become a colonist in the first place; to avoid stagnation.

She looked down into his face, wondering how he was feeling. He avoided meeting her gaze. He knows that I'm the stronger one, and he can't deal with that. Has he always known that?

The afternoon passed very slowly. There wasn't anything to do but look at their doom drawing near. No time to stop and cook a meal, so there wasn't anything to eat. The undru was very uncomfortable to ride, and at intervals Ann had to dismount and walk beside Edward. Then she would get out of breath and start to feel dizzy, and Edward would help her remount. Ann had been ill much of the pregnancy, and traveling so near to her time wasn't helping matters at all. Ann wanted so desperately to just give up and lie in the sand, regardless of the consequences.

But I can't do that. Not when I have a child who is relying on me.

In the evening, the pain started.

Ann didn't notice at first because she hurt all over anyway, but by full dark she could not longer put it out of her mind: her back was aching, deeply, and she was starting to feel contractions. Edward had been right. The babe would come early. She was afraid to tell Edward about it though, for fear of his reaction. He had been so strange lately.

I don't know if I can trust him to stay sane long enough to reach the cliffs anyway, much less if I tell him that his prediction came true. So with each contraction I'll hold my breath and try not to show him my pain.

The hours continued to pass with agonizing slowness, Ann's rhythmic pain the only thing marking the passage of time. At one point, she didn't know when, she felt her waters stream down her leg and soak the blankets on the undru's back. Ann had stopped thinking clearly a while before that. She hadn't slept in two days now, and with labor on top of her exhaustion, there wasn't much room in her mind for thoughts. She clutched the bony plate on the undru's neck to keep her balance, and half dozed even through the pain.

Edward seemed oblivious to what she was suffering. He kept his head down, looking at the shells in the dim starlight, walking beside the undru.

At long last, the sun rose over the ocean. It brought a welcome sight: the cliffs were ahead. Ann could even make out the cave openings, very small. Safety was within reach. We're going to make it.

Then she looked down at the ground. The shells were completely out of the sand now, and lay like fat upright fans on the ground, with a seam showing at the top of each one. The seams hadn't been visible yesterday. That meant the hatching was soon, very soon.

"Edward?" The sound was faint coming from Ann's throat. Her pain was suddenly very strong. She felt herself sliding off the back of the undru. Edward caught her and eased her to the ground. Ann clutched her belly and writhed, screaming. The contractions were unbearable, a continuous unrelenting agony. My mind is going to fracture. I can't do this. Edward I can't do this. Help me.

She wasn't speaking out loud, wasn't even aware that she wasn't. She dimly heard Edward, from a long way away, say, "Ann. Ann, listen to me. The baby is coming. I'll help you with the baby, Ann. Can you hear me?" Yes. Edward. I hear you. But the words stuck in her throat as another contraction, the strongest of all, came. She could feel her child being born.

In a short time, or maybe a long time, Ann didn't know, she was holding her bloody child in her arms, with Edward leaning over her. "It's a boy, Ann," he said. That part she heard. The baby cried, weakly. Then she heard something else. The undru were moaning.

The hatching was beginning.

Only a few feet away, Ann saw a scupp shell begin to rock back and forth. Everywhere the shells were moving. Edward jumped to his feet in terror.

"Oh god, Ann. We're too late. It's starting."

The undru began to lower themselves onto their knees, their heads pulling in towards their chests.

"Edward. Edward, listen." His eyes were wild and she didn't know if she had the strength to make him hear her. "The undru."

"What about the undru? They'll survive without my help. We're the ones who will die, Ann. We didn't make it, after all. I was right!" He started laughing. It was not a sane sound.

"Edward. Take the baby. Hide inside the undru." She pulled weakly at the knife on her belt.

Edward had one too. At last he understood what she meant.

There was a moment that seemed to last an eternity in which Edward was obviously torn between making a run for the caves - so near! - leaving her and the baby to their fate, or staying to help his family, his flesh and blood. Ann held her breath and simply stared into his eyes, willing him to be a man, to do the right thing. Then he blinked and looked away from her, his decision made.

He whipped out his own knife and turned to the nearest of the two beasts. The undru were hooting and moaning, and trying to crunch into protective balls. The yoke was preventing them from completing their crouches. Edward was still able to get to the softer underbelly of the near one. Thank god his knife was sharpened recently. A large red gash appeared where Edward slashed at the animal. He dug his hands into the side of the undru, ignoring its bellows and struggles to get away from him. He pulled out handfuls of steaming innards, gagging and coughing at the stench and the sight of the animal's viscera, then turned to Ann. As he picked her and the baby up, the shells opened, disgorging their contents in a violent spew towards the sun. He ran with her to the bleeding carcass, and began to pull open the tough side of the creature, to make a space for her. She tried to get him to take the baby and save himself, but he either didn't understand her or chose to ignore her, continuing to open the belly of the undru.

