By Marguerite Reed
14 November 2005
Part 1 of 2
Yamilah Reis held her breath. Her orbital bones ached from pressing against the oculars; in microgravity she was still prone to overcompensate. The ovum beneath the microscope looked like a blueberry gummy candy, the micropipettes turquoise needles. Tongue between her teeth, she pressed the tip of the pipette into the egg's interior and implanted the sperm cell. Only then did she allow her lungs to relax.
"Gotcha," she said.
"They registered at FAO Schwarz yet?" Carliss asked.
Yamilah withdrew the pipette from the membrane, watching as the tiny wound closed. "If these were my kids, I'd register at the nearest mortuary."
The biohazard bag floated by her knee. She pushed the pipettes in and zipped it shut. The ovoid membrane she tagged and slid into its niche on the light table, in line with its nineteen pig siblings, each monitored by digicam. "Twenty more to go, and I don't have to run an experiment to tell you they'll turn out nonviable."
"No good for pork chops, huh?"
"Oh, no food talk—" She swallowed hard against insidious nausea. "God, what I wouldn't give to be able to lean back on something." Or a massage. If she approached Milkovic, the acerbic flight engineer, with the right mix of blasé wit, she might get a thirty-second back rub. Her husband Fernao, on the other hand, would have spent half an hour and moved on to her feet, her calves. . . . And then her daughters would gallop in and pile on the bed, all shrieks and hard little heels.
"In space, no one can see you slouch," Carliss intoned.
Yamilah smiled. Only Dantrell Carliss, of the other astronauts, could make her smile regularly. Milkovic, the Croatian, had too much vinegar in his make-up, and the Georgian physician, Petro Kancheli, ignored her most of the time.
An hour to lunch. She stifled a belch, perplexed. For the first couple of days in microgee she'd felt sick to her stomach, but the patches kicked in and she couldn't remember feeling sick since.
Carliss punched her forearm. "You ready for the space walk tomorrow morning? I'd love to have a dollar for every time some cracker down there jokes about losing a brother in space. 'Good thing he's in a white suit!' What are they gonna say about Cherokees on Mars?"
Yamilah twisted to an upright position. "They're perfectly happy to watch a 'brother in space' be part of an experiment."
"Nuh-uh, not this brother in space."
"See how many tests they run on you when we get home."
"Yeah, and what about you, Dr. Double-X?"
Yamilah grinned. "I'll tell you exactly what they'll do. They'll set me up with the same tests they'll run on blank, blank, and blank—and wonder why I don't conform to the results. Ten years along, some kid'll publish a report on the lack of gender specific research in the space program, and how women have been slighted by NASA. Write your congressman!"
Yamilah gave him a fond look. "NOW doesn't exist anymore."
"Don't tell my mother that."
"It's the twenty-first century, Colonel. They keep telling us the criterion is ability."
Ability as the criteria? Yamilah knew better. Dismantle an organization like NOW, overturn Roe v. Wade, or privatize the Veterans Health Administration, and government sponsors would be sure to sponsor an example of civil progress as proof that the sand in their castle couldn't be crumbling underfoot. Hell, she was lucky there was still a space program. Thank goodness some of their sponsors were still interested in science. She flapped her hand dismissively at Carliss and bent again to her work.
What information could their sponsors glean from this? Studies had shown that some mammalian embryos in microgravity stopped developing at the stage of neural tube closure. Gravity played a crucial part in this, and biologists were still chewing on the problem. Some embryos never got past the zygote stage.
None of these fertilized eggs would survive.
Yamilah's unease began the next morning when she zipped her LCV garment. Right at the abdominal apron her hand paused. The nausea had returned.
Fear of the upcoming exercise seemed unlikely. Yamilah reveled in the spacewalks. On Earth the testing had bored her. Slogging about in the deep end of a swimming pool made her claustrophobic. But to be in space . . . !
