The New Nomad

“Chih-Tih!” Nall squeals, probing the translucent air bladder.

“Yes, baby, Chitlids.” My voice comes out tight. The spring has been so late, so cold—I’d thought we’d seen the last of the Chitlids. But this morning we awoke to hundreds of them, dragging their long tentacles through the air between the swaying dandular trunks.

Nall grasps at a Chitlid that puffs just out of xer reach. Pursuing, xe runs through a patch of yellow irrenes, spore pods bursting, and I hurry after. A rustling from a large spench bush pulls xer up short. A turam bolts from it, long legs and orange spots flashing as it disappears into the dandulars.

“Jaff!” Nall cries, clapping with glee.

“It does look like a giraffe, doesn’t it?” I laugh. “But giraffes are from Earth, baby. That’s a turam calf. Tu-ram.”

“Tuhm,” xe repeats, breathless with wonder, and my heart cracks. The turam’s diet relies heavily on spench berries. As our summers shorten, spench yields drop.

A familiar dread settles in my stomach, as I imagine the day I’ll have to explain to Nall that all the animals xe’s learning to name so lovingly will soon be gone. “We didn’t know,” I’ll tell xer. “Not until you were nine months big in my belly. We didn’t know that a solar system away, a star was collapsing, wrenching Coron from its orbit.”

Past the dandular canopy, our sun shines at high noon, a few dozen light-years farther away than it was at this time last year. Next year, it’ll be farther still. And ten years from now, after the last perihelion, we’ll be too far gone for it to ever pull us back. All the humans on Coron will descend into the subterranean caverns we are fervently constructing, to live off geothermal energy as Coron hurtles into deep space.

I wrench my mind back to the present, to Coron’s surface, where it’s, “nap time!” for this toddler.

I carry Nall back to the habitat as xe howls and makes xer joints all loose in their sockets, trying to slip from my arms. If Nall had xer way, we’d never come indoors. We’d explore gladial patches and hunt cardizes until xe passed out from exhaustion.

Back in the nursery, I dim the walls and set them thrumming with white noise. Nall calms down as soon as xe starts to nurse. Our bodies curl together on the bed, and I bury my nose in xer hair, wishing we were simple beasts. Turam and calf. Ignorant of the terrible future. When xer breathing slows to a snore, and my nipple slips from xer lips, I ease up out of bed.

But as I stand, the room reels. My vision clouds with spots, and I have to fight for consciousness. After a few moments, the dizzy spell passes, and I creep from the room, sealing the door behind me.

I must be anemic again. I’ve been breastfeeding Nall for almost two years now, and I get so sick of the daily nutrient injections. The med-droid will remind me to get my postnatal shots, and I’ll snooze its alert again and again, sometimes accidentally shutting it off for weeks at a time. So I keep making myself sick like this.

Now I summon the med-droid from its storage alcove and press my fingertip to the quick-read sensor, flinching at the prick. My vital stats appear on its face. Iron count could be higher, but I’m not quite anemic. I need some B12 too. One line of my health report is flashing red, and the information there is so unexpected that my brain takes long moments to process it.

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin detected.

For a thousand years, we’ve known that HCG in the blood means one and only one thing.

I’m pregnant.

Somehow I make it to the couch and collapse, dizzier and shakier than before.

How could this have happened? A vague memory surfaces—me, in the middle of cooking, Nall fussing, and the med-droid flashing, reminding me to take my last ovulation suppressant. I must have snoozed it—or did I turn it off?

And then there was that night Mikkle’s parent babysat, so we could watch the double lunar eclipse from the Cliffs of Jethem.

My rational mind, the me of me, tells me to call the med-droid and do what must be done. I count back to my last menstruation—five weeks. The zygote may not have implanted yet. One quick injection from the med-droid, and it never will.

But there’s a surprising tumult of voices inside me, protesting this plan. Memories of pregnancy sweep through me, and I can feel it all again—Nall turning over inside me, xer first hiccups—little butterfly jumps—kicks pushing against the skin of my abdomen.

I try to remind myself of all the aches and pains of pregnancy, the nausea and heartburn. But the thought of a new baby is making me swoon. A tiny, cooing thing who’d fit in the crook of my arm. Gummy smiles and macaroni fingers curling and uncurling around my thumb.

