Life is a funny thing, isn’t it? Back in the days when I was single, skinny and capable of cohesive thought, I don’t think I was ever particularly confused about the future. Even the onset of war with an alien species didn’t fill me with so much anxiety that I found myself unable to speak in complete sentences. Which is just as well, I suppose, given that in my job, clear communication is key; if you hope to stay alive, that is. But things have changed; now I’m so confused I’ve become dyslexic. I keep saying ‘post-mortem’ when I mean ‘post-partum’. Perhaps it’s to be expected; there are days when I feel like my hormones are playing Pac-Man with my brain cells- devouring them, one by one. So maybe slipping up with the wrong word isn’t unusual.
Then again, perhaps the slippage is Freudian in nature, and post-partum and post-mortem will turn out to be one and the same. Perhaps some prescient voice is warning me that I’m a fool to have embarked on this venture in the first place, an idiot to think I could survive it. For the first time in seven months, I’m beginning to think my husband may have been right in his belief that there is no way any of this will end well. The truth might be that he simply took more notice of the warning voices than I did.
Another funny thing, which I didn’t find odd until I actually thought about it, is this; I wasn’t anxious or worried at all until a few weeks ago, when my husband returned from his self-imposed emotional exile and finally acknowledged that not only was fatherhood imminent, this time it would not be thwarted. After months of a - frankly appalling- lack of concern, he is now the epitome of calm solicitude. I, on the other hand, have gone from serene Mother Earth goddess to hormonally enraged harpy in the blink of an eye. It’s as if, by some weird symbiotic osmosis, he has got rid of all his worry, fear and negative emotions by simply transferring them to me. Great exchange, don’t you think?
Yeah, right. I thought so, too.
Still. I’m not complaining, not really. It was good to have him back, even though there were times when he drove me mad. Like that day, in fact; 31st October, the day everything was about to change forever. We didn’t know it at the time, of course, as we set off in the Swift, en route to my parents’ home in California; ostensibly to attend my mother’s annual Halloween jamboree, but in reality to afford her an opportunity to show off her glamorous new son-in-law. Paul and my mother are soul mates; he gets on with her far better than I ever have. In fact, I think there are times when she prefers him to me. Still, at least I’ve done something right for once; she hasn’t bothered to conceal her relief that her wayward elder daughter has finally chosen a man on whom she can bestow her wholehearted approval. Given past history, I think this is a first.
The problem was that although I’m the pilot by profession, he was flying the Swift, something he doesn’t do particularly well. He’s not good with passenger jets. He prefers smaller planes, machines that respond both instantly and powerfully. You don’t get that with the Swift; you can’t fling it around. It needs subtlety and a delicate touch, neither of which he possesses in abundance. Earlier on in the flight, I had been grinding my teeth in irritation, to the point where I’d actually entertained wild notions of storming the cockpit and wrestling the controls from his hands, just so I could show him how it should be done. Only the knowledge that jamming my thirty-six week pregnant stomach between the seat and the control panel would be a nigh-on impossible feat persuaded me to abandon such a crazy idea.
So I forced myself to settle back in my seat and direct my gaze at the blue and gold vista of sun and sky before me. The views from the Swift are unparalleled I must admit, and passenger comfort second to none. I felt guilty about my husband’s insistence on using Spectrum’s premier people-carrier for such small, personal purposes – a Hummingbird would have done just fine. But Colonel White, my unexpected friend and champion in recent months, had been unequivocal in his generosity.
“Go, my dear,” he said expansively. “Enjoy some time with your family and don’t worry about a thing.”
Doctor Gold had echoed his sentiments, although I was aware that he’d only agreed to let me fly at all because he was perfectly acquainted with the Swift’s well-equipped medical facilities. I was partly amused, partly annoyed at the whole business. Perhaps it is comforting to know that a defibrillator is on hand, but I wasn’t sure how much use it might be in the circumstances. In any case, there was nothing to worry about. I was at least four weeks from my due date and everyone knows first babies are always late.
At that moment, my husband turned his head and looked at me. I love calling him ‘my husband’, I must say. I never imagined I would. I was not exactly the most eager of brides; it took some persuasion to get me down the aisle. But now that I’m officially ‘the wife’, it’s surprising how conformist I’ve become. Another of life’s anomalies, I guess.
“Are you okay?” he asked, with that smile that can, inexplicably, still my heartbeat and flood my veins with such warm, liquid love that I am calmed and comforted.
“Yes,” I murmured. “Yes, I’m great.” And I was. I was great, the baby was great, everything was great. It’s a word used inappropriately most of the time and I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But in that moment, it didn’t seem wrong. I had already placed myself in the hands of fate and I had no choice other than to believe that the bargain would not be reneged upon. And I did believe it; despite my overwhelming anxiety of recent weeks, I had faith in the future. Whatever was to come, we were ready – we could deal with it.
This is the big difference, you see. Before, we hadn’t been ready. We hadn’t known what we wanted and eighteen months ago, our first unplanned foray into parenthood had ended with devastating finality at fourteen weeks gestation. I had woken from surgery to the news that not only had I lost my baby and almost my life, but that I should say goodbye to any future hopes of becoming pregnant.
Yet another funny thing; you don’t always know how much you want something until you discover you can’t have it. I am a pilot, an astronaut, a mathematician, daughter, sister, lover and latterly, a wife; but never had I envisaged myself as a mother. Equally, never had I questioned my ability to be one; like most women, I assumed I had the gift of choice. My biological femaleness was taken for granted, there to be exercised if I wished. Now, it didn’t matter how much I wished, it seemed I was no longer equal to the challenge. My fit, lithe, toned body wouldn’t do my bidding; it was a damaged creature, a lesser thing, a twisted maze of circuitous scar tissue that would reject even the most hopeful of incumbents.
Except – this once, it did not. Only two months into our marriage, I was amazingly, miraculously pregnant. After the shock had worn off, it was replaced by blissful, delirious happiness, along with a quiet pride that, despite medical opinion, I was still a woman with a fully functioning uterus. Nothing, I must say, prepared me for my husband’s reaction. Yes, he shared my astonishment that, unwittingly, we had created the seemingly impossible, but there, all similarities ended. Unlike me, he did not see this miracle as ‘A Good Thing’. Shock quickly gave way to horror and then incredulity, as he realised that I intended to carry on down what he saw as a sure path to disaster. He trashed my argument that it was ‘meant to be’ and rode roughshod over my hopes.
“If I had thought there was ever any possibility of this happening again, I would have made damn sure it didn’t”, he snapped.
I tried to explain how this time was different, that the prospects of carrying this child to term were excellent and that Doctor Gold was perfectly content with both my own and the baby’s state of health. Unlike last time, I felt great, other than a little tiredness which I had been assured was perfectly normal. In short, all the signs were good that I would make it through to a real live baby.
He didn’t believe me. No matter what I said, he remained unmoved in his conviction that a termination was the only sensible option open to us. Even Doctor Gold’s reassurances fell on deaf ears. So we argued, we fought, we cried, we pleaded, both on opposite sides of the fence and all to no avail. I was determined to keep this child and he was equally determined I should not. It’s always been a moot point as to which one of us is the more stubborn but now we were both entrenched. I knew what was going on, of course. After all, everyone knows that logic plays little part in one’s deepest fears. I knew that, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, he believed he was responsible for the loss of our first child. In the deepest, darkest corner of his soul, he blamed himself. I, on the other hand, blamed someone else entirely. But that’s another story. Now, he was thinking only of me while I was thinking only of the baby.
The arguments were eventually silenced by a display of callousness of which I had not thought him capable.
“Very well,” he said coldly, on yet another night when he realised his entreaties were getting him nowhere, “if you are so hell-bent on killing yourself, you go right ahead and do it. Clearly, nothing I can say will stop you. But don’t expect me to stand by and watch you, Sim. You’re on your own with this. I want nothing more to do with it.”
Looking back, I can see how nonsensical this was – after all, short of dropping off Skybase and resigning his commission, there was no realistic way he could avoid being involved. At the time though, I was not only dumbfounded at his willingness to discard the ‘for better, for worse’ part of the vows we had so recently taken, I was terrified at the prospect of abandonment. Still, I managed to comfort myself with the thought that he couldn’t possibly mean what he said.
I was wrong – he very definitely meant what he said. Thus began a period of what we jokingly refer to as ‘The Cold War’ (now that we can joke about it, of course). Following our stand-off, he was true to his word. He simply absented himself, both physically and emotionally. Although he didn’t actually move out of our quarters, he might as well have done. For the next few months, the most I saw of him was his tunic dashing out the door on yet another jaw-dropping mission to rid the world of not just Mysterons, but any entity that looked as if it had ENEMY tattooed to its forehead. He volunteered for everything, whether or not his presence was actually needed.
Hurtful? You bet it was. Okay, I know that what he does is because of his deep concern for the fate of the Earth, but sometimes I wished he would display as much concern for the fate of the Wife. I had even begun to suspect that he was taking greater than usual risks with his own safety on the grounds that being incarcerated in sick-bay meant that he didn’t have to deal with me and Timothy Jane (one of the nicknames for my growing bump, the other being Lumpkin).
All this irony was not lost on me. He was employing my favourite trick of running away from whatever is too difficult to face head-on. That was fear: fear for me, fear for the baby, fear of what the birth of our child might mean for the future of the world. He’s the most courageous person I’ve ever known, but fear – and anger – at what he’s become is omnipresent for him. Most of the time, he can control it, not let it dominate, so he can get on with doing what he has to do. But there are times when he can’t hide from it and I knew this was one of them.
I have a theory that the only time he’s truly unaware of what has happened to him is in those first few minutes when he recovers consciousness after being hurt. (We try not to use the word dead. It has such negative connotations). When he opens his eyes, there’s a sort of blankness in them and I can tell he doesn’t remember. I hate that moment when comprehension creeps in. I wish he didn’t have to go through it so often.
The reason I know my theory is spot-on, is because, on the day after I had my twenty-week scan, he banned me from sick-bay; if I was visiting on his account, I mean, rather than my own. The ‘official’ reason given was that he considered my hovering over his injured body might be too stressful for me in my delicate condition. Well, he obviously found it too stressful because he couldn’t even impart the news himself. The miserable coward got Captain Blue to do it for him. Poor Adam – he was so embarrassed. I would have felt sorry for him had I not wanted to give him a good hard kick for not being man enough to tell my husband to do his own dirty work.
I knew the truth, though; when he opened his eyes and saw me, he no longer had those few precious moments of ignorance. As soon as his eyes alighted on Lumpkin, he knew. There was no respite from the consequences of Fate’s right hand, and he hated me for it.
Well, that was okay because by then, I hated him too. While I understood the reasons behind his desertion, it was cold comfort on those mornings when I would have appreciated a cup of tea being thrust in my hand after spending half an hour retching over a toilet bowl, or a back-rub on the nights when my ever-more energetic child kept me awake. It was as if he thought that by determinedly ignoring the changing situation before him, it would miraculously disappear.
During that time, there were only two pregnancy-related questions asked, one of which was a blanket-coverage, “Is everything all right?” to which I invariably gave the short, sharp answer, “Yes.” Then he would nod slowly and say, “Okay.” And that would be the end of that. No further details were required or desired.
So I hated him. I wanted to slap him because he would get to be a father without having his body permanently altered. I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t mollified in the slightest by the knowledge that his body had already been permanently altered in the most extreme circumstances imaginable. I still hated him. The thing is, I wasn’t just lonely and angry, I was sad, too: sad that he was missing out on what was actually quite a lovely time. After the initial tiredness and nausea had worn off, I felt really good. I had tons of energy, my skin and hair were glowing and I was more optimistic than I’d been in years. I wanted to nest, to make plans for the future, but I didn’t want to do it on my own. And because I didn’t know if we even had a future, there seemed little point in planning.
I couldn’t confide in anyone; I simply didn’t know what to say. It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of possible candidates. The other Angel pilots are like my sisters and Serena – Lieutenant Green – is my best friend. Yet I couldn’t talk to any of them about the fact that my husband and I were so estranged that we could barely tolerate five minutes alone in a room together. I mean, I used to wax lyrical over how generous and thoughtful he could be, even over small things. He’s so romantic, I used to say. What a joke. Believe me, there’s nothing in the world less romantic than having a child with a person you effectively have no romance with.
So I tried to distract myself by throwing all my energies into whatever jobs Skybase could offer to a former top-gun pilot who was no longer able to fly. I was temporarily retired from the Angel squad as soon as my pregnancy was confirmed, but this didn’t mean I wasn’t fit to continue working for a while in other capacities. When I got bored with analysing flight logs and co-ordinating training schedules, I pestered Serena to show me the finer points of the Control Room. “I can fill in for you and Lieutenant Silver,” I offered. “I know how all this works, I can help out.”
Colonel White frowned at this and even Serena looked doubtful. But I persevered, until eventually, one particularly manic day when communications were stretched to breaking point, the Colonel turned to me and said irritably, “Oh, for goodness sake woman, stop drifting around like a wet weekend. Get up here and make yourself useful!” I needed no further bidding and so began my brief career as Skybase’s deputy communications officer.
This brings me neatly to the M&M Incident. Two things you need to know here: one is that my new role brought me into more contact with my husband than I had had for some time. Not exactly intimate, but still, conversation of sorts, even if it consisted of nothing more than lots of ‘SIG’s’, ‘Fire at will’ and ‘Runway One is all yours’.
Oh, the joys of marriage.
The second is that Skybase has shops. It has to; it’s pretty huge and houses a lot of folk who don’t live on land as often as they might. It’s not exactly a mall, but we have what you’d expect, a couple of hairdressers, a pharmacy, dentist, optician, etc. There are a couple of clothing stores selling unexciting leisure basics and most importantly, the Spectrum 7-11, a large, get- everything- you- need-under-one-roof affair.
I love the 7-11, especially because it should be renamed the 24-7. You can walk in at any time of the day or night and know they will almost certainly have the staples of life, which for me at this point were jars of beetroot, stretch mark cream and M&Ms. I’ll explain about the beetroot later.
