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...Will Be Boys by JaneLebak
...Will Be Boys by JaneLebak
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Will Be Boys
...Will be Boys
by Jane Lebak

 

In the car on the way to the hospital, Jason said, "Will this be fun?"

Mark looked up from the textbook he was reading in the back. "She's your friend."

Princess twisted in the passenger seat until she could see Mark. "She'll appreciate having us visit." She giggled. "I wonder if the baby looks like her."

Jason rolled his eyes as he found a space and began wedging in the car. "Babies are red wrinkled homely screaming things. Cassie's none of the above."

The front desk directed them to the correct floor, and from there they found maternity easily. Princess had brought flowers, Jason yesterday's issue of The Sporting News with a long article on Cassie's second favorite racer. Her first favorite, of course, was her husband.

Cassie looked tired but triumphant as she displayed the armful. Jason hung back and tried not to look at it--Princess and Mark ogled enough that Jason could form reasonable questions about how Cassie felt. "He's ten pounds, one ounce," she said, "and 23 inches. And I'm sore." She shook her head. "John put up with a lot--he was there the whole time."

Princess asked to hold the baby. "What's his name?" asked Mark.

"Alan Michael." Cassie smiled and sat up a bit. "John picked it."

"You could have named him Lucifer," Jason said from the far wall.

Cassie said dryly, "Too much evil influence."

Mark pushed Jason. "Lucifer's the devil, you idiot."

"Is he?" Cassie had a spark in her eye. "I thought you were referring to my sister Lucy."

Jason had a fascinated stare as Princess held the baby, like a ten year old who comes across a dead animal in the bushes and watches his friends poke it with a stick. "He's cute," Princess said. She looked at Jason. "Do you want to hold him?"

Jason put his hands in his pockets. "You're doing all right."

"I learned about little kids in Covenant House," Princess said, "and I did volunteer work at that day care center--I ought to do more than all right."

"You can hold him," Cassie said to Jason.

"Try it," said Mark.

Jason had been maneuvered into a chair before he'd found a way to protest without offending Cassie, and then the kid lay awkwardly in his lap and arms. Princess moved his hands. "Support his head."

Jason sat ramrod straight. He knew people only say stupid things around babies ("He's so tiny!") so he kept his mouth shut. He was thinking, He's so ugly. No one has the heart to tell her.

The baby started making sounds, and the bundle got returned to Cassie without Jason's having to move, except to bolt from the chair. "He's just fussing," Cassie said, cradling the baby and putting her face low to the infant, crooning. Swallowing, Jason stared.

Mother and child. Supposedly the most human, the most tender relationship anyone ever has. Jason walked toward the window and remembered surviving slide after slide in art appreciation class, watching endless drawings of women at their supposed calling, and enduring the disconnection in his soul which he imagined every mothered son filled with gratitude and warmth.

Cassie looked up at Jason. "Hey, sport, come here." Jason's eyes dropped. "Get over here."

He sat on the edge of the bed, and she put an arm around him while keeping the baby on her lap. "Thanks for coming to visit. I know you're not interested in babies. I appreciate it."

Jason had his back to Mark and Princess, so only Cassie saw the shine in his eyes.

"Your mom loved you too," Cassie whispered. "I promise."

Jason nodded.

"Hey--hands off my wife!" John came into the room with a laugh and scooped up the baby even as Jason slipped off the bed. "Only sixteen years until we can go driving," John said to the newborn in his arms, "and then you can drive your mother crazy."

 

In the car going home, Jason said nothing. Mark had reverted to reading, although from time to time he joined Princess in a conversation. Jason hadn't thanked them for accompanying him even though Cassie was his friend and not theirs, but that seemed more natural: they'd have thought it sarcasm if he had said anything.

After parking the car, Jason said, "Was the baby cute for real?"

Princess stared.

"It didn't look cute to me--just red and wrinkled." Jason shrugged. "I wondered if you were only being polite."

Princess' eyes cleared. "You were never up close to a baby before, were you? They grow on you."

