Dorvel watched from the station’s observation deck as the beast leapt from the inner ring surrounding the gas giant. It appeared to float momentarily, suspended in the vacuum of space, before it plunged back into the ring, disappearing from sight. She turned her attention back to the monitors tracking its progress, knowing it would be several minutes before it appeared again. The rings were constituted almost entirely of frozen water, formed into intricate crystalline structures, and the beast was drinking.
Dorvel was observing it, and had been for almost the entirety of the last two days, because it was pregnant, extremely so, and her superiors expected the calf to be born any day now. Birthing was a delicate process for any animal, all the moreso for one that spent its days in the space, as the scow did. This being the distinctly unimaginative name given the creatures by the Councilmen who first encountered them. The name—that some found amusing, but which Dorvel had long grown tired of—being a play on the ancient meaning of the word, a type of old earth sea-going vessel and an abbreviation of the words ‘space cow’.
The scow surfaced again, this time very near the station, and Dorvel’s breath was taken away. Their vastness still had the power to startle, even for someone who had spent so much of her life working with the creatures. This time the beast did not return within the ring, having drunk its fill, letting the gravity of the planet pull her into orbit. Dorvel checked the time and made a quick calculation of how much water she had drank, assuring herself that the scow and its progeny were well fed.
Everything now was of critical importance. Nothing could be left to chance, she well knew. This was the third scow she had shepherded to birth in her ten years as Head Veterinarian for the Council. None of the other calves had survived more than a day or two. It had been a lifetime since anyone had even seen a calf or a youngling scow, even as the number of adult scows dwindled year by year, their stock ravaged by the hardships of space and the Councils seemingly endless wars.
There were many theories as to the origins of the scows, none definitive. How had something evolved that was ideal for deep space journeys, able to traverse the emptiness of space with minimal sustenance? How serendipitous was it that such a creature should exist with its intricate and cavernous interior chambers that could be easily fitted with life support systems and other necessities for humans to inhabit them? It was something tailor made for transporting material and people across the vast expanses of the universe. Many scientists had reached the conclusion, one shared by the Head Veterinarian, that some other, long lost and forgotten being, had created the scows for its since vanished empires.
The Councilmen who first came across the scow herd and managed to explore the creatures’ interiors, noting the beasts’ apparent indifference to their presence, had reached much the same conclusion and had set about taming them. It was a monumental task, and not without its losses, but the Councilmen persevered and triumphed. Guidance sensors and other tech was soon added to the scows nervous system so that they could be directed by anyone, though generally it was left to the Teamsters Guild that arose from those early attempt to break the scows.
The Veterinarian Guild, of which Dorval was a proud member, came into existence around the same time, and now the use and care of the scows was almost entirely routine, as routine as anything in space could be, with only the pregnancy and birth of the creatures proving persistently difficult. Which is what had brought Dorvel to this lonely edge of space, near this gas giant, utterly devoid of life, to worry and fret and stand by helplessly as Aurora gave birth.
There were those who said one shouldn’t name the scows. They were not individuals, not in the way humans were. Did they even care for their young? Presumably, though few had witnessed such interactions and records were scarce. This then, assuming all went to plan—and oh what a fearful assumption to make—would be the singular triumph of Dorvel’s career. There was nowhere else in the universe she desired to be than here with Aurora, a name she had given the creature, at least in her own thoughts. She had even whispered it aloud within the scow when she was certain she was alone.
“Anything?” Galesh, Aurora’s Teamster, said as he entered the observation deck.
“No change,” she said, not looking away from the observation window. Though neither had been off Aurora for more than a day in the last four years, now that the moment approached they had removed themselves and all others from the scow. Past scow births had shown that the presence of humans added to the stress of the situation for the scow mother, and so now all expectant mothers were brought to this gas giant where they could birth in relative peace.
As they both stood watching, the apparently aimless scow changed tack and broke orbit, diving into the seething clouds of the gas giant. Both of them took an expectant step forward.
“That’s the sign, isn’t it?” Galesh said, excitement pitching his voice higher than normal. Dorvel was so overcome by emotion that she was only able to nod in response.
The next hours passed in an agony of restlessness and boredom. Twice Dorvel had to overrule Galesh when he wanted to take a ship below into the planet to ensure the scow was fine.
“This is all normal,” she said. “She will have to do it herself anyway. There’s nothing we can do to help.”
Reluctantly Galesh nodded and they resumed their vigil. After five hours they received their first positive sign, as Aurora emerged from the gas giant to drink from the planet’s rings again for a time before disappearing below. Twenty five hours after she first submerged herself, during which Dorvel and Galesh each took turns sleeping fitfully, the scow finally rose up from below and reentered orbit around the planet. She was alone. Dorvel and Galesh could not even look at each other, let alone acknowledge what that might signify.
Just as Dorvel turned to Galesh, to suggest that they take a submersible into the planet to find the corpse of Aurora’s child so that they could collect it for study, she heard him let out a gasp of surprise and delight and turned back to the observation window in time to see the scow calf leap from the swirling surface of the gas giant. Emotion soared within her and tears welled in her eyes. Galesh reached out to take her hand in his and she squeezed it. No moment could be greater in either of their lives.
The scow calf slowly pulled itself free of the planet’s gravity and moved to join its mother. Aurora watched its approach before turning about to look at the space station.
“Is she looking at us?” Galesh said.
Dorvel nodded, unable to find the words, so great was her emotion. Her joy turned to horror a moment later as Aurora turned and, moving with blinding speed, launched herself at her calf, ramming it brutally. The scow calf, limp and broken, was sent spinning back into the planet, vanishing deep within the clouds. The scow turned about to face the station again, as if to see what they would do, before resuming it’s orbit.
They waited more than an hour to see if the calf would reemerge. When it was more than clear that it would not, they went to launch a submersible, journeying into the depths of the planet, neither of them able to speak.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
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