The M&M Incident happened on a quiet day, activity-wise, although having volunteered for a full shift, I wasn’t due to go off duty till 8pm, which meant over twelve long hours of work. I didn’t mind, although I suspected Dr Gold would. But then I figured what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. I was tired though and looking forward to a nice long bath and something comforting in the chocolate line. I wasn’t expecting to hear from my husband, but he checked in shortly after seven to say his ETA on base was thirty minutes. The mission had gone well, everyone was safe and uninjured and he sounded pretty good-humoured. Pretty husbandly, in fact. So after I had confirmed his landing instructions and apprised him of my shift patterns, I switched to a more private frequency and asked him if he could call at the store on his way from Hangar Deck and pick up some M&Ms.
There was static (or something) on the line. Then he said, “Sorry, what was that? Something’s coming in from Koala Base.”
“I said I need chocolate,” I replied, at the same time checking to see if whatever information he was getting from Spectrum Australia was anything I needed to know about.
“There’s chocolate in our quarters – in the cupboard under the sink,” he said.
“It’s an out of date bar of fruit and nut that was a present from your long lost cousin Phyllis last Christmas. I don’t like fruit and nut. Paul, I’ve just done a twelve hour shift after almost no sleep last night and I really, really need M&Ms. Would you please go to the store for me?”
There was a pause and then he said, “Is something wrong? You seem a little testy.”
“Really, you think so?”
There was more static (I swear he was doing it deliberately) then he said, “Listen, I have to go, there’s more coming in from Koala.”
I didn’t reply because I was concentrating on picking up whatever he was listening to, but I think he thought I was still miffed because there was a definite note of exasperation in his voice as he continued, “Look, I’ll be back soon and I’ll get chocolate, okay?”
He brought me a Snickers bar. That’s his favourite. He said I didn’t specify what kind of chocolate I wanted. It seemed he’d never noticed all the M&Ms wrappers in the waste disposal unit. When I sat down on the floor of the bathroom and started to sob, he got the message.
“I’ll just pop back to the store,” he said quietly. He didn’t hold me, hug me, kiss me or console me; it was like he feared me. Like I had turned into his worst nightmare. Still, he did return with six large bags of M&Ms. I devoured two of them while the bath was running, as if my life depended upon it. He watched me silently. By the time I had topped up my blood sugar and soaked out my weariness in hot, scented water, I felt sufficiently magnanimous to offer him a bag. To my surprise, he took it and opened it, trying to search surreptitiously for the blue ones. These are the only ones he likes, even though I tell him every colour basically tastes the same.
Then he put his arm round my shoulders (shock-physical contact!) and said, ever so casually, “There’s a movie I thought we could watch tonight, if you’re not too tired.”
I was terminally exhausted, but in a spirit of heroic benevolence, I smiled at him and nodded my acquiescence. So, for the first time in many weeks, we contentedly curled up together on the sofa. It was almost like old times and for a brief spell, I forgot about how much I hated him. It must have been the chocolate.
On its own, it didn’t constitute any sort of break-through, though. We might have reached some kind of rapprochement in the weeks that followed, but that period was characterised by a surge of Mysteron activity unlike any we had seen for some time. The result was that when we passed each other like ships in the night, our conversation was necessarily restricted to the ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ variety; not exactly conducive to connubial bliss.
So when I wasn’t working or eating M&Ms (which wasn’t often), I was at the gym. I wasn’t allowed to do anything too combative or physical, you understand, but swimming, yoga and gentle Pilates were allowed. I might have argued the toss about some things, but Doctor Gold and I had entered into an agreement at the start of my pregnancy. The agreement was that he would dictate what I could and couldn’t do and I would follow orders implicitly. This went against the grain, of course, as he expected it would, but I didn’t put up too much resistance. I found reining in my natural energy difficult, but I was committed to doing everything right. I wanted this baby so much that I was prepared to do as I was told however hard it was.
I needed the calm discipline of my Yoga sessions, though. It was the only activity keeping me sane during the Cold War. I tried to remember what my original instructor had taught me:
“Breathe into things just as they are without wanting to change them.”
At this point, that mantra seemed as impossible to me as visualizing myself fitting into my Angel flight suit. But I tried.
Because I was finding it so difficult to sleep, my yoga mat and I were often outstretched on the floor of the gym at 6am. It was normally pretty quiet at that time of day, which was how I liked it. The only other “regular” who showed up early morning was Colonel White. He too enjoyed the peace and quiet, apparently. He surprised me one day by asking – rather diffidently, I thought – if I minded him pounding away on the treadmill while I practised my asanas.
“Of course not,” I replied in perfect truth, although I would have said the same if it hadn’t been. He is my commanding officer after all and he’d been so good about agreeing to me spending my maternity leave on Skybase, I certainly didn’t want to rub him up the wrong way.
“I’m sorry I can’t fence at the moment,” I volunteered, with a smile. “It’s top of Doctor Gold’s banned list, I’m afraid. But I miss our sessions, sir; you’re my favourite sparring partner.”
He beamed back at me, seemingly delighted at this. “I too miss our little competitions,” he said. “I’m afraid your husband, accomplished as he is, doesn’t compare to you. I must confess, however, that I’m finding our present workouts most enjoyable; something to look forward to at the start of the day.”
He looked at his watch. “I don’t have to be on duty for another forty-five minutes. Perhaps,” he said, clearing his throat, “you would care to join me in a cup of herbal tea? Assuming you don’t have any other plans, of course.”
Plans? The only plans I had were to head back to bed for a breakfast of M&Ms. Herbal tea would undoubtedly be better for me; if I opted for the fruit variety, I could even reassure Doctor Gold that I was getting at least one of my five-a-day.
“That would be lovely, sir,” I replied.
And so, it was as simple as that. We slipped effortlessly into an almost daily routine of exercise, tea and chat and soon, I found myself looking forward to our meetings as much as the Colonel apparently did. Unlike some colleagues who shall remain nameless, my boss didn’t treat me as if he thought my brain had decided to accompany my waistline on its trip down the Swannee. Admittedly, there were days when I felt so unhinged that I thought the same, but I appreciated the fact that Colonel White believed I was still me in my head.
He’s a damn good conversationalist, too. We discussed everything, from politics to operational strategies, to books we loved and movies we had recently watched. Although our friendship grew to the point where I didn’t think any subject might be off limits, we did not touch on the state of my marriage. He’s one of the most perceptive men on the planet, so I assume he had a pretty good idea of what was going on, but he asked no questions, thus sparing me the ordeal of having to put my roiling emotions into a verbal format that would make sense to someone other than me.
One day, though, when I was feeling particularly tranquil after a second lemon and ginger infusion, I dipped my toes in a topic we had not so far addressed. This was Life with Baby, or more accurately, Life with Baby on Skybase. How, I wanted to know, did he think this was going to work on a practical day to day basis?
He looked a trifle surprised at the question. “I thought,” he said, carefully setting the china cup down on its saucer (he believes that tea should be consumed in traditional old English fashion), “I thought we had agreed that it was best for you and the child to remain here on Skybase for at least the first few months. Until we know what we’re dealing with.”
What we’re dealing with. It sounded so cold-blooded. It struck at the heart of me and I was suddenly suffused with anger.
“We’re dealing with a baby, Colonel,” I snapped back. “My baby! And Paul’s,” I added, in a hasty attempt to deflect any suspicions he might have had that my husband and I weren’t exactly united over our joint production.
“Exactly,” he replied evenly. “And I’m sure that the two of you know better than anyone what the implications of that could be. The safest place for you all is here.”
He looked me straight in the eye and I realised he wasn’t going to dress it up. In a grudging way, I admired him for not coming straight out and saying that what my husband and I might or might not want counted for nothing here. The powers-that-be would make damn sure of that. He was not so gently reinforcing the facts. We could all pretend that this was just Paul and Simone, a normal young married couple about to have their first child; or we could admit that this was an event of biblical proportions. (Never before had I given any thought to how Mary must have felt before giving birth to Jesus, but I was starting to get up a bit of empathy with her).
Fact: I was soon to produce the first – as far as any of us knew – human/alien hybrid. How human, how alien, no one knew for certain. Fact: my choices were limited – I wasn’t going anywhere. Fact: assuming the birth went to plan and everyone came out of it intact, my child was going to be an object of immense scientific curiosity. I wasn’t so naive as to imagine that my rights as a mother were likely to be respected, given the circumstances.
Still – I wasn’t going down without a fight. Someone had to protect the baby and that person had to be me. I sat up straight.
“You need to understand something, Colonel,” I said coldly. “I will not hand over my child for scientific experimentation. I appreciate that tests will be needed and if the baby helps us to learn more about the Mysterons, all well and good. But there are limits and if necessary, I will set them. Am I making myself clear?”
My glare was a direct challenge and to his credit, he didn’t shrink from it. In fact, he seemed merely crestfallen, as if my retort had disappointed him in some way. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, shaking his head in hesitation.
“I thought you would give me a little more credit than that,” he said at last. “I hoped we had got to know each well enough for you to realise that I would never sanction anything that you and your husband were not comfortable with.” He picked up his cup once more, drained it and then placed it back on its saucer in silent reproach.
I felt my cheeks grow hot with shame. Maybe I had over-reacted, which to be honest, wasn’t unusual. “I’m sorry, sir,” I muttered at last. “I think I’m just a little spooked right now – hormones all over the place, that sort of thing. It’s making me a little irrational, I guess.”
He laughed and touched my hand in what I hoped was a gesture of forgiveness. “I believe that’s perfectly normal. My wife was exactly the same when we were expecting our daughter.” He paused and then continued, “Simone, of course you and Paul will do everything in your power to protect your child – and so will I. Scientific curiosity notwithstanding, I truly believe this is the best place for you all. Here, I have a better chance of fending off the vultures; and you, my dear, have access to all the help and support you may require. I admit that I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of Skybase acquiring a nursery, but I’m now convinced that it will make it easier for everyone.”
“Meaning that you don’t need to worry about Paul taking paternity leave,” I responded with a wry smile. “He’ll still be right here doing what he always does without any distractions.”
“A crying baby at 3am is always a distraction,” he replied pointedly. “I am perfectly aware that adjustments will need to be made. But yes, you’re quite right; this is also a way of ensuring that my most valuable operatives are right where I need them. It may be some time before you will feel ready to return to active duty, my dear, but Spectrum needs your skills and expertise in whatever capacity they can be utilised. Keeping you in the chain of command is one way of doing that.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s quite a compliment.”
He smiled. “Becoming a parent will change your priorities, Simone. When you are responsible for the life of someone else, you may discover that you are no longer prepared to take such risks with your own life. I would be very naive indeed not to consider the possibility that you may decide not to return to the Angel squad. However, from an operational point of view, I sincerely hope that you will, because, frankly, Spectrum needs you.”
“I can’t imagine not flying, Colonel,” I said. “It’s what I do best. I know balancing work with the baby will be a bit of a juggling act, but still...” I did not bother to add that no matter what the future held for me, the baby would be left with at least one parent, albeit a reluctant one.
“Well, I can’t imagine you’ll be short of baby-sitters,” he replied mildly. “I’m quite sure many of your friends and colleagues will be happy to step in if required. I count myself among that number, you know. I’m a little rusty at changing nappies, but I’m sure it will come back to me. It’ll be good practice if I’m ever blessed with grandchildren.”
I couldn’t hide my surprise. “That’s... that’s a very kind offer, sir,” I stammered. “I-we-really appreciate your generosity in all this. To be honest, we haven’t thought too far into the future. I guess staying here really does make life easier.”
He gave me a shrewd look. “Do you have somewhere else to live?” he asked casually. “On land, I mean?”
We didn’t and he knew it. At no point had my husband and I discussed the possibility of a marital home. True, we had been given larger quarters as befitting our couple status, but it wasn’t exactly set up for the addition of a baby. Since we didn’t expect to become parents, that hadn’t bothered either of us and anyway, we were too busy saving the world to worry about mundane things like our living arrangements. I was all too aware that this needed to change, but the Cold War prevented us from engaging in any conversations that included a timeline beyond tomorrow. Even the purchasing of a crib was off limits. Besides, the idea of a marital home seemed a little pointless when it was quite likely that very soon we might not have a marriage. Naturally, we weren’t talking about that, either.
“Not really, sir,” I replied at last. “I have a villa in France that originally belonged to my grandparents and Paul has an apartment that dates back to his student days at MIT. They’re both rented out most of the time and in any case, neither would really be suitable as a family home. I guess we need to think about it, though; we can’t just live on base forever.”
“Probably not,” he agreed. “There will be things like schooling to consider. But that’s all a fair way into the future, my dear. Skybase may not be ideal in all respects, but babies aren’t fussy about their surroundings – for the first year, at least. You’ll have time to decide what’s best.” He gave me a kindly smile. “Don’t worry, it will all work out. You’ll see.”
I was not so convinced about that, but I didn’t want to tell him what really frightened me. But then he said something that made me realise he probably knew, anyway.
“The biggest misconception – if you’ll pardon the pun- about parenthood is that you imagine your children will simply slot into your life. What you don’t understand is that life as you know it disappears the minute they’re born and what replaces it has to fit around the needs of your children. Sometimes people fail to grasp this until it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
He looked pensive and then said, “Diana and I married young by today’s standards, you know. We didn’t expect to have Victoria quite so soon; she came along at a time when we were both utterly absorbed in our work. We didn’t mind that, though. We assumed, totally naively, that life would go on as before, simply with a delightful additional element to it. Looking back, I can’t believe how clueless we both were.”
As I opened my mouth in surprise at this unexpected confidence, he continued. “We thought it was quite acceptable to just drag her along with us. We had nannies – a whole string of them at one stage – so it wasn’t practically difficult to take her wherever in the world we needed to be. When she started school, though, we knew travelling as a family would have to stop. We tried to ensure that one of us would always be at home with her, but it didn’t always work out. There were a few occasions when we didn’t see our daughter for weeks on end; consequently, we didn’t realise how badly-behaved she’d become.”
“Victoria had always been a bit of a naughty child, but when she was expelled from her first boarding school, we finally understood the extent of it. So we made changes, tried to provide the support and discipline she clearly lacked. It still wasn’t exactly joined-up parenting – my life in the Royal Marines took me away from home a great deal. The burden of responsibility fell on my wife and she also made the biggest sacrifices from a career perspective. To her credit, she has never indicated she resented that, although I’m certain she must have found it immensely frustrating at times.”
