It really is. I'm looking down at this tiny being, an actual person, and she's so small and she doesn't look anything like I expected, but she's a part of me and Max on a level so fundamental I can barely believe it.
She's asleep and I'm afraid to make any noise. What if I woke her up? I wouldn't know what to do. What - what if she needed something? What if she cried for something and I didn't know what it was?
So I just stand here, motionless, watching her. I study her with an intensity I usually reserve for recon missions.
She's pink. I mean, okay, I knew she was nominally human. Both her parents are (mostly) human, and it only makes sense that she looks human too.
But I know from her records that she has a significant amount of Antarian DNA in her too. Max's engineered, hybridized blood carried a whole bunch of recessive genes that are intended to show up in her and in her children, both physically and psychically. Apparently the scientists who designed the genetic merging of the two species decided that Antarian DNA should reassert itself as soon as possible, purging the human DNA within a few generations.
Old Mr. Seligman would pitch a fit to find the Punnit squares he doted over inverted like this. I'm sure of it.
Maybe that's why part of me was expecting a fine pelt of silvery Antarian youth fur, perhaps darkening to a silvery black on her head the way Max's - Zan's - birth mother's did. Sometimes at night I dream of an Antarian child, and that's what I see. I guess I just assumed there'd be a link still, there is something about the shape of her eyes, and her tiny nose and chin, that whispers of something alien. It's definitely there.
But she's pink. Pale-pink-peach with the faintest of Antarian violet-gray undertones, really. But she's pinker and peachier than I can justify in my mind. Both Max and I have olive complexions. I wonder where she got it? And the hair. Red?
Oh - my mother. Wow. Now I know what they mean when they say the parents live on in their children, because now that I'm looking, I can absolutely see something of Nancy Parker in the granddaughter she'll never meet, and the thought makes me smile even as I feel the sting of tears in my eyes.
They won't fall, of course. I don't cry easily these days. It's just I never felt truly connected with my mother, and I don't feel truly connected with my daughter, not yet, not the way I know Max and the others do.
But I will. I can do this. I've faced death a thousand times; surely it can't be so hard to face life.
"Are you okay with this?"
Max's smile is gentle but anxious. He's not sure I'm up to the rigors of a Royal press conference, not so soon after everything that's happened. But I've been told that my appearance would mean a lot to the billions of people who mobilized in their king's honor but also in mine. It's a heady realization, and I still have trouble believing it, but showing up is the least I can do.
It's also a lot of pressure. I overheard some palace staff chatting one morning, and that old folklore prophecy - the one about how 'Antar would know peace' when Max and I married - is making the rounds again. The battle has been won, that much is obvious, but everyone's holding their breaths, waiting for the signal to move on with their lives.
Max and I will announce our engagement officially in front of hundreds of journalists and billions of Allied citizens in a matter of hours. I hope they're all still as enthusiastic about our much-vaunted union when they're presented with the reality.
We'll be presenting last, though. Michael, as military leader, will go first, officially declaring a ceasefire. He'll order the troops to stand down, explaining that their priority now is to maintain order while demobilization is achieved slowly and safely. And he'll let it be known that Trejantisian survivors are to be treated with dignity upon surrender; Allied troops will disobey him at their own peril.
He practiced his speech the whole way back to Antar. He's nervous, but he's ready.
Then various advisors will take the floor after Max, including Isabel and Maria. I have to say I'm surprised and humbled by all they've done. I now know (as Isabel tells me about her committees and their plans for urban renewal, and Maria describes what aid farmers and other primary level suppliers can expect from the divisions she oversees) that I've been guilty of the worst kind of hubris, and I owe them both an apology. In truth, I have thought less of them because they hadn't been putting their lives on the line with me and Michael and Kyle, and they both deserve better.
I'm not expected to make a speech. I currently hold only a peripheral court status and I don't report to the public. All I have to do is stand by Max as he addresses his people tomorrow, and maybe smile or something when he makes our little announcement.
I can do that. Smile and stand by Max. It doesn't sound so hard. I just wish I didn't break out in sweats at the thought of it.
"Of course I'm ready for this, Max. The whole galaxy is going to know that we belong together."
I can almost believe it when I see his face light up like that.
I've been sitting here for some time now, watching the baby.
There is a door but also a window between our bedroom and the nursery, so that we can look in on her whenever we choose. For our privacy, the mirror is of the one-way sort, so that we can see into the room but the nurses and guards that take care of the baby can't see into our suite.
I sit here, and I watch her and those who surround her with almost greedy curiosity.