I try to remind myself of the sleepless nights caring for a newborn. How Nall puked up every type of formula I printed—how xe screamed and thrashed every time I brought xer near the nursing droid. The claustrophobia of cluster-feeding, when xe’d nurse for six hours in a stretch, and I couldn’t get away.

Besides, there’s only one thing to be done here, on a planet that is spinning out of orbit.

It’s not illegal to carry a baby to term, not yet. But space and resources in the caverns will be limited, and Parliament has issued a decree, urging us not to have children until they can pass population control. They’re still debating the best way to go about it. Will we have to formally apply to procreate? As a second-time breeder, I’d certainly be denied. Will there be punishments for those who break the law? Birth control in the water supply? Forced abortions? Earth history teaches us that it’s not an easy thing—defying biology’s most urgent imperative.

And there’s always the possibility that the caverns won’t be completed before the last perihelion. That there may not be room for all 100,921 humans on Coron to live below ground when the surface turns to ice.

So how dare I consider creating the 100,922nd?

Nall wakes up squalling then, and I head into the nursery. I decide to wait until Mikkle gets home to do anything. Mikkle will convince me of what I already know I need to do.

But part of me—what is rapidly becoming the loudest part of me—hopes xe won’t.

By the time Mikkle’s transport lands, dusk is falling. The flock of Chitlids has already thinned, as they chase the first pollens of spring up the spine of the continent.

Mikkle breezes into the kitchen, floral shift fluttering. Nall runs towards xer squealing, and xe scoops up our baby under one arm and plants a kiss on my cheek.

“I didn’t feel up to making dinner—” I start.

“No worries,” xe says, setting Nall on the counter. Mikkle is always cheerful in the evenings, energized by xer work. “What’ve we got to cook?”

“A few squashes from the greenhouse, but they’re scrawny,” I say, holding up the yellow vegetables. “And we foraged for spench berries, but I felt bad taking too many from the turam.”

“I’ll print up some rice and protein for a stir-fry. Ooh, and I can print some ice cream to go with the berries…I think we have enough lactose—” xe starts sorting through our ingredient canisters.

I can’t seem to spit out the words I know I need to say. “How was work?” I manage, pulling the knife from the block.

“Excellent! The new geothermal regulators are working with better efficiency than predicted. In a way, you know, we’re lucky. Coron’s molten core will provide a stable source of energy for 90 million-ish years—way longer than our star would have lasted.”

“Lucky,” I repeat, slicing the squash paper-thin. “I think it’d be luckier if our planet stayed in orbit. If Nall could grow up topside, instead of living underground like a crust-vole while we hurtle through the endless, freezing darkness.”

“Hey now, who’s to say the freezing darkness will be endless?” Mikkle says. “There’s a one-in-a-billion chance we’ll find our way into orbit around another star. Or we could always fall into a black hole.”

Normally a bleak joke like that would be just the thing to make me laugh and break a dark mood. But today, I drop the knife and press my eyes, fighting back tears.

“Hey—hey! What is it?” Mikkle asks.

Nall picks up on my energy too, reaching for me with grabby hands. I pick xer up and hold xer on my hip, turning to Mikkle. “Will there be room?”

Mikkle looks at me quizzically.

“In the caverns. You’re in those systems director meetings. You must know. Will there be room for everyone?” I’ve never asked Mikkle this directly before. Maybe I was too afraid to know the answer.

“Capacity is our top priority,” xe says. “We’re tunneling as fast as we can.”

“Don’t give me that official soundbite.” I drop into a chair, and Nall nuzzles inside my shirt, taking shelter from the tension in my voice.

“It’s not just a matter of beds, you know? Each additional person requires more space for food production, waste management, water storage…but we should have space for everyone.” Xe pushes back xer long hair with both hands. “But there will be setbacks… earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, gas pockets…” Xe sighs. “We’re working as fast as we can.”

Nall stretches towards my other breast. “And if we’re not fast enough?” I ask, shifting xer to the other side.

Mikkle picks at a spot on the counter. “…There’s been talk of a lottery.”

I groan, imagining the horror of waiting on some official to tell us whether we’ll be allowed below or left to die on the surface.

