"Coming of Age is one of the few stories that I've written that is pure science fiction. I was thrilled when Ed Gorman (one of the original editors of STAR COLONIES) invited me to contribute to the book, and I'm equally thrilled to see the story on the 2001 Aurora Award Ballot, especially since there are so many other great writers and stories in the category this year." Edo van Belkom.
Coming of Age was first published in Star Colonies (DAW, 2000)
This story is a Finalist for a 2001 Aurora Award in the "Best Short-Form Work in English" category. The 2001 voting ballot is available in HTML format and .PDF format at the Aurora web site. Ballots should be mailed by April 28th, 2001.
Click here for Edo's MiC Entry
COMING OF AGE
by Edo van Belkom
Jack Murray was awakened from a light sleep by the sound of something heavy thumping onto the floor. "William?" he called.
"Yeah dad, it's me."
Jack nodded slightly. Of course it was William, who else would it be?
"I just went over to Peckham Farm to see if I could find any more solar panels."
"What do we need with more solar panels?" said Jack, shifting in his chair and feeling his bones ache with stiffness.
"We've already got six we're not using."
"I know, I know... I was going to try and get them all hooked up and working."
"Why? We have more electricity than we can use now."
"But if we have to keep a light on through the night, or run a machine during off hours, the batteries won't last long."
Jack sighed, understanding the undercurrent of what his son was saying all too well. At last Jack nodded. "So, did you find any panels?"
"No, but I did find a battery." He hefted the battery off the floor, barely able to lift it higher than his waist.
Watching his son struggle with the weight, Jack wondered how he'd managed to carry it all the way back from Peckham Farm. He'd been wondering about such things for some time now. Ever since his stroke he'd had no other choice but to sit and think, to take stock of his life and a long hard look at the future.
Well, the future hadn't looked very promising for years.
And now it was absolutely terrifying.
William dragged the battery through the house and out the back door. Jack could hear the thing clunk down the wooden steps, then only silence as it was pulled across the sandy ground to the shed where the rest of the generators, pumps and batteries were housed.
The boy would work there for hours, jury-rigging the panels and batteries together so he could squeeze a few more watts of power out of the day. That would leave Jack alone in the house for a while with nothing else to do but sit and think.
His first thought was of the boy. Strange thing to call your twenty-five year-old son, but that's what he was -- a boy.
Always had been. Always would be.
They'd come to Effette 4 forty years earlier, eighty-seven bright-eyed settlers eager to establish a new world better than the one they'd left behind.
All went well in the early years as the few dozen families carved out a life for themselves in the planet's rich and untamed wilderness. With a little planning and a lot of hard work, the land proved to be as bountiful as Earth's had once been. Life soon became peaceful and perfect, everything they dreamed it
But it was all too good to last.
About fifteen years after their arrival, the settlers noticed that the development of their children's secondary sex characteristics seemed a bit slow. Those few children that had been born on the ship prior to the landing managed to squeak through puberty, but those born on Effette 4 after the landing were not maturing into adulthood. They'd all ended up like William, grown to the size of a man, but without any of the characteristics that distinguish a man from a boy. His Adam's apple had never appeared; he was without facial hair; his body never gained muscle mass; and his voice had remained at a high pitch. Similar problems were experienced by the girls whose bodies failed to develop breasts or fill out in any other appreciable way.
The settlers soon realized that the children were also failing to develop primary sex characteristics, such as testes and ovaries, which were of course necessary for reproduction.
So what was the problem?
On Effette 4, it was a question for the ages.
Jack and the other settlers had spent nearly thirty years testing their food, water, sunlight and air but had never found an answer. In time, two main theories were postulated. One suggested that Effette 4 had some element or chemical unknown to human science which inhibited human sexual development. The other theory suggested that Effette 4 lacked some element or chemical unknown to human science which fostered human physical development.
Whatever the reason, the result was the same -- a colony doomed to die out a generation after landing on their new world. The settlers had tried reassembling the generation ship they'd arrived in, but over the years it had been thoroughly cannibalized with many of the parts drastically modified to suit new applications. They also began broadcasting distress calls, but since Effette 4 had been selected for colonization because it was so far removed from other colonized planets, there was little chance anyone would receive the message, let alone reach Effette 4, before the entire colony died out.