Max came in first, to feed her and then hand her to a nurse for changing with a sheepish look on his face. He was late for a meeting, he was quick to explain, looking suspiciously relieved. The nurse on duty laughed for a few minutes after he left, and muttered something in Antarian that would probably translate as a playfully exasperated "Men."
Maria showed up mid-day to play with the baby's toes, and I didn't miss the look in her eyes or the way her hand casually splayed over her own belly. I'm not sure if she even realized that she was doing it, but I won't be surprised if she and Michael have something of their own to announce someday soon.
Isabel came in during the late afternoon and used her powers to make a soothing light show on the ceiling over the crib. It was beautiful; I drifted off myself, into the most peaceful nap I've had in years. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and clear of mind and wondering if she'd show Max how to do that.
I have to admit I was shocked when Michael came in just before dinner, to feed her and change her - after shooing everyone out, of course - and Max was right, he did talk to her the whole time. Softly, so softly that I don't think Maria's going to have as much of a fight on her hands as she probably thinks. The thing is, I've never seen this side of him before, and it's hard to reconcile this man with the gruff guy I call my high commander. In a way, his visit fascinated and frustrated me the most, because all I can think of is that he's done it.
Michael freaking Guerin has figured out how to make the adjustment between work and home, between hard and gentle. So why am I having so hard a time with it? Why am I finding it so hard to stand on the other side of this wall, to smile at one of the nurses and casually pick her up, confident that I can be what she needs, right now and for the rest of her life?
And for the rest of mine. It's a long time, and it's an obligation that scares me.
I feel so helpless when I'm with her.
Max takes a deep breath and steps forward onto the dais. I'm standing behind him in full dress uniform, but I'm lost among Michael, Isabel, Maria and a veritable crowd of aides.
Adopting formal Antarian speech and cadence, Max announces that the war is officially over. I only understand about two-thirds of it, but I know that he's given the Trejanti Senate three days to appoint a new representative, with the expectation that treaty negotiations will begin immediately thereafter. He's also formally congratulating the Alliance for a war well fought, and when his voice gets low and emotional, I know that he's thanking everyone personally for their efforts in the last couple weeks.
It is, he's telling them, an honor to call himself Antarian.
When he pauses for the second time, the assembly square is filled with the thunder of applause. It's something to behold, really it is, as normally stoic Antarians clap Human-style alongside representatives of about twenty or so races. It is truly an historic event, and I try to memorize every moment of it, knowing that I will think back to this moment often in the years to come.
Suddenly he turns around and holds out his hand to me. Eyes wide, I look at him, trying to figure out what's happening.
"Trust me," he whispers, and I place my hand in his and let him pull me forward and in front of him, so that everyone can see how we fit together.
He introduces me in Antarian, but he introduces me as "Lieutenant-Commander Elizabeth Parker of the Allied Ground Forces."
Hey, I've been promoted again. Only Max's grip on my arm keeps me from turning around and smacking off the smirk that I just know is all over Michael's face. It's a good thing, too; it'd be somewhat detrimental to just about everything we're doing here if I did. Of course, the General won't be smiling for long. This means I report directly to him, and boy, am I going to be a pain in the ass? You bet I am.
There's a moment of silence while I feel the gaze of billions on me, judging me. If I'd had the time to think about it, I doubt I'd be so calm. But I didn't, and right here and now I know I need to do or say something. So I think about the man holding my hands in his, smile as sincerely as I know how, and I thank Antar and its Allies.
That's it. I just say "Thank you", one of the few phrases I can say in Antarian with a clear accent. The best part is that in High Antarian, a formal 'thank you' also translates as something of a pledge, an offering of fraternity and service.
I don't get applause, but I get something better. The uniform I wear means a great deal to me, and I've always assumed that it means the same to the people I've represented while wearing it. So when a large portion of the audience - with mobilization fresh in their minds, no doubt - stands and salutes, I stand at attention and salute right back. Behind me I hear the swish of Michael and the military staff flanking him stand at attention too, and in that moment I can hear the voices of every soldier I've ever served with speak to me. And I'm proud. In this moment, I'm proud of who I am, what I am, and whom I serve.
"At ease," General Rath commands, and we all stand down.
Max steps closer then, and continues to speak in Antarian. I know that he's telling them of our impending engagement because he puts his hands on my forearms from behind me, not hugging me exactly but holding me to him nonetheless.
And there's more awed silence, and more applause, although this time the Humans in the audience stand out, cheering loudly. I turn to Max and we're both smiling, and he leans down for a quick kiss, and I wonder when I'm going to wake up, because this has to be a dream, right?
Nope. Not a dream.
She sleeps a lot.
Of course, she's only - how old is she? I take a moment to do the math. I think she's about six weeks now, although I'm not absolutely certain. I make a mental note to ask Max later.