Outside the ISS, she realized the nausea had dissipated; with a shrug she dismissed it as one of the physiological glitches common to the microgee environment. That's why the physician was here. Mechanical glitches, now—
Four months ago, space junk had punched through one of the panels in the solar array. The power stayed on, but the panel needed to be replaced, and one had been sent via shuttle along with the fresh crop of astronauts. Such scheduled repair was a part of life in space.
Who made sure she had the skills necessary? Yamilah. Who volunteered every time an EVA was scheduled? Yamilah. She'd met other astronauts who confessed EVAs to be their favorite part of being on shuttle or station crews—she had never met one who'd feared them.
"You've got that delicate female touch," Kancheli had said when the crew had discussed rosters.
Yamilah had thought that the EMU gloves rendered such rumored dexterity moot. Much to her surprise, during the later months of training she was presented with a set of customized gloves—at what cost she hated to think. Someone really wanted her on EVA. Yamilah thought she understood when, after the second spacewalk, Kancheli came out of the airlock with a pulse of 110 and a face the color of Swiss cheese.
She sympathized—it was easy to fool one's self in the station. No real need to think about what lay beyond the centimeters of Kevlar, ceramic, and titanium. An EVA brought home the truth: that they were so tiny—so alone—floating in the hostile womb of space, tethered to the Earth only by the umbilical of radio waves.
Milkovic's voice sounded tinny over the comm: "EV1, EV2, do you read, you lucky sons of bitches?"
"Like a book, Jura," Yamilah said.
"EV2, you read?"
Carliss, just beneath the NASDA lab modules: "Loud and clear, Jura. Initiate Fishnet."
Fishnet was a sequel to the Stardust spacecraft probe, the quest to capture comet dust out of comet Wild 2's tail. Nineteen years ago the Stardust capsules, aerogel collectors stitched with particles, had returned. The aerogel collector had originally looked something like a giant tennis racket; now NASA experimented with the fan shape and looked closer to home. Discovery of water on Mars had re-opened the old arguments about colonization and terraforming, and Fishnet proposed to sweep a sample of extraterrestrial liquid molecules for analysis.
Brightness pierced Yamilah's faceshield, causing her to squint. Like a dragonfly above a snowfield, like that ship soaring above the spume-capped waves in Doré's engraving, the station hung over a mass of clouds. Blue haze limned the horizon's curve.
The Canadarm tucked the hub of the aerogel construct against the ventral side of the ESA lab. Yamilah climbed down from the truss and bolted it into place. On Earth, she would have been whistling as she turned the wrench.
"Stand by for deploy," Milkovic broke in.
Like the fan of a flirtatious dancer, the aerogel attractor opened. The graphite-epoxy arms swung outward and back. When the Kevlar bumpers touched the side of the module, Yamilah felt the vibration through her bootsoles. Slowly she bolted down the ends. Every time she flexed her fingers, the gloves resisted. Each movement of her body she had to plot—except when, after two hours, she let her bladder go. Her mind understood the practicality of it, but her gut still winced at the act of going in her pants.
And yet—and yet—she could think of no more beautiful place to be.
She remembered standing in the driveway in front of her house while her mother picked out the constellations. —Cassiopeia is there, sitting in her chair, said her mother. Six-year-old Yamilah had laughed at the rhyme. —Look, her mother had said, pointing. —Each star is a whirling ball of hydrogen and helium, impossibly bigger than our own world. Thousands and thousands of years away. The light you see now was born when El Cid said farewell to his daughters.
And Yamilah had burrowed her head into her mother's thigh. —Stop it! I want to be safe and cozy inside the house.
Now this was her house.
"Let me take over your EMU maintenance this time, Yamilah," Kancheli said.
Gripping one of the handholds, he reminded her of a chimp: toothy smile, glittering brown eyes, pronounced black widow's peak. Looks that he had not passed on to his son—Yamilah had seen pictures of handsome Kancheli Junior on the various news nets during his rape-murder trial two years ago. Those high cheekbones, that full mouth could be a liability in prison. And Junior should have been a liability to Kancheli's standing in Rosviakosmos. How Senior had evaded the punitive politics to arrive on the ISS she did not like to guess.
Kancheli extended a hand for the suit.
