It's always darkest before the dawn. Even in outer space.
"Ok, we're about to hit," Sean said. "So hold on tight." Eva wrapped both arms around her distended belly and leaned into the restraining straps. The pegs on their junky little runabout no longer lined up with the contacts on the newer spun-off living quarters. Linking up meant ramming the patch head-on, then hoping one of the contacts would stick and hold. Every link-up bashed their vehicle a little bit more, but there was nothing much they could do about it.
On impact a stabilizer fin crumpled. One of Eva's restraining straps snapped, jerking her out of the seat in a vicious arc. But she held on tight, protecting the fetus, and when Sean cut power they were linked up with the most promising jettison quarters of them all.
"Shit, lookit this, Eva. Ward unit. This used to belong to the fuckin' hospital! It's a fuckin' sign, is what this is! We're due for a spin of fuckin' luck!"
Eva just sat there, lips pressed together, praying for the best. The baby was due any moment now. She'd lost count of the days and months long ago, when her day-hour correlator busted. It'd be so much easier down on planet: sun up, sun down, one day and you count them just like that. Out here in the junk ring they'd be searching out jettison and she'd see sunup and sundown behind planet half a dozen times in ten hours. Her body was the only thing knew what time it was, and it wasn't giving any advance notice.
Sean worked the provisions sensor, followed the readout with growing excitement. "Lookit here! Contents: Oxygen, ten thousand hours; water, five thousand gallons; freeze dry, seven-fifty kilos; human inhabitants, nil. No one onboard! Eva! We just hit the fuckin' mother lode!" He jumped up from the console and did a little dance in the aisle.
That was the thing about hospital jettison: it always got spun off long before it was anywhere near used up. The medical error margin. Another drifter had told them about it, early on. Dirty and blue-fingered from oxygen deprivation, he'd crawled out of a freeze dry locker in an old orbiting crew quarters they'd hooked onto. Given the two of them a lot of tips, too. Like how to rig up propellant cells to run the oxy unit. How to pulverize freeze dry so it needs less cook-up water. How to spot jettison most likely to have something left onboard. "A hospital ward unit, now that's whatcha want to find," he'd croaked. A dozen hours later they'd found him dead, in the locker. How long ago was that? Five thousand hours? Six? Memory was getting harder to come by.
The spot they were in now, it was also a luxury. Just getting out of the vehicle and into the jettison was a death risk. Eve was so big she barely fit in her oxy-suit. It needed splicing at the shoulders and knees with their last roll of duct tape. During transfer she'd have to float motionless, praying it didn't unravel; Sean, who did all the door-dogging and pressure-lock busting, needed the tougher suit. All she could do was hold her breath, and wait. By now, terror was little more than an old familiar ache.
When she heard the entry door clank shut the ache transformed itself into a bulb of joy. She'd be alive a little while longer, after all.
"It's beautiful, Sean, innit?" Everything white and rich and clean. Sheets and beds; lights and power and magnegrav that kept you from floating helplessly all the time. Even nicer than the subsidy quarters back in Industrial Orbit.
"We'll get a thousand hours outta this place, min." Sean rubbed a callused hand over his stubble jaw. "I can scavenge up some little jettisons we see come by, empty 'em right into here. This could be our home, Eva, and I mean a home!"
When the sun passed behind planet they gorged on freeze dry, then took a water shower and climbed between fresh white sheets. With gravity, Eve discovered she had to sleep on one side not to be suffocated by the baby's weight. It was a little more complicated than weightless but in a way she liked it: it let her know the little one was really there.
In the dark Sean said to her, "We ain't gonna always be junk ring drifters. We're better than that, we are. I could retrain. I mean, I'm willing to retrain and that's half the battle, innit? I'd start out for three grand an hour. I mean, depending on the opportunity. I'd work for three grand, sure. It ain't so much the money so much as it's...getting back control of your own life, you know?
It was a comfort for her, hearing him talking like this again. In all the thousands of hours they'd spent drifting he'd grown frighteningly silent. Brooding. Sometimes she was afraid he blamed her for what had happened. Or blamed the baby. Everything had started to go sour from the moment she found out she was preggers. Until then things had been--well, if not perfect then comfortable enough for what they were used to. And that was life as zero-grav assemblers on the Industrial Orbit.
They'd both been born to it. Eva hadn't been planetside in her life, although she knew it from videos. Same with Sean. Just a couple of I-orbit yokels who bought the company line about loyalty and letting management take care of you. The two of them had met on the line, fitting five-kilo spheroids. He'd taken her out to a beer party at the Level 5 hall and shown her off to all his pals and the next thing she knew the date was set. Everybody their age was doing pretty much the same thing.