She's so tiny. Are all babies this tiny? I never really had much exposure to babies growing up. I was an only child and none of my closer friends had younger brothers or sisters. Families came into the CrashDown all the time, but babies were always bundled up, and I was always more concerned with working around them than getting to know them.
She's never left alone. When I go in there, there's always someone to nod to, to let know as graciously as possible that they can take a break now. I always wait until they've left before I approach the crib. I don't know why, exactly, but I have this fear that they'll take one look at me near the baby and just know how ill-equipped I am to deal with this. The thought of being humiliated like that, of being told I can't be alone with my own child, is too much even to contemplate.
Worse, what if they did stay in the room, and something happened? What if I tried to feed her the wrong thing or pick her up the wrong way? They'd all know for sure. They'd report me to okay, there's no one to report me to. But they gossip, I know they do, and word would get around, and I don't know if I could take it. As it is, I don't want them - any of them - to know I never actually pick her up. I always time my visits so she's just been fed and changed, and there's no reason to.
I just watch. I study her, trying to see myself in her, trying to convince myself that if I did pick her up, she would I don't know. Not cry, maybe?
There's someone at the door; the next shift. With a sigh I nod politely and make my way back into the suite I now share with Max, although I've kept my own apartment in the palace for appearance's sake.
It's about time I get back anyway. He's going to be home soon, and as hypocritical as it is, I hate the thought of him watching me on the other side of that glass.
"Lizz? Where yuh goin'?"
I smile. He sounds like a little boy, and he looks like one too, hair all mussed and a mark on his cheek where it's been pressed against a pillow all night.
"I'm just going to go work out for a while. I'll be back for breakfast. Go back to sleep."
He blinks once or twice and nods blearily. "'Kay." He's asleep again within seconds, and I shake my head in awe as I leave as quietly as possible.
How does he do that?
I'm used to catching sleep when and where I can get it, regardless of rough circumstances, but I can't seem to get through an entire night here, not even in a bed so luxurious it should come with a warning, and with the one person who brings me peace.
On the plus side, I've noticed that the palace athletic center is almost always deserted at this hour. As I lose myself in the soothing rhythm of my favorite stretching and aerobic routine, I let my mind go free. By the time I'm pounding away at the punching and kicking apparatuses, I'm no longer moving consciously; it's all instinct, all action and reaction. The energy just flows through me, and I revel in it, dance in it.
After it builds for a while I decide to use it. I gather it within myself and release it, projecting opponents to box with, using the sound of my heartbeat to give my feet rhythm and pace my breathing.
They talk to me sometimes, my imagined opponents. Faces from the past come up and they talk to me, their mouths shaping sounds that only my mind can hear. I see any number of the soldiers I've lived with and fought next to over the years, and my mind recreates their movements, their mannerisms, their knowledge of my weaknesses. Drav shows up sometimes, and it's bittersweet, because he's alive for me here. And he talks to me, they all talk to me, they remind me of past hurts and triumphs and petty arguments and times when it was enough just to be alive.
Sometimes when I shadowbox like this I can hear undercurrents, whispers really, words begging to be understood. They're there, below the surface chatter, and I feel like I could hear them if I strain enough, if I lose myself in the flow just a little bit more.
This time, like a radio coming in tune, one voice emerges from all the static.
"In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning "
My body keeps moving, but now I'm battling a new opponent, one who I've never beaten in a fight, fair or not. One I've never faced off against, whether in a gym or on a battlefield. One who took away so much that was important in my life, whether he was hiding behind armies and spies or restraints and head games. One whose face terrifies me so deeply, that the sight of it is enough to make me want to die before he can kill me himself.
And he's talking to me, he's reciting my poems, but in between he's whispering in my ear, in my mind and he's telling me things and I don't want to hear them but I can't keep him out, I can't see him anymore because he's inside me and he's talking -
- and I can't stop hearing and it's getting harder to breathe and the lights are so bright they're hurting my eyes and I feel limp, I feel limp and helpless -
- and I can't fight him, I can't push him away and no one can save me I can't save myself and it hurts -
"Liz, snap out of it!" something knocks me to the ground then, and I taste something sour and coppery as my teeth come down hard on my tongue and lights explode behind my eyes.
I lie there for a moment, grateful for silence. When I have the strength, I open my eyes to see Michael kneeling over me, his face expressionless but his eyes scared.
My mind is a little muddy. Maybe I hit my head on the ground; I feel kind of woozy. I blink a few times and it goes away.
"Hey, Michael. When did you get here?"
I lean over and spit out some blood. He looks a little nauseous and waves his hand over it, cleaning it up.