“On her own, though, she wasn’t able to provide the level of discipline Victoria needed; that should have been down to me. But I chose to ignore all the signs and as a result, our daughter has grown up – how can I put it? Wayward.”
“Oh, no, sir,” I protested, somewhat half-heartedly. “Vicky is a credit to you! She’s a lovely, charming girl”
“A view shared by at least fifty percent of the male population of London, I believe,” he replied caustically. “There’s no need to sugar-coat it, Simone – I am perfectly aware of my daughter’s shortcomings and I hold myself responsible. If I’d been more of a hands-on father, I might not have found myself in the position I’m now in –trying to build a relationship with a child who’s turned into a young woman I simply don’t know.”
There was an awkward silence for a few moments. In the end, because he looked so sad, so defeated, I ventured to ask, “How is that going sir?”
He raised an eyebrow as if checking to see if my concern was genuine. Apparently satisfied that it was, he replied, “We’re talking, listening; getting along better, I think. She knows I can’t play the heavy-handed dad anymore, but she seems to appreciate that I’m not trying to. She is growing up at last.”
I nodded. This whole conversation felt surreal. Despite the fact that we were at ease in each other’s company, never before had he offered up such deeply personal revelations. He was a very proud man and I knew it must have cost him to admit that he regarded himself as a failure in anything, let alone in such an important part of his life. I didn’t quite know how to respond.
Eventually I said, “I appreciate your candour, sir and obviously, I’ll respect the confidence. But I’m not sure I understand why you told me.”
“Simone,” he said quietly, “You’re already facing the possibility that your baby might turn out to be more unusual than the average child; consequently, you may have different challenges to those of most parents. But that doesn’t mean you won’t also have to deal with the same problems everyone else has. I don’t want you and Paul to make the mistakes Diana and I did. This life we lead sometimes requires more of us than the average person could imagine. That makes things like parenting doubly difficult and therefore even more important that the load should be shared between you. In order to do that, you need to be together, at least as much as you can be. If I am able to assist in that by allowing you to remain on Skybase as a family, then I’m more than happy to do so.”
“I see.” I swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the sudden lump in my throat. His kindness was so well-intentioned that I couldn’t bear to confess that my husband and I had been sailing down the white waters in different rafts for so long that the idea of us as a family seemed as remote as the Mysterons unilaterally proposing a peace treaty.
He gave me a long look of appraisal and I realised he was waiting for me to say something more. Perhaps his confession over his lack of parenting skills had been intended to encourage me to reciprocate, I thought. Maybe he could offer insights on the growing cracks in my marriage. Perhaps I should confide in him, if only because he might know the names of some good divorce lawyers.
Fortuitously (or not), I didn’t get to do that because right then, his comm-link buzzed with a reminder that the Control Room required his presence more than I did. He got to his feet and picked up his cap. “Saved by the bell, I think,” he said lightly and in clearly perfect understanding of what was going through my head.
I couldn’t think of a reply – I was concentrating on blinking back tears that were threatening to blind me. He laid his hand on my shoulder and said simply, “This will pass, my dear. You’ll get through it.”
Then he turned and strode out of the cafeteria without a backward glance, leaving me alone with my tears, my tepid tea and my half-eaten beetroot sandwich.
Ah. Now that brings me to my other pregnancy craving, the alternative to the sweet stuff. After I had finally conceded that M&Ms were not providing a sufficiently balanced diet, I discovered that the only other things I really wanted to eat were pickled beetroot sandwiches. I’m not proud of this fact, but it’s true. Even the abject horror on the faces of the canteen staff – not to mention my dentist – did not make a difference. In the light of my husband’s abandonment, walking around looking like a vampire at a blood-fest seemed entirely reasonable; tooth whitening could come later. Oddly, the one person who agreed with me was Doctor Gold, although that was only because he considered a craving for beetroot carried less of a risk of hypoglycaemic shock than eating my entire body weight in sugar-coated chocolate.
As a combination, beetroot and M&Ms weren’t wonderful, though. Unlike chocolate and peanut butter, they weren’t up there in the stratosphere of matches made in heaven. They actually seemed to work against each other. Chocolate calmed me down, lulled my senses into a state occasionally bordering on soporific, whereas beetroot, much as I loved and demanded it, set my stained teeth on edge. The pickled acidity did nothing for my heartburn or my deepening anxiety levels. I was now twenty-eight weeks into the most momentous task I had ever embarked upon and my husband was still conspicuous by his absence. It was perfectly possible that by the time D-Day came round, I would have completely lost my mind.
People did give birth in mental institutions, I knew. I wondered if those poor women knew they’d had a baby or whether their husbands had stuck around. Perhaps they were just drugged zombies, out of it all, oblivious to the fact that their children would have to be put up for adoption because there was no one to take care of them. I would end up like that, I thought. Every night, my dreams were populated by men in white coats, tying me into a strait-jacket and jabbing hypodermics into my arms while they carried my baby away to be dissected. I woke every morning in a cold sweat, my throat stiff with silent screaming.
Only after I had spent an hour in his office, wracked with hormonally-induced sobs and begging for tranquillisers, did Doctor Gold relax his Hippocratic Oath long enough to hint that the situation might not be as bad as it seemed. My husband had recently been making surreptitious visits to sick-bay in a bid to acquire a few salient facts about pregnancy and childbirth. Nothing he couldn’t have got from me of course, had he bothered to ask, but still, it was comforting to discover that maybe his levels of indifference were less than I thought.
“He’s just scared, that’s all,” Doctor Gold declared, with his unerring capacity for stating the blindingly obvious. “He’s worried for you, for the future. He’ll come round once the baby arrives.”
“But what if he doesn’t? What if this is how it will always be?” The thought of absentee daddyism was starting to seriously freak me out. “Doc, I can’t go on like this. I’m a wreck.”
He patted my hand in that paternalistic manner that usually annoys me, but on this occasion, I was too busy crying to care. “Don’t worry,” he said kindly. “Everything will be fine. I guarantee it.”
He was right, of course, although it turned out we didn’t need to wait until D-Day to find that out. Around the beginning of the third trimester, our unborn daughter decided to put an end to this unhappy state of affairs. One sleepless night, sometime around 3am, she swapped her usual gymnastics practice for an enthusiastic kick-boxing session. As I tossed and turned in tandem with the rhythm, I accidently crossed the demarcation line between my husband’s side of the bed and my own. I flung myself and my burgeoning stomach over and pitched up against his spine. As I was considering how quickly I could change position without him noticing, the baby let fly with a well-placed left hook that managed to make itself felt not only against the wall of my stomach, but also in the small of his back.
The effect was startling. He said, “Jesus, what the hell.....?” and shot over to face me. Even in the dark, I could see he was glowering. “If I was snoring, I’m sorry,” he snapped, making it sound more like an accusation than an apology. “All you need to do is ask me to turn over. You don’t have to punch me!”
“I didn’t. It was the baby.”
Even as I said it, I realised how ridiculous it sounded. Clearly, he thought so too, but luckily Lumpkin backed me up by landing another kick on, I think, the top of his leg. This time he was in no doubt; I had not moved a muscle. He shot upright and snapped on the light. Then he proceeded to watch in fascination as my stomach rippled along with the baby’s exercise class.
“Bloody hell. That’s amazing,” he murmured at last, placing his hand gingerly on my bump, presumably to better acquaint himself with our daughter’s activities. I was annoyed because I had not given him permission to touch me, but the baby, apparently delighted that she had at last captured her father’s attention, showed off with an impressive display of somersaults.
After several minutes of this, the only intimate physical contact we had had for several months, he asked the second of the blanket-coverage pregnancy questions, which was, “Is this normal?”
I was too tired to give the stock response – yes – and in any case, I was no longer a hundred percent sure it would be the right answer. I frequently asked the same question myself and it was invariably met by Doctor Gold’s calm, ‘All babies are different, Simone. Stop worrying so much.’ Needless to say, I didn’t stop worrying.
So now I said, “She’s always like this, although it’s worse at night. I don’t think she sleeps much. Doctor Gold says she might be hyperactive. I hope he was joking.”
At that, he removed his hand from my stomach and started paying attention to my face. “She?” he asked slowly. “The baby is a girl?”
No shit, Sherlock, I thought, fighting back the temptation to point out that the odds were pretty heavily weighted in favour of one or other of the genders.
“Yes,” I muttered back. And then, because my bitterness was spilling over and I wanted to wound him, “The female of the species, whatever the species turns out to be.”
Maybe the barb fuelled his own hostility because he shot back with an accusatory, “I see. So I take it you weren’t actually going to tell me, then? Was I only supposed to find out when it’s born?”
Maybe it was the word ‘it’, I’m not sure. But something pushed me over the edge. I was suddenly so consumed by rage I could scarcely breathe.
“I asked you if you wanted to know!” I screamed back at him. “Doctor Gold asked you if you wanted to know! The technicians asked you if you wanted to see the scan results! And did you? No. You said,” and at this point I was practically choking, “you said you didn’t care; like you haven’t cared about anything for the last five months!”
“That’s not true.”
“What’s not true? That you haven’t cared about me or our baby? How about our marriage? Have you cared about that? Have you cared about one single goddamn thing in the last few months other than you and the fucking Mysterons?”
“I just meant that I didn’t care if it’s a boy or a girl,” he responded defensively. “As long as everything is.... you know....okay.”
“That’s not what you meant when you said it,” I yelled back. “You meant you didn’t care at all! Don’t you dare to deny it, you bastard!”
Giving vent to my pent-up anger and misery had taken so much out of me I was left shaking and once more dangerously close to tears, neither of which I wanted the stranger in my bed to observe. So I retreated to my default position on the far side of the mattress and turned my back on him. There was silence for a while as I lay in anger, trying to regulate my breathing and comfort the baby, who had gone very still during my outburst.
Then, across the miles of darkness between us came one single truth. He said, “You’re absolutely right. I’ve been a complete jerk, haven’t I?”
Well. I was certainly not going to argue with him about that. “Yes,” I sniffed, “you have. A total shit, in fact. Not to mention a lousy husband.”
“I know.” He scooted across the bed and rested his forehead against my shoulder. He felt really hot, like he was coming down with a fever – except of course, he doesn’t really get fevers. “I never intended to be,” he mumbled. “I was just so scared. I was convinced it would be like last time. Every day, I waited for someone to tell me that everything had gone wrong and that no-one could save you. I was so scared of losing you; I thought the only way I could deal with it was by backing off. That way, maybe I could insulate myself, so that when it happened I would somehow be able to cope. I’ve been so angry, Sim. Angry with you, because your tendency to self-destruct was going to result in me being left alone and you didn’t care enough about me to prevent that. I couldn’t understand why you were prepared to take such a huge gamble when the odds are so bad.”
“The odds aren’t so bad,” I said softly. “I knew that from the start and don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. Maybe it comes down to faith. I had it and you didn’t.”
“Not for the first time, I guess,” he replied, a slightly rueful note in his voice. “But that’s the other thing; as time went on and disaster didn’t happen, I gradually stopped being terrified every time I got a call from sick-bay. I could see that this pregnancy wasn’t turning out as I’d imagined, but by that time I couldn’t backtrack. I didn’t know what to say to you. You seemed to have all the answers and I realised I didn’t. You’re handling it all so brilliantly, Sim, and I’m not”
“You think I’m handling it brilliantly, do you? How the hell would you know? Have you been here to check? You’ve spent all these months in absentia, consumed with defending the planet, leaving me on my own to worry about what exactly I’m going to give birth to. Did you think for one single second how much of a stroll in the park that’s been for me? Have you any idea how hard it’s been to get used to the idea of being a single parent, to know that my husband has no interest in his child? I’ll tell you something – I’d have been handling it a bloody sight more brilliantly if you’d been here when I needed you.”
“I know.” He sounded thoroughly miserable. For a second, I actually thought there were tears in his voice, but I decided against turning over so I could check if they were in his eyes as well. “Everything you’ve said is right. I fucked up, big style. But I didn’t know how to talk to you, how to reach you. You’ve been a little crazy, honey; I mean the beetroot, the chocolate, all the goddamn yoga sessions. You haven’t exactly made it easy at times.”
“I’m pregnant!” I screeched. “I’m not supposed to make it easy! Paul, I’m bored, I’m isolated and I’m lonely. I spend half my days in the gym, the other half worrying about what the future holds. And that’s not to mention worrying about whether or not I am ever likely to fit into a Falcon Interceptor again; I see myself in the mirror and it’s like looking at a reject from the House of Fun.”
He chuckled at that. I couldn’t believe it – he actually laughed. Then he said, “I don’t care if you never fit into a Falcon again. You look amazing – being pregnant suits you. Your breasts are fantastic.”
I don’t know what surprised me more about this statement; the fact that my husband, never a “busty babe” fan, was delighted with my expanded chest, or the fact that he had noticed it in the first place. He had taken so little interest in my body in recent months I’d begun to wonder if he was giving his healthy sex drive a good workout in other quarters. In my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t the case – for one thing, he didn’t have time and, while he had shown himself capable of betrayal, he wouldn’t go so far as to send the Skybase gossip machine into warp drive. Still – even if he had only said it as a placatory gesture, it was kind of nice to know he still saw me as a woman and not as some kind of pet that had outlived its usefulness; an ageing Labrador retriever, say.
It wasn’t good enough to get him off the hook, though. He needed to suffer and after all, I’m the yoga expert. I’d been holding my breath and practising non-violence for months; giving him the silent treatment was a cinch. Eventually he said, “Look, what can I say? I’m sorry; beyond sorry. There’s no excuse, I know. I totally screwed up. All this time, I’ve felt we were in completely different places, but now I think we’re not. We’ve been in the same place all along, just reacting differently. Simone, I love you. I know that may not be enough to fix things, but if you’ll just give me another chance, I promise everything will be better. Please, please forgive me.”
Just as I was conceding that there is only so much begging a girl can take, he flung his left arm across me and slid the right under me so that I was completely gathered up in his embrace. I had forgotten how big he is, how easily he finds it to do this. There was a small shred of pride in me that was resistant to his overtures – was I so easily overcome? Apparently so, because pride shut up and went home as the rest of me melted into his warmth.
