By Matthew Kresal
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 59th contest was We're on Strike.
Edward came out of the communications room with a dreadful look. For a moment, he hesitated to look around the gray mess interior at two others gathered at the table. A table where they'd eaten so many happy meals now had the air of a funeral.
They're not wrong, are they?
"Well?" It was Rudolph who spoke up first. "What did they have to say?"
"It's not good, is it?" Helen, who sat across the table from Rudolph, had always been better at picking up on the commander's mood. It was to her that Edward answered.
"They've been going over all the medical data. Both what they picked up on the ground and your observations, Rudolph. They don't think she'll pull through."
Edward was blunt with the news. A part of him regretted it, even if his wartime experience had taught him it was sometimes the easiest way to get it across.
Helen closed her blue eyes, raising a hand to them. Rudolph let his gaze fall to the floor, not looking at either of them. And there, on the other side of the little room, Edward watched them through his blue-green eyes, wondering what would happen next.
"There's more," he told them as he walked over to the coffee. Though he turned away from them, Edward was sure they were watching him now as he took each gentle step. He added nothing, picking up a plastic cup and watching the dark liquid slowly pour into it, taking half the time it would have back home.
"Well?" It was Rudolph again who broke the silence. Edward took a sip of the coffee, surprised that it was still as hot as it was. Feeling the tip of his tongue tingle from the sensation, the commander put the cup back down on the counter.
"They said it was regretful what had happened. Old von Braun sounded sincere about it, too. Said that they would start work on new helmet designs so that the next time one of us fell on a rock up here, we wouldn't have to worry about suffocating before help could get to them."
Helen shook her head. 'That's a lot of help to Amelia now." The acid in her tone would have gone through the cabin walls, of that Edward had no doubt. That made the next part of what he had to say much more difficult.
"Von Braun had one of the medical people come on the radio then. He asked questions about the examination you gave her, Rudolph. He inquired, too, about some of the equipment we have up here."
"Wait!" Rudolph's pale eyes sparked into life. "Are they talking about moving her back to Earth? We could do it with the equipment, but I'm not sure how we'd attach it to one of the suits."
Edward held up a silencing hand. The look on Rudolph's face turned from excitement to confusion. Edward looked over to Helen and saw a similar expression there, as well. Edward kept his hand raised, hoping it and rank would work a moment longer.
"They asked about using her as a gestational experiment."
"Gestational?" Helen said with repulsion. Both men turned toward her, surprised as she rose to her feet with such speed she almost hit the ceiling in the low gravity. "You don't mean using her to make a child up here?"
“Whole body gestational donation, is what they’re calling it.” Edward rattled off the term from memory. “They say that it’ll help prove if colonization of the Moon and other planets will be possible. Amelia’s final gift to the space program she worked so hard to be a part of.”
"Why not?" Rudolph said with a shrug. "It's workable with what we have. They've been doing in-vitro on Earth for several years now. I see no reason why it won't work on the Moon."
Helen let out a cynical chuckle. "You 'see no reason?' How about the fact that Amelia has no say in the matter? Neither does Erik at home, for that matter."
"None of us did the moment we joined the space program," Edward said as a matter of factly as he could manage to Helen. He turned away from Rudolph and toward her.
"There has never been a pregnancy on the Moon, Edward. I'm childless, but I remember my mother with my younger siblings. I doubt that the effects of gravity are limited to backache."
"Not that Amelia will be feeling that," Rudolph said, offering another of his shrugs. "They've said that she's not coming back. We need a reason to expend resources on her or put her to sleep."
"Resources?" Helen sounded appalled. Edward turned his hand toward her, hoping to stem a tirade of words. Helen moved past him instead, getting up next to Rudolph.
"She is a human being, damn you! You talk about her like you would a dog. She's not yours to put down or to breed, you —"
"All right, that's enough!" Edward's voice silenced the conversation. He watched the two still facing each other, a slap likely to fly at any moment. It was what he'd feared the most when he'd talked with ground control.