For a while they rented subsidy, outboard of the factory. Living near Sean's pals, commuting to work in a little second-hand runabout Sean had gotten from his uncle. They did sex games at home and watched video and life seemed to be going OK. Next she was standing at the shift boss's desk: "Sorry, Eva, but we're putting through some new production techniques that have made you, uh, redundant." The flash of nausea that washed over her was not from the bad news--as she'd thought--but from the baby. When Sean came home fifty hours later and told her the news about his own layoff she was in the bathroom being sick.
Things came apart faster than she could have imagined. They hadn't saved; nobody in Assembly ever did. Sean wasn't about to work for less than seven grand an hour, which was what all his Level 5 pals were getting. Then they were behind in the rent and the power was being cut off. Eva couldn't quite believe what was happening even when they were packing what they had left in the vehicle. They had to go somewhere: another factory, other housing. Somewhere. They weren't going to be living out of a beat-up orbit commuter with a hundred thousand hours on it.
Even when they slipped I-orbit and picked up the junk ring it didn't seem possible, what they were doing. Only when the blue-fingered derelict crawled out of the freeze dry and babbled at them and died and began to stink did it begin to sink in. And it sunk in deep.
In their first ten hours onboard, she almost lost Sean for good.
He'd been spending time by her bedside at the window, watching for jettison with salvage potential. Sean spotted an abandoned transient crew quarters, and was into his oxy-suit and out the hatch almost before she could stir from bed.
The minute the runabout detached from the ward unit she knew he was in trouble. A stabilizer fin was completely wiped out. The thruster was either banged up or out of fuel. Half the bank came on and swung the runabout in a cockeyed circle. He couldn't get it to travel in a straight line. Eva watched as that one bank flicked on and off, on and off; the runabout wobbled towards the TRQ, then nudged back toward the ward unit. It began to occur to Eva that the vehicle might be beyond repair. That they'd be stuck onboard until Sean managed to fix the runabout. Or made contact with some other drifter with transportation. Or until the provisions ran out.
These thoughts were in her mind the instant the runabout shifted sideways and slammed the TRQ into the side of the ward unit.
Spewing air and water supplies made a sparkling haze around the runabout. She could see Sean struggling to free the vehicle from the debris. Watched him carve a humpbacked path away from the bristling metal. Watched him miss the ward unit entirely and follow a lazy parabola away from her window.
Now the vehicle was floating back towards her quarters, unpowered. Eva sat up in bed and stared out the window, as if the force of concentration could draw it toward her. It did seem to be approaching. An hour passed, and another. She would weep and scream, grow silent and exhausted, then watch and wait and weep and scream all over again.
She sensed that the shock throbbing through her might bring on the baby. The runabout was close enough now for her to see Sean's face, ashen and bleeding.
She would not let herself have the baby now.
Fifty feet between them. Thrusters flared briefly, swinging it in a half-loop towards the contact pad. The jolt from the crash nearly shook her out of bed. The power blinked out for a moment, then returned. Eva held her breath, listening for oxy leaks. The hiss she heard ... was from the pressure lock.
Here was Sean, alive, at her bedside. She took his head in her hands and held him, close to the baby. Held the both of them.
According to the chronometer they'd been onboard 100 hours. To conserve power and oxy, they'd spent much of that time sleeping with the lights off. Awake, Sean had ransacked the quarters, searching for tools. The surgical supply closet was packed with forceps, scalpels of every shape and size--plus stethoscopes, sonoscopes, snips, sutures, and a huge array of unknown chrome-plated things. Nothing of use in rehabilitating a crippled space vehicle. The largest hammer was eight inches long and weighed maybe ten ounces. The biggest wrench was good for tightening nuts on agurney. He found a trunk full of brand new, first-quality oxy-suits, but until there was reason to go outside they weren't any more useful than the sonoscopes.
They were awakened by the sound of a connection being made outside. No crude ram-and-jam: a legitimate four-peg link.
Sean climbed warily from bed. He pulled on a surgery smock and advanced to the pressure chamber with the largest scalpel he could find. The chamber door opened, and the whole blinking, bleating, one-eyed monstrosity trundled in.
An unmanned remote news gatherer from industrial orbit's Channel 52 had found them.
Once the sensing lens picked up evidence of human life the red light above the camera transmission lens came on. Over the speaker system, distant voices competed with one another. This was the unit they dispatched whenever a job was too dangerous or too distant for a news crew: one big bristling self-propelled electronic vulture.
"Greetings. This is Channel 52! We're working up a piece on drifters on the junk ring. Are you, by chance, a transient in these quarters?"
