Being pregnant is exhausting.
It creeps up on you. The reality of it, I mean. It runs together in my mind, like it’s one word: I’m-pregnant. Then, I’ll be going over some papers in my office and a word – any word, like “term” – will catch my eye and I’ll wonder: will I carry to term? Because Grandma Claudia said something once, about Mom not carrying me to full term. But there’s no one to ask and the doctor’s office that held that kind of information is dust. It’s all dust, all that information that would really be helpful right now because I’m-pregnant.
And I’ll stop and pull up my shirt and look down and I can’t quite believe that there’s something – some one – growing in there. But there is, and that’s what makes that little glow when I touch it, like some kind of bioluminescent reminder that fate is a joker and I’m its little wild card.
It’s a slightly ridiculous image, but I have a lot of trouble getting it out of my head sometimes.
I try to roll with the punches. I do. I try to take on everything my life throws at me because Grandma Claudia used to say something about never being given more than you can handle. So I handle it because I can.
Still, sometimes it’s all too much. I want to kick and scream that it’s not fair, because it’s not, and it’s too damn much to ask of me. But I don’t. Instead, I study harder, visit the gym more, and try to focus. I can’t allow myself to have these doubts right now.
I’m not the first soldier to have a child and then go off to war. But maybe if I do my job right, I’ll be the last for a long, long time.
My time sense is slipping.
I’ve never been one of those people who really needed a watch. I like to stay aware of what’s going on around me, and as a soldier, I trained myself always to know what time it was.
But now … I have trouble remembering. I think it’s a side effect of the sessions with the military doctors, because it happens more often as the training goes on. Well, we call it training, but it’s like no training I’ve ever had. I sit or lie down and one of them monitors me while the other places one hand on my forehead and concentrates. It’s weird, but what isn’t?
Still, the time thing bothers me. Twenty minutes here, an hour there … I just woke up and looked at the automated Antarian version of a calendar, and I could have sworn it says a week later than when I went to bed last night.
I look at it again. It hasn't changed. As I roll over to reset it, though, I notice something different. I look down … and I’m big. Much bigger than I was yesterday.
So it’s me. I’m the one that needs resetting. But I won’t say anything. What would be the point? There’s no turning back now anyway.
Besides, I seem to be taking this whole thing a lot better than everyone else. I think it’s because I’ve trained out in the field. When you face the prospect of death on a daily basis, you learn not to sweat the time beforehand more than you have to. And maybe it’s because if something does happen to me, they’re the ones that’ll have to live with it.
Michael looks like he doesn’t eat or sleep anymore. Isabel avoids being alone with me, and Maria stops by every day but I think the strain of not telling me what a bad idea this is (again) is getting to her, and she always finds reasons to cut our visits short.
Of course, there is a lot going on. They're busy people at the best of times, and right now life is a blur of secret meetings and court dinners and council speeches and preparations for the gala in my honor.
It’s incredible, the deals and bribery and behind-the-scenes drama that go into a court function of this magnitude – and I’m just talking about the catering. Anyone who has ever doubted that Isabel has the blood of warriors in her veins has never seen her bully an exhausted staff into giving her just another hour before dropping.
There’s a lot of politicking as well. People will do anything to get assigned seats by the people they’re trying to impress. Maria almost screamed when one distant nobleman sent her his twentieth consecutive bouquet of exotic flowers, provoking her third allergy attack in as many days. But she’ll stick with it. She jokes about finding a dress to match the hives.
I’m the only one not involved in the preparations; no one expects me to do anything but show up. But everywhere I go in the palace there’s still someone who wants to chat or catch up or ask me to guest-speak for some event or another. I'm still in the spotlight here, and it's nerve-wracking.
Finally, desperate for privacy, I announce that I’m taking a vacation in some nearby islands. I’m lying, of course. I’m really only going as far as a suite in a largely unused wing of the administrative complex. But the quiet is exactly what I need.
And it’s a good place to meet with Michael’s doctors. It’s an intriguing process, actually, how they’re essentially creating a second personality in my head.