Jack took a deep breath and let a long sigh. It wasn't the way he'd envisioned his final days. He was supposed to have many children and dozens of grandchildren, all of whom would share the burden of caring for his aged body and mind. Instead there was only...
For a few terrifying moments he forgot the boy's name. But then closed his eyes and concentrated, traveling back through the years.
The name seemed to come to him as if part of a song about youth and innocence. Yes, Billy was his name, but he didn't like to be called that any more. It was William now. It sounded more mature, he felt, more grown up.
Well, if not the boy, then at least his name.
Jack retraced his thoughts. What had he been thinking about, before stumbling over the boy's name? Ah, yes, instead of a large close-knit family to support him in his waning years, there was only William to look after him, a man in the body of a boy barely able to look after himself.
But things could change, thought Jack, as he drifted off to sleep. Things would change...
Jack awoke sometime later, wondering if he'd slept the day away or just had a cat nap. A glance at the clock told him it had only been twenty minutes, but it felt as if he'd been asleep for days. "William?" he called.
Probably still in the shed. Jack rolled his body forward, grabbed his cane with his right hand and slowly lifted himself to his feet. Standing was difficult. His hips and knees were always stiff and sore these days, and the stroke had made most of his left side useless. But despite the debilitation, Jack was determined to carry on as if nothing had changed.
At least for a little while longer.
He shuffled his way to the back door, stopping in front of the screen rather than opening it. William would be able to hear him through it easy enough. "How are you making out?"
There was a sound of metal striking metal, then silence. "Eh?" came William's reply.
Jack strained to speak louder. "How's it coming?"
"I've got all the panels relayed together," William said from within the shed. "And I think the battery's still got a charge."
Jack nodded. The boy was good with mechanical things. At least the farm wouldn't fall into disrepair. "What do you want for supper?" asked Jack.
The banging noises that had started again suddenly stopped and William appeared in the doorway to the shed. "I'll make supper."
"Never mind," said Jack, trying to wave his limp left hand. "I'll get it ready."
"No," said William. He picked up a rag and began wiping his hands on it as he started across the yard. "I don't mind doing it." He opened the screen door and squeezed past Jack into the kitchen. "Besides, I was just about done out there. I can finish up in the morning, which will give me plenty of daylight to test it out."
Jack watched as William began moving about the kitchen, placing pots on the stove and gathering the rest of what he needed on the counter. It looked like it was going to be leftover stew again. Jack hated stew, but it was the only thing that made the meat of the dog-sized rodents native to Effette 4 palatable. The settlers had brought their own livestock with them, but those animals had all died out within a couple of generation. What Jack wouldn't give to eat a steak with his potatoes, or bacon with his eggs. All they had was stew. It was nutritious enough, and it was all William seemed to have the time or the will to make for them since it could be left unattended for hours while it cooked on the stove. That, and the leftovers seemed to last forever.
"Here," said William, noticing Jack still standing by the door. "Let me help you back into the living room." He put a hand on Jack's shoulder and took firm hold of his right arm. "I'll call you when it's ready," he said.
Jack was perfectly capable of making it to the living room by himself, but he was glad for the help of his son. It made the steps easier to take, and getting seated in the chair wouldn't be so painful.
"There," said William. "I'll be back in about ten minutes to get you."
Jack nodded, tried to smile.
But inside, he wept.
Jack had often wondered what death might be like, trying to picture the peace and stillness of it in his mind. Death. It almost sounded nice, or at least better than what his life had become. Yet, he still feared it, although the fear wasn't for himself as much as for William.
What would become of the boy after he were dead? What was William to do after he'd found the body? Certainly he wouldn't be able to lift it. He might be able to drag it out of the house and into the yard but that didn't seem right to Jack.
And, truth be told, Jack didn't want William to find him dead. Although it was more than two years ago, Jack still vividly remembered the shock of finding his wife Margaret's body, bent, broken and soiled as it lay splayed across the landing at the bottom of the stairs. Such an undignified end to such a courageous life. No, thought Jack, I won't let that happen to me.
Even worse, what if Jack didn't die? What if instead of a neat clean heart attack he suffered another stroke and lingered on for another dozen years? Would William dutifully feed, clean and care for him, or would the boy be tormented by thoughts of putting a knife through his father's chest just to be done with it?
Jack preferred not to make that an option for the boy.
"Dad?" said William standing at the entrance to the kitchen. "Supper's ready."
"I'll be there in a minute."
