Healthy Eating

by K. S. Dearsley

Gray squinted at the squirming bundle in the cot. He could make out the shape of randomly waved fists and kicking legs, two of each, struggling to see through the dazzle of daylight.

"Have you told my wife?"

"That's your job." Dr Vinkriss shredded a strip of goat-silk bandage. “You people have been warned about buying unauthorized food, but you never listen. I'll have to report it, you know. You're breeding rights will probably be revoked."

Gray said nothing. Something was wrong with the baby. It was malformed in some way, and it was their fault. Gray squinted at the newborn infant again. Colors danced in front of his eyes. The light created a scalding pain between them. Disfigured, that was it. Gray stroked the infant’s cheek, his genetically modified hand big enough to crush its skull like a lump of spoil in the mines, and too rough from swinging a pick to feel how soft the new skin was. All they had wanted was to give the child a better chance. The colors began to settle. Gray closed his eyes against them, tasting bile. Neither he nor Sooz had been able to face the thought of their son sweating at the rock face, drilling where the sonic-surveyors directed, choking on dust and never seeing daylight as they did. Sooz.

Dr. Vinkriss balled the goat-silk in his fist and thrust it in his pocket. “Any other questions?”

Gray shook his head. He needed to see Sooz to tell her that it would be all right, and see in her eyes that it was true. The mine only allowed one period off for births and deaths, he would have to hurry. In the corridor he stopped then turned towards the exit lift. Fools, Dr. Vinkriss called them. Fools to trust the likes of Strang. They had paid the black marketeer all the credits they could spare and some they couldn’t for the right food.

As the lift plummeted back to the workface, Gray’s anger rose. He turned his hands over. Big hands, a strong back, good lungs—these were the things that made a good miner. The bosses had been glad to give him and Sooz a breeding permit. With her stamina and quiet temperament they should produce ideal workers. Gray slammed his hand against the wall.

It would not only be his son who was disfigured for life.

He strode sure-footed through the narrow channels marking the course of the seam, dodging enough activity for a disturbed termite mound. Bins of ore trundling to the loading platform, empty trucks freewheeling back and face-workers such as himself dodging them with the nonchalance of monotonous routine. Today, Gray saw every near miss of heavy machinery and soft flesh, felt rocks tumbling, shattering bone. Back at his pitch all was quiet. His pitch-mate, Wolt, was leaning on his pick, the skip-boys gesturing jokes to each other, glad of the break, while a sonic-surveyor stood before the blank rockface whistling and clicking, hands cupped behind her ears. Gray caught Wolt’s eye and the two moved into an adjoining tunnel.

“Welcome back, Dad!” Wolt gave him a huge grin and a clap on the back that sent a cloud of dust into the air. “How’s Sooz and the sonic-sprog?”

Gray ignored the question. “What’s up here?”

“Routine check. Sonic-surveyor thinks we should turn a few degrees west and down, but there’s a fault. Might have to send the scaffolders in as we go. In the meanwhile...” Wolt leaned against the wall.

Gray quickly stepped out of the path of an oncoming skip, freewheeling on the gradient further into the black. One of the skip-boys was taking a ride inside. It was strictly against the rules, but the lads had little enough fun. He was a boy of about sixteen with massive shoulders and a vacant grin. That was where eating the authorized diet got you. The lad was fit for nothing but shoveling ore around and too stupid to ask for more.

“So?” Wolt was still grinning. “What about…”

Gray forestalled the question. “How much longer do you think she’ll be?” He jerked his head in the direction of their pitch.

Wolt shrugged.

“Cover for me, I’ve got to find Strang.”

“Why? Baby born with a Johnson like an elephant trunk? Don’t say I didn’t warn you...” He laughed loud enough to draw glances from passing workers. Gray’s silence stopped him. “Jeez, Gray. There’s not really something wrong?”

Gray tried to turn a shudder into a shrug. “Just need to see Strang, that’s all.”

Wolt peered around the corner at their pitch. “Go. If she finishes before you’re back, I’ll say you went to fetch fresh kit. Make sure you stop at stores for some in case.”

Gray squeezed Wolt’s shoulder and slipped back into the warren of underground alleys. If he found him at all, Strang would be hanging around in the back of the canteen up on minus level two. Being near the surface without the weight of all those tons of rock and the heat of the deep lightened the miners' morale. It also made life easier for free-enterprisers like Strang, who could get access to their forbidden wares more easily.