Mark said, "I think it helps a lot if it's your own."

Jason laughed. "I'm never going to have kids--I don't want to be tied down like that, and no sane woman would want me to try being their father."

Upstairs, Keyop asked about the baby while Tiny set out the food for lunch--his turn on the rotation. Jason pitched in by putting together the drink mix and sugar and water--a selfless deed rewarded by having properly sweetened drinks, as opposed to the overly-sweet concoctions of Tiny and Keyop or the over-bland contributions by Mark.

The Chief entered when they were almost ready, and by then the conversation had ranged to future children, and would the Chief enjoy being a grandfather? "Wait a few years," he said in monotone. "I have no intention of acknowledging any illegitimate children."

Jason brightened. "Cool! I have no intention of acknowledging any of them either!" and then dashed for cover because the Chief looked ready to thrash him into a pulp. Murder is an excellent contraception--very few dead people reproduce.

 

Three weeks later, Jason admitted to himself that the baby did get less odious the longer it lived, but he still took no opportunities to touch it. Cassie had shown up at the track one day, her balance restored, glad to be able to reach the gas pedal, and showed Jason how useful she found the child safety seat the Chief had recommended he give her.

Jason had noticed the damage the baby had done to her figure, but mostly in terms of the oddity of it all--a month ago, she'd just been a rounded woman. Now she had nearly her own shape and carried a squirming, fussing, living thing everyone could ogle.

He'd usually called Cassie after a mission--just to ground himself again in reality, just to reassure himself they'd survived and that killing men didn't make him inhuman. She'd always had time for him--no longer. The baby cried, and she got off the phone.

And now, at the beginning of another mission, Jason relaxed into the whining function of the Phoenix as it streaked through space. The planet they'd reach: Scala. A small Spectran outpost preparing a laser cannon capable of stopping interplanetary traffic along one of the major interstellar shipping lanes. Go uproot it, Anderson had said. Nothing special--go in and blow it up. Jason called it a cake run--home in time for dessert. They'd have to sneak in, as only the top of the cannon projected from the surface, but once inside, a few charges should slag the whole installation.

Mark read his math textbook in the captain's chair; Princess read a magazine. At the weapons panel, Jason listened to his walkman, a tape Cassie had recommended but which he didn't particularly appreciate. The man sang with an even and steady voice, but he sounded deliberately uneducated and got too didactic for Jason. He listened anyhow: he found the words easy to remember, the tunes compelling. In the one of the cabins behind the cockpit, Keyop had stretched on a cot and fallen asleep. Only Tiny did his job at the moment, pre-repayment for the time he'd spend safe in the ship while they infiltrated the base.

A bell toned--they'd neared the planet. Tiny had located the base; Princess had awakened Keyop. Jason steeled his will for the fight. They'd already briefed--the instant they landed, they'd go into action.

Almost--

Now.

Up, through the bubble, away from the ship. Jason streaked from the Phoenix, away from the others, into one of the tunnels. Down- he'd found the elevator shaft and jumped--get down and down and keep going. You have a job to do; you have a time limit.

Alarms--Jason hadn't tripped them. He took cover in a supply closet for a few moments as the Spectrans scrambled into activity. Next thing, the lights died.

A call over the wrist radio. "Watch out!" Princess--frantic. "The reactor--I didn't realize--"

An explosion rocked the whole installation, and Jason pressed into the door frame as the earth trembled around him. Chunks of plaster plummeted from the ceiling, and a book case collapsed. Jason heard shattering glass, and then another explosion. The door nearly slammed on him, but he blocked it.

Too soon, he thought. Did the Spectrans realize, and had they self-destructed in advance? Was this a trap?

"Sound off!" Mark shouted over the bracelets.

"G-2," Jason said.

"G-3."

"G-4."

"G-5."

"Is it stable?" Jason said.

"I think so--give it a moment." Princess paused. "I misjudged--"

"The lights are out," Keyop said. "Should we continue?"

A pause from Mark. Then, "Yes. Are you all unhurt?"