The assumption is that Khivar will fall back on mind-rape as an interrogational technique. So the Antarian medical elite have figured out a way around it. Not to prevent it, unfortunately, but to circumvent the process. So I’ve had an entire second set of memories installed and ready to be mind-read if the situation calls for it, with just enough controls in place to keep me focused on the mission. The right code will snap it into place and then even I won’t know the difference. For all I or Khivar will know, I really have spent the past few months meeting with military advisors and then vacationing. He won’t learn about Max’s baby or any real secrets from me, because I won’t know any of them either.
I almost envy my new self that ignorance.
There are also triggers being installed to revert me back to, well, 'me'. The theory is that if – when – I come back, I’ll be debriefed and my mind either merged or purged or one then the other, depending on what I want and what I’ve experienced.
I know which one I'm planning on.
I’ve gotten big. It’s difficult to maintain my training regime, but it’s necessary, and the doctors say I don’t have to stop, just slow down and take it easy. I am trying, and of course, Max does his level best to make sure I do everything they say.
Max … is every inch the doting father-to-be I imagined. He stays with me every night and sneaks out to meet me throughout the day, more often than not bringing yet another item he’s bought or made for the baby and wants to show me. He’s attentive to me, too, and as much as it gets on my nerves a little, I have to admit it’s kind of cute.
That must be the hormones again. I haven’t appreciated ‘cute’ in years. And if, as I suspect, Michael had the mind doctors give me some kind of mental tranquilizer during our sessions, I’ll find out for sure later and kick his ass then. But in a weird kind of way I’m enjoying this side of Max. He’s so very gentle, possessively gentle, when we make love … of course, I won’t let him get away with this ‘take care of the little lady’ routine for long. It’s just not me.
And I do look forward to the day I’m me again. Because this is only an interlude, an illusion, so I can't let myself get lost in it. I can’t be helpless and lovesick when the time comes to act, pulling Max and the others down because I can’t do what I need to.
My gut tells me it’s going to get bad soon. And when it happens, it’ll happen fast.
“Don’t worry, Your Majesty. You look lovely.”
Max swings around guiltily.
“I was – I was just looking –” he stammers. It’s endearing. I wonder what his advisors would think if they saw this side of him.
“The gray hair?” I ask, and he shrugs, ears reddening in embarrassment.
The table itself is covered with official documents rather than vanity items, but there’s no disguising what it was designed for. The feminine frippery that I couldn’t be bothered to redecorate looks almost as silly in front of Max as it does in front of me.
“I think it looks distinguished,” I offer, suddenly feeling the weight of countless generations of Human women trying to comfort their loved ones. It feels strange and alien, but also … familiar.
Next I’m going to ask him if my uniform makes my ass look fat, I think with a smirk.
He blushes deeper. He thinks I’m making fun of him.
“I’m just remembering hearing my mother say that to my dad,” I explain. “Right before he went out and dyed it.”
Max grins. “I remember. The week after you told your parents we were planning on moving in together, right?”
I nod. Oh, but it was funny to see my father in full mid-life crisis mode at the thought of his baby all grown up. He bought a new car, leather pants, and yes, dyed his hair.
If I’d known he had less than a year to live, I wouldn’t have teased him so mercilessly.
After a moment I make my way over to stand behind Max, resting my arms comfortably around his shoulders as he leans back against me. We watch each other in the mirror, and I find myself fingering the silver streaking across his temple.
“It’s not gray, it’s silver,” I say suddenly.
“What’s the difference?” he asks, curious but smiling, and I know he’s half-expecting a lecture akin to Isabel’s infamous discourse on teal vs. turquoise. I still can't tell them apart, but I stopped admitting that in her presence years ago.
“It’s your Antarian side coming out.”
His gaze sharpens, and I know I’ve struck a chord. “You think?” he asks, idly, but there’s a new awareness I see in his expression.
I nod. I’ve never envied him his life here, but for the first time, I wonder if he doesn’t envy me a little. I wonder if he feels as alien here as I do, and I wonder if he ever wants to come with me out in the field, where everyone is so different that our very differences attain a sort of anonymity.
It doesn’t really matter. Not now. Right now, my world has narrowed down to two precise goals: to have my child in safety, and to destroy Khivar so that other parents can have the same.
But mostly, it’s for the life growing inside of me.