We lay there, wrapped up together, arms and legs entwined for I don’t know how long. We touched and caressed and explored until finally he said, with a touch of wonder, “We’re having a baby, aren’t we?”
“Welcome back,” I murmured, pressing my rump firmly into his groin.
He chuckled. “Does that mean I’m forgiven?” he asked, a teasing note in his voice.
“Not necessarily.” I turned in his arms so that we were face to face – admittedly not as close as we used to be now that we had Lumpkin in between us. “I have terms. Conditions.”
“Okay,” he said slowly, looking a trifle wary, nonetheless.
“First off, you need to be with me. I mean, really with me. I can’t do this on my own. I want you in on everything, especially the delivery room stuff. If you want to be part of this child’s life, then you have to get on at the ground floor. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” His eyes regarded me steadily. “What else?”
“Every decision that needs to be made – every decision for the future – we make it together. No ifs or buts, we do it jointly. Whatever happens, we’re a family.”
“I understand. And yes, you’re right. But, I need to know, Sim – what might we be dealing with here? I mean, the baby, is she......?”
“Human? Yes, of course she is. Does she also possess your DNA? Yes, of course she does.”
I was quite surprised at how matter-of-fact this sounded. It was not a subject I liked to dwell on, the alien-ness of our child-to-be. “Your DNA makes her technically a hybrid, but at the moment, she appears to be nothing other than a perfectly ordinary human baby.”
“Appears to be?”
“Doctor Gold has run all the tests he can in utero. Everything is coming up absolutely normal.”
“What about retrometabolism?”
“There’s nothing to suggest she’s inherited that.”
“Oh. Well, that’s something, at least.”
The relief in his voice made me glad I had not added there was also nothing to suggest she hadn’t inherited it. There was so much we didn’t know – so much to be apprehensive about. But my husband was back and the great thing was that we hadn’t needed to ask the really big questions like, do you still love me? Do you still want to be married to me? When it came down to brass tacks, we knew the answers and always would. We were an integral part of each other and that was all that mattered.
“Talk to me.” He rolled over onto his back, pulling me over with him, so that Lumpkin and I could nestle in with ease. “I want to know what I’ve been missing.”
“How long have you got?” I asked jokingly, knowing that sleep was not going to beckon for some time to come, unless the Mysterons posed another threat in the meantime. What? You think I hoped for that in order to get some shut-eye? Well, only for a split second.
We talked all that night until the sun came up on Skybase and the alarm reminded him he had to report for duty. Because I didn’t need to be anywhere other than in bed, Lumpkin and I happily snuggled down to catch up on our much-needed rest. I was content and the baby seemed to respond to that. She was quiet, just moving gently, with the result that I had the best kip I’d had in weeks.
After this epiphany, everything changed for the better. Well, almost everything. My husband’s behaviour went from the sublime to the ridiculous. After months of showing almost no interest in me or what I was doing, he was now reluctant to let me out of his sight. He monitored my condition with a precision that made Doctor Gold look sloppy. He told the canteen staff to ration my beetroot intake because so much vinegar couldn’t possibly be good for me. They agreed, the traitors, so I was reduced to only one sandwich per day. Even my chocolate habit was picked over. I took to hiding bags of M&Ms and cramming them down in secret because I couldn’t stand the look of disapproval on his face when he caught sight of all the empty wrappers in the waste basket.
Then he started accompanying me to the gym, ostensibly because he was now committed to the idea of us spending more time together, but in reality so he could satisfy himself that the content of my yoga sessions were suitable for Mom and Baby. He was even having me stalked; I suspected that he had drawn up a ‘Keep an eye on Sim’ rota, so that when he was not around, our friends would take it in turns to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that could possibly be included on Doctor Gold’s banned list. In short, he was driving me nuts, which, considering I was already a woman on the edge, was not good.
The other problem was that having finally opted for full parental commitment, he was doing it in his usual no-holds barred style. After months of burying his head in the sand, he was now determined to look fatherhood right in the eye by being, as he put it, “fully prepared”. When he wasn’t following me around with a watchful look in his eye, he was camped out in Doctor Gold’s office, re-acquainting himself with all data appertaining to things of a Mysteron nature. This was freaking me out, because in preparing himself for worst case scenario – whatever that might turn out to be – he was bringing my deepest fears to the surface. I mean, I was apprehensive enough about the birth as it was, without dwelling too much on what could go wrong. Thinking negative thoughts was bad for the baby, so yogic principles dictated; it was important that I remain calm and serene, but as D-Day approached, that was becoming increasingly difficult.
So, as we flew through the skies towards a weekend of normality (or as normal as life with my mother ever gets), I tried to concentrate on the mundane by consulting my lists. I have lots of lists, covering all things from baby clothes to essential baby equipment, from milk formula (just in case I couldn’t come up with the goods) to the D-Day Plan. I had been pleasantly surprised at the options open to me in this respect – it turns out that giving birth in the late 21st century is pretty civilised, all things considered. If I plumped for a water birth, I could have one; if I needed hard-core drugs, they were on order. If I wanted candles and soft music to herald our daughter’s entry into the world, that could be arranged. It certainly seemed possible to get through it all with my dignity intact and hardly a hair out of place. If I was going to make history by delivering the world’s first human/alien child, I was determined to do it in style.
The medics on Skybase are the best in their field and I have every confidence in them. The trouble is, being an expert in obstetrics is not normally a requirement, so Doctor Gold had engaged the services of a trained midwife as a backup to the team. Her name is Marla Dwyer – code named Lieutenant Sable – and she’s originally from Illinois, although prior to this temporary post on Skybase, she was part of the medical staff at Spectrum’s London headquarters.
After our first antenatal session, I nicknamed her Nurse Ratched because she reminded me of a character in that ancient film ‘One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. This was what my husband and I had watched on the evening of the M&Ms incident. He’s obsessed with old movies – he must have trawled his way through the Skybase archives at least half a dozen times. I go along with him and I’m not usually fussy about what we see, but I didn’t enjoy that one. I think I wasn’t in the right mood at the time. I would have preferred a comedy such as ‘Three Men and a Baby’ or something like that.
Not that Sable looks like the movie character; quite the opposite, in fact. She’s a huge black woman with a shelf-like chest and a massive behind. When she glides along like a ship in full sail, each cheek of her backside seems to move independently. It’s fascinating to watch. Not that I would dare to tell her about her bum’s entertainment value, mind you, because Sable frightens me to death. She is one seriously scary woman. Lest you should think that being with child has turned me into a snivelling wimp, I must point out that she even terrifies Doctor Gold and believe me, that takes some doing.
What reminded me of Nurse Ratched was this curious kind of ‘scratchy’ quality she has. When she speaks, it’s like chalk on a blackboard. I couldn’t imagine why she had chosen nursing as a profession; it certainly wasn’t because of an inbuilt compassion for her fellow men and women. She doesn’t exactly overflow with the milk of human kindness. Her bedside manner is worse than Doctor Gold’s and that’s saying something.
Although some sort of explanation was needed as to why her services were required, Colonel White had taken the decision that some information should be left classified. Ratched, therefore, was only told that this particular mother-to-be needed careful monitoring. Maybe she resented the fact that she was not privy to the specifics of the situation, or she was unimpressed that she had to spend several months doing a job which probably wasn’t nearly as exciting as anything Spectrum London had to offer. I suppose having only one patient would get a bit boring; although Doctor Gold did take advantage of her other qualifications (Surgical Theatre Sister) when necessary.
Anyway, she made it clear she wasn’t going to go out of her way to dole out any special treatment. Her disdain stopped just short of outright disapproval. I didn’t take it personally because I’d seen how she operated with other people, but occasionally, I longed for a little motherly softness, a kindly smile as she dished out another supply of vitamins and folic acid. It shouldn’t have been impossible; she was practically beaming in her ID badge photo, so at one time she’d clearly had enough facial muscle tone to move her mouth upwards.
Perhaps I was being unfair; Doctor Gold had told me enough about her to make me realise she’d had a tough life. Jamie, her only child, had succumbed to leukaemia when he was twelve, just two years before her husband (‘My Bernie’) dropped down dead of a massive heart attack. ‘My Bernie’ hadn’t been replaced, so as a consequence, neither had Jamie. If Marla didn’t feel like smiling much, I guess it was because she thought she had nothing to smile about. Maybe I would have summoned up more compassion for her if I hadn’t been so intimidated.
Thoughts of Ratched were bringing me uncomfortably close to thoughts of D-Day, so I turned my attention back to window gazing. Because this was a fairly short flight, we were cruising at a sufficiently low altitude to render the scenery below us reasonably visible. And what wonderful scenery it was; the canyon and forest lands of western America, cloaked in their autumn magnificence. The fall weather had been gentle and mild, so even at the end of October, the tree-covered mountains and valleys glowed soft orange, green, red and gold. Nature was amazing, I thought. Despite man’s destructive tendencies, it was still hanging in there, refusing to be decimated, coming back renewed and refreshed, year after year.
My mind touched on the Mysterons once more. Did they actually want to bring Earth to its knees, or just the people who populated it? Up to now, that was a conundrum we didn’t really have an answer for, but it occurred to me that whatever happened to its inhabitants, the Mysterons might discover they’d bitten off more than they could chew in their efforts to destroy our planet.
My husband turned his head and flashed me a quick grin. “Fabulous, isn’t it?” he said, with that uncanny ability to tune into my thoughts.
In case you think this is just what comes of having acquired alien DNA, I must confess he’s always been able to do it; at least, with me. I think that’s one reason why I love him so much; when we’re in sync, there’s none of the usual ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ stuff. We pretty much know where we’re both coming from. This is kind of ironic, I suppose, in as much as he really does have a touch of the Martian about him, although there is nothing Venusian about me.
“How long till we get to San Francisco?” I asked, realising just what a passenger I’d become. At my flying peak, I hadn’t needed any maps, electronic guidance or even navigational skills to tell me where I was at any given moment; I operated on a basic instinct that had never let me down. Well, almost never. Now, all that told me we weren’t yet in the vicinity of Fog City was the fact that I could still see land below.
“We’re still in Utah,” he replied. “So I reckon ninety minutes or so. Maybe a little less if SFO isn’t fogbound.”
“That’s not a serious risk, is it?” I asked, startled. I had been so lost in my reverie that I hadn’t heard any of the exchanges between my husband and the airport authorities.
“I hope not. No-one’s mentioned it so far, anyway. No news is good news, I guess.”
I went back to window gazing, wondering idly if it would be possible to identify some of the mountain peaks I had climbed in my student days. Working as a ranger at Arches National Park during vacations had helped to fund me through three years at Princeton, although most of what I’d earned had been eaten up by the cost of travel between Utah and New Jersey. Flying has never been cheap. Worth it, though; those journeys showed me that there are bigger thrills in life than merely exploring wilderness. I gained my wings in those years and my passion was born.
As the La Sal mountain range swam into view and I trawled my memory to name the individual peaks, the corner of my eye was caught by something else; a huge black something that seemed to be approaching us at speed. I stared, mesmerised for a second, unable to quite comprehend what I was seeing.
“Shit, what the hell is that?” muttered my husband, once again giving voice to my thoughts.
“Birds,” I said, as my brain eventually kicked into gear. “It’s a flock of birds....and they’re heading straight for us.”
“That’s impossible. We’re too high. No bird would be flying at this altitude.”
“But they are. What could they be? They’re too big for buzzards.... maybe ravens? What would ravens be doing this far up? Oh my God, Paul! There are hundreds of them. How is that possible?”
“Christ. If they hit us.....” The sentence went unfinished as he powered the control yoke in a desperate attempt to gain altitude and avoid collision.
We might have got away with it in a Hummingbird or a Falcon, something smaller and more manoeuvrable. The Swift simply can’t respond that quickly. There was a loud crack as dozens of black flapping wings collided with the windshield and then all I could hear was the harsh deafening screams of dying birds, battering us with their bodies.
“Get your seat belt on!” yelled my husband, as he desperately fought for control. “They’re all over us, Sim. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Neither had I. This was no ordinary bird-strike. These creatures were almost kamikaze-like in their enthusiasm for certain death.
“Just hang on to the throttle,” I instructed him. “Plough through it, we’ll outrun them. This is the Swift; they can’t do too much damage to it.”
“Never pass up an opportunity for a bit of back seat driving, do you?” he hissed through gritted teeth, as we yawed and rolled in our efforts to shake off the intruders.
“Don’t porpoise,” I said. “If we start pitching, we’ll be thrown all over the place.”
“You think I don’t know that?” he roared back at me. “For fuck’s sake, just do as you’re told and buckle up!”
One look at his face brought the truth spinning home. He was right; the pregnant civilian needed to sit down and shut up. As I sat back in my seat and reached for the metal clasps, I heard a high pitched whine, followed by a noise that sounded like rushing air. I knew what it was. I glanced out of the window and watched, horror-struck, as a huge black mass was sucked inside the starboard engines.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered. “This can’t be happening. They’re in our chokes.”
Now we were really in trouble. The engines on the Swift are designed to account for the possibility of avian ingestion; they’ll expel the odd airborne intruder before any real damage is done. But this was a whole new ball-game. The birds were almost swarming in their eagerness to invade, screeching and flapping their enormous wings as they dived in head first. There was no way the engines could contain them. I stared in disbelief, realisation slowly dawning that this was no random accident. Ridiculous though it was, I had the sense we were being deliberately attacked. These creatures were out to destroy us.
The vague sense of menace that had underpinned my pregnancy, colouring my dreams in a green glow, now began to crystallise in its intensity. I suddenly understood that I didn’t need to worry about the birth, or what my child might become; I had never needed to worry about the state of my marriage because the Mysterons intended to ensure that I wouldn’t survive long enough for it to be a problem.
As I fought down a rising wave of panic, my husband said, in an oddly normal voice, “I think we may have a problem. They’re in the port engines.”
“They’re in the starboard ones too,” I replied flatly as, underneath my layers of clothing, the chill of cold sweat trickled down my back. There was silence for a couple of seconds and then his head turned and our eyes met in sudden registration of the position we were in.