No one indicated otherwise. Jason started creeping through the hall, fading into a doorway whenever a Spectran came along. He carried his cable gun at the ready, but the further he penetrated the base, the fewer people he saw.

A stairwell. Jason continued descending. Spectran layout had only a few variations--rare was the base that had its reactor near the entrance. Princess must have blown up the power source for the cannon. Emergency lights at last, and he moved more carefully. The air had a gritty taste this far beneath the surface--had the filters gone offline? Jason touched the rubber breathing mask and mini oxygen tank on his belt, but he didn't uncoil the tubing. He might need it more later, after the air got really foul and smokey. Best not to waste it.

The team member at the lowest level had to place the first bombs- more time to get out, less likelihood of structural collapse pinning everyone miles beneath the surface if they detonated early. Jason moved out at the bottom floor and searched for a "structural integrity focal point." Then to set the charges.

A few corridors forked off the main, and Jason paused before a sign, trying to identify the words. Nothing familiar. He continued, then stopped. The air had grown incredibly foul, and he put on his mask. Oxygen rushed in, and he breathed more easily as he moved.

And he halted.

A chair in the hall, only impossibly small, the seat at mid-calf height, the back knee-high. Jason rushed forward and found himself staring into a classroom.

"Commander!" His voice in the bracelet sounded muffled, so he lifted the mask. "We can't bomb here! There's a nursery!"

"Shit--how many kids?"

The mask back in place, Jason moved into the room. Over the bracelet, Princess sounded concerned. "Need my help?"

By unspoken agreement, Princess had always rescued the children. Jason and she might come upon a child, and Jason would draw his gun and cover her.

He stepped into the room and stared. Moving cautiously, he walked a floor riddled with tiny bodies, the prone forms covered with fine yellow dust and dead at their desks, on the floor, in a heap by the door. Two dead teachers.

Shit. Shit. He moved through the room and nudged a few of the bodies. All dead. Portions of the ceiling had collapsed, and a broken pipe hung exposed overhead--the source of the yellow chemical that hung misty in the air and lay like powder on every horizontal surface.

Thirty children or a couple fewer. And--

Moving to the far wall, Jason found two incubators--babies under glass. The first baby lay still, blue--suffocated. The second incubator hissed and sputtered, stopped, then started again.

The only one left. Jason looked around. The incubator rattled. The baby cried soundlessly behind the glass. Jason's eyebrows contracted. After a moment, he took a deep breath from the oxygen, popped open the incubator and grabbed the baby under its arms, fixed the mask over its nose and mouth. With held breath, Jason tucked the child under one arm and bolted for the stairwell, tossing three bombs with his free hand as he ran. Linked to Mark's detonator--he'd have a chance to get upstairs. He needed to breathe, but he kept moving, streaked to the steps. Just inside the stairwell, he gasped for his first breath and got nothing but grit, useless air. Another gasp--he saw flashes of light, doubled over and fought the urge to cough.

Upstairs--go up. Jason stumbled, but he moved. The baby had roused completely and now it moved around, almost losing its diaper, clinging to his arm weakly, sporadically. Three floors up, Jason tripped on the steps and landed on his knees and coughed, coughed, coughed.

He moved into a hallway where the Spectran signs indicated a medical station. Here the vents still worked. Jason located the doctors and disposed of them with his gun; finding a medical kit, he opened another tank of oxygen. His lungs stopped throbbing when he could take short breaths, panting like a woman in labor. Deep breaths still tingled.

He looked at the baby--tinier than Cassie's. Not as red or wrinkled, but still ugly. Jason held it in his gloved hands, then found a long roll of wide gauze; a few wraps around his body, around his waist, under the baby's bottom, crossed over its back, and up behind his neck, and the baby stayed on his chest without occupying his hands. Now--he relinquished the oxygen and said into the bracelet, "Stage one complete."

Then he coughed like hell, but he'd gotten the bracelet away in time. Mark said, "Ready for stage two."