It sounds strange. Me, the bringer of death, about to give birth. It’s funny, though; if Kyle were here I’d know exactly what he’d say. He tease me, give me some gag gift like a camouflage garter or something, and make some kind of crack about how paratroopers make the best paramours.
How did that old joke go? I don’t remember. Something about “going down”, anyway. Probably not the kind of joke a mother-to-be should be telling.
Giving birth is like nothing I could ever have imagined.
They don’t use anesthetic here unless it’s an emergency. Here, you link physically and emotionally with the people closest to you, the people who are your family whether you’re related or not, and you let them share the pain. It’s a bonding process of some kind, and in effect what you’re doing is creating a number of gung-ho godparents.
We’ve been connected for an hour now. Max tells me it’ll only be a few minutes more. I feel something prickle at my eye, and something suspiciously like a tear falls down one cheek.
It’s the hormones, I know, but I feel … transcendent. For some reason, I feel closer to my own mother than I ever did while she was alive, and I can almost feel the warmth of Grandma Claudia’s arms. It’s very comforting.
I can also feel everything the group is feeling. It’s blurry, and I can’t make out anything but emotions, but I think they’re all feeling the same kind of thing, reliving the same kind of memories, only ones that hold specific meaning for them.
The rhythmic pains are nothing, not here. There are much more important things that demand my attention. If I close my eyes, I can feel the pain of an entire planet.
And I can hear my daughter’s heartbeat.
The weight in my arms brings me out of my trance, but doesn’t sever the bond entirely.
“It fades,” Isabel explains. “Cutting off too suddenly is bad for the baby.”
I nod, suddenly enthralled with her perfect toes and fingers. It seems fitting, somehow, that she represents both our heritages in her tiny, perfect features. She has my mother’s red hair, and the large, elfin eyes and purple-black irises of her father’s people, although you can see the whites of her eyes that are the dead giveaway for Human DNA. Her skin is a pale cream-gray, but when she’s excited it turns pink.
Pure Antarians don’t blush.
But hybrids do. Michael looks tired but curious despite himself. I know he’s been trying to remain aloof, and he looked away while I was actually giving birth (which may or may not have something to do with my threat of damaging his reproductive organs beyond repair if he saw any of mine), but he can’t pretend this hasn’t affected him. Not with the way the color rushed to his face when he heard her first cry.
“She’s beautiful,” he says, seriously, and I nod at him. She is.
Max waves a hand over me, and I think he just healed me. At least, I think I just felt my abdominal muscles relax and then tighten, and I have a sneaking suspicion that my stomach is as flat as it ever was. I smile my thanks, and he smiles back. He looks tired too.
Maria won’t stop crying. I think she’s gone through every package of tissue she brought with her, because she just surreptitiously used the back of Michael’s shirt to wipe her eyes and, I suspect, her nose.
We smile at each other over his shoulder.
“He’s right. She is,” she sniffs, gazing down mistily.
Max nods but hasn’t said anything yet. I think he’s waiting for everyone to leave.
Isabel takes the hint first. Clearing her throat to get everyone’s attention, she heads for the door. “Michael, Maria, shall we?”
They take a moment to feel my daughter’s soft skin again and then follow Isabel out of the room to assure the doctors outside that yes, everything is just fine.
I sent the doctors out earlier. Sure, I can appreciate that the first Hybrid/Human birth is something of a medical marvel, but this part of it is private.
“Are you sure you still have to go?” Max is so serious. He thinks that if there’s a time to get me to back out, it’s now.
“More than ever.”
My daughter … our daughter will know war, but only because she will help to rebuild in its aftermath. She will walk among the memorials and she will see not bodies, but the flowers that grow from well-tended plots. She will see life born of death.
This is my promise to her.
To my daughter.
We’ve already programmed the medic’s computers with the exact formula of my breast milk so they can re-create it as closely as possible. This is a good thing, I know. Heck, I was the one who suggested it.
But I’m feeling some indefinable ache somewhere in my chest. It pulls at me, puts wild thoughts in my head, thoughts that have no place being there, not now.
I seek out the only person who can help me.
“Michael, I think it’s time for the first trigger,” I say, trying desperately not to start crying again. “How can I keep going when I’m like this?” I blow my nose loudly into one of the issues I swiped from Maria.