He could find one of the surgical hammers and bash out its lights and lens. But they'd probably just send another.
"Yeah. Just temporary, this is. I'm an Assembler. I also do light spacecraft maintenance." Sean looked into the lens. "We're both of us willing to retrain, you know."
The red light blinked. "We?" Fifty-two asked. "Someone else on board with you?"
"My wife, Eva. She's in bed in the back. Baby's due any day."
"Baby?" Static rumbled through the speaker. "We'd like to meet her! We'd like to talk to you both!"
Sean pointed the way. The remote news gatherer wheeled past him. Painted on its side was a huge plum-and-orange Live at Five logo. Its nose-for-news heat sensor guided it to Eva's bedside.
"Tell us, if you would, a little more about your situation," Fifty-two prompted.
"We both got laid off within 100 hours of each other," Eva said. "And then, well, money got tight..."
"Fuckin' offed us, is what they did," Sean interrupted. "Fuckin' management. The ones with all the juice."
Fifty-two made the sound of tape being quickly re-run.
"We weren't sure whether we'd find quarters with enough air and food left for me to have my baby. We were just lucky, you know, finding a whole hospital ward out here."
"Yours is a tragic, touching story," Fifty-two said. "We'd like to add it to our video reel."
Sean and Eva looked at each other helplessly. Finally Sean said, "Right now?"
"We're set up for right now. And tell us, how soon do you think your child will be born?"
"Twenty hours. Ten hours. Five minutes. Your guess is as good as mine."
"Who's going to deliver it for you?"
"Who else the fuck is there but me? I done it once before. With my sister-in-law, when she had her kid. I helped tie off the--that cord thing, you know? All I hope is nothing goes wrong. You got any better ideas?"
Fifty-two burped electronically, paused, said, "We sympathize with your situation, uh..."
"Sean. Sean Hogan. This here's my wife Eva."
"Uh, Sean and Eva. But you're right; you're too remote for help in less than a hundred hours. Maybe something can be arranged for you in the future. For now, we'd like to take a little video bite of the two of you here at bedside. And, uh--Sean? We understand the sources of your hostility, believe us. But here's a tip: this interview will be so much more effective if you can tone down the anger, clean up the language, and project the uncertainty and helplessness we know you're feeling right now."
Sean pursed his lips. He looked down at Eva, contrite, took her hand, said, "Well, maybe your news gatherer could stay, until after our little one's born, and..."
"Yes!" Fifty-two enthused. "Yes! What you're projecting just now, Sean--is perfect! Try and hold onto it!"
"I think I can."
The completed video bite was a work of art.
"For most of us here in industrial, the Jettison Orbit--the junk ring--is an economic fact of life. To some of us, it's an ecological blight.
"To a few of us, it's home."
From a wide shot of weightless trash in orbit, the camera pulled back to reveal a window--and two homeless wanderers looking helplessly out to space.
"Meet Sean and Eva Hogan. Just a few thousand hours ago, they might have been your neighbors. Might have worked your same shift. Today they're scavengers, wondering what happens next.
"Here in segment one of Junk Ring Drifters we'll find out how and why Sean and Eva are in this situation.
"It will make you think. It will make you feel. And it will make you weep. But first, these messages."
Following the commercial break, the RNG established a second tableau: Eva propped in bed, her swollen belly visible. Sean at bedside, holding her hand. Behind them, the abandoned nurse's station. During the voiceover the camera tightened in on the two of them.
"A scene to make most of us smile: a young couple anticipating the birth of a child in a maternity ward.
"Except that we're not in a maternity ward. What was once I-O General's Ward 7881 is now a junk ring spin-off. With maybe 300 hours of oxygen left. One last, desperate refuge for drifters Sean and Eva Hogan.
"Sean, can you tell us what comes next?"
"Well, we want have the baby here, then stay on as long as possible. After things run out here--I suppose we'll have to find our way to some other jettison."
"And who's actually going to deliver the child?"
Sean's chin began to tremble; he shrugged his shoulders. The camera tightened on his reaction.
"Me, I suppose. We got no one else. I keep telling myself, babies used to come natural all the time, back on planet. I read that once, in a book."
The camera panned down Sean's arm to his hand, linked with Eva's, then up to Eva's face.
"And how do you feel about this, Eva? Frightened?"
"Yes, a bit." Her eyes welled up with tears; the camera zoomed in on them. "Everything'll be right with us, though. I hope it. I pray it."
A cut to the distant tableau of the two of them: "Sean and Eva Hogan. Part of a sea of human misery--all but ignored out here on the junk ring.