“Are you worried about us?” Mikkle kneels in front of me. “Leira, we’re department heads. Essential personnel. You—me—Nall—our family will have a place, no matter what.”

I knew this on some level, but it’s so good to hear Mikkle say it. I sag with relief, and part of me hates myself for it. For not feeling guiltier.

I bury my nose in Nall’s curls. “And what if it’s not just the three of us?” I mumble.


“What if it’s not just you, me, and Nall?” I force myself to look up, and I hold Mikkle’s gaze. For a few heartbeats, xer brow furrows in confusion, then widens in understanding.

“Oh. Oh, shit…The eclipse—?”

I nod, biting my lip, watching xer closely as emotions sweep across xer face. Mikkle lets out a long breath, steeling xerself. When xe speaks again, xer voice is devoid of emotion, like xe’s discussing a broken thermal regulator. “You know what you have to do, right?” The question, the coldness in xer voice, cuts like a knife to the gut.

“Do I?” I ask, voice shaking.

“It’s irresponsible to make more people.” Mikkle gets up and starts pacing. “Until construction on the caverns is complete? It’s just wrong, Leira. We already have one child!”

I can’t believe that xe is scolding me like this, and my voice comes out in a snarl.

“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you came in me.” It’s an ugly thing to say, and I want to take it back as soon as it’s out. Mikkle’s eyes fill with pain, then harden.

“Maybe you should remember to take your shots.”

I’m mad at myself for that too, but I’m furious with xer for saying it out loud.

Nall rips off my breast, teeth scraping my nipple, and starts wailing. Xe hates when we fight. I press xer into Mikkle’s chest, because suddenly I can’t stand being in the habitat another minute.

“Leira, wait—” Mikkle starts.

But I’m already ducking out the hatch into a double-moonlit night.

I take off running down the path through the fistle grove, following the path towards the lake. I go fast, so my heartrate spikes, my muscles scream for oxygen, and adrenaline dilutes the cocktail of painful neurotransmitters that are making me feel so utterly miserable. It occurs to me that if I let nature take its course, soon I won’t be able to sprint like this, another miserable side-effect of pregnancy. Another reason I should be eager to put an end to it.

After a mile, the fistles thin, and I pick my way down the slope towards the lake. My boots slip in the Brakke-moss along the shore, releasing that musty odor the rock-leapers love. I clamber up onto a glittering boulder of aurum jutting out over the moonlit waters.

The temperature has probably dropped twenty degrees since this afternoon, and the film of sweat beneath my light clothes makes me shiver. I wish I’d brought a heated jumper.

A mournful cry echoes across the lake, and the bioluminescent spines of a naweh pierce the surface of the water. All the arthropods chittering in the shore-reeds hush, as if in reverence, and the beauty of the song tugs on all the knotted emotions inside me.

I briefly consider the logistics of bringing a naweh into the caverns. Just one of the great serpents might need what—five, six acres of hunting ground? Ten acres of flooded cavern, then, for a single breeding pair. It would never get approved. If they’re not extinct already, all the naweh will freeze in their lakes shortly after the last perihelion.

The boulder beneath me rumbles, then lurches, nearly bucking me into the lake that appears to be boiling. An earthquake. I grasp for the lip of the boulder and flatten my body to the rock as it heaves beneath me. After a minute, Coron stills. It was only a small tremor, but I slide to the ground in case more will follow, gripped with a sudden fear for the fragile life inside me.

I’m not the only one. A light pings in the upper-right corner of my vision, and I press the sensor under my temple, answering the call.

“You okay?” Mikkle’s disembodied face appears before me.

Part of me wants to thaw, but I can’t seem to crack the ice coating my voice. “I’m fine.”

“You should come back, in case there’s another tremor.”

“You know everything I should do, don’t you?”

A long pause.

“I’m sorry, Leira. I—I should’ve asked what you wanted.”

“Yeah. You should’ve.”

“Please come back. Nall’s asleep. We can talk.”

“…Fine,” I say, pretending at reluctance, though really I’m desperate to get back to the habitat and crank up the heat. I’m desperate to make up with Mikkle, who’s better than xe acted tonight. We’re better than we acted tonight.