"Each person's supposed to take care of their EMU," she said. "How would it look if I let someone else do my own work?"
"You look exhausted," he said. "That's a lot of mass for you to manage."
She opened her mouth to demur, but before she could utter another syllable, he tweaked the suit out of her hands.
His apology came with a one-sided smile. "All right, that was a falsehood. But it's embarrassing—I'm assigned a urinary analysis detail."
"Oh, Petro." She groaned in sympathy. "How did you get stuck with something like that?"
"In return for future knowledge, sometimes the scientist has to focus on the odious present," he said. "And here there are no undergraduates."
It felt wicked to tease him, but she couldn't resist. "I could give you a stool sample—" He shuddered; she chuckled. "I'll collect your piss the next time you go out, how's that?"
Not the lamest dig she could have made, Yamilah reflected as she made her way to her cabin. Of all six, Kancheli had logged the least time on EVA. Much of his time he spent in the Tutcheresi lab, entering data. He had no involvement with her zygote project; what project did occupy his time?
Yamilah eeled past Carliss's cabin to her own. He hadn't pulled the blind across his doorway, and she caught a glimpse of him zipped into his sleeping bag, fastened to the wall. He slept silently, mouth slack.
The others were either in their labs, above her in the exercise module, or below her in the galley, but Yamilah pulled the blind across the doorway to her cabin. She felt herself a beggar after privacy as she stripped.
Scouring her cold-pebbled skin with a wipe, she shivered and twisted in the small space, trying to find a patch of air not constantly stirred by the ventilators. As she changed footholds, she caught a glimpse of her body.
Yamilah wheeled around so fast that she bumped right into the mirror, nose and cheek colliding with the glass. In her shock it felt no colder than her skin.
Her breath condensed on the mirror. She did not want to look again. Clenching her jaw, she nudged herself back a foot, and saw her body.
Ever since her first encounter with weightlessness, Yamilah had avoided reflections, trying to forget her puffy face, the veins visible in her forehead. She had resigned herself to sinus congestion and nausea, which all of her fellow astronauts had complained of. But her microgee environment could not excuse the changes the mirror showed her now.
Two chestnut blotches on her face marred her skin. One angled along her right jaw; the other leaked over the blade of her nose to pool across her left cheek. Her nipples had darkened from their usual weak tea shade to cocoa. She pushed one breast experimentally and winced at the unexpected tenderness.
In sudden, horrified comprehension, she placed one hand on her belly, fingers splayed, thumb anchored in the wink of her navel. To her eyes, her lower abdomen looked no bigger than a thirty-nine year old's that'd survived two previous caesarian sections ought to be. But beneath her palm her belly felt full, and very hard.
"Holy God," she whispered.
She could not sink in despair, nor fall nor huddle. She could only grip the handhold by the side of the mirror and pull herself as flat to the wall as possible. Her flesh like wet canvas dragged on her bones gone marble, her body encasing as a tomb the pregnancy within her.
A day passed on Earth. Yamilah watched it through her camera's viewfinder, and zoomed in on Cairo. The Nile embroidered the green delta with black, the desert like cloth of gold around it.
Click. "Just leave the specimen cup in that revolving door," said the nurse, "and I'll pick it up on the other side."
Click. The Gulf of Aqaba ballooned between Sinai and Arabia, the Straits of Tiran its os.
Click. "Are you sure your husband's condom broke? It's your lucky day, your tests came back negative."
Click. The sink of salt that was the Dead Sea, lowest point on the surface of the planet.
Click. "Good Lord, can you imagine having being on the rag in space? We're giving you a hormone inhibitor. One shot and you won't have to worry about your period for several months."
Yamilah pulled back from the window and switched to the wide-angle lens. They were heading into night; in a minute the lights of India would turn the sub-continent into a sparkling fang. In forty-five minutes, the station would enter day once more. What time was it inside her uterus?
She had planned to get her tubes tied after her stint in the ISS. But she and Fernao had made a mistake—that night in the Star City apartment, and she dead tired and longing for a massage—fifteen, sixteen weeks ago. Her period had come two weeks before that. Another daughter or Fernao's longed-for son would have been welcome—but here, in an environment never meant for life, this pregnancy was doomed as her experiment.