He doesn’t speak right away. He just looks at me and studies my blotchy face. After a moment, he nods, and takes a deep breath.
He stops to pick up a package before we leave his office and head to my quarters. “They just got in. I think my staff did a pretty good job,” he says, holding it up. Oh, so it must hold the pictures from my ‘vacation’. The doctors said they would help reinforce the mind shift, and we figured it was a good idea to cover all our bases anyway.
But right now it’s just a distraction. I’m trying to stay calm, because I know what he’s going to do. What I need him to do. We saw this coming, of course. And prepared for it. But it won’t work if I fight it.
I don’t protest, and he doesn’t stop himself. This has to be done. But I still hate us both.
“Thanks for coming by.” I yawn, laughing a little as it echoes against the walls of my old suite. “Maybe I’ll just look at a few pictures and then take another nap.”
Michael lifts his hand in a semi-wave and leaves. I look at the door in bemused confusion.
We talked, I know we did, but damned if I can remember what we talked about. In fact, I’m having a little trouble remembering a lot of things; it’s all a little fuzzy.
As I stare at the door, concentrating, a few snatches of conversation come back to me.
“What happened, Michael? Am – am I sick or something?”
“Yeah.” Pause. “You got bit by a bug while you were on that stupid island. The docs say the memory loss isn’t permanent, by the way; it’s just a side effect of your wimpy little brain trying to handle Antarian fever.”
I glare at him, muttering a few choice invectives about his heritage and exactly where he could shove it and – wimpy little brain? Excuuuse me?
He shrugs and hands me a package.
I sit up and ignore the spinning sensation in my head to look around. There – a large envelope on the bed next to me. I open it up and reach inside.
Ah, the pictures from my vacation. I pore over them, allowing them to tease faint images into bright-as-life recollections of a fabulous, low-key and extremely restful vacation.
I feel faintly ill. My platoon is back out there in the field by now, and I’ve been on vacation? I feel as though I’ve betrayed them somehow. Especially after the way we left things; I need to go to them, explain that it’s okay, that no one’s being punished, that I just can’t fight alongside them anymore.
It’ll just be a short visit, and I won’t insult them by saying I’m leaving them for their own protection. Better to let them think my promotion involves taking time for the diplomatic duties I’ve been neglecting while in the field … where I’d give just about anything to be right now. Here, surrounded by my oldest and dearest friends, by opulence, by the best that Antarian artisans can create and Antarian powers can preserve, I feel more alien than I ever did in the field, where I’ve gone weeks without seeing another human.
I sigh and check out the calendar. There’s less than a week left. And I can’t back out of the party now. The others are preparing for it like crazy, and they’d never forgive me if I didn’t at least show up to get my pip and give a speech.
Maria seeks me out a few times a day, hugging me a lot and worrying over me. She keeps telling me I need to rest.
“Hey, I’m fine,” I reassure her breezily. And I am. It’s kind of irritating how she forgets that I’m a seasoned soldier, and that I don’t need or want her coddling. But I know she means well, so I try to smile and put up with it. And then I go work out, because I haven’t fully recovered from being sick. I still get a little dizzy at times.
Isabel is more distant than ever. We barely pass in the halls and she runs off, suddenly thinking of something she has to do somewhere else. If it were anyone other than Isabel, I’d think it was a little rude. But it is Isabel, and it’s just one of those phases she’s going through. Plus, she’s tracking down a dress uniform for me to wear and agreed to do my hair and make-up for the party, so I’ll forgive her just about anything right now.
I may not want anything too fancy, but even I know I’ll mess up and look more foolish than fashionable if I try to do it myself. I don’t even know what is fashionable these days.
Max is having these odd mood swings. One moment we’ll be together, or getting dressed, or washing up for the day, and the next he’ll stop to lay his head against my belly while holding me possessively around the waist. I don’t know what I’m seeing in his eyes. He’s never acted like this before. I know it doesn’t make sense, but then I don’t pretend to understand much about my lover these days – except for what his body craves, and what his body can do that makes mine hum with pleasure.
I know his body very well indeed. It’s his mind that’s the enigma.
“Why are you so quiet?”