"Will their child be born normally? What are their real chances for survival? I'll have the answers in segment two of Junk Ring Drifters. Until then, this is Fifty-two Remote, reporting from Ward 7881, Jettison Orbit.
"Dave and Wendy, back to you."
They could hear the howls of delight at the first edited-tape rollover.
"Sean and Eva: that was very, very nice," Fifty-two said. "And yes, we definitely want to keep the RNG onsite until after whatever happens with the child. There's going to be plenty of interest in our followup report."
"Right," Sean said. "And maybe you could even... have the news gatherer uplinked at the time of the birthing...?"
The sounds of an anxious discussion seeped out of the speaker. At last a single voice said, "That would be powerful. But we can't be online thirty straight hours waiting for something to happen. I suppose we could tap in every six hours--"
"I tell you what," Sean said. "I know assembly. I know light repairs. You tell me how to do it, I could activate the camera from here. Then back-link when the time comes. How about it?"
"Deal!" Fifty-two said gleefully. "Manual override's in the back. Tools in the lockbox to the left. The combination's 13-right, 23, 31. Check the operating manual in the jacket below the camera."
"Gotcha." Sean fumbled the combination and the box sprung open suddenly. Wrenches and screwdrivers bounced on the deck.
"What you need to do is convert it to manual mode," Fifty-two said. "Position the camera where it'll get the best show when the moment arrives. Leave it there--and half-an-hour before she's due, back-link to us. Then switch to auto and we'll take over from there."
More buzzing on the line: an argument. Finally, Fifty-two said, "Maybe it'd be a good idea to try a rehearsal run-through right now. Ready, Sean?"
"Whenever you are."
"Oh, and--Sean? Stay close to that ops manual, will you? You're working with our latest generation RNG. Self-propelled, heat-seeking, multi-lens, the whole three-trillion package. It's must-recover hardware for us, you understand?"
"I'll take care of it, don't you worry."
Suddenly, time was very short, and the brand new oxy-suits Sean had turned up were worth their weight in gold. He'd told Eva their luck was due for a change, and here it was: the stabilizer fins matched up exactly with his runabout. Even the bolt holes were identical. The propellant came in the same snap-in canisters, but with a difference: the RNG's XB-3 packed triple the punch of the mouse milk they had been using. The camera even had its own detachable gyro.
Ten hours of frantic labor. Then, returning through the pressure lock after dry-testing the thrust rockets he heard her feebly calling his name. Between her legs, the bedding was wet.
Forceps. Water. Linens. Sutures. Sean tried not to sweat. The RNG jacked over the bed, ogling down through its single zoom-lense eye. He had her crack one of the painkillers between her teeth and when the contractions started he booted the unit and back-linked to the station.
"Who the hell is this?" asked an irritated voice (apparently a second-shift super). Sean told him.
"Seanie, please," Eva whimpered. "It's coming. It's coming."
"In segment two of Junk Ring Drifters we're going to explore the problems of growing a family in spun off carriers. The last time we talked with Sean and Eva Hogan they said the baby was due to arrive at any moment. As you can see, that moment is now."
Sean's total concern narrowed to the liquid white sac slowly emerging from the dilated orifice. He was just barely aware of Eva's breathing and her moans, the idiotic jabbering from the RNG over his shoulder. How slathered and packed in jelly-like translucence was this glorious new package; somehow much more wonderful than the one he'd seen emerge from his sister-in-law. Free of the mother, now, linked only by the lifegiving pink cord. He cut it and tied it and slapped the newborn. It was awake and screaming now. It was alive, a female. It was his.
He brought it to Eva and laid it in her arms. Fifty-two was still yammering away. Mechanically, he fetched it from the back of the foot of the bed, keyed it tight on the tableau of Eva in bed, with the child. "In the wasteland of Jettison Orbit, the miracle of human life casts its glow," it was raving.
Sean managed a lopsided smile.
"Sean, how does fatherhood feel to you?"
Rolling his eyes earnestly to the camera, he wagged his head back and forth.
"It's like I can't describe it. So many feelings are going through my head, I mean, all it's like is... I feel wonderful."
"Do you have a name picked out?"
"If it was a girl I wanted to name her Rosalie. Always fancied that name, you know. I'll have to check with Eva, though, and I haven't done that yet."
Fifty-two made a wisecrack he missed, then asked Eva for her reaction.
"I love her. Things will work out. We can stay here a while. Sean has a plan. I think ... we're going to make it."
"And Sean, what's next for you and your family?"
"Next is getting out of the Junk Ring and back to work. I've already got me a firm job offer."
