The first Pango babies were born six years ago. It started in Southeast Asia so, naturally, no one in the West believed it. The odd morning show’s chuckling hosts would read reports of Cambodian women giving birth to strange creatures and they’d laugh it off. Then a Pango was born in San Francisco.
The birth happened in November and by New Year’s day the word “Cockatrice” had become the top searched for term and in an even more disturbing twist, the number one video was titled, “Kampango Catfish eat Young of Cichlid.” The video showed the African mouth-brooding cichlid, a fish that carries its eggs in its mouth until it’s time to hatch. However, this video showed what can happen when the deceptive kampango catfish manages to slide its own eggs amongst the cichlid’s. The catfish eggs mature faster than the cichlid’s. They hatch first and the long whiskered, translucent baby catfish grab onto the cichlid’s own eggs consuming them. The end of the video showed the mother cichlid spitting out hoping to see a school of new baby cichlid fish. Only, to her horror, she watches as plump catfish fry swim from her mouth, the murderers of her young.
“I don’t ever want to have kids.” Jason had told his friends. He wasn’t alone in the sentiment either. The birthrate had fallen through the floor overnight. Most decided they’d wait out the epidemic. No use taking a risk like that.
Jason figured he’d wait it out too. But that was six years ago and life had a way of overriding the best laid plans. Angie had found out she was pregnant a few months ago. It was a night burned into his memory. Sitting there with his wife silently for what seemed like hours staring at the little line on the little stick that told them they were going to have a baby.
Everyday since had been spent in a dark grey fugue as the claws of fear wrapped themselves around his brain. He said nothing to Angie and she said nothing to him. There was nothing to be said, nothing they could do.
Had this been a few years before she could have easily spent an afternoon at a clinic and had the whole mess over with. Even further back she could at least have found the right back alley. But these days there were no back alleys and no clinics, well none of those clinics. Abortion was one hundred percent illegal and they meant it.
There had been no religious victory. It was simply a matter of numbers. When the class of people who made the laws realized that very soon there wouldn’t be enough people to till their fields, drive their cars and cook their food they had congress issue a moratorium on just about every type of family planning short of condoms. And to drive home the point they ripped the prophylactics out of the drugs stores and supermarkets relegating their sale strictly to sex shops further stigmatizing anyone “selfish enough to try and bypass the natural course of events.”
“There’s no way to tell this early.” The grizzled OBGYN shrugged.
“But is there anything we can do to, you know, better our chances?” Jason asked as a mirthless Angie sat on the examination table trying not to pay attention to the conversation at hand. She didn’t want to hear about it or talk about it. She refused to even say the word “baby.”
“Five in six. Those are your odds. The epidemic doesn’t care who you are or how much money you have. Oh I’m supposed to tell you to eat right and stay healthy blah blah. But that’s all bullshit. No matter what you do there’s still going to be a one in six chance that you’ll have a monster in you.”
“Oh god.” Angie hopped down from the table and dove into the bathroom face first and retching. The doctor looked at Jason and shrugged. He was barely pushing thirty but already had more gray hair than brown and the worry lines of an elderly man etched into his face. Obstetricians had the toughest job on the planet hands down. Most of them had quit early into the epidemic. Those who’d continued to deliver babies were on the front lines in the failing battle against extinction.
“How long until we can know?”
“Not until the very end. Sorry.” The doctor said flatly.
“The internet says-”
“Don’t go on the internet. It’s all bullshit. Nobody knows anything about this. You’ll only end up scaring yourself.” Then he pushed himself away on his rolling stool and moved on to another room with a different mortified couple.
The problem was that he’d already gone on the internet. He dared not tell Angie what he saw but looking at her as she listlessly stared out of the car window on their way home from the check up it was impossible not to think of her face imposed onto the horrifying video his search had unearthed.
Far away from the mainstream media, in the dark and still unregulated corners of the internet you could still see footage of a pango being born. Governments had banned showing any images of the pangos and watchdog groups tirelessly went after anyone who tried. One evening Jason’s curiosity had taken over and he subsequently found out their reason.