The very thought made Yamilah breathless.
Surreptitiously she pushed her abdomen, hard. Nothing. She let her breath out in a gust, half-nervous, half-relieved. Just as she reached exhale's end, she felt movement: a flutter like a goldfish caught barehanded.
Nine weeks ago she had stepped aboard the shuttle Reliance, when she would have been somewhere between six to eight weeks along, perhaps. The embryo's neural tube would have already closed; if spina bifida were to affect it, it would have done so before she ever made it into space. But the internal organs—limb growth—midline facial defects—Yamilah knew that embryologists believed most insults to the developing fetus had to occur inside of the first trimester, complicated by such factors as cholesterol deficiency, folate deficiency, exposure to nitrates and chlorine. What else could the environment of space add to their teratogenic catalog?
How could she have trained for that long and not found out? All the tests—someone would have found out. Someone had known.
He smacked his lips in sleep, mumbled. Yamilah hissed his name again, shook his shoulder, patted his cheek with the back of her hand.
He grimaced, eyes still shut. "Quit it. I'm awake."
"I'm not your mom, and you're not late for school. Just in case you thought about being cute."
"Don't call a grown man cute." He squinted past her to the clock. "I got another six hours of sleep. Whyn't you asleep?"
"Don't look at me," he began, champagne eyes dancing. She waited. "You're serious."
"As a heart attack."
"Well." His felinely handsome face opened in a smile. "Congratulations, mama—"
"There are no 'congratulations!' This is a catastrophe."
She saw the concept filter through the layers of sleep to consciousness. He made a violent movement, arrested by the confines of his sleeping bag. "Oh, my Jesus. How'd that happen?"
"I don't know." On Earth she would have chuckled at his question; here it made perfect sense. "They ran all the tests."
"What about an abortion?"
"I get caught trying to get an abortion down there, I get five years in jail and I lose custody of Zara and Betriz if Fernao doesn‚t take me back."
"You sure the results were correct? Maybe someone made a mistake."
"Is there any way we can check?"
He shook his head and fumbled with the zipper. "Only person who has access to those files is Petro—why don't you ask him?"
If it was in my file, he should have told me. "I will. And Dantrell—" She zipped him back in the sleeping bag despite his protests. "—you say anything about this conversation, and I will call your mother."
She was afraid to ask Kancheli right out. For a shadowy, dream-filled six hours, she allowed herself to sleep, and at breakfast she monitored the Georgian at the edge of her vision. As crowded as they were in the wardroom, this proved to be easier than she'd feared. She squeezed in next to Carliss, near the head of the table. Kancheli anchored himself at the foot.
Milkovic hovered above them like a bespectacled efreet, passing out the trays from the galley. After so many weeks aboard the station, no one clowned with their food anymore—no feeding on peanuts like aquarium fish, no tortilla frisbees across the room. The crew was content to fork their chicken omelet out of packets, to pass the liquid salt or picante sauce with a muted please and thank you.
"Be grateful," Milkovic rapped Yamilah's ear with a spoon. "Starving children in New York would kill for your meal."
"We can't give 'em mine?"
"Control's real happy with Fishnet," Carliss said, reverting to his role of commander. "Milkovic and Yamilah, nice job."
Kancheli chimed in: "Yamilah, I know that was a long EVA for you. Are you exercising today?"
Milkovic snorted; it was on the tip of Yamilah's tongue to pop off a rejoinder, along the lines of rarin' to go or race you to the bike, but the solicitous—peculiarly expectant—expression on Kancheli's face steered her words another direction.
"As a matter of fact," she began, feeling her way, "I'm feeling kinda drained. I didn't sleep very well last night. I've had some problems with anemia in the past, and I'm wondering what my iron was at last count. Any way I can check my records?"
Kancheli glanced away from her; rubbed the back of his neck. "I can look at those for you," he said.