In other words, get upstairs. Jason looked at the tank and decided he couldn't carry it--too bulky. The baby had been in the incubator, a preemie from its size, hence weak-lunged. No use bringing it upstairs only to have it die of pneumonia--leave the mask. Without his own mask, though, he'd have to move slowly. He hated elevators, but he'd have to try: too easy to be seen, be caught, be trapped and killed, but if he couldn't breathe, he couldn't climb steps either. A moment's work at the elevator door yielded an open shaft. Jason looked up and down for cameras. None he could see--bad sign. His cape had closed over the baby, but he rested one hand on the extra six pounds strapped to his chest. Hopefully, despite his not being a boy scout, the knots would hold.

The shaft. No elevator on the way up--after it had passed going downward, he fired his cable gun several floors, tugged, and released the spring, reeled himself and the baby as far as he could. He found another handhold and did it again: ascend as far as possible before the elevator's return. His lungs ached, but he managed. The baby had begun to cry into its mask.

Jason had no idea what level he'd reached, but the elevator had gotten close, so he pried open a door and re-entered the floors. Lights out, alarms ringing. The mask muffled the baby's crying, but Jason could feel the baby shuddering against his chest. And it did hurt to breathe. Find someplace. Hole up until he could run again. A ventilation shaft provided enough room, and he climbed inside. Wait. Princess would have her bombs in place after Mark called in. Then Keyop--after that, they all had to run. He had a few minutes. Mark radioed them.

Jason unstrapped the baby and looked at it. Ugly. Pink face, pushed-up nose, ungainly limbs, disproportionately large head. It had a gasping cry, so Jason tried to soothe it the way Cassie had hers. Finally, he took off his gloves and touched the baby, skin to skin. "I'm not really a bird," he whispered. "See--we're a lot alike."

It calmed the instant he touched it, and after a moment it made little noises, grunts and whimpers. Cassie had called this "fussing," but Jason thought it was talking. A language of one.

UNICEF would take the baby--a program matched Spectran war children with Spectran expatriots, sometimes even could reunite them with their parents and send them back home. Jason had seen a few kids go that way. This one would, too.

"I'll call you Lucifer," he said, "because you're a hell of a lot of trouble." And then he coughed again--it brought tears to his eyes, the pain, and when he lowered his hands, his fingers reflexively spread from palms spattered with blood.

That's not good. Inhale a poison, cough up blood: not a preferable combination. Not the way he'd imagined dying. That yellow grit in the air--it had killed all those children, spared only the baby in the incubator, gotten into his system.

He could taste blood at the back of his throat. Damn. This wouldn't get better just by waiting--he had to make it to the Phoenix.

But the baby looked comforted, less distressed than at any time in their escape so far. It kept talking. Jason touched the baby again and got a cooed response, fondled its hair until the infant tried to focus on him, let it rest on his chest. Maybe he could remain a moment longer.

Princess called. Get ready for stage four.

Jason let his mind return to Cassie's tape--you were a baby like I was once.

"Did you ever get scared playing hide and seek?
Did you try not to cry when you scraped your knee?
Did you ever skip a rock across a quiet creek?
And did they tell you stories about the saints of old,
Stories about their faith?
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold,
Stories like that make a man walk straight.
"

"And if I ever do grow up," Jason whispered, "you know I want to grow up and be just like you." He didn't cough if he didn't voice the sounds; and the baby had cooed as he went through the song. He talked through any lyrics he could remember, made up others, ended with "And I really may just grow up and be like you someday."

Almost time to move. Jason strapped the baby securely, replaced the gloves, and checked the corridor. Keyop radioed in. Head out.

Disorder in the extreme--Mark and possibly the other two had been through here, a trail of bodies to line the way like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs. The other Spectrans stayed clear, the bodies a convincing deterrent. Don't fight them--just get out.

Just get out, Jason told himself as the poison riddling his lungs struck again. He resisted coughing, remembered tasting blood and forced himself to breathe.

The bracelet chirped. "Everyone out?"

"G-3, out!"

"G-4, out!"

G-5 had always been on board the ship. Jason ran, out of breath, afraid to try speaking as he moved.