Back home, as soon as I drop onto the couch, Mikkle starts unlacing my Brakke-caked boots. “What are you doing?” I ask, though I think I know.

Mikkle slides one off. “I want to start over.” Xe starts unlacing the other boot. “So. How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know? Freaked out?”

Mikkle nods and lifts my bare feet into xer lap. I can’t help but smile. When I was pregnant with Nall, xe read about this old Earth custom spouses did for pregnant partners. One day, early in my second trimester, I complained of aching feet, and Mikkle pushed the med-droid away, insisting on massaging my feet with xer own two hands.

“And?” xe asks, sliding a thumb along the arch of my foot. I sigh at how good it feels.

“I know I have to end it. I know that’s right, but—” my voice catches.

“But we had always talked about having two kids. Before everything…” Xe gently tugs on each of my toes.

“The med-droid can only do the procedure for another couple weeks. After that I’d have to go to a doctor—”

“So? Then you’ll go to a doctor,” Mikkle holds up my foot by the heel and starts punching the sole. “You don’t have to decide tonight.”

I lean back on the couch, pressing a palm to my abdomen, where I’m starting to feel familiar twinges. “I don’t have to decide tonight.”

The next day, I’m surprised that I can’t wait to get to the lab. Lately I’ve felt robbed by every day I spend working underground. Robbed of every word Nall learns from the daycare center droids, rather than from my lips. Robbed of the warmth of our star on my face for every hour spent under cold, subterranean lights.

I became a biologist because I couldn’t stand being cooped up indoors. I wanted to spend my life exploring the wilds of Coron, cataloguing the hundreds of millions of species that inhabit our lush planet. But when the astronomers’ council gave us the terrible news, I was conscripted into designing subterranean habitats. My team decides which species to save—which few thousand are hardy and useful enough to warrant cultivation below ground, in pitiful approximations of Coron’s infinitely complex biomes.

It depresses me.

But today, I’m eager to drop Nall off at the learning center. I take the elevator without the usual dread settling heavier on my chest with each passing sub-floor. Throughout our morning briefing, I can’t seem to concentrate, as each habitat supervisor updates us on the various pests plaguing their biomes. I’m itching to stretch my legs—to get to something, though I’m not sure what until I’m halfway to the fog marsh habitat.

I pass through the bio-lock into a warm mist and the stench of carnivorous peat. A suspended walkway winds over hungry pools, sucking down red gnats by the dozens. Rounding a stand of turam’s-tail grass, I come face-to-face with the focus of my restlessness.

Dr. Emie Ryndoll is hunched over a patch of thorny veevet, cradling a baby cabbit in one hand.

“Oh. Dr. Murris. You startled me,” xe says, proffering the animal. Its left hind leg is bleeding. I squat down. “It wandered away from its warren and got caught in the veevet. I think the cabbits are all disoriented by the new environment.”

“It’ll take time for them to acclimate,” I say.

“Should I intervene, do you think? Or let nature take its course?” Emie strokes the creature’s fur with a thumb. It purrs, watching us with eyes like three oceanic planets.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t dropped by?”

“I was about to heal it,” xe admits, like a child caught cheating.

“Carry on then.”

Xe pulls a pocket-sized med-droid from xer satchel and sets it to cellular regeneration. The baby cabbit bucks a little as xe inserts its bleeding limb into the droid’s aperture, then stills as the healing light blazes out. After a few moments, the aperture snaps open, and the cabbit pulls its leg free. Emie sets it in soft bog-grass, pointing it away from the stand of veevet. It lopes off, gaining strength with each bound.

“So. What brings our fearless director to the fog marsh?” Emie asks, as we both straighten. Xe’s wearing a long, ruffled shift—the kind of thing Mikkle likes—that clings to xer swollen belly. My eyes flicker back to xer face, but Emie has caught me staring. “Funny. I haven’t been getting many visitors lately. I know this is one of the smaller habitats, but I was starting to think we’d been forgotten.”

Xer hand rests on the reason people avoid the fog marsh. These days, no one is sure how to act around someone so unashamedly pregnant.