All at once, the sky darkened with teeming untold numbers of flying discs. They began to land on Ann, on Edward, on everything. As soon as one landed the disc sprouted claws, and a mouth. Then it began to feed on any creature in its path. The bites were excruciating and Ann found herself writhing around in an attempt to beat them off her body and that of her son. They came off easily, but there were so many of them that she would be unable to hold them off for long.

Edward shoved Ann and the baby into the body of the animal. He barely got them in, Ann shielding her son with her body and trying to make sure the baby had air, before turning to the other undru, to slash its belly open and make room for himself. But he was too late. The undru had managed to complete its crouch, and now its scales were a defense against Edward's knife, as much as from the scupps.

He was forced to turn back to the first undru and try to squeeze himself into the opening that was already a tight fit for Ann. He couldn't get completely inside. The scupps began to feed on Edward's unprotected back. She desperately tried to make room for him, but he couldn't come any farther.

Edward bit his lips, but couldn't keep from screaming with the pain. He forced his body to remain still, to block the opening, protecting Ann and the baby. He could have run, but he didn't. Ann looked into his eyes. He hadn't been a coward after all, at the end, when it mattered. She should be the one dying, the one protecting him. She was the strong one. But she couldn't help feeling glad that she would live, despite her guilt at watching Edward die in her place.

"I love you, Edward." She had said it before. She realized now that she meant it.

"Love. You. Ann." The words were bitten out through the pain. Then one of the scupps burrowed into Edward's spine, and he suddenly went limp. His body blocked the scupps from coming further into the undru's carcass and feeding on Ann as well, but that wouldn't hold them for long. She had to think, to be strong still. Edward's death was not enough.

Ann sobbed inside the undru, holding her son, looking at her husband, his now dead eyes staring unblinkingly back at her. She forced herself to burrow deeper into the beast, retching with the stench and hot closeness and blood. She was up behind the ribcage now, and she pressed against the lungs and heart of the beast. She found the windpipe and tore it free, letting a bit more air into the cramped space. The scupps were eating behind her, she could hear them everywhere.

Nearly blinded by the darkness and the gore, her sense of hearing was heightened as never before. As she listened, the sound changed. The scupps were doing something different now. They were scraping against each other, shell on shell, rhythmically, hypnotically. The sounds of chewing stopped, changed to an odd vibrating hiss. The sound was frightening, but not as menacing as the chewing. She slid back down to Edward's body, or what was left of it, and peered out.

The scupps were changing. The little discs were now completely unfurled, and were more oblong than round, one side rough and shell-like, the other raw and unprotected. I must remember this and tell the others. When they are like this we can find a way to defeat them. As she watched, the scupps rubbed over and under each other, hissing, until two of them rubbed raw sides over each other and stopped, fastened together, with only the rough outsides exposed. Then others paired off, and more, until the ground was covered with very small versions of the large scupp shells, with only seams to show that what had once been two creatures was now one.

The scupp shells burrowed back into the earth, hiding themselves once more from view, as the cycle began anew.

Ann crawled carefully from the body of the undru. Its hide had protected her, but Edward had saved her. He was little more than a skeleton now, though his face had largely escaped the predations. He looked at peace to Ann. In fact, he looked strong.

She looked up at the cliff caves, and saw people pouring out of them, running to meet her, now that the scupps were no longer a threat. She sat, grateful that her journey was at an end, nursing her son, waiting for them to come. The thought that life had come from so much death was soothing to her, and she rocked her son in her arms and crooned to him as she nursed.

Nathaniel was the first of the people to reach her.

"My god. What happened to Edward? How did you make it? We couldn't quite see what was happening here. I wish we could have come to help you. We had no way to get past the scupps."

He knelt beside her, concern on his face. The others examined the body of her husband, and that of the undru that had to die for her to live. The other undru was still alive, and trying to get up out of the crouch but was hampered by the yoke and the dead weight of its companion. Two of the men removed the yoke and helped the undru to its feet, then loaded Edward's body carefully onto it, to take back to the cliffs for burial.

"Edward was very brave. In the end, when it mattered. He might have made it, if only he'd left me behind and run for it. But he stayed. He was strong for me. I was too weak. I wouldn't have survived on my own."

The others exchanged glances at this, probably wondering how to compare this new description of Edward with the way they had previously viewed him. Let them never know how he was during the journey. I will never shame his memory. His sacrifice is enough, his penance completed.

"We used the undru hide as protection. In future, we should all have hides with us to use as a shield, so we're never caught like that again. I saw how the scupps mate. They're vulnerable and soft on one side, just before they join together into new scupp shells. We can use that to our advantage. This planet can still be a good home for us, for our children."

"This is my son," she held him up for everyone to see. The first child born on Respite. The hope of the future. The source of her strength. "His name is Edward."

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