"G-2?" said Mark.

"Almost," he gasped, tears in his eyes. Up more steps, up as fast as he could. The top floor. He bolted from the exit and took cover in the brush. He could see the Phoenix. Surrounded by guards.

Damn. Every gulp of air brought a shudder through his body. Even though it was fresh air, not reprocessed, tainted, bitter-tasting staleness, even so, he feared every breath, endured it, then feared the next. On and on. The baby cried at him, and one hand came out of its glove, touched the skin of the child. A quiet child. Quiet breaths. Wait.

And then, tremors in the ground as one by one, the explosives detonated. Jason counted them, ready to fix a quieting hand over the baby's mouth if it started to scream. It didn't--his hands on its arms, on its chest, seemed to quiet it more than a hand over its mouth. A breeze swept over him, and he inhaled tenderly, but no coughing. He let the baby pull his hand up to its masked mouth, then lifted the rubber piece enough to let it suck on one of his fingers while he watched, planned, waited. The other three needed to return to the Phoenix too. Wait until they distracted the guards, then bolt all at once. Try not to fight--just get inside with the child and worry about breathing again. Suffocation seemed almost preferable to another bout of coughing.

His throat spasmed, and the effort to resist brought tears. The baby talked to him, and Jason looked at it with wet eyes. I have to make it. I have to make it.

He had to call Mark, get the retreat started so they could leave fast. Much longer and he'd get a lot worse. He whispered into the bracelet, "I need to get in--can someone cover me?"

"I can." Mark, seconded momentarily by Keyop. Jason replaced his gloves, checked the child's restraints, and crouched at the ready. A few seconds, and then a challenging shout from Mark. A sudden flurry from the guards as they ran in pursuit. Jason took off- just get to the ship. Just get there. Someone fired on him, but Jason flung a feather suriken without looking, and the gunshots stopped. He gathered for the jump onto the ship, and as the bubble closed around him, he fell to his knees coughing.

Tiny grabbed him in the cockpit. "You man the ship--I'm going out to help."

Tiny didn't see the bundle under his closed wings, didn't hear the light hiss of the baby's oxygen tank. Jason slackened into the copilot's chair, then roused himself enough to make it to the medical closet in the versatile kitchen/operating room/conference room immediately behind the cockpit to the right. Another oxygen tank got started, and Jason breathed in short bursts. The stars had faded from his eyes. He untied the baby and laid it on the table wrapped in a blanket, then pulled off his gloves and touched it again. The baby looked right at him, and suddenly it blossomed into a smile.

Jason blinked. A tiny hand shot out and grabbed his finger, pulled it into a toothless mouth. He leaned on the elbow that kept the mask at his face, staring at this Spectran baby. The eyes met his, and the baby tugged at his hand. With a twist of his finger, Jason disengaged from the infant and went into the cockpit to check the team. Mark and Princess were breaking through a wall of Spectrans to reach Keyop. Tiny was having a ball at the expense of another division, but he was badly outnumbered. It took a moment to make the decision. Up and out the bubble, off the ship and into the crowd. Breathing still ached, but the oxygen had steadied him. He and Tiny ended up back to back, and then they split off again.

A blow to the stomach caught Jason unprepared, and he doubled over, coughing and gasping. Fire in his shoulder--he twisted to avoid another bullet, and then someone had scooped him around the waist and leaped with him out of the crowd. Tiny. "Get inside," he said. "Warm up the engines--I'll be all right."

The bubble took Jason down. He touched his shoulder and felt blood smear his gloves. In the back room, the baby cried, so he lifted it, strapped it close, carried it and the oxygen tank into the cockpit. The gloves came off again, and he alternated between holding the oxygen mask and pressing a wad of surgical gauze over the entry wound.

The engines flared into life--warm her up. The copilot's chair. Jason folded his wings over the baby and let them keep it warm. Incubate it. Come back and help its poor body to live. Lie still and pant your way back to coherence. Answer a riddle: Who the hell builds a nursery where the pipes overhead can rupture and spill poison into the room? Why the hell keep children in a military installation? Don't pass out, Jason--you'll be all right.