“How long before the engines blow?” he asked urgently, finally acknowledging that on this issue at least, I knew more than he did.
“A minute. Maybe less. Depends on how determined they are.”
One of the things I love about Paul is that he’s pretty quick on the uptake. He said slowly, “You think we’re being targeted? My God, Sim.....Mysteronised birds?”
“That would be my guess,” I replied, just as the starboard engines exploded in a hail of burning metal.
We pitched alarmingly as he fought to compensate for the loss of power and I snapped shut the restraining straps of my seat belt in an effort to stop myself slamming into the bulkhead.
“We’ll have to ditch,” I told him, in as matter-of-fact a manner as I could, while praying that the fire wouldn’t spread to the main fuselage.
“No way. That’s suicide.”
“Listen to me, Paul. We’re losing height as it is and if the other engines go, we’ve had it. But they might just hold out long enough for us to land in one piece, so take us down now, for God’s sake.”
Someone needed to alert the authorities, I thought, realising that he had his hands full just keeping us airborne. So as the Swift lurched and tilted crazily, I stood up again and staggered forward to fall into the co-pilot’s seat. Maybe I’d misjudged the control panel’s capacity – it accommodated Lumpkin after all.
“Take us down where?” he muttered, as I frantically logged into Salt Lake City’s Terminal Radar Approach Control System. “There’s nothing down there but rocks and trees.”
“The Colorado Plateau,” I said, although my reply was actually directed at the air traffic controller who had instantly acknowledged my mayday signal and asked for our position. Thank God; at least our comms were still working. For the moment. I gave him our grid reference and said, with a nod of confirmation to my husband, “We’re near Moab. We’ll aim for Canyonlands Field, but we may not make it that far.”
“Can you get to La Sal Junction, then?”
“Negative, Control. We may have to ditch somewhere around Mount Mellenthin – Clark Lake, if it’s deep enough. We’ll try not to hit any hikers.”
There was a pause and something vaguely resembling a chuckle before the disembodied voice said, “Roger that, Spectrum. All emergency services are on full alert at CNY Field. We’re tracking you at SLC and this channel will remain open. Good luck, guys. Keep in touch.”
“Nice to know someone knows where we’re going,” said my husband with an unnecessary touch of sarcasm. The fact that I knew this part of the world so well had clearly come as something of a surprise to him. Being male, it would take him a little longer to be thankful for it. “Are there any mountains I should avoid, any trees you’d particularly like me to miss?”
We were so low by now that it was a moot point. I had to acknowledge some degree of tree surgery was unavoidable. The port engines were sputtering ominously; I hoped they would simply shut down, rather than explode. Even if we landed with mechanical breakup, our chances were infinitely better than trying to escape from a fireball.
Speed was a problem, though. Despite the deployment of the auxiliary power unit and the ram air turbines, we were dropping faster than we should. We needed something to slow us down. “Aim for those trees over there,” I shouted, in a surge of adrenalin-filled desperation.
“Are you nuts? They’ll rip us apart,” he yelled back.
Well, that was a distinct possibility, but by then, it was too late to argue. We were already being pistol-whipped by trunks and branches as we crashed-banged our way through a mini forest. Thank the Lord, I thought with sudden relief as I realised we weren’t breaking up. Young trees. Recently planted: strong enough to be a buffer but not sturdy enough to do us any major damage. I hadn’t misjudged it; we were still in with a chance.
Then we were down on the ground, skidding and sliding our way through the undergrowth. The noise was horrendous. The shrieking of ripped metal, combined with the roar of defiled nature, echoed with the death cries of those damned birds as they wrapped themselves around our broken engines.
It seemed to go on forever, before we eventually came to a halt and the noise died down. I stayed crouched in the brace position (or as far as I could get to it) for what seemed like an age, hardly daring to breathe. I truly wasn’t sure whether I was alive or dead until my head was gently raised and I met my husband’s frightened eyes.
“Jesus,” he said. “Oh, Jesus. Sim, are you okay?”
I thought the answer was yes, but strangely, could only shake my head. Instinctively, I placed my hands across my stomach and detected a faint flutter. She was still there. She was all right. We were intact, my husband, my child and I. In that moment, my brain rather bizarrely took the opportunity to remind me of the collective term for a group of ravens; it was ‘unkindness.’ An Unkindness of Ravens. Well, that was about right, I thought. I wondered briefly if the Mysterons had chosen those particular birds because they’d seen the funny side of it.
Eventually, my voice came back to me. “I’m okay, Paul,” I gasped, trying and failing to give him a smile of reassurance. “We’re all still in one piece. Well done, honey – that was a text-book crash landing. I couldn’t have done it better.”
We sat silently for a few minutes, as we caught our breath and waited for our heart rate to return to normal. I guess we should have been worried about the risk of explosion; after all, we had no idea what further damage the Swift had sustained in the wake of our calamitous descent. Yet, somehow, I wasn’t worried. We were on the ground, alive. We had survived whatever the Mysterons had planned for us. They’d lost again.
My husband was desperately trying our radio signals, to no avail. “Guess we’ve lost the lot,” he muttered. “Not surprising, I suppose.”
He was right. The control panel was a mess. The cockpit windshield had two massive Aspen trees bisecting it. How we had managed to avoid injury was a miracle in itself.
“We need to get out,” I muttered. “We don’t know how long we’ve got till it blows.” I struggled out of my restraints, my fingers clumsy and shaking. I felt very strange; it was as if my body had shut down and was no longer able to move of its own volition. But then, crashing a plane is probably not one of the recommended activities in the eighth month of pregnancy.
“I don’t think it’s going to blow,” my husband said. I hadn’t really realised that he’d already clambered out of his seat and had been making a thorough reconnaissance of what was left of the Swift. As I blearily looked around me, I saw he was right. God, it was a mess – no doubt about that. But there was no tell tale smell of leaking fuel, no aroma of still burning fuselage. Maybe Lady Luck had been with us after all.
“You’re right, though. We need some fresh air,” he announced at last, smiling at me. “Let’s stretch our legs, see where we are. Maybe the Spectra-techs will work in the open.”
“Okay.” I stretched my hand out to him, needing his assistance to get to my feet. My legs were wobbly, as if I’d just completed three hours of circuits followed by a mammoth session of Pilates. Everything hurt. My spine felt as if it had been caught in a wrench and my shoulders were sore. Maybe, I thought, this was just my muscles softening up, unused to the type of exercise they were previously subjected to. Getting back into shape after the baby was born might turn out to be a bigger challenge than I thought.
Outside, the air was crisp and clean, holding just a touch of seasonal chill. Not surprising, I thought, since we were several hundred feet above sea level. I looked around me. The sun shone as brightly as an undashed hope. The sky was deep azure, with just the odd white cloud, innocent of rain. It was a perfect autumn day. In the distance, I glimpsed Clark Lake. We’d missed it by a long way, but it seemed our headlong pitch through the aspens had brought us to rest on a plateau carpeted with sage brush and various wildflowers whose names I couldn’t remember. Above us, Mount Mellenthin rose majestically, if uncomfortably close to our ruined plane.
“That was lucky,” my husband remarked, following my gaze. “If we hadn’t stopped when we did....you were right to tell me to aim for the trees.”
“I guess,” I replied, with a sudden shiver that was unrelated to the temperature. In other circumstances I would have appreciated the sheer beauty of this place, but now all I could think of was how close we’d come to ploughing into the mesa.
My husband was busily checking his Spectra–tech. I realised I hadn’t a clue where mine was – probably under my seat in the Swift. He said, “The signal’s not great, but I’m getting something. Hopefully enough to let Canyonlands or La Sal Junction know where we are.”
“Maybe you’d better try calling my mom too,” I replied. “Let her know what’s happened. She’ll worry if we’re late arriving in SF.”
He looked askance. “Are you kidding me? Simone, I am not going to tell your mother that I’ve crashed a plane carrying her pregnant daughter into a mountain range in deepest Utah. She’ll be frantic.”
“Don’t say we’ve crashed. Just tell her we’ve been delayed. Say that there are reports of a storm brewing in the Bay area and we’ve had to divert.”
“Honey, your parents watch the news. They’ll know there’s no storm coming.”
“No, they won’t. All they’ll be concentrating on right now is tonight’s party. Pops will be fretting over the number of trick or treaters who might turn up and Mom will be in a blind panic over whether or not she’s ordered enough canapés. They won’t have time to check the weather forecast.”
He cast me a dubious look, but made the call without further comment. Sure enough, our flimsy excuse was swallowed without hesitation. Mom was too busy with the caterers to come to the phone, which was fortunate because she asks more questions than my father does. She would also have insisted on speaking to me and at this particular moment, that was the last thing I felt I could cope with.
I heard Paul say, “I’m afraid we’ll be a bit late, Phil. No, nothing serious. Yeah, Sim’s fine, everything’s okay. She can’t wait to see you, too. We’re both really looking forward to the weekend. Okay, we’ll be with you as soon as we can.”
Although I was glad he’d reassured my father about my state of health, I wasn’t so confident myself. I had gone from being a little woozy to feeling downright peculiar. The pain in my back was moving around to the front and it was making me feel slightly sick. I wondered if I’d pulled muscles when I’d been thrown around in the Swift. I rubbed my back and stretched, hoping to ease out my cramped vertebrae. The baby hadn’t kicked for a while now, I realised. Perhaps it was nothing to worry about; after all, she’d had quite a shock, too.
“You’re doing fine, sweetie,” I whispered, gently caressing my bump. “You just hang in there where you’re safe. We’ll be home soon.”
I didn’t realise I was pacing in concentric circles around a patch of sagebrush until my husband said, with a slightly puzzled look on his face, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I nodded. “Yes, I’m fine,” I replied, although that was as much as I could say because my breath was suddenly whipped away by a shudder that reverberated through me, passing through my legs and across my pelvis. It finally found focus in my stomach, tightening with agonising intensity.
Okay. Not so fine, then.
I tried to relax and breathe deeply. This would pass, I thought. My body had been badly shaken up; hardly surprising that it was protesting a little. I had experienced a few minor contractions before now and had been told that it was absolutely normal.
“Your body’s preparing itself for birth,” Nurse Ratched had said. “This is practice.”
Okay, then; that was all that was going on here. Just practice.
“Have you got through to the airport yet?” I asked, as casually as I could muster.
“Nope,” he replied with a frown. “The signal keeps fading. I don’t get it; we’re in range of at least three Radar Approach Controls. They’re supposed to be tracking us. And I didn’t have any problem getting through to your folks.”
“Maybe the spectra-tech’s damaged,” I suggested. “That’s why it’s misbehaving.”
“Could be,” he agreed, somewhat doubtfully. “I’ll try Skybase instead; although I can’t say I’m looking forward to telling the Old Man that I’ve totalled his beloved Swift.”
“Well, that was hardly your fault,” I replied, “We’re alive, Paul. We’re safe. That’s all the Colonel will care about.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said, as I heard Lieutenant Green’s voice in swift acknowledgement of our call sign.
As always, Serena instantly took control of the situation. She would liaise with the airport authorities to make sure rescue was underway. At some point Spectrum would deploy its own team to sort out what was left of the Swift. She even volunteered to be the one to break the news of its fate to the Colonel, which certainly came as something of a relief to my husband. Now all we had to do was wait until someone arrived to pick us up.
“Maybe we’ll make the party after all,” I said brightly. “I’m dying for a piece of pumpkin pie.”
“Well, it’ll make a change from beetroot sandwiches, I guess,” he replied, pulling me into a swift embrace. I leaned against him, allowing my head to rest in that spot just below his shoulder blade where it fits so perfectly.
We stayed like that for several moments before he suddenly said, “Do you think we need to log this as an official Mysteron incident?”
At that, I raised my head. “I don’t know,” I said slowly. “As weird as it seemed, it might just have been some sort of freak accident. We have no proof that it wasn’t.”
He frowned and gazed past me into the distance. I knew that look. “What?” I said. “Tell me.”
“I took a look at the engines a little while ago. I wondered if it might be possible to repair them if they were cleaned out.”
“They don’t need to be cleaned out, Sim. The birds have gone. There’s no trace of them. No bones, no feathers, nothing. It’s as if they’d never been there at all.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “That would be impossible, unless....” My words trailed off as I felt myself go icy-cold in sudden fear.
“Exactly,” he replied grimly. “So I think we have our proof, don’t you?”
Back in the Swift, I had known the truth of it, but once the danger was over, it had been easier to tell myself that I had simply been at the mercy of my overactive imagination. But now....the saying, ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,’ had never sounded less hollow. It was real. The Mysterons wanted to destroy me and my baby. I felt sick with terror.
My stomach’s response to this was to harden again, this time clenching like an enormous fist, squeezing out coils of pain. This was entirely different to anything I’d been experiencing over the last week or two. I began to wonder if it wasn’t just a limbering up exercise after all, but the real thing. The middle part of my body suddenly felt like a vast round territory that was unilaterally making up its own rules and starting a bid for independence. Not yet, I thought in sudden panic. Not now. It’s too soon, I’m not ready.
My stomach answered me with a contraction of such strength that I couldn’t stop myself from giving a tiny, involuntary moan. At that, my husband placed his hands on my shoulders and gently pushed me away from him, his eyes searching my face.
He said slowly, “Simone, what’s going on? What are you not telling me?”
I had to wait for the pain to subside before I could reply. When it did, it felt weird, as if it had not really happened in the first place.
“It’s nothing,” I said reassuringly, still hoping that might indeed be the case. “Just Braxton-Hicks. I’ve been having them for ages. It’s probably a false alarm.” I straightened up and stepped out of his arms. As I did so, I felt a rush of something warm and wet flood down my legs. I glanced down. My cream maternity jeans were soaked in pink-tinged water.
“Then again,” I said bleakly, “maybe not.”
He might have missed out on two-thirds of my pregnancy, but he’d quickly caught up; he knew what this was. He said flatly, “Your waters have gone. It’s the real thing; you’re in labour. Oh, boy.”
Oh boy, indeed. We stared at each other, in utter disbelief that this could be happening now, here, at this inopportune moment and in the worst of all possible places. I felt panic rise in roughly the same measure as the pain of the next contraction. Fear must have shown on my face because my husband drew me into his arms again and hugged me to him.