"Sure. And I want to take this moment to say thank you to Channel 52! For offering to start me as your newest Life-At-Five Assignments reporter, and most of all, for--"
Again, the sound of tape being rewound frantically. From the RNG's speaker came a disappointed voice. "Sean, Sean. We're sorry, we're going to have to redo the last twenty seconds, here. Starting back to where we cut from Eva."
"How come we got to do that?"
"Sean, we haven't promised you a position here at the Station."
"No, but you're going to."
"Hello, Sean? This is Syd Cole. Station manager. Look, even though all of us here are extremely sympathetic to your situation we're simply in no position to--"
"Right! And I'm in no position to worry about your fuckin' three-trillion electronic vulture here after we'd headed off to another piece of fuckin' jettison."
"That's no problem, Sean. Just back-link control to us and it'll fly back on its own."
Sean tipped the camera down ninety degrees, to give them a look at the stripped base. "Not without thrusters, it won't. Not without stabilizers, or fuel. See, we borrowed them things for our runabout--didn't think you'd mind or nothing."
Fifty-two sat there regarding itself mutely. The infant made little lapping noises at Eva's breast.
"We'll send a recovery vehicle, Sean."
"Not if I cut off your trace, so you'll never be able to find it up here in fifty million fuckin' tons of orbiting space junk!"
"Tell you what." He wrenched the camera back to eye level and stared into it. "I'll disassemble this unit, pack it in the runabout. I can do that. Maybe cart it back to I-orbit for you."
A resigned voice said, "That would be helpful."
"And you can't say I don't know about appearing on fuckin' video. I done it just the way you wanted, first time out, and it worked perfect, dinnit?"
"We're halfway through segment two and you know you got a fuckin' treasure on your hands. Tell you, just clear me through the station when we get back and I'll give you a wrap-up that'll have `em crying their bleeding eyes out. What do you say?"
"Sean, we could take you on as a video tech. That's a possibility. But on-air talent's something different. The station has an agreement with Equity."
"It's like a union."
"Fuck the fuckin' union. I'll fuckin' join the fuckin' thing. I'm already on this fuckin' tear-jerker you're taping so what the fuck's the difference?"
There was a long pause. "Stand by, Sean."
The wide shot included a tableau of the new father, his arm around his wife, the baby at her breast. Their eyes glittered with gratitude and relief. As Sean spoke, the camera slowly focussed tightly on his careworn face, his gentle eyes.
"It's like a dream come true. For Channel 52 to give me this opportunity, I don't rightly know what to say."
Briefly words stopped as Sean struggled with a throat thick with tears. The camera panned to Eva, gazing up towards him with reverent dependency, then down to little Rosalie, her alabaster head feathered with downy brown hairs.
"Sean and I are looking forward to a second chance at life. It means so much to the future of little Rosalie."
"I know it ain't going to be easy for me, either, at the beginning. I never been anything but a working stiff, a guy who speaks his mind without hiding what he really feels. But that's gonna help me get close to the stories I'll be covering: lives of the I-orbit's working class. Robo-techs, welders, transporters. Assemblers, like Eva and me. I'll be giving viewers a look at what we do. What we want. What we're afraid of.
"And along the way we'll be giving you updates on Rosalie, as she grows up. Seems fair enough--since all of you helped with her birthing.
"And so for now, reporting live from the junk ring, this is Fifty-two 's newest on-the-spot reporter, Sean Hogan."
"That's a wrap, Sean."
"Fuckin' A," Sean muttered, and unscrewed the camera lens. It was time he and Eva had a little privacy.
"And Sean, can we get an idea of when you're planning to return the--of when you're planning to arrive here at the station?"
"I'm gonna take another 750 hours out here, make sure Eva and Rosie's up to the trip before we set off. Maybe longer, if I have to. Just keep a lid on. You'll see the bunch of us soon enough."
"All right, Sean."
"G'day," Sean said, and pulled the backlink plug. The excitement of the possibilities ahead flowed through his chest like electricity.
"I always had faith in you, Seanie," Eva said. "I knew all you needed was a chance of your own."
Sean squeezed his wife's hand, gazed tenderly at his child. Then looked out the window at the junk--beyond it, the Industrial Orbit; beyond that, planet; and back of it all, the sun. It was thrilling how control was flowing back into his own hands, as though it had never left.
Barney Currer (email@example.com) Barney Currer's short fiction has appeared in the Antioch Review, the Hawaii Review, Thema, and Aboriginal Science Fiction. He splits his time between a vineyard in California's Sonoma wine country and a marijuana truck farm in Fort Bragg, Mendocino County. He prefers the term "Speculative Fiction" to "Science Fiction," since it's the year 2000 and we're all living in a Science Fiction world.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Barney Currer.