Kyana woke groggy. Her nose felt dry. A film of old sweat and dead skin cells covered her skin. She took a sharp breath and moved sluggishly.
Her body, reluctant to wake, was not her own. Her hands drifted down to her belly and discovered it to be swollen up like a beach ball, taut and stiff, heavy as a sack of sand. It was the alien sensation of girth and weight, not the hit of adrenaline to her blood administered by the hibernation pod, that made her breath catch sharp in the back of her throat and her eyes flash open.
“Don’t struggle, love,” said Gila’s low, hypnotic, soothing voice. “Don’t fight the sleep. Give yourself time.”
But Kyana jerked her arms out so quickly that her elbows connected with the pod’s glass walls. Pain roused her faster than the overhead lights or the needle prickling her arm.
“Be calm,” Gila continued, running her smooth dark hands over Kyana’s clammy brow, and for the first time, Kyana heard the tinge of concern in the woman’s voice. Fear, hidden under a generous helping of maternal calm.
Kyana tried to sit up but her body resisted.
“You slept the whole nine months,” said Gila, “You’ll have the baby soon.”
This torso was not the one she remembered. When Kyana had curled into the pod, she’d been lithe and lean, one of fifty women chosen for the mission; now she was round as a berry, with her belly button popped and a line of dark hair leading from her navel to the shadows between her legs. “The procedure took?”
“For you, yes,” said Gila. Tears shimmered in her brown eyes.
And Kyana noticed, right then, that Gila’s stomach was as lean and muscular as it had been when they’d departed Earth, nine months ago.
“Oh! Oh!” Kyana said, still flustered, now shamed, “It didn’t work for you? I’m sorry— “
“No baby for me, I’m afraid,” said Gila. There were other women clustering into the ship’s cargo bay, their faces gaunt and grey. Millie, and Olivia, and Su. “No babies for any of us. Only you.”
Avril helped Kyana to sit at the end of the pod, and she ran her palm over the swollen stomach with reverence. “Only you.”
Panic rose in Kyana’s chest. They’d all slept the entire journey – all fifty of the women, committed to the mission – and to only have one child as a result? Her mind cast around for information. “How far out are we?”
“Less than a month to Titan,” said Mela, the navigator. “You’ll have the baby before we arrive.”
“Then we’ll start again as soon as we land, yes?” Kyana said to Gila with hope.
But a dark grumbling percolated through the group.
“Let her be. Don’t burden her,” said Millie, who always seemed crabby and sour, and was suddenly, uncharacteristically caring. “It’s nothing, Kyana. Are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat—”
“Tell me what’s happened,” she demanded.
Gila took her hand, stroked her fingers. “I woke about three months back,” she said, “There was a problem with the sleep regulator. I was miscarrying, so the pod pulled me out of hibernation.”
Bird-boned Olivia, sweet and tender-hearted, gulped down her sorrow as she took up the story. “I’ve been running the diagnostics; the best I can figure, we hit a field of ionizing radiation. We hadn’t foreseen crossing a comet’s path, I mean, the odds are astronomical, but—”
“For some of us, the procedure never took,” said Avril, holding her stethoscope to Kyana’s heart, listening for her pulse before continuing. “And for some, it took but didn’t last. We were in such a hurry to leave.”
Kyana bowed her head, remembering the rush of boarding the ship, saying goodbye to everyone and everything as the L-bombs fell in waves, slowing the planet’s rotation, and the atmosphere started to wick away into the vacuum of space. The ship had spaces and supplies for fifty women, as well as vials of genetic material from over a thousand healthy men; this would give the mission the best chance of success, of achieving the diversity required to start the human race over. The crew, highly trained and in peak fitness, knew precisely what they were doing. They had no illusions; their mission started the moment the world began to end. They’d prepared their whole lives for the apocalypse.
Of course, that didn’t make it any easier to behold.
Space is fickle. One well-placed comet left a path of destruction, perfectly positioned to trip them up and throw out their schedule, to set off the hibernation pods and trigger a cascading domino of miscarriages. Kyana looked to Gila and said, “So you’ll try again when we reach Titan.”
But Millie shook her head.
“The samples are dead,” she replied.
The women clustered together. Some held hands, others bowed their heads. Like a heavy weight pressing down upon her, Kyana realized the implications of Millie’s words. The outpost on Titan was waiting for them to populate it, but the genetic material was gone, curdled into dead goo. There would be no second chances.
Kyana ran her hand over her stomach, and it felt like a stone.