“Don’t worry,” he murmured into my hair. “Everything will be fine. These things take ages, right? We’ll have you back on Skybase long before Junior gets serious.”
I nodded. What he said made sense. Nurse Ratched had told me I could expect hours and hours of this simple cadenced pain; no need to be unduly concerned until the contractions were regular and at least four minutes apart.
As if he read my mind, my husband said, “Maybe we should start timing them.”
So we did. The next three were each two minutes apart. After that, it was ten, six and back to two again. It was fifteen minutes before I could trust myself to believe it. My body was clearly getting right down to business.
“Tell Skybase,” I muttered. “Let them know it’s started. Then call Mom and tell her we won’t make the party after all.”
He was already doing it. He’d realised something I hadn’t; now we couldn’t risk being picked up by the civil aviation authorities. Our new destination was Skybase, not the local maternity hospital. That meant Spectrum would have to reach us before anyone else did.
Doctor Gold was quietly reassuring. A rescue helicopter would be deployed immediately, he said. As a purely precautionary measure, he would also be on board. It wasn’t unusual, apparently, for the contractions to be all over the place to begin with. Once labour was properly established, things would settle down. Properly established? I didn’t want to think what the pain would be like by the time that happened. This was bad enough.
“Doc, would you bring drugs, please?” I begged. “Otherwise I think Paul might as well just shoot me now.”
He laughed, as if I had said something immensely witty. “Of course I will, don’t worry. Everything will be fine, just concentrate on breathing correctly. We’ll be with you in no time at all.”
I sat back down on the grass and dutifully practised my Lamaze breathing techniques. I was not particularly hopeful. A few weeks ago during one of my check-ups, I had asked Nurse Ratched if breathing in a particular way did actually make labour easier.
“Not really, hon’” she replied in her usual detached manner. “It just gives you something else to think about.”
Well, I guess she was right about that. I sure needed something to take my mind off my current situation. The baby hovered somewhere in the distance like a half-formed thought or the refrain from a song. Only my stomach felt real. It didn’t seem part of me anymore; it had become like an older, braver, rather frightening entity, a being that was leading me to places I didn’t want to imagine.
The autumn sun had disappeared and the air was distinctly chilly as daylight began to fade. Gradually, I realised I was losing track of time. The contractions were relentless by now. No sooner had the waves subsided then they began again, rolling along like an incoming tide. I felt as if I were being tossed around like a piece of flotsam. There was nothing I could do other than try to breathe and not scream.
“Can you get me a drink?” I asked my husband after he had ended what seemed like his fifth call to the medical team in the last hour.
“Sure.” He darted back to the wreckage and quickly reappeared with a bottle of mineral water. I gulped it down greedily. Nothing had ever tasted so much like nectar. “Are you okay? Is there anything else I can do to make you more comfortable?”
You could try tasering me with the stun-gun, I thought. That might do the trick. Aloud, I said, “Maybe I just need some more lipstick. I want to look presentable when they get here. My purse is in the plane, would you get it for me?”
He smiled at that and said, “Oh Sim, I love you.”
Well, that was good to know, but I would have preferred it if he’d told me that help would be here any second. I realised that my cherished birth plan had died along with the engines on the Swift. Nothing was happening like it was meant to and I was more than apprehensive. More like deeply afraid, in fact. So much had already gone wrong; I was starting to feel really scared at what might be to come. I am a realist, after all. I didn’t need my first-class mathematics degree to tell me that you can’t fit a big head through a small hole without a hell of a lot of trouble.
With yet another impressive display of mind-reading skills, he said, “They’ll be here shortly, don’t worry. You’re doing great, but you’ve got a while to go yet.”
“How do you know?” I asked, half reassured, half petrified at this news.
“One of the nurses told me. She said if you’re still smiling and joking around, you’ve got a long way to go.”
Ha! That would be Nurse Ratched, I thought sourly. Well, was she in for a surprise! I decided then and there that no matter what happened, I was going to try to smile and joke through it all. After all, women had been doing this for millennia, so it couldn’t be that hard. I pursed my lips, gritted my teeth through the next contraction and tried to put aside my worries over what could go wrong.
An hour later and I was starting to think Nurse Ratched had a point. I was no longer capable of smiling and there was definitely nothing to joke about. My husband had become very irritating indeed; all I wanted to do was drown in my ocean of pain. Why couldn’t he let me? Since I was clearly about to die, why did he insist on wiping my face? No-one would care what I looked like on my death-bed, least of all me. As he came towards me once more, tissue in hand, I batted him away with what little strength I had left.
“Go away, leave me alone,” I moaned, although I suspect my words were lost within the howl of agony that heralded the onslaught of yet another contraction.
Dear God, please let this end, I prayed, at the precise moment my husband leapt to his feet and yelled, “They’re here! Sim, it’s okay, they’re here. Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”
I managed to raise my head long enough to see him racing away towards the whirling blades of a Hummingbird. Suddenly there was lots of noise, voices, movement. Then an ebony face with something vaguely purple perched on top of it bent over me.
“How you doin’, Ms G?” asked a familiar English voice.
As my vision cleared, I realised that the purple thing was actually Captain Indigo’s cap. I felt vaguely confused; I had no idea why he was here and it took another few seconds to realise he must have been piloting the Hummingbird. I wished it had been one of the Angels; much as I like Indigo, his presence here was discomforting.
I’ve known John Roach for years, long before we ended up together in Spectrum. He used to be an RAF pilot and then a shuttle astronaut for the ISA. He and I had flown on several trips together and I admired him enormously. His physical presence was amazing; six feet five inches of solid Africa. Despite the fact he had been born and brought up in Brixton, he looked like an iconic tribal warrior. Brought up was putting it kindly, however. As he would be the first to admit, ‘dragged up’ was nearer the mark. Born to an impoverished single mother who had not always selected the same sperm donor for each of her six children, he had surpassed all educational expectations and carved out a remarkably successful career, while retaining not only his optimistic, sunny personality, but also a strong south London accent. Since the first day I met him, in our off-duty moments, he called me ‘Ms G’. The fact I was now technically ‘Mrs M’ had not changed that and I loved him for it.
I did not love the fact he was here, however. What was left of my dignity told me that it could definitely do without Indigo witnessing my present vulnerability. I didn’t have time to protest though, because now Doctor Gold was bending over me, rapidly assessing all vital signs, the late afternoon sunlight glinting off the rim of his spectacles.
“Please tell me you’ve got pain-relief in that bag,” I murmured. “I can’t cope with this for much longer.”
“Coming up,” he responded briefly, and instantly, I felt the hypodermic in my arm. “You should feel better in a minute or two. It may make you a little nauseous, however.”
Nauseous? I couldn’t have cared less at that point. I lay back and closed my eyes, waiting. Sure enough, when the next contraction began, the pain didn’t build and build to the intolerable level I had come to expect; it was dulled, muted, like aspirin on toothache. What replaced it, though, was a dragging sensation, as if all of my insides were being pulled apart. It was terrifying.
I said, to no-one in particular, “I think I need to push.”
My husband looked alarmed. “You can’t push now,” he said, with a blatant disregard for the futility of such a statement. “Can’t you just puff and blow, or something? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? For God’s sake, don’t push! Not here.”
Someone was making her way through what looked like a crowd – it was probably no more than three or four people – until she was directly in my line of sight. Nurse Ratched. She gave me an appraising look and said bluntly, “We need to see where we’re at. I’ll just do a quick exam; see how far you’re dilated.”
“Okay.” I struggled to sit up, expecting, bizarrely, the miracles of modern technology in this god-forsaken place.
To my dismay, she pushed me back down and said, “Sorry, hon’. This ain’t Skybase. Gotta do this the old-fashioned way. Just relax and it won’t hurt too much.” She turned her head to whoever was behind her and barked, “Vamoose, all of you. Give us a little privacy. That goes for you, too, Blue-Eyes.”
I realised with a slight sense of wonder that her last sentence was directed towards my husband. The legendary Captain Scarlet was being dismissed as if he was the lowliest of ensigns. Meekly, he did as he was told.
“Now.” Ratched turned her full attention to me. “Let’s get some of these clothes off. Don’t worry, this won’t take long – and I promise to be gentle.”
I wasn’t entirely sure I believed her so I said, “Marla? Will you at least wait until I get through this next contraction?” I didn’t think I could cope with the two things at once.
Her face softened in what I thought was sympathy (although that might have been my imagination). But she did say, “Of course, sugar. You just tell me when you’re ready.”
Well, I’m not sure I would ever have been ready, but it wasn’t so bad, especially now the drugs were kicking in big- style. Eventually, she straightened up, a look of surprise on her face.
“My my, you have been busy,” she said. Then she raised her hand behind her in a beckoning gesture and Doctor Gold reappeared, followed by my husband. “Nine centimetres,” she said flatly. “Looks like we’re not going anywhere.”
Not going anywhere? I didn’t understand what she meant. Neither did my husband. He said, with a note of deep uncertainty in his voice, “Nine centimetres? That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no,” Doctor Gold replied heavily. “Good in that this should not last too much longer. Things have progressed quicker than I imagined they would. But it does mean that we can’t risk taking off now – we’re too close.”
“What are you talking about?” I could feel hysteria coming on. “Doc, I can’t have this baby here! We have to get back to Skybase!”
He bent over me and took hold of my hand. “This is not ideal, I know,” he said gently. “But we have no choice. And there is nothing to worry about, liebchen. You are doing magnificently. We are all here with you, everything will be fine.”
Fine? Only a moron with half a brain cell would think there was anything fine about this. In fact, it was as close to a nightmare as it was possible to get with your eyes open.
Ratched said, “How about we decamp to somewhere indoors? The Hummingbird’s not big enough, but we can use the back of the Swift. There’s equipment and shelter from the night air.”
At last; someone had made a sensible suggestion. “That’s a great idea,” I replied.
I turned and managed to get on my knees, as a prelude to making it to full upright status, when Doctor Gold said swiftly, “You can’t walk.”
“Of course I can,” I muttered.
As my legs trembled and my knees buckled, Nurse Ratched said, “No, hon’, you can’t,” and my husband swept me gently up in his arms and carried me towards what was left of the Swift.
Once we had pushed back all the seats and cushioned the floor with every bit of padding we could find, I had begun to accept that the fate of my daughter and I was in the here and now. As my husband lowered me gently down to my makeshift delivery room, Doctor Gold’s predictions of nausea came true.
“Oh, God, I’m going to be sick,” I gasped. This was insult to injury as far as I was concerned; it was bad enough that I was expected to do the impossible by pushing out something that was starting to feel like a gigantic bowling ball without needing to vomit at the same time. Everyone ignored me- they were all at the other end of my body, organising some proper lighting, doing stuff with white towels and muttering things I could no longer be bothered to listen to.
The only person who took any notice of me was my husband as I threw up all over his tunic. To his credit, he said nothing other than “Are you okay?” as he accepted a towel from someone and began to wipe himself down.
“Thirsty,” I muttered. “I need some water.”
“Here you go, hon’,” Ratched said, wetting my lips with a moist cloth. “Can’t let you have a proper drink, you’ll just bring it back up again.”
I didn’t ask how she could possibly know that. I just sucked at the cloth and said, “Thank you.”
Then the fist inside my stomach reached up and pulled me down hard. And this time I knew I definitely had to push. It was impossible not to; it was as if my body had started to obey a new set of instructions that came without a manual. My husband was holding my hand, but I wasn’t with him. I wasn’t even with the baby. I was with something else; some power I didn’t recognise and couldn’t understand, in a place I’d never been to before.
“Keep pushing,” someone said. “That’s good, keep it going.”
Then a deep male voice said, “Come on, Ms G, put your back into it. My mum told me that with all of us it was like shelling peas. You just need to give it some welly!”
That brought me back. Indigo; I had totally forgotten he was there. As I raised my head, someone accidently hit a mirror above me and I caught sight of my face. The sight shocked me. I was red and shiny-looking and it seemed I had two chins for I was digging my chin into my chest as I pushed. I had become something else; no longer me, but something wild and primitive, a sister to cows and bitches and tornados and lightning. I terrified even myself.
“Get him out of here!” I shrieked.
Indigo beat a hasty retreat to a position that was at least out of my sight line, as Nurse Ratched pushed a plastic mask over my mouth and nose. I yanked it back off.
“What the hell is this?”
“Just gas and air,” she replied, succinctly. “Old fashioned, but it works. Take a couple of deep breaths and get ready to push with the next one.”
I put the mask back on and did as I was told. And when the clenched fist rose up to claim me again, I pushed. I kept pushing. Never had I pushed so hard and never had anything hurt so much. Nothing was happening. After what seemed like an eternity of alternate pushes and gulps of gas and air, I finally realised the futility of it all.
“I can’t do this,” I moaned. “I can’t push anymore, I can’t.”
My husband, seated slightly behind me so he could use his arm to prop me up a little, gave my shoulder a quick squeeze. “Of course you can,” he said, brightly.
Looking back, I guess I should have been grateful for small mercies – at least he hadn’t added, “It’s a cinch” or, worse still, “You have no choice.”
But then he excelled himself in his efforts to encourage me. He said, “Just get through this and next time, I promise you I will personally ensure that you get every drug of choice. It’ll be a breeze.”
I stared at him, unable to believe my ears. “Next time?” I screamed. “Are you completely crazy? I am never going to do this again, never! Do you understand me? I hate you! If you so much as look at me again, I’ll kill you!”
The expression on his face told me that never again would he want to. It was as if he had just woken up to the fact that lust molecules do not survive childbirth. They get expelled along with the placenta. Apart from that, I was living proof of the kind of trouble sex can get you into. Who would want to go there again?
From the other end of my body, I heard Doctor Gold chuckle. What he thought was funny about this, I couldn’t imagine. “Calm down,” he said. “You need to save your breath for pushing.”
Calm down? It was like a red rag to a bull. “Don’t tell me what I need!” I yelled. “You’re not the one being torn apart here! What I need is to get this thing OUT!”
“I agree,” Nurse Ratched intervened unexpectedly. Although she was stating the blindingly obvious, her voice was sober, totally unlike her normally laconic tone. I saw my husband frown.