"A while ago." He sits back then, so I can see the sweaty rags he calls workout gear. "What happened?"
I shrug weakly and force myself to sit up. I'm drenched with sweat, and I haven't quite caught my breath yet. "What do you mean? I'm just working out. Shadow boxing. Do it all the time."
"No, you were working out. Pretty intense, too. But at the end you - I don't know, but you stopped moving and you were - well, you seemed like you were flickering."
"'Flickering'?" I look at him and I'm pretty sure my expression matches my disbelieving tone. "Michael, next time you want to knock me flat on the floor, come up with a better story."
I hate the way he's looking at me; it's the way they all look at me sometimes, when they think I'm not looking. Like he thinks I'm about to break down, to just lose it.
So I decide not to tell him about the feelings of fuzziness I had a moment ago, or that I think I blacked out. Add that to whatever it was he thought he saw, and he'd just freak on me and drag me to some doctors. I have no intention of seeing any more doctors than I have to. Besides, I feel great, just all sore and wobbly the way you feel after a tough workout.
And wow, that was some workout! I can practically taste the endorphins making every nerve in my body sing. Usually when I project for extended periods, it wears me out. But not this time; right now, I feel invincible.
Ooh, and hungry. I'm so hungry I'd eat my own cooking. Thank god I don't have to.
"Yeah?" God, he looks so serious. What's his problem?
"Think it's too early to get some breakfast around here?"
I have to laugh. He's actually speechless.
"C'mon, relax, will you? Let's go see if Max is up and grab some grub."
"Uh, Liz "
"Scratch that," I decide, suddenly hungry for something else. "You go find out about breakfast. See if Maria and Isabel are interested. I'll take a shower and get Max; we'll meet you in an hour. Or thereabouts."
Michael backs up a bit, rolling his eyes at my suggestiveness. He seems to have recovered from whatever it was. "Okay," he concedes. "But do me a favor?"
"Next time you need a sparring partner, get a real one?" There's something in his tone that suggests he's more serious than he's letting on.
I shrug. I'm feeling too good to think too much right now, let alone argue. "Sure. Now come on, see if you can rustle up some scrambled eggs or something, will you? Man, I haven't had scrambled eggs in years. I wonder if anyone's gotten around to importing chickens yet "
Michael just shakes his head and laughs as I leave him to go take care of another kind of hunger - if Max is amenable, of course.
He usually is. There are some definite perks to living together, and we have a lot of time to make up for.
For once everyone comes to breakfast at the same time, and it's nice. I'm still feeling jazzed from earlier, and I can't get enough of the food or the company.
Eventually, though, they all leave for work. Max and Michael head off to meet with representatives from the Trejantisian Council, Maria tells me she's going north to check out a distribution problem, and Isabel runs off because she's expecting an important call that she "absolutely can not" miss.
I find myself wandering around the palace grounds, knowing that if I wanted something to do, I could head to my tiny office and answer some correspondence. But I feel too restless for paperwork today. If there's anything in there that actually needs taking care of, the secretary I share with several other minor dignitaries will let me know.
It occurs to me that Kyla would probably be fed and awake by now.
I make my way towards the nursery. In addition to my furtive visits, I come here almost every day with Max, sometimes twice. He loves to come here, and he never complains about dismissing the nurses so they don't know I've never held her.
He thinks I'm just nervous. He downplays my anxiety, saying that everyone's afraid they'll drop the baby but no one ever does. The one time he pushed it, though, I had a panic attack and almost hyperventilated myself into passing out. So now he just lets me watch as he plays with her and feeds her and changes her, and when he asks if I want to hold her and I say "Not yet," he nods and brings her over so I can look at her anyway.
He worries about me; I know he does. And I guess he has reason. But I don't think he understands when I tell him about how odd I feel inside sometimes, like I don't know myself anymore. Phrases like "post-traumatic stress disorder" roll off his tongue, and I know he's been doing some research on the subject. I have, too, and in my calmer moments I think it's a very reasonable explanation for the panic attacks and the insomnia, especially now that the doctors have cleared me physically.
I just can't help thinking there's something else, though. I feel off. I can't be more specific than that. Or rather, I did feel off. Right now, I feel fabulous.
And as I near my daughter's room, I walk right past it. Without really understanding why, I continue down the hall and then down a staircase that takes me into one of the most highly secure weapons lockers on the planet. There are all sorts of intruder detectors that would be going off if I weren't who I am, and if I didn't have the clearances I do.
It's virtually secret, too, known only to the General, the King, and the twenty or so people closest to them. So there's no live guard to get past, I can just walk in and take what I need.
I start humming as I load up on supplies.
It really is a beautiful day. Somewhere, I know, birds are singing.
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