Woman's intuition, Yamilah's father would have called it. The psychologists on the ground would have labeled it paranoia. Watching Kancheli, she noted the non-verbal clues of unease and wondered where the point of contention was. "I'd really appreciate that."
"Of course, we'll be taking blood during the sleep study, and we can test it then."
Carliss broke across her thoughts. "Petro, is that study tonight?"
"Look at your schedule; it's right there."
Grumbles seeped from the crew. The crew rarely slept the recommended eight hours, absorbed as they were in repairs and experiments. Sleep studies interfered even more, as they could not ignore the dozen or so sensors attached to their bodies.
"You'd think there would've been enough sleep studies done by now," Milkovic muttered. The studies particularly irritated him, as he always found a thumbprint of gel on his glasses the next morning.
"No ducking out," Carliss said. "We all signed the waivers."
"No one said a thing about ducking out," Milkovic snapped. "Not even her—" indicating Yamilah with a gesture of his fork, as sharp as the light reflected from his lenses.
Yamilah felt the men's nanoshift of attention towards her way, then the self-conscious deflection—a cough here and there, bustle with the meal's litter. Her focus remained on Kancheli. He matched her gaze, stare for stare, and capped it with a smile.
All through the morning's duties, the smile haunted Yamilah. Her thoughts chased themselves like electrons around a nucleus. I'm pregnant, she thought as she bicycled. How?
While she cleaned ventilator grilles in the Kibo module, a new electron appeared in her musing, changing the composition of her fear.
Deafened as she was by the combination of the station noise and her ear plugs, she had no inkling of Carliss's presence until he touched her shoulder. Her recoil sent her halfway across the module; Carliss caught her. She dug the plug out of her ear.
"I said, 'Jumpy, are we?' How ya doing?"
She shrugged, lips tight, and lifted her chin toward the end of the module, where Milkovic was replacing a coil in the back of the freezer unit.
Carliss pulled his PDA from his work satchel and handed it to Yamilah. She took the stylus, shaking her head. Too much like passing notes in class. Must crack P's computer, she wrote.
Carliss read it, face impassive. He wiped the screen clean, wrote. Then what?
She reached for the PDA before he could pass it, and her hand shook so that she gripped the stylus until her fingertips turned white. Then: WHY?
Yamilah found the chance to crack Kancheli's computer sooner than she'd thought. At 20:30, the crew members fit each other with the expected electroencephalograph, electro-oculogram, electrocardiogram. They taped microphones and light sensors to each other's necks, activity monitors to their calves.
Cocooned upright in her sleeping bag, Yamilah waited for the noise of the ventilators, the fan, the distant garbage compactor grind of the Zarya and Zverda modules to lull her to unconsciousness. Sleep study, she thought; this is an awake study. Behind the sleep mask, she tracked the glowing scrawls across the black. No doubt the electro-oculogram would think she dreamed in Cinemascope.
She should think about something light-hearted: Zara's second grade Christmas pageant, perhaps, or the way her mother had apparently changed her name from Yamilah to My-Daughter-The-Astronaut. Even the thought of tomorrow's work would normally cheer her up.
At this stage the pig embryos could barely be called embryos; technically after fifty hours they were only blastodermic vesicles, still in the process of cleavage. Tomorrow morning she would have to monitor every conceptus, note which continued to develop, which had reached their limit. The failed bodies would be frozen for return to Tulane University and studied. Someone would be getting tenure out of that—while NASA got the funding for sending them up in the first place.
Her hand crept again to her abdomen. No mask could block the image within her mind, of the somber, holy split of cytokenesis; from one to two, from four to eight, sixteen to thirty-two, the dancing mathematics of flesh and time. When would her experiments, sparks of life that they were, cease growing? When would the spark inside her extinguish?
With a hiss she reached into her pajamas and ripped away the tapes; she peeled off the mask and the EOG sensor drifted away from her face. All of the electromyogram and EEG wires followed it, floating like a technophiliac octopus. As she unzipped her sleeping bag, the cautious part of her brain gibbered to her. What am I gonna say about this? Is this gonna be a spot on my record?