The rest of the team had jumped from the fight onto the Phoenix, and the bubble lowered them into the cockpit. Tiny sprang into his seat and gunned the engines, lifted the warship. Mark gave orders, and Jason complied--the lift, the angle, the missiles--Jason couldn't breathe. The pressure of their ascent forced the breath from him, and he choked, fumbled for the oxygen mask.

A mech had appeared on the horizon, and Mark bolted from his chair to the front panel. Jason couldn't move. The act of breathing. Concentrate.

Princess had begun shouting readings--the size of the mech, the speed and location, its likely power source. Mark had put a hand on Jason's shoulder--unspoken permission to keep strangling privately while Mark handled the missiles. The baby lay beneath the wings, still as Jason hunched forward to try breathing better. The tightness in his lungs felt like hundreds of rubber bands. Unless he had on the mask, he couldn't get enough air.

Mark fired the missiles, and they landed home. "Take her up!" he ordered. "Fast!"

The g-force pounded Jason, but he didn't collapse onto the child. The Phoenix rocked as the shock waves from the detonating mech pummeled them, but Tiny handled the ship well, and then the motion calmed. Mark ordered a low altitude orbit to certify they'd destroyed everything, and he assigned Princess to run the monitors. He turned to Jason. "Get in the back--let's take care of that shoulder."

Jason tried to stand, but his balance was gone, and he stumbled to hands and knees. Keyop rushed forward, but he stepped back and stared before touching him.

Mark crouched beside Jason.

"A baby!" Keyop cut the gauze straps and enfolded the child in his arms. "You didn't say!"

Jason started coughing so violently he couldn't reply, and the blood got in his mouth, on his hands. Dimly aware of Mark's arm on his shoulder, he tried to explain, wanted to talk or show him or warn him but instead could only reflexively, stupidly keep trying to cough up whatever that yellow grit was that had nestled into his lungs like ants in an underground colony. Everything had gone numb but that one constriction, and his vision faded to grey. Sound was a whine louder than the engines. His mouth tingled. He collapsed.

Mark lifted him. "Keep going," he told Princess, who stared from her seat. "Keyop, bring that oxygen tank."

The baby got dumped onto Jason's seat, and Keyop followed Mark with the oxygen. The quick, regular hiss of the unit marked the seconds as Mark detransmuted Jason and treated the shoulder. The baby started to cry, and it didn't stop until a minute later when Keyop returned to replace it (instantly quiet) beside Jason, who still hadn't awakened. Nor did he awaken when Princess radioed the Chief and was instructed to bring Jason directly to Center Neptune, nor when the medical team brought a stretcher right onto the Phoenix and moved him to the medical care unit.

 

"Light she grew, like a bird, and, like a bird, sound bubbled in her throat while the body fluttered in agony. Night and day, asleep or awake (though indeed there was no difference now) the songs and the phrases leaped. And he, who had once dreaded a long dying (from fear of himself, from horror of the dwindling money,) now desired her quick death profoundly, for her sake."

Light, warmth, presence, and sleepiness. Time felt more fluid than the ocean, encroaching and then falling back, letting him surface and surrender at random, but each cycle leaving him a little closer to wakefulness.

A voice, low and easy, gentle, steady, had been speaking for a long time before Jason started focusing on the words. They seemed to emerge from nowhere and lead nowhere, but slowly he traced them backward, fitted them into sentences and paragraphs, and finally arranged them in context. The Chief. Reading to him. Tears in his eyes. One hand on Jason's on the bed.

"He went to press the buzzer to wake Jeannie, looked down, saw on Jeannie's sketch pad the hospital bed, with her; the double bed alongside, with him; the tall pillar feeding into her veins, and their hands, his and hers, clasped, feeding each other. And as if he had been instructed he went to his bed, lay down, holding the sketch (as if it could shield against the monstrous shapes of loss, of betrayal, of death) and with his free hand took hers back into his. So Jeannie found them in the morning."