“I’m sorry you’ve felt neglected,” I say. “That’s why I came by to check in directly. I’d like to see your most recent data.” It’s a lie—I barely listen to Emie’s report as we head towards the genetic lab, past clouds of sweetly stinking foxbends. The fog marsh is a minor habitat, approved on a trial basis, to see if it can serve as a biological water filtration system for the caverns. A living sewer. But so far, the marsh has been plagued by rampant toxic fungal growth.

In the genetic lab, we sit at a bank of holoscreens full of data. Emie insists that the fog marsh will soon become a viable contributor to the cavern meta-ecosystems. I try to pay attention, but truthfully, I’m just waiting for xer to finish, so I can start up another conversation.

“Excellent work.” I say, when the toxicology talk finally dwindles. “So,” I take a deep breath. “When are you due?”

It’s a question I was asked ten times a day when I was pregnant with Nall. But that was before. Emie eyes me warily, like the question is a trap. “I’m thirty-seven weeks.”

“Oof, I remember that last trimester.” I imitate the chatty, conspiratorial voice Mikkle uses to strike up friendships with complete strangers. “Nall’s foot got stuck up under my left rib. It was so uncomfortable.”

“Yes, same!” Emie breaks into a cautious smile. “It’s right here.” Xe rubs a spot beneath xer ribcage.

“Any heartburn?”

“Terrible! I can’t sleep at night.”

We chat more about xer symptoms, and Emie slouches lower in xer seat, rubbing the sore place beneath xer rib. When we run out of things to say, Emie’s eyes glisten. “Thank you, Dr. Murris. For asking. You don’t know what it means.”

“It must be very lonely for you,” I say.

Xe shrugs. “Oh, it’s not so bad. My partners have been wonderful. And my parents are thrilled. I’m the only pregnancy in this area, but there’s a bunch of us scattered around the settlements. We chat in pro-proc discussion forums, and a few times, we’ve met up to hang out. You should see peoples’ faces when a whole bunch of us show up in the town center!”

I laugh along with xer, feeling a stab of guilt. I recall joking with Mikkle recently about “those pro-procreation crackpots.”

“Mostly I just get nasty looks.” Emie cradles xer belly. “But I don’t care. This one’s totally worth it.”

“It used to be so different,” I say. “If you’d been pregnant when I was—”

“Oh, we were trying then,” Emie interrupts, anger flashing behind xer eyes. “I had four miscarriages. So I wasn’t about to give xer up, just because some star collapsed.”

I nod with more understanding than xe knows, resisting the urge to touch my own abdomen.

“And I have faith in our engineers. They’ll complete the caverns in time. And if they don’t…well, why should my baby’s life matter less than anyone else’s?”

Because you defied the parliamentary decree, I think. Because you decided to carry xer to term, knowing xe could take someone else’s place. But I don’t say any of that, of course.

“Pro-procs say that every child who lives to feel the sun on their face—even if just for a few years—has lived a precious life,” Emie says. “They think we should try to be having more children, more people who will remember the wildernesses of Coron.”

I notice xe doesn’t say “we.” I wonder how Emie reconciles xer work as a scientist with the pro-proc’s wishful thinking.

“Anyways, hopefully we won’t even need spots in the caverns.”

I arch an eyebrow in confusion.

“I’ve applied for seats on the Ark.”

I can’t conceal my shock. “Emie, that ship’s an antique! And there’s no guarantee—”

“That we’ll make it back to Earth? That anyone’s there to greet us? Believe me, I’ve heard it all from my parents. There’s also no guarantee that a massive earthquake won’t destroy the caverns before the last perihelion.”

“But we haven’t heard from Earth in a hundred years!”

“Which could easily be because a relay satellite got hit by an asteroid.”

“Or that a planet governed by warring nations and factions and religions and—and even genders!—A planet that has never experienced a moment of world peace, for all its millenia, finally destroyed itself.”

“There were even fewer guarantees when our ancestors struck out for Coron. But if there’s a chance my descendants can grow up playing beneath sky? On our home world?” Emie trails off, staring up at the ceiling lights. A half a mile of rock separates us from open air. “It’s worth the risk.”

Emie squints at me then. “You know, in the forums, they’re saying anyone who wants more kids should be sure to do it soon. They might only have a few more ovulation cycles before parliament passes population control.”