“Is something wrong?” he asked anxiously.
“This has been going on too long,” she replied shortly. “Everyone’s getting very tired, including the baby. Her heart rate is slowing. Back on Skybase, that wouldn’t be a problem, but out here.....” Her voice trailed off and she looked at me. “Come on, honey. You can do this. Get mad!”
I was already mad, surely she could see that? Not angry mad, but crazy. I was delirious with pain and too much gas and air. I couldn’t focus properly and there was a whistling noise going on in my ears which made it difficult for me to hear anyone. Then, out of nowhere, came a voice in my head, the voice I would always recognise the instant I heard it. Haven’t you learned by now? It asked. Don’t you know we won’t permit this? Not a hybrid. It’s not possible.
Conrad. Captain Black. In that moment, I knew the truth. This was my punishment for hooking up with an alien half-wit. My pregnancy, the baby, even my marriage, was all part of a subtle plan to ensure my destruction. They’d failed with the plane crash, but they would succeed now. The Mysterons – also no slouches in the geometry stakes – understood only too well the impossibility of trying to force something that felt like a baby elephant through an aperture the size of a small grapefruit. It could not be done; no way could I deliver a living, breathing entity. It would be game, set and match to the aliens.
I wanted to fight back, to tell them that they had underestimated me, but for some reason I couldn’t. It was as if something was trying to pull the “I” of myself out of my head and down into the centre of my body and I was powerless to resist. I was no longer Simone, who was thirty-one years old, who loved climbing and long walks through the woods, who spoke fluent French and understood calculus. I was something else now, blended with a greater, fierce, ripping power over which I had no control.
Let go, said a different voice in my head, one I’d not heard before. This is necessary. Accept it. Let go.
So I did. I let go of me. I let go of my life. I let go of everything except my husband’s hand as I arched my back and pushed so hard I thought I would burst apart and set the Swift and everyone in it on fire. If the Mysterons were taking me, I wasn’t going quietly. I screamed in a way I would never have let myself cry out before and in the distance I heard someone say, “The head’s crowning now. Don’t push again until I tell you.”
That didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. I stood on top of a high red Mysteron cliff and threw myself off into the abyss, screaming with sudden joy as I fell.
“Sim, Sim, it’s okay,” my husband said, pressing his hands on my shoulders. I was shaking all over.
“Of course it is!” I yelled back and pushed again, this time with a final, furious elated force that came easily to me. My baby slid out. There was silence for a few seconds and I didn’t know where I was. But then she gave a cry, a single howl of outrage and in that moment, I became me again. It was very strange. I was myself, returned from Mars; a queer, wild, slightly drunk self, but still me.
“Is she okay?” I asked anxiously. “Please give her to me, I want to see her.”
“All in good time,” Doctor Gold replied. “We’ll just clean her up a little.”
I searched my husband’s face. “Is she all right?” I asked again. “What does she look like? I want to hold her.”
“She’s perfect,” he replied softly, his eyes misty with emotion. He bent over me and kissed my parched lips. “You did it, Sim. You did it. She’s here and she’s okay.” Then he turned to accept the towel-wrapped bundle from Ratched and gently placed it in my arms. We both gazed in wonder at the dark blue eyes looking solemnly back at us, the tiny fist reaching out to clench my finger.
“She’s so beautiful,” I murmured in awe. “Isn’t she, Paul?”
I looked up at him for confirmation, surprised to see the mist in his eyes turning to water as he reached out to touch his daughter’s soft downy head. “Yes, she is,” he said. “But not yet as beautiful as her mother.” He smoothed the hair back from my face and said tenderly, “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. That was truly heroic.”
“Those things I said earlier,” I murmured. “The stuff about hating you and all. I didn’t mean it.”
“I know,” he replied. “I guess you were entitled; although I do think you may have broken all the bones in my hand. That’s quite a grip you’ve got, my darling.”
Superhuman strength, I thought. Maybe that’s what it takes to give birth, especially if what you’ve given birth to is a superhuman. Could she be? Our little girl, born of love between a human and a not-so-human-anymore? I gazed down at the black hair and dark blue eyes that so clearly belonged to her father and wondered what the future held for us all.
“I can’t quite believe she’s here at last,” I said slowly. “We’re parents, Paul. And just look at her; she’s our baby and she’s human.”
At that, Ratched shot me a look that suggested she thought I hadn’t come through labour with all my marbles intact, but then she hadn’t been privy to the finer points of just what made our child so special.
“Of course she’s human,” Doctor Gold replied with satisfaction, also apparently forgetting that there were things his obstetric nurse didn’t know. Either that, or he wasn’t bothered about the fact that she’d think he was equally unhinged. “A perfect little girl, even if her arrival in the world has been somewhat.... hasty.”
“You can say that again,” my husband responded with a grin. “Let’s hope her timing improves as she gets older.”
“Doc, thank you for delivering her,” I said earnestly. “I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. That wasn’t one of my better moments.”
“On the contrary,” he said, beaming at me. “This may very well have been your finest hour, liebchen. I am privileged to have been part of it.”
“Does this little one have a name yet?” Ratched asked, looking up from whatever she doing with cords and afterbirths, none of which particularly interested me in my newfound state of maternal bliss.
“Well, we thought... Caitlin?” my husband said hesitantly, giving me a slightly doubtful look. “Are we still going with that, honey?”
I hadn’t realised we were going with it at all. My mind had been firmly set on Deborah Jane. Maybe I’d missed something during all the Pac-Man sessions between hormones and brain. But as I looked at her, I knew she wasn’t a Deborah. Deborahs are blonde and delicate; Deborahs look like me. And my baby didn’t really look like me at all; she possessed the dark sturdy good looks of the Metcalfes.
So I said firmly, “Yes. Caitlin Anne; after your mother, Paul. I’d like her to have something belonging to a grandmother she won’t get to meet.”
The look in my husband’s eyes told me I’d made the right decision. It was worth everything.
“Thank you,” he murmured in my ear. “I wish she could see her. She would have been thrilled to have a granddaughter.”
At that moment, Caitlin turned her tiny head and began nuzzling in the general direction of my breast. She was making small snuffling noises, her mouth opening and closing gently. I felt a tug in my womb and moisture surrounded my nipples.
“I want to nurse her,” I announced to Ratched, who seemed to have finished her ministrations to my nether regions and was packing up all the equipment brought in the Hummingbird.
“Wait till we get back to Skybase and get you both settled,” she replied. “She’ll be fine till then.”
“Please, Marla? I really want to do this. Show me how.”
“Oh, Lordy, Lordy,” she muttered, “Save me from modern mothers.” Then she saw the light in my eyes and heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Oh, very well, if you must.”
She briskly removed my jacket and tee-shirt and helped me to loosen my bra so that the baby could hopefully attach her little mouth to me. It took a few seconds of fumbling, but amazingly, we both got the hang of it before my daughter started screaming in frustration.
“Well done,” Ratched said, after a minute or two. She sounded positively admiring and I allowed myself to bask in a self-satisfied glow before she continued, “Latched on right away, you clever little baby.”
I don’t remember much about the journey back to Skybase. After Caitlin and I were settled as comfortably as the Hummingbird would allow, we both fell into a deep sleep, exhausted by the day’s events. I don’t think I even asked what happened to the remains of the Swift – no doubt it would be salvaged as much as possible in the days to come. As we approached touchdown, I woke up in my husband’s arms, stiff and sore, to discover my baby was the centre of everyone else’s attention.
Caitlin, kicking her little legs and waving her arms around, was making eyes at Indigo, who was regaling her with a fairytale of ( I thought) rather dubious morality. When I said as much to my husband, he laughed it off and kissed me rather indulgently.
“She loves it. He’s entertaining her,” he said, as if that was all that counted. Boy, he needs to learn. I can see I’m going to have my work cut out if our daughter is going to grow up alongside the reprobates on Skybase.
As the Hummingbird ground to a standstill in its landing bay, I glanced out of the window and realised we had a welcoming committee. Half of Skybase seemed to have turned out to meet us -word of the new arrival had clearly travelled fast. I sat up immediately, energised after my nap and reached for my discarded clothes and make up. At the very least, I wanted to walk unaided down the steps, my baby in my arms, the Amazonian princess presenting her precious legacy to her tribe.
Those fanciful notions were quickly disposed of. A stretcher was brought on board and it was immediately apparent that I was supposed to transfer to it. I was lifted onto the wretched thing and blankets were artfully draped around me. I wanted to protest that this was not in the Birth Plan, but somehow I didn’t have the energy to do so. I didn’t even protest about the clothes.
When we reached ground level, I did say to Ratched, “Isn’t a stretcher a little over the top?” in a ground teeth kind of way and I think she got the message because she waved over a medic with a wheelchair and I was lifted up and plopped into it without further ado.
“Thank you,” I murmured with a fixed smile, trying not to wince in the belated realisation that my daughter’s over-eager entry into the world had not left me unscathed. Ratched eyed me balefully, her expression clearly conveying the fact that she thought I was an irresponsible patient and probably would go on to be an unfit mother.
My husband exited next and took up his position behind my wheelchair. Someone – probably Doctor Gold – placed my beautifully wrapped up baby in my arms. I was flanked by all who had been onboard the Hummingbird. I felt a sudden rush of warmth for them – my birth committee, my team. They’d been wonderful and together, we’d achieved something elemental, timeless. I even forgave Indigo.
We looked across Hangar Deck to those who stood waiting, seemingly a little shy, a little reluctant to rush forward and greet us. There was silence. Then my husband broke the spell.
He shouted, “Hey, Adam! Come and meet your god-daughter!” as he began to push the wheelchair towards the waiting throng.
“God-daughter?” I asked, distracted. I hadn’t realised we’d got to christenings already.
He looked guilty. “Is that okay? I mean, I know we haven’t discussed it, but I just thought...”
As I watched Captain Blue leading the move towards us, his face glowing with love and pride, I knew it would have been a redundant discussion anyway. I said softly, “Of course it’s all right – it’s perfect. There’s no one else I’d choose.”
My husband kissed the top of my head, while at the same time accepting a congratulatory handshake from Blue who then stooped to kiss me and gaze in unabashed admiration at our daughter.
“Wow,” he murmured in wonderment. “Spectrum–The New Generation.” He touched his lips to the top of Caitlin’s head and then gave me a swift hug. “Well done, Gorgeous. She’s amazing.”
He straightened up and seemed to notice my husband’s dishevelled appearance for the first time. “Well, I know what she’s been doing, but what the hell happened to you?” he asked, gazing at the vomit-spattered tunic.
“I threw up all over him, “I replied sweetly. “He stinks, I know.”
“It was worth it,” my husband replied, with a slightly pained smile, holding on to his dignity with an effort.
Then the Angels were upon us, hugging and kissing me as they cooed over my baby and congratulated my husband.
“Hey, girl, can’t keep it simple, can you?” drawled Harmony. “Always have to be the drama queen. I should have known you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to add to your impressive total of ditched vehicles.”
I stuck my tongue out at her. Rebecca knew perfectly well that my husband had been piloting the Swift. “I have a reputation to maintain,” I said, primly. “Can’t let my record go to you now, can I?”
“We’re just so glad everything is fine and the baby’s arrived safely,” Rhapsody interjected hastily, with a glare at Harmony who affected not to notice. I couldn’t help smiling. My sweet Caroline; always mindful of the sensibilities of others. What a pussy cat she is - and what a lion she can turn into when it’s required.
“I think we should get our patients to Sick-Bay now,” Doctor Gold announced, looking with slightly indulgent disapproval at the melee going on before him.
“Come on, Doc, you know the plan,” said Blue, persuasively. “We want to show them our surprise.”
“It can wait,” Gold replied, irritation clearly visible on his face. “I have people needing medical attention here.”
“Plan? What plan? What’s going on?” I asked. There were lots of significant looks shooting between my colleagues.
“It’s just... well; we wanted to show you something...” Rhapsody ventured. “Obviously, it wasn’t meant to happen quite like this, but....” She shot a beseeching look at Gold. “Please, Doc? It will only take five minutes.”
“Like hell it will,” he grumbled. “Where you people are concerned, nothing ever happens as it should. I expressly forbid it.”
My husband placed a hand on his arm. “Come on, Mason,” he said quietly. “Whatever it is, five minutes won’t hurt.”
“Oh, very well,” the doctor replied with impatient resignation. “I don’t know why I bother – no one ever listens to me, anyway.”
“Doc. Thank you,” I said, grabbing his arm and pulling him towards me into a somewhat impetuous hug. “I promise you we’ll report to Sick-Bay as soon as we’ve seen whatever this is.”
Maybe a hug from me was so unexpected, it floored him. Anyway, he went a little pink around the gills and made no further protest as Blue and Rhapsody led the way from Hangar Deck in the general direction of Skybase’s medical facilities.
However, we bypassed Sick-Bay and eventually stopped outside the entrance to what I knew was a huge storage bay for scanners and other large items of medical paraphernalia. Oddly, the sign on the door which proclaimed this purpose had been removed.
“What’s going on?” I asked in bewilderment, as Blue punched the security code into the lock and the door slid aside.
“Close your eyes, both of you,” commanded Harmony. “Don’t open them till we tell you.”
This day surely couldn’t get any more bizarre, I thought, nevertheless doing as she instructed.
My wheelchair was pushed forward a few feet and then Blue said, “Okay, you can look now.”
My husband and I opened our eyes and gasped at exactly the same moment. The storage bay was no more; it had been completely transformed into a beautifully decorated living room, complete with plush carpeting, soft furnishings and muted lighting. Half-opened doors leading off the main area held the suggestion of a kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms.
We gaped in stunned silence as Harmony said in a matter-of-fact way, “It’ll look better once you move all your stuff in.”
“It’s not quite finished,” Rhapsody added, an anxious look on her face. “We thought we had more time, you see... but we did get the nursery done. What do you think?”
She flung open one of the doors and propelled me into a small haven of wonderment. The walls had been painted a soft buttercup yellow and stencilled with rabbits and teddy bears. A white-painted cot stood in one corner with a musical teddy bear mobile suspended above it. Soft sheets and a fluffy blanket were neatly folded at its base. In the opposite corner was a comfortable armchair with, next to it, an old-fashioned Victorian bassinet, exactly like the one I had been secretly coveting in my favourite mother and baby catalogue. A little bath stood on the floor next to a padded changing table and a small chest of drawers. Hanging up on the doors of the tiny wardrobe was a selection of the baby clothes I had been collecting over the last few months, along with a few I didn’t recognise.