At the end of the section, the Chief looked up and found Jason staring with wide eyes. He startled. "You're awake!"

Jason had snatched his hand close to his chest as if burned. "Am I going to die?"

The Chief looked puzzled, then glanced at the book. "Oh--no, I didn't pick this story for any reason. It just happens to be a powerful one, and I'd read that patients recover consciousness faster if people speak to them. You provided an occasion to test the theory."

Jason saw the title of the story: "Tell Me A Riddle" by Tillie Olsen. He stretched and felt the stiff non-sensation in his shoulder. The soreness in his nose was plastic tubing looped over his ears that shot oxygen into him. He pushed himself upright and jumped out of bed, but the effort left him coughing, sagging against the mattress. Leaping to his feet, the Chief fixed an oxygen mask over Jason's mouth, and he breathed from that with a shudder.

"Don't do that." The Chief pushed him back into bed. "No deep breaths, no sudden moves. You inhaled an extremely abrasive substance, and it's cut up your bronchioles and trachea pretty extensively. We administered an anti-inflammatory and an inhalant that coated your trachea and seems to have neutralized a lot of the abrasive. Your system can take care of the remainder, but you have to give it a rest. You mustn't cough."

Jason lay back and pulled off the mask, let the tube under his nose do its job. As he relaxed, he felt a living six-pound bundle at his side, suddenly stirring as if just awkening. He turned to the Chief with wide eyes. "I swear to God, that's not my kid." He choked and replaced the mask.

The Chief raised his eyes. "The baby needed to be near you. We've got him on a heart monitor and a breathing monitor if you care to see. He didn't want to be separated from you."

Jason moved slowly to look, lowered the mask. The baby shifted, focused only on him, and beamed. It no longer wore a mask of its own. Jason stared. "Why? It can't possibly understand what I did."

"You don't understand what you did," said the Chief. "I'll explain--but first, why don't I finish reading the story?"

Jason took up the Chief on his offer of recovery time--the man always left him an out, he knew, and he let his lungs rest while he closed his eyes and listened to the final few paragraphs. "She's not there, she promised me. On the last day, she said she would go back to when she first heard music. It's a wedding and they dance... She promised me. Leave her there... Come back and help her poor body to die."

"God, that's a downer," Jason said.

"It's a very good story." The Chief shrugged. "It's part of the canon, if you ever end up in a literature class. Now, one story finished, tell me the less poetic tale of how you found the baby."

Jason detailed the slaughtered nursery and the incubator that had protected the baby. "Stop," said the Chief. "Mistake number one- that wasn't an incubator."

Jason blinked. "Of course it was--this is a preemie, right? And it was hot inside."

"It was hot because it was overheating. The grit in the air had jammed the filters. The other unit had probably given out from the same cause. Spectran babies come smaller than humans, so we guess this child is about six weeks old."

Jason nodded. He explained why he'd given the baby the oxygen. "That was the right thing," the Chief said. "The air would have killed the baby. You didn't realize you could take it back afterward."

Jason shrugged. "And that was it."

"Not quite," said the Chief. "Spectran babies are usually born gendered, but sometimes there's a baby born without. The baby will pattern on its favorite caretaker, usually in the first month, and assume that person's sex. One of the traits they've noticed about these children is fierce loyalty to the person who patterned them, assuming they know who it is, so you can imagine how valuable they'd be. These babies go for quite a bit of money."

Jason gaped. "They sell them?"

Anderson shrugged as Jason took a quick breath from the mask. "It happens. They become bodyguards, personal assistants, and so on- they're well treated for the rest of their lives. Powerful people, like Zoltar, will pay a lot for a child they can pattern. These people usually don't have the time to care for a baby, of course, so the child is placed in an isolation case, touched only with gloves, and given only filtered air to prevent early patterning. When the purchaser comes along after a couple of months, the baby's distress is great enough that only a few minutes' handling will suffice to pattern the child."

Jason looked at the infant by his side. "I touched it--him. I took off my gloves."