The clip began with a woman in labor. She was screaming in agony. It seemed even worse and more frantic than usual. He couldn’t figure out if it was the fear of what might be coming or the certainty of it. The doctor stood ready between the stirrups. The nurses kept off to the side, now standard procedure. Then it happened. A slimy black thing came ripping out from between her legs into the doctor’s awaiting arms. About the size of a baby but longer legs and arms and it also had cruel, sharp claws at the end of each finger that tore the mother’s thighs to shreds as the doctor pulled it away. The face was the least human thing about it. No lips, no nose, like a skull with jagged, exposed shark’s teeth that snapped viciously at the doctor’s surgical mask. Then, like a trapped rodent, it began flailing violently around, swiping its claws in all directions while a visceral and high pitched squeal shrieked from its deformed mouth.
The attending nurse already had a linen sack held out. Odds were one in six this would happen. The doctor threw the inhuman thing, the not-a-baby, the pango, roughly into the sack as the nurse quickly drew the top shut. The creature fought inside squirming like a badger, the sides of the sack already beginning to give way to the sharp talons.
The nurse slammed the sack to the floor with a heave like she was trying to win a carnival prize. The squealing increased but only for a second. Only long enough for the doctor to slam down a thick booted heel. CRUNCH! Then again, crunch, again one last crunch. The creature finally dead and an OBGYN with a few more gray hairs.
Jason hated the idea of Angie with one of those things in her. He wondered if he should just crash the car and kill them both right there. Wouldn’t that be better? The mother had less than a one percent chance of surviving a pango birth. If it even got that far. Sometimes, somewhere around the ninth month, the pango begins to bite and claw, killing the mother from the inside. A few even darker reports had husbands coming home to find their formerly pregnant wives dead, torn to pieces…no pango in sight.
As the weeks went on things only got worse. The silent divide between him and Angie grew. Meals shared without conversation. Hours mindlessly spent like zombies in front of the television. Stupid shows about insipid people. You could see it. In everyone’s eyes, newscasters, actors, people on game shows, hiding beyond the plastered on smile was stark dread.
“Quit staring at it.” Angie would catch him absently staring at her stomach. She knew what he was thinking about. The fear was driving them crazy. The entire world had been plunged into a giant nightmare.
Angie’s mood switched from distant and withdrawn to irate but never landed anywhere nice. There was no telling if it was an affectation from her body’ pregnancy hormones or simply her ever present terror.
Then one night, in the middle of an otherwise silent viewing of brain numbing television Jason noticed she was quietly crying as she sat next to him.
“I’ve been having contractions for the past three hours.”
“What?! Why didn’t you say anything?!”
“I was hoping I was wrong but…my water just broke!”
“This is too early. You’re not supposed to be due for a month!”
“I know. Is this good or bad?”
“I don’t know! I’ll get my keys!” They weren’t ready for this. They hadn’t set up a labor bag or anything. Before he could find his keys he heard an ear shattering scream from Angie. He ran back into the living room to find her on the floor doubled over in pain.
“Jason I think it’s coming now!” Her voice was shrill with anguish.
“Oh my god is this good or bad?!”
“I don’t know!”
Neither of them knew exactly what to do. This is what happens when you live in a house and to a greater extent a society that refused to say the word baby.
His heart had never beaten like this in his life. It felt like some great ape had been caged in his chest. His pulse so fast that he figured cardiac arrest a foregone conclusion. He gave the standard fare, telling her to remember to breathe and offering his hand if she needed something to squeeze. All they knew was that their lives were about to be forever changed. Either for the good or the bad.
He tried to see if the baby was crowning but he had no idea what he was looking at or what he was supposed to see. Angie screamed again, a sharp cry of agony and before he could ask what the matter was a sudden flood of blood rushed out of her. Her body dropped back and then shook moments before black talons emerged from between her legs followed by a horrid, black creature trailing blood and tissue behind it.
Jason had never been religious before but looking at that thing his mind was suddenly taken back to all the ministers and priests he’d seen on TV talking about the epidemic. They said humanity was being afflicted as a punishment by God and it was foretold in the bible in the legend of the cockatrice. Cockatrices were said to be evil serpents that would grow inside a chicken’s egg. When hatched they’d kill the unsuspecting chicken. Sermons quoted verses from the bible like Isaiah 59:5 and Jeremiah 8:17 to bally their points. Jason had never paid any attention until now as the words came slithering into his head while his eyes remained locked on the creature: For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the Lord.
Jason fell back in shock. His wife was dead before his eyes and there it was, crawling towards him, her killer. It got closer and closer but Jason was paralyzed by grief and fear. As it scurried even closer on all fours like some twisted demon readying to attack he could see hanging from its mouth the chewed remains of an umbilical cord and the two smallest human legs he’d ever seen.