Cold as surgical steel, the response from her hindbrain: You end up having a miscarriage two hundred thirty miles above Earth, a spot on your record will be the least thing you have to worry about. Does the ISS have a few litres of fresh frozen plasma on hand?
She skulked past the other sleeping compartments into the Unity module, where Earthshine picked out the red Exit stenciled on the door to the docking module for the shuttle. She pushed the handle up with a jolt—who'd hear that and come swimming in to catch her?
No one, it seemed. She pulled herself through and closed the door: another awful kerchunk of metal. Through the port and through the Zarya module she maneuvered, choosing her handholds with care, trying to push off with just enough strength and without knocking anything free from the walls.
She slid into the Tutcheresi module and caught herself with a jerk that wrenched her rotator cuff. Dumbass, she chided herself. The pain oriented her enough to collect her thoughts, to take a deep breath.
Light from the single window illuminated the posters: Gagarin, Nansen, a Bilibin print. An array of manuals, lists, and cords cluttered one long wall. Three laptops were anchored in the far corner with a gulf-rig of velcro and cabling. Yamilah propelled herself over to the laptops—she'd seen Kancheli use the ancient ThinkPad the most. Hands trembling, she opened it.
Her first worry, that Kancheli's laptop had been formatted for Russian, dispersed immediately. She relaxed at the sight of the English characters. Password protected, of course. Years of hacking her brother's computer would finally serve a practical purpose. She restarted it, and as the ThinkPad booted up, she keystroked into safe mode. The screen turned lurid. Unpleasant on the eyes, but accessible.
A search for files containing her name came up empty. Pregnancy, she typed. Nothing.
Perhaps this was all a dreadful mistake. One more try, and she could abandon it as hormone-induced paranoia. Hormone—try that. hCG, she typed. The abbreviation for human chorionic gonadotropin.
The search box filled with file names.
Yamilah put both hands over her mouth. She choked back tears; but her heart was pumping ice water even out to the capillaries. All the files began with the same word: grava. She selected what she guessed to be the first file, grava_alpha, dated the day after her team had docked. With fingertips gone numb, she keyed open the file.
Subject Y as healthy a vessel as possible, she read. Not malleable: too many family connections, too eager to prove independence of authority. This will take deliberate management. No positive outcome is foreseen for Subject Y, but the results of the gestation will tell much. hCG levels indicate gestation of 8 1/2 weeks. BP 126/67. Weight 132#. . . .
The list of vitals went on, but Yamilah ignored it and opened the next file, dated a week later.
Subject Y suffering what we understand to be typical side effects. So similar to "space-sickness" that she notices nothing. If one didn't know better, it could be said we are all pregnant, ha, ha!
Bile surged in her throat. She scrabbled around, one hand clamped over her mouth, looking for anything to catch it, any cup or piece of trash left to snag on something. Snared in a nest of cables was a packet of gummy bears; she shook out the candy and retched into the bag.
When she was sure her stomach had settled, she wiped her mouth clean with the bag. The gummy bears swarmed about her like a hallucination of Grateful Dead mascots. With one shaky hand she scooped them up and ate them, one by one, the sugary flavors obliterating the bitterness. The fetus spasmed deep inside her.
Even something as normal as a baby's kick could have dire consequences. Tests on bone marrow cells in microgee had shown that in some instances the bone marrow stem cells could not differentiate into osteoblasts, so no protein and no collagen could be formed to build bone. In other experiments, the osteoblasts had formed, but the level of mineralization was low, and the embryo—quail chick, rabbit, whatever had been subjected to the insult of microgee—was afflicted with osteoporosis. What about muscle formation? What would keep the tender liver, intestines, stomach, from splitting through weak muscle walls? The list of horrors kept growing. Anemia, radiation sickness, cancer, osteogenesis imperfecta, emphalocele—
Was it only Kancheli? Or did others know? She could open every file—twelve of them—and look for names; but she quailed at exposing more of that brute humor.
Better I trust no-one, she thought. I can find out who was in on it when it's over.
And as acid as the taste of vomit: When it's over? How the hell do you think this thing's going to end?