"And the child bonded," said Anderson. "Congratulations. You've stolen Zoltar's property."

"I had no idea." Jason stroked the child's hair. "Did I really screw up? I mean, do I have to stay with him forever?"

"Someone can come from UNICEF to get the child when he's well. He needs to gain a little weight to be healthy--they don't thrive in isolation, but once they've patterned, they take off." The Chief stood and walked to the foot of the bed. "You understand why we have to send him away?"

Jason chuckled. "I can't raise a child, and after the five of us, you're sick of it."

"True." The Chief looked amused. "And in a couple of years, when the kid can walk, he'll be so attached to you that you might as well call him the G-6. No--better to send him away and allow him to forget you."

"And let him be raised by his own kind," Jason said. "You won't send him back to be sold, will you?"

"He's got no market value already patterned." The Chief laughed dryly. "Cute, though."

After a moment, Jason said, "Where are the others?"

"Back on the mainland. You'd been out for over fifteen hours. When you're well enough to have visitors, I'll call them."

The baby started to fuss, and Jason propped the kid up on his knees and lap, looking him in the eyes. The Chief watched as Jason tried several times to get the kid comfortable, shifting both himself and the unwieldy baby. After a minute, he stepped forward and placed the baby correctly. "Spectra's having a ball over this, by the way," he said. "They claim you attacked a legitimate colony, deny the presence of any cannon, and are calling for you to be handed over as war criminals for the deaths of those children."

Jason said, "Do they know we saved this one?"

"Doesn't matter--if it was a base, he's a POW, and if it was a colony, we'll just say that since he was obviously purchased by someone, he's property, and seized property doesn't have to be returned." The Chief noted with amusement that the baby had shifted a bit and Jason couldn't figure out how to correct.

The baby crossed the line from fussing to crying, and the Chief showed Jason how to hold it again. The baby sucked on one of his fingers; a nurse arrived with a bottle and together with the Chief showed Jason how to feed a baby.

"The baby's heart rate drops when you're near," the Chief told Jason, "which is why we put him in bed with you," as Jason kept feeding the baby, "but a pleasant side effect we didn't anticipate was that your heart rate dropped as well."

 

Cassie's eyes bugged when Jason showed up at the track. "Are you nuts? You're supposed to be taking it easy! Why aren't you at ISO?"

Jason shrugged, walking slowly. "I only have to pace myself. It's been two weeks--I'm a lot better. I wanted to check on my trailer. Besides," and he flashed up a cassette, "I still have your Rich Mullins tape."

Cassie brought him into one of the garages and made him sit. She had her baby in her arms, but the one she spoke about was "his" baby. "Not any longer." Jason laughed low. "He's got a real home- a pair of Spectrans living in Chicago, of all places. He played with both me and them for a while, and when they took him home, he'd gotten used to them. So he's gone."

Cassie eyed him gently. "You upset?"

Jason shook his head. "He wasn't mine to begin with." He smiled at Alan Michael. "Yours got big, though."

"You think so?" Cassie let Jason lift the baby from her, stood protectively nearby as Jason shifted the baby into his arms and sat it up to look around the garage.

Jason said to the baby,
"Did you wrestle with a dog and lick his nose?
Did you play beneath the spray of a water hose?
Did you ever make angels in the winter snows?
And did they tell you stories about the saints of old,
Stories about their faith?
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold.
Stories like that make a man walk straight."

Cassie said, "And he really may just grow up and be like you someday."

And Jason laughed.

 

Chapter End Notes:

"Boy Like Me / Man Like You" by Rich Mullins off the album "The World As Best As I Remember It" volume one. Words and music by Rich Mullins and Beaker, copyright 1991 BGM songs, inc. (ASCAP) / Kid Brothers of St. Frank Publishing (ASCAP).

"Tell Me A Riddle" by Tillie Olsen, from the book Tell Me A Riddle, Delacourte Press, 1978 edition, pages 63 to 116. Quoted sections from pages 108, 115 and 116.

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