"Rudolph, how long would it take to get everything ready?"
He didn't answer. He and Helen stared at each other. It reminded Edward of that bullfight in Spain he'd seen on one of the tours after the early missions. But which was which, Edward couldn't be sure. Nor did he want bloodshed on the Moon.
"Rudolph!" His barking of the man's name caused the other two to blink and pull away. "Answer my question! How long?"
Rudolph cleared his throat. "I could have it ready within 24 hours, say?"
"That soon?" Helen shook her head. She walked away, turning toward them, tossing a strand of her blond hair out of place. She was using distance to keep from being shut up, Edward sensed.
"So which of you will be the lucky man? Fathering a new race of Moon Men?"
Rudolph scoffed. "Don't be melodramatic —"
"Neither of us." Edward saw his words had taken both of them by surprise. For the first time since this business had started, he felt pleased by something.
"What are you talking about, Edward?" Rudolph stepped toward him uneasily. "Those are orders from control."
"I am well aware, old friend. But Helen is right. And I, too, am uneasy about what has been asked for here."
"'Uneasy?'" Rudolph spat the word back in the commander's face. "We are still serving officers, lest you forget? Helen is a civilian, but you said so yourself: we have no choice once we're in the program."
Edward eyed the man. "And you're comfortable with this? Experimenting with one of your crewmates? Killing her, potentially?"
"Don't try ethics here, Edward! You and I both know how we got here. It's no secret how the first high altitude tests got done or who built the first rockets."
"And?" Edward let the single word linger between them. He waited for Rudolph, the man he'd known since they'd both been among the first jet pilots, dreaming of the stars, to say it out loud. Would he do it?
"What do you want from me, Edward?" No, he wouldn't say it. Not out loud, at any rate. Edward put a hand on his old friend's shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze.
"We're 384,000 kilometers from home," he told him. "There isn't much they can do to us if we tell them to reconsider the decision."
"There's plenty they could do!" Rudolph worked his shoulder free, turning to walk away. Only to realize, a moment later, that Helen was still standing in the doorway, blocking his exit. With no exit, Rudolph looked back to Edward.
"They could refuse to send us supplies. The mining operation isn't at optimal levels yet, and we still need food from home. They could announce a disaster and leave us here to starve and suffocate."
"And lose face to the Americans?" Helen raised an eyebrow at her crewmates. "One transmission from us, the Americans would tell the entire world what would happen. The last thing the Ministry needs is for to defect to the Americans, potentially."
Edward gave Helen a glance. She was talking treason by law, something he should reprimand and report her to control for doing. The look on her face told him she meant to shock Rudolph to see sense. Besides, they were out on a limb, as it was.
"And you don't think we'll not be condemned for mutiny?" Rudolph, sensible, sober Rudolph, was still looking for a way out. Edward knew the man had a point but had already thought of that.
"This isn't a mutiny," Edward said with a smile, picking back up his half-empty plastic cup. "Call it a 'strike,' in the old-fashioned sense. It's worked before on small scales. It's not like we're shutting down the entire space effort by refusing to do this."
"But remember what they did to those workers in Munich? Or have you forgotten the rumors?"
Edward looked at Helen. He'd considered that, but had Helen? She was the deciding vote here.
"What about it, Helen?"
"Let them send troops out here, and then I'll worry."
"Right, then." Edward straightened his spine, taking another large swig from the cup. "I'll message Pennamunde and let them know our decision. And tell them we'll be ceasing communication for 24 hours to protest the decision. If they don't exceed, we continue to refuse contact. I don't even the Propaganda Ministry can keep this quiet forever."
Edward turned back to the communications room. He stopped, feeling Rudolph's hand on his shoulder. Edward stopped, waiting for his fellow Reichsnaut to make his move.
"Do one thing for me, Edward?"
"Make sure you sign off 'Heil Furher' so they don't think we're all traitors, would you?"