He answers slowly. “I wish you wouldn’t go.” Then, “Back out in the field, I mean.”
I close my eyes and lean back, a little frustrated. “Max, listen, we’ve had this discussion. I’m a soldier, and soldiers belong out in the field for as long as possible. It’s my last tour anyway …” I sigh, because I know he’s hearing everything I’m not saying as well as what I am.
“We both know my career’s over. And if – no, when – I get back from this, we both know I’m going to have to find something else. Can’t you understand that this is what I’ve been working towards? This is it. The turning point. No matter what else happens,” I admit, “my life is changing, and it scares me. At least this way, I have some control over it. I don’t feel so … impotent.”
He listens to me speak, and doesn’t interrupt. He knows I’m being as honest as I can. I know he’s trying to understand. I don’t think he does, but it seems to soothe him a little to hear me speak. At least, he doesn’t fight about it anymore.
But he doesn’t sleep next to me anymore either. He’s always gone when I wake up. I guess he’s already filling his time with other people, with tasks that take him away from me. I don’t say anything. Maybe it’ll make it easier for him to let me go when the time comes.
Neither of us brings up marriage anymore. The word itself sounds like a jinx.
More and more often, I find myself thinking of a simple child’s toy in a young Antarian boy’s still hands.
It’s part of this increasing sense of fatalism that’s overtaken me during these last days of my leave. I don’t know why, but this image has taken a place alongside the poems in my mind, acting as a sort of talisman for me.
They all sort of overlap, so that I see the image as I hear the words of those old Earth poems that affected me so much as a child. They are all a part of the anthem that shapes my destiny, and when I stop and pay attention, when I focus on the image, I hear those words somewhere deep inside of me where sound is only sensation.
Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, /Loved and were loved, and now we lie
Time to time, more often as the days pass, unbidden memories of soldiers, chanting as they work through dense underbrush in the dark, marching drumbeats across my mind. They’re even louder in the night and in my dreams. I don’t talk about them, but I don’t ignore them either; I can’t. It’s the sound of all those I’ve served with, Human and Antarian, encouraging me, sharing their spirit with me. They are a greater part of me than the clean beauty of this palace, and their words urge me on like nothing else could. They merge with a dark beauty I’m not sure anyone here would understand.
War is death/ Dulce et decorum est/ I am at war/ The poppies grow/ Therefore, I am death/ Pro patria mori
In my mind, I’m always thinking ahead. Anticipating, planning, considering options, variables, probabilities. Far away from this haven, my destiny awaits.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, /As under a green sea, I saw him drowning
The voices in my head pulse with dark joy, and in my dreams, they are with me, standing by my side, waiting.
Together, we will win.
This is my peace, my purpose, my clarity.
The dinner is long and drawn out, and if I weren’t sitting in the place of honor I would have excused myself a long time ago.
Next to me, Max squeezes my hand in understanding, subtly feeding me soothing vibes and every now and then, an image of something naughty to keep me in good spirits. To his right, Isabel chats politely with Lieutenant Hothe, here to give the obligatory speech as he confers my new rank upon me. I know he’s nervous but will do so with gracious good humor and tact. To my left, Maria and Michael listen quietly, and I’m amazed at the rapport they share, the purity of their connection.
This is the first time I suspect they have become intimate again. I wonder how long it’s been going on. Then again, I don’t really care. It’s just good that they’re happy.
I spend much of the following meal just letting it all wash over me, the smell, the colors, the memories.
The only strange thing that happens is a brief interruption when one of the palace staff comes up and whispers first to Isabel and then Maria. Not that this is out of the ordinary; each is called upon to made administrative decisions constantly, and a party this size requires considerable attention to run smoothly. What makes me suspicious is the way Max and Michael try to distract me when he does, like they don’t want me to overhear what he’s talking to them about.
But I’m leaving tomorrow. I don’t want to end my time here with accusations. So I let it go, content just to bask in the warmth of my family’s attention.
We all hide things. I hide who I am and what I’ve become from them, and I do so with a clear conscience. If they’re keeping any secrets from me, I don’t need to know. Not right now, at least. There’s plenty of time to find out later. If –
When I come back.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
|Main||Title Index||Category Index||Character Index||Rating Index|