The canteen was always busy. One shift or another was always going on or coming off duty, hungry for news and small-talk as much as for food. A few workers greeted Gray as he passed, asking about Sooz and the baby. How news traveled so fast, Gray had never been able to make out. Maybe it passed from level to level whispered from lift cages, or was trundled along tunnels with the skips. There was certainly so little change from routine that anything different was pounced on and chewed over for days. They would have to wait longer to hear Gray’s news, at least from him.

The food server gave him a knowing look and slopped a ladleful of casserole onto his plate—modified carrots for sight, spinach with so much iron it attracted magnets, protein chunks.

Gray began the familiar pantomime. “Hey, since when have dust beetles been on the menu?”

“Ah, shut up moaning. You should be grateful for the extra protein.”

The supervisor came out. “What’s the problem?” His palms were so greasy from the credits of desperate miners and free-enterprisers that it was a wonder he could carry a plate. It ensured that no matter how much modified food he ate, his eyesight would still be bad when it came to unauthorized dealing.

“Says he’s got dust beetles.”

“Let him through.”

A buzzer sounded and released the door to the kitchens. Strang was inside. He greeted Gray with a huge artificial smile. “Congratulations! Heard the good news. Wife and baby doing well. Good of you to come up here and thank...hey!”

Gray grabbed the front of the free-enterpriser’s tunic and slammed him against the wall hard enough to rattle plates.

“Hey, man, you came to me…if something’s gone wrong, don’t blame me.”

“Sonar hearing, you said. Good pay, no manual work, live longer—guaranteed, you said.” Gray punctuated his words by using Strang as a full stop against the wall.

“Who’s to say he isn’t a sonic? Can’t test yet, can they? Have to wait ’til the little chap’s bigger.”

Gray’s face twisted into a snarl. “Disfigured—that’s what the doctor called it. Did your news network tell you that? You made my son a freak.”

“Hey, I never said there wouldn’t be side effects. Can I help it if my suppliers let me down? Must have been jellyfish genes in it or cave fungi. I’m just as much a victim here as you. What do you think this’ll do to my reputation?”

Gray gave him another shake.

“Listen, man, since it’s you and you’ve been a good customer, I can get you some supplements for the lad—put in his milk—free of charge.”

“Then what? He’ll shit goat-silk? I ought to…”

“What? You can’t touch me, Gray. The bosses’ll know what you’ve done then for sure. Breeding rights revoked—split up the happy family, I shouldn’t wonder. No, man. You’ve got to play innocent.”

Gray released him. Strang landed on the floor in a heap, but made no attempt to get up.

“Might thank me one day,” he said, wiping the corner of his mouth where fear had made him feel a blow that did not come. “Might be the making of the boy,” he called after Gray’s back. “Shouldn’t wonder if the bosses don’t want to breed all you moles like it.”

Gray flinched but kept going. Throttling Strang might make him feel better, but what would happen to Sooz and the baby then? Instead of taking the lift down, Gray went back up to the hospital on the ground floor. Shielding his eyes against the fierce daylight of a rainy afternoon that pattered bad news on the windows, he headed back to the natal ward. He couldn’t let Sooz find out from sympathetic smiles and half-heard whispers.

The blinds were down in the ward, and Gray spotted Sooz straightaway. They had put her at the end, where the screens could easily be drawn to hide their infant and prevent his disfigurement spreading fear among the women yet to birth. It was said that pregnancy made women glow, that they shone with happiness and health. That had been how Gray had explained it to himself. He should have known it had more to do with the residue of tainted food. His wife held their infant son in her arms, and the light he saw on her face now, as she turned to him, was reflected from the colors that rippled across the baby’s exposed skin with every new sensation.

“Sooz!” Gray struggled on the edge of tears to try to apologize and reassure her.

She held the child up to show him. “The nurses say he should learn to control the colors more as he grows up, but they’ll always show through with strong emotions. He’s happy now, look.”

Gray swallowed and his eyes blurred at the expression in her eyes. He held out his arms to take him. For a moment the colors flickered as the baby adjusted, then strengthened and settled. Gray could hardly drag his gaze away. Let the world think what it wanted. He was their son, and he was beautiful.