My face grows hot, and I can’t meet xer gaze. How did xe know? “Thank you again, Dr. Ryndoll, for your, uh, excellent work in curbing the mycroa growth,” I stand abruptly. I’m dizzy again and a little nauseous. Early pregnancy symptoms, or just low blood sugar? I need to eat.

As I practically flee from the fog marsh, I press my temple to send a message, asking Mikkle to lunch. Xe messages back right away. Last night’s tremor caused a cave-in of a critical sub-station, meaning a lot of extra work for xer. Can we meet at xer office?

I catch a tram from the sub-habitats to the furnace, trading botanical gardens for a labyrinth of pipe-works and the glow of lava light. I find Mikkle outside xer office, huddled with a group of workers in shiny, thermal-protective suits. Mikkle’s job will only get more and more difficult as our accelerating orbit causes more and more volcanic activity. That last summer will be the worst, as Coron whips around our star one last time, faster than ever before. And of course, that summer will be our last chance to put the finishing touches on the caverns before hurtling into deep space forever. You’d think the stress would get to Mikkle, but xe’s always calm and purposeful at work, beloved by xer team of geothermal engineers. They head off down a tunnel, and Mikkle embraces me. I linger in xer arms longer than I normally would at work.

“I’m swamped with these repairs. Can we eat down here?”

“Sure,” I say, although the roaring of the lava chutes reminds me that another tremor could send the walls crushing in on us at any moment, and the stale air below ground makes me feel like I’m choking.

“On second thought,” Mikkle says, peering at me closely. “How about we go topside?”

My heart chose so well when it picked xer.

We picnic in a patch of blooming tsinara, eating our rice-and-squash leftovers amid photo-absorptive petals so purple that it hurts to look at them.

I tell Mikkle about my conversation with Emie. When I mention the pro-proc discussion forums, xe snorts. “Didn’t you say last week that all those pro-procs need compulsory psychopharmacological adjustment?”

I don’t smile. “Maybe I was wrong about them.”

Mikkle holds up xer hands, “Fair enough. What’s changed your mind?”

“This, obviously,” I lay a hand on my belly. “We should’ve been more careful, but we weren’t. And now there’s this zygote in me, and—well, don’t they kind of have a point? Doesn’t xe deserve to see the sun, if only for a few years? Doesn’t xe deserve to live, if I want xer?”

Do you want xer?”

I know I have to be honest, but I’m terrified of how Mikkle will react.

Yes,” I confess. “More than I’ve ever wanted anything.”

“More than you wanted Nall?”

“When I was pregnant then, I didn’t know how amazing Nall would be. How much I would love being xer parent.”

“You hated being pregnant, though.”

“It’s torture. But it was worth it.”

We stare into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then a smile cracks Mikkle’s face. “Wait, so…” I’m afraid to ask. “Are you okay with—?”

“Okay?” Mikkle crawls towards me and sets down my bowl. “Okay?” Xe grabs me around the waist and pulls me on top of xer. “We’re going to have another baby!” Xe kisses me, and I return it gratefully, my cheeks wet with tears. After a few moments, I feel xer hard against my leg.

“Maybe we should put twins in there?”

“You know that’s not how that works!” I laugh. Mikkle loves to tease me by saying biologically-ludicrous things.

Xe collapses next to me, squinting up at our distant sun. “We’ll have to think of a name.”

“If only that were the hardest part.”

When I get back to work, I can’t stop smiling. My team lead for the dandular forest sub-hab asks what’s gotten into me, and I say I’m just so excited about the progress being made on the fog marsh.

“Chitlids!” I exclaim, apropos of nothing.

“What about them?” xe asks.

“In the dandular forest. We should introduce chitlids.”

“But—but they only breed after completing a trans-continental migration. Their diet consists of thousands of different types of pollens and spores. How can we possibly replicate—”

“Eh, a little gene-altering, and they’ll adapt.”

“But they don’t play a regulatory role in the ecosystem. They have no medicinal properties. They’re not essential to the food chain. Why would we—?”

“Beauty!” I exclaim. “Hope! Chitlids are one of the most charismatic species on Coron. There was nothing remotely like them on Earth. We should preserve some species like that, not just utilitarian ones.”