There was no heartbeat, no motion, no kicking or swishing or flutters. Kyana lay for days in her pod, crying into the crook of her arm, until soft-hearted Olivia came to her side and told her to buck up, then led her by the hand to the airlock, and showed her the names scrawled on the doorframe in charcoal. Mitchell. Wen. Augusta. Brent. On and on the names went, thirty in total. Olivia pointed to one, and read it out loud.
“Stephan,” she said softly, “He was mine.”
They embraced and cried together, but then Kyana felt a little stronger, and realized she was not alone in her sorrow. She ventured to the commissary, ate beef stew, drank a little tea.
When Avril sat opposite her, she gestured to her motionless stomach, and said, “Can you do anything?” Avril had been trained as the ship’s doctor, and knew all the secrets of the human body.
“Best to let it proceed naturally,” she said, “We’re two days out from Titan, and you’ll pass the biological material any time now, when your uterus is ready.”
The biological material. Kyana nodded. Cold, unfeeling words were better. Olivia had shown the danger of sentimentality; best to be stalwart and realistic about the outcome.
“It’s heavy,” Kyana said, “It feels like it’s made of rock.”
Avril laid her palm on Kyana’s belly. “Have you heard of a lithopaedion? On rare occasions, when the fetus dies, the mother’s body will cover it in calcium until it resembles a little rock. It’s a way for your body to stave off infection, to contain the foreign tissue. You may have a stone baby, but it’s your body’s way of protecting you.”
“I wish it would cover my heart in stone, too,” Kyana said quietly. “What do you think will become of us, on Titan?”
But Avril’s heart had no armor, either. Her chin trembled, and without a word, she shrugged, stood up from the table, and walked briskly away.
Their future was too dark to imagine, yet in her flurry of hormones, Kyana found herself drowning in visions of days to come, so vivid and engrossing that she could barely see reality through her dreamscapes. The ship would land, the crew would set up the outpost, Bella and Hilde would get the oxygen pumps on-line, Magda would fire up the generators, Su would use her engineering skills to tap into the rich resources of methane that would power their bubble of life, but all their efforts would only delay the inevitable. Years would pass, crew members would die. Eventually, one of the women would be remain alone; Kyana’s terror grew in measured paces as she became more and more certain, she would be the last remaining scrap of human consciousness in an unfeeling, uncaring, clockwork universe. Alone in darkness. Alone amongst the stars. Only Kyana and her baby of stone.
A sharp knife-stab wrenched her from her thoughts.
“Oh, fuck,” she thought in sudden agony, “It’s started.”
Labor stretched out, long and brutal. She was wheeled to the birth room and Avril guided her with meditative words, calm reminders to breathe, gentle encouragement as they strolled along the corridors between agonizing bouts of contractions. Nothing in her training had prepared Kyana for this trial. The rocking motion of her gait seemed to lessen the pain, but the contractions wracked her body, turned her inside out, set her spine on fire.
Over her own harried cries, Kyana heard the ship’s thrusters hum down as they struck the smoggy, sulfur-yellow atmosphere of Titan, a thick nitrogen-rich soup that slowed their descent like treacle, and she felt the pressure of gravity push upon her innards, push on her twisting uterus, push on that cold unfeeling biological material. She clenched Avril’s hands in shivering talons and channeled her grief into her bellowing, felt the noise of her mourning echo like an earthquake through the sterile chambers of the ship. The women came and went as their duties allowed, leaving kisses on her sweaty brow, bestowing offerings of cold comfort in the barren silence of their new home world.
Time lost meaning. During a gap in the pain, Kyana saw that Olivia was there, and Gila, too. Avril bent her head between Kyana’s legs. “Almost there, now,” she said. “Fully dilated. Push, my love, push.”
And Kyana pushed as Sisyphus had pushed that boulder up the hill, eons ago, only to slide back again on the scree of loose earth. Push and slide. Push and slide. Push and—
A shuddering gush erupted between her thighs. Liquid splattered over the metal floor. Kyana tipped her head back as the tears flowed from her eyes and the blood flowed from her hips, and her exhausted breath whistled between clenched teeth. The pressure released. Gravity lessened.
“It’s over,” she exhaled like a prayer.
Only to be answered by a pitched, angry, determined cry.
Kyana looked between her bent knees to see that Avril had rocked back on her heels. The doctor held the baby up in her hands, offering it towards its mother, speechless.
The ship’s thrusters gave a roar and the metal landing gear scraped against Titan’s stony surface, and the child squalled and wailed, flailing tiny arms. Kyana curled up, mouth agape in disbelief.
“It’s alive!” Olivia said.
Avril held out the infant, red-faced and hungry, in her trembling arms. As Kyana took the child in her embrace and pressed the demanding mouth to her breast, Gila said in hushed wonder, “It’s a boy!”