"Do you want some help?"
"No." Jack couldn't keep the frustration from his voice.
William sat silently in the chair across the table from his father. While they'd dispensed with saying grace and giving thanks many years ago, William still waited for his father to begin the meal.
"Go ahead, you don't have to wait for me," Jack said. "I won't always be around to go first, you know."
"I know. You've told me enough times."
"Then get started, will you!" Jack said.
"Are you all right, dad? Is something wrong?"
Jack was about to tell his son he was dying, but realized he would have to explain how he was dying mostly on the inside. He'd never be able to find the words. So instead, he took a deep breath and said, "I'm getting old, that's all."
"Not to me, you're not," said William, smiling bravely.
"You're a good boy, William. You don't deserve this." Jack didn't make any special gesture to let his son know that by "this" he meant coming to Effette 4 and the whole sorry mess they'd made of their lives, but the boy knew.
"Nobody deserves this," said William.
They said nothing for several long moments.
"How's the food?" Jack asked. Anything to dispense with the silence.
"It's stew, you know."
"Yes," Jack nodded. "I know."
The shadows lengthened and vanished as the sun set on Effette 4 and darkness nestled in for another long night. The house was secured and father and son sat quietly in the front room reading. In addition to the battery, William had found a few paperbacks at Peckham Farm and had busied himself with the new reading material shortly after sundown.
Jack had a collection of poetry on his lap, a book published on the ship some two generations back. He'd read the book a dozen times before, but found that tonight the language that had so often intrigued him could barely hold his interest. He glanced from the pages to his watch every few minutes, silently cursing the minute-hand for moving so slowly.
"What do you think, William, almost time for bed?" he said after two hours had passed.
"I'm not that tired. I might stay up just a little while longer and see if I like this book as much the second time through."
"That good, huh?"
"Well, I'm going to bed. I need to rest for tomorrow."
"Why, what's so big about tomorrow?."
Jack was surprised that he'd allowed himself to be so careless with his words. He wondered what was the right thing to say, the right way to tell his son of his plans, but he knew it would never come to him. He simply shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing, I guess. Just another day." He struggled to get out of
"Maybe I'll go to bed too," said William, moving to his father's side and helping him to his feet.
They went upstairs together, then retired to their bedrooms alone.
Jack had finished his preparations and was ready to go, but somehow it didn't feel right. There was one more thing that he had to do.
He took his cane, went down the hall to William's room and cracked the door open slightly. William had already dozed off and was sleeping soundly on the bed. Jack hesitated in the doorway for several moments gathering his strength before entering. He tried to step lightly on the wooden floor, but the boards still moaned and creaked beneath his feet.
"Billy," Jack said, placing his bony hand on the bed to stop it from shaking. "William..." he corrected himself. "William."
William slowly opened his eyes.
"I just wanted to say good night to you," Jack said, his voice trembling.
"Good night, dad," William said sleepily.
Jack's breath was rapid and shallow.
"Are you okay, dad?"
"Of course I'm okay. Nothing wrong with a father saying good night to his son if he wants, is there?"
"No, I guess not," William answered. He was more awake now. Perhaps even aware of what was happening.
Jack reached out and held his son. William returned the hug with both arms.
"I want to tell you that I love you, son. I haven't told you that in a while."
"I know that, dad. And I love you too."
Jack held his son as tightly as his feeble arms would allow.
William said nothing, pressing his lips together in a thin white line.
Jack rose up off the bed, shuffled out of the bedroom and closed the door gently behind him. Outside, he leaned against the wall and struggled to catch his breath. His heart was pounding out a painful, irregular beat, and there was a pain slicing through his arm again.
The morning sun cut through the thinly curtained windows of William's bedroom in dull beams of dusty sunlight. Noticing the light on his eyes, William quickly jumped from the bed and went down the hall to check his father's room.
The room was empty.
The bed was made.
From downstairs he heard the faint sound of the front door creaking shut. William's first inclination was to race down the stairs and out into the yard, but he decided against it. It would steal away what little was left of his father's dignity.
So instead, William walked slowly back to his bedroom, climbed up onto the bed and looked out the window at the road that led away from the house.
In the distance he could see the white-topped figure of his father hobbling down the road. There was a pack on his back and a cane in his right hand.
"Good bye, dad," William said.
There was a brave smile on his face.
But inside, he wept.