Xe looks at me skeptically, but mutters something about scheduling an exploratory trial. As we wander the dandular sub-hab, I think maybe it won’t be so bad for Nall and xer little sibling to grow up down here. Not if there are chitlids to chase after.

Later that afternoon, working with a sporg population model in my office, I smile when I start to feel cramps in my pelvic floor. These feel different than menstrual cramps, more of a tightening than a twisting. My uterus is already stretching to accommodate a growing human.

In the bathroom, I spot a tiny blob of pink on the sanitary wipe, and I know what’s happening—implantation bleeding. I feel a thrill, imagining the clump of cells attaching to my uterus, making its home for the long months to come. And for the first time in two years, thinking about the future feels exciting.

A half-hour later, I have to use the bathroom again—so many pregnancy symptoms already! A good sign—But I frown down at the sanitary wipe. The spot of blood is no longer watery pink, but bright red.

I’m not too worried, but I press the sensor under my temple and search the med-net for data on implantation bleeding. I read that it’s perfectly normal to see a small amount of bright red blood. Spotting may even last a few days. I knew that already, I just needed to read it again to relax. I change into a menstrual catcher.

When I pick up Nall from daycare, xe runs to me, squealing for “booby.” I decide to nurse xer there before heading home. As xe suckles, I whisper that another little baby is growing in my tummy—a friend who will always be there for xer, no matter what. Nall’s eyes watch me, wide and happy, though I don’t know if xe really understands.

As we stand to leave, I feel a rush of blood slip out of me. It’s a lot. Like at the peak of my menstrual cycle, and I’m starting to think that something is wrong. I’m in a shaky, cold sweat the whole transport flight home, although I keep reminding myself—spotting for several days can be normal. As soon as we’re inside the door of the habitat, I head to the med-droid and let it prick me. HCG detected. I brace my arms on the counter, letting out a huge sigh. I’m still pregnant.

I print Nall an approximated earth apple for a snack and we build towers with xer blocks and knock them down a few dozen times. By the time Mikkle returns home, I’ve had to change my menstrual catcher twice. I tell xer what’s happening, and xe holds me for a long time, reassuring me that it’s probably nothing. But I see xer eyes unfocused all night, and I know xe’s searching the net, reading all the same reports I have. Mikkle asks if I want to go see our doctor, but I say no. There doesn’t seem a point. Why face the humiliation of admitting to an accidental pregnancy, because from what I’ve read, if this is an early miscarriage, there’s nothing to be done.

We eat dinner. I give Nall a bath. I nurse xer to sleep. Mikkle and I curl up on the couch and watch an ancient earth-film. I bleed steadily. We go to bed. I lie beside Mikkle, listening to xer snoring in the darkness, my panic mounting. Two days ago, I didn’t know this zygote existed, so how can I want it so terribly? As a biologist, I know it’s ridiculous, but still I whisper into the darkness: You are loved. You are wanted. Please stay.

The cramps in my uterus are no longer little twinges, but a wrenching worse than anything I ever felt menstruating. In the middle of the night, I get up to pee again, and the flood of blood that comes out of me rips an inadvertent cry from my lungs.

I can no longer deny the evidence of what is happening. I stumble to the kitchen and summon the med-droid. There’s an instant between the finger-prick and when my vitals appear on its face, when I still don’t know for sure. When anything is still possible.

But it only lasts an instant.

No HCG detected.

Mikkle appears in the doorway. “I heard you—”

As soon as our eyes meet, Mikkle understands. Xe pulls me close, resting xer chin on my head. “We could still try for one. If you wanted,” xe says.

“It’s different, doing it on purpose.” I snuggle my head against Mikkle’s chest. “I don’t think I can.”

Outside the habitat window, I watch the last of the chitlids disappear into the dandular forest. Their migration has moved further north, maybe for the last time. I realize how absurd I was being earlier today, talking about cultivating chitlids in the caverns. Millions of years of evolution has made their anatomy dependent on nutrients from a trail of seasonal pollens and spores, spread out across a thousand different habitats spanning the length of the world. I can’t think of a single animal more unsuited to life underground.

I press my temple, logging a note to cancel the exploratory chitlid trial, first thing tomorrow morning.

I don’t cry for what’s lost, or what will be. It was a passing madness.

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