Rhapsody followed my gaze, saying apologetically, “We grabbed what we could from your quarters as soon as we knew you were on your way back, but we didn’t have time to get everything. We so wanted it to be perfect for you.”
I was incapable of speech. I simply couldn’t take it all in. I looked from Rhapsody to my husband and back at the tableau before me and felt tears start to run down my cheeks.
Harmony looked dismayed. “Oh, God, you don’t like it,” she said in a stricken voice. “We thought.... well, I thought... this was just the way you’d want it, the bassinet and all. But if we’ve made a mistake......”
“A mistake?” My husband had found his voice, even if I’d lost mine. He sounded incredulous. “Bec, this is amazing. It’s just.... well... I simply don’t know what to say...” His voice tailed off and I knew by the pressure of his hands on my shoulders that he too, was struggling to hold it together.
“This is not everything,” Blue said. “There’s a proper bathroom, of course and we even managed to get a little kitchen fitted so you have no excuse for not improving your cooking skills. But don’t worry, the health and safety people did insist on installing full extractor fans and smoke alarms for when it all goes wrong.”
“I don’t understand,” I whispered. “How did you manage to do all this? It must have taken ages. And why?”
“It’s been going on for a while and yeah, it wasn’t easy keeping it under wraps,” Blue acknowledged. “Making sure you didn’t suspect anything was quite difficult at times. But we were obliged to follow orders and that’s the why of it.”
“Orders? Whose orders?”
“Mine,” said a deep male voice behind me. I turned my head to see Colonel White beaming down at us. “I’m very pleased to see they’ve been followed to the letter,” he continued, looking around him with evident satisfaction.
He gazed at Caitlin, his eyes glowing with unexpected tenderness. “So this is our new recruit. Welcome to Skybase, little one. And congratulations to you both,” he added, with a smile at my husband and me. “I’m delighted that everything has turned out so well, despite the... er... somewhat dramatic circumstances.”
“Thank you, sir,” my husband replied. “It was Simone who did all the work. I couldn’t be more proud of her. But are you saying that all this, making new quarters for us, this is your idea?”
Colonel White nodded. “It occurred to me,” he said, “that I hadn’t actually given you a wedding present. I saw the arrival of your daughter as an opportunity to redress that omission. Clearly, you need somewhere large enough to cater for the needs of a baby and I thought Skybase could afford to lose this storage space. In addition, you’re closer to the medical facilities, should they be required, and this level is nice and quiet for a family unit.”
The wily old fox, I thought. He knew that separating us from the main living quarters meant it would also be nice and quiet for the rest of Skybase’s personnel. Well, I couldn’t blame him for that, I suppose; he is running a military operation after all.
And I was stunned by his generosity. “I can’t even begin to imagine how much this has cost, sir,” I said. “We can’t let you pay for it, it’s too much.”
“Nonsense, it’s my pleasure,” he replied, indeed sounding very pleased with himself. “I should say our pleasure, of course – this is a gift from my wife too and I can’t tell you how difficult it’s been to persuade her that she didn’t need to be here to personally oversee the makeover.”
I laughed and winced again in the sharp realisation that sudden movements might not a good idea for a little while. My body was beginning to remind me of just what it was I’d done today and that it might not be possible to continue in even a semi-upright position for much longer.
My husband, with yet another display of his impressive mind-reading skills, said, “I think we should head back to Sick-Bay now before Doc Gold sends out a posse to look for us.”
“Indeed,” The Colonel agreed. “I always feel that it’s best not to push one’s luck where the good doctor is concerned.”
He bent over me and the baby once more. “These quarters will be ready for you as soon as you’re fit to move into them, my dear. In the meantime, get as much rest as you can and do try to follow advice, as difficult as it may be.”
“S.I.G.” I replied with a grin. “You know me too well, sir. But I must admit that sleep sounds rather wonderful right now. Of course, with a hungry little mouth to feed, I’m not sure how much of it I’m likely to get.”
“You learn to snatch it where you can,” he said with a smile. “But that’s something you already know, I imagine. Spectrum has never advertised regular sleep as one of its career highlights.”
I was so tired that the next hour passed in a blur of almost cotton wool softness. Without protest, I allowed the baby to be taken away for weighing and examination. She was just under seven pounds, a good weight considering she was four weeks away from her due date. Nurse Ratched pronounced her strong and healthy, alert and very calm, despite the circumstances of her birth.
Then Caitlin was passed over to one of the nurses who settled her in a little cot next to my bed and Ratched turned her attention to me. By this time all the pain relief had worn off and I was exhausted and aching all over. Every movement hurt despite the efficacious properties of ibuprofen, the most heavy-duty drug Doctor Gold was prepared to sanction.
“I’m so sore,” I complained, as I swung my legs over the side of the bed in a misplaced attempt to make it to the bathroom unaided.
“You pushed when I told you not to,” she said dismissively. “Lucky you didn’t tear more than you did. But don’t worry, you’ll heal. It’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad as what?”
“Twenty-four hours of contractions,” she replied with a sniff.
I stared at her in disbelief. If my perineum could have answered for me, it would have given her a damn good argument on that one. After all, what did this woman know? How many labours had she gone through? And was it my fault my child had chosen to take the epic-thrill water-slide out?
I sat there on the end of the bed, watching my shaking legs quiver. I debated my options. Eventually, I gave in. There was no pride and dignity in new motherhood, it seemed.
“Marla, I need the bathroom,” I said. “Would you please help me?”
She came towards me, slid her arm around my waist and gently hoisted me to my feet. She felt good - solid, somehow- and I allowed myself to lean on her as we made our way towards the bathroom in the shuffling gait I now recognise as common to most new mothers.
As we got to the cubicle door, she said, “I’ll be right outside. Yell if you need me.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, wondering where my husband was in all this. Not that I needed his attendance for toilet duty of course, but he was at least on my side. Appreciation for what I’d done today seemed to be fading fast. I wanted a bit of pampering and cosseting, neither of which this battleaxe was prepared to provide, even if it was her job. I wondered why she hated me so much.
After I’d managed to survive the first POP (Pain on Pooping) after childbirth, I staggered out of the cubicle, tears of self- pity welling in my eyes. Who on earth would have kids, I thought. My husband had been right in the first place; why in God’s name had I ever thought motherhood was a good idea? I should have stuck with being the World’s Greatest Pilot. (My husband’s description of me, I hasten to add. I wouldn’t say I have an excessive amount of false modesty, but even I wouldn’t call myself numero uno. It’s nice to have a fan club, though.)
Unsurprisingly, Ratched was exactly where she’d said she would be, lounging against the wall, arms folded. She gazed impassively upon my flushed, tear-stained face and then heaved her bulk towards me. Her arm went around my shoulders and I couldn’t stop myself from turning my head into her vast chest and giving way to girlish sobs. (I know – this is not a fact I’m proud of).
But then I saw a whole new side to her. She tentatively stroked my hair and shushed me in that way mothers do with distressed young children. She said soothingly, “It’ll get easier, sugar. I promise.”
As I continued to cry, she went on, “Don’t underestimate yourself; you did well today. This is just your hormones talking. It will all look better in the morning.”
I was too tired to wonder if she’d had a personality transplant in the time I’d spent in the bathroom. I said, “Marla, I have to sleep. If you don’t walk me back to bed right now, you’ll have to carry me.” She could do that, I thought. She was probably big enough and tough enough to haul my wobbly, jiggly, post-partum body anywhere. And if she wasn’t, someone else would be. I didn’t care who.
As she tucked me into bed with all the solicitude of a mother (okay, maybe I was hallucinating by this time), she said, so softly I almost missed it, “That’s a beautiful little girl you have there. I’d like to stick around and help you take care of her, if you’ll let me.”
Despite the sleep deprivation, my ears registered the hesitancy, the pleading undertone and in some way I recognised that we had seen a need for each other in our separate vulnerabilities. But this was a conversation for another day. All I was capable of now was a mumbled “Okay,” as I tumbled into the arms of Morpheus.
I awoke to a low murmur of noise beside me. As my eyes and ears joined me in full consciousness, I realised that the murmurings belonged to my husband. He sounded like he was engaged in conversation with a deaf-mute, because his was the only voice I could hear. I had no idea how long I’d been asleep. I turned my head to see him bent over the baby’s cot, apparently giving her chapter and verse on goodness only knew what.
“What are you doing?” I asked, caught in that twilight world between fascination and too-tired-to-care.
“Talking to Caitie,” he replied with a bright smile. Amazingly, he didn’t look tired at all, although I was pleased to see he had showered and changed so that our daughter was not unnecessarily exposed to the pungent aroma of stale vomit.
Here we go- Caitie already, I thought with resignation, knowing my husband’s penchant for shortening any given name. I said, “She’s barely twelve hours old, Paul. Don’t expect her to talk back.”
His grin was still like a Belisha beacon. “I just want her to know stuff, that’s all.”
“Like what a great mom she has, for instance.”
I smiled at him. “Darling, she knows. I’ve been telling her that for the last eight months.”
He looked unabashed. “Yeah, well. It’s just that she was awake and so was I, so I thought I should explain things to her, that’s all.”
This caught my attention. “What things?” I asked guardedly. “She’s a baby, Paul. She can’t understand much beyond when she wants to be fed and when she needs her diaper changed.”
“Maybe. But she’s listening, Sim, I know she is. And, weird though it may sound, I think on some level, she does understand what I’m saying. Perhaps not the words themselves, but what they mean.”
I looked at the baby. Her face was tiny but composed, not scrunched up like so many new-borns. Her dark blue gaze was fixed steadily on her father without a trace of myopic lack of focus. I realised that he was right. She saw him, recognised him on some primeval level. They were in silent communication, two kindred spirits who knew each other in a way I never would. My stomach lurched and my breath caught in my throat.
“You can read her mind?” I whispered, wondering at the same time why it felt necessary to keep my voice down. Even though the nurses’ station was only a few feet away, Sick-Bay sound-proofing was such that I knew we couldn’t be overheard.
He looked startled at this suggestion. “No, no, nothing like that,” he answered slowly. “It’s just that.... well, I don’t know, really. I mean, what thoughts does a new-born baby have? How would I know?”
“What then? What is it you can feel?”
He shrugged. “It’s.....vague. I can’t describe it. Perhaps it’s nothing – maybe something all parents feel towards their child. That invisible umbilical cord, whatever you want to call it. Perhaps it doesn’t just apply to moms.”
“Hmm,” I responded with a nod. “Well you might be right, although I suspect my biological connection is a little more physical than psychic. For instance, something tells me she needs feeding right now.”
“She’s okay,” he replied, once more exchanging glances with our daughter. “She’s not making a fuss.”
That was true enough. Caitlin was quiet, but as she turned her steady gaze to me, I saw her lips pucker and her cheeks start to scrunch up.
“She’ll be howling any second,” I said resignedly. “Better pass her over.”
He reached into the cot and picked up the baby with an adroitness that surprised me. He was going to be good at this, I thought, with a rush of love for both husband and child. He placed Caitlin in my arms and rearranged my pillows so that my shoulders were well supported as the baby latched on to my nipple with what was now becoming quite a familiar tug.
He sat on the bed beside me and watched in comfortable silence for a while, until eventually Caitlin’s eyes closed and her mouth went slack. She was asleep.
At that, we both looked at each other, a ‘What now?’ expression on our faces.
“Should I wind her? Or will that just wake her up?” I said in a stage whisper, as if my keeping quiet mattered to anyone.
“I don’t know,” he replied, looking equally uncertain. “Does she need changing? I mean, feeding and changing are supposed to follow each other, aren’t they?”
“She seems dry enough,” I said, with a tentative exploration of the netherlands. “Maybe we should ask someone. We’re such novices, Paul. How on earth are we going to do this?”
“We’ll learn,” he replied, reassuringly. “Heck, other people manage, why shouldn’t we?” He gazed lovingly at our daughter. “She’s so peaceful, isn’t she? God, Sim – how did we create something so perfect?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But if she doesn’t need feeding or changing, I’ll be happy to put her back in the cot so I can go back to sleep.”
He shook his head. “She hasn’t finished,” he said casually. “She’s just taking a break, I think. Maybe you should switch her to the other side.”
Sure enough, as I swapped breasts, she fluttered her little eyelashes and opened her mouth in anticipation. No one had warned me about this, I thought. If she was going to take nipple naps at every feed, I’d never be done; I would be the twenty-four hour milk machine. Maybe I could have my Angel flight suit redesigned so she could be permanently attached to me; she would become the youngest co-pilot in history. Supersonic Baby.
And on that thought, my eyes snapped open. “You knew she was going to do this,” I accused my husband. “That wasn’t just a lucky guess, was it? You knew.”
“Maybe.” He looked guarded. “I honestly don’t know, Sim. I’m feeling something I’ve never felt before, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like I’m part of something brand new – I can’t see it, or hear it, but I can feel it and I understand it.”
“The Mysteron Consciousness? Caitlin has it and she’s passing it to you?”
“Not passing; channelling,” he said. “Something like that. But it’s fine, Sim. It’s not malevolent, it’s good. It’s peace. Whoever..... Whatever our daughter is, she’s not a threat to us. I know her... in a way, she’s me.”
Oh, boy, I thought. A peace that passeth all understanding. I had no idea why that popped into my head.
“What do we say?” I asked. “Who do we tell?”
“No one,” he said quietly. “Not yet, anyway. Let’s keep this to ourselves for now. We’ll see what happens next.”
See what happens next. That was a loaded phrase. I looked at the baby who was still nursing, her eyes firmly fixed on my face.
Who are you, little girl? My October child, born on All Hallows Eve, that traditional time when the lines between worlds are supposed to overlap. Was there some significance in that? Or was it just my imagination on overdrive again?
Two Mysterons and Me. It could have been the title of a movie; way better than ‘Three Men and a Baby’, I thought. Perhaps someone would write it one day.