by Robert N. Stephenson
I feel sick. Data-flow stains my hands, my clothes and pain still throbs through my body. The baby kicks, again. We are both alive. John stands by the barn door, watching. He must have carried me through the night. I don’t remember walking; I don’t remember arriving in this place. The cold is leaving me and I need to pee. “John?”
He turns and looks at me. By the light coming through the edges of the door it is day. Few, if anyone, will pursue us under the burning sun. John leaves the door, slowly walks to me and sits on the straw at my side. I see his face, scratched, his shirt is ripped and his chest bleeding; fresh Data-flow bubbles to the surface.
“You’re hurt,” I say, feeling stupid for stating the obvious.
“Not bad,” he says, touching my large belly. “More importantly, how are you?” He looks tired, ready to collapse.
“The baby is kicking, my back hurts and I need to pee.”
“I take that as a good sign,” he laughs. “You can go in that stall in the corner.” He points. It looks dark, but I really need to go.
The relief on my bladder is welcomed and the pain is abating somewhat. I can’t get Delaware’s scream out of my head. His face, contorted with rage and pain, dances before me in the darkened corner of the barn.
“We need to work out what to do when it becomes time for relief from the data,” John says.
I wipe myself with some straw. We will die without the Takers. “We have to go back?” I say, fearing for my baby.
“I don’t know, honey,” John says. I see him stand, stretching. “I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”
“They came this way.” I hear the voice on the other side of the wall.
I move toward John, but he too has heard and meets me in front of the stall. With his hand in my back he steers me to a hatch at the rear of the barn. He puts his finger to my lips then carefully opens the small door. It creaks. My heart stops. I’m holding my breath.
“You try the house, I’ll check the barn.” The voices are now at the front of the barn. I don’t recognise them.
John steps out into the sunlight. I see him cringe and try to shield his eyes. He pulls me out throwing a blanket over me. The darkness is welcoming but the smell is awful.
He leads me slowly, all I can see is the ground, I try not to stumble but it is difficult. The ground is covered in sticks, uneven. John pulls me along, faster but as the ground becomes hillier he slows. The sun must be awful for him. I can hear his gasping and moans.
My baby stirs, my back aches. I need rest but dare not say anything lest someone hear me. John’s grip on my arm is weakening. He stumbles and I fall on top of him. Quickly I cover him with the blanket, we lie together breathing hard, not speaking; finding relief in the safety of darkness.
“There is a ditch a few yards away,” John says. His voice is strained. “Crawl this way.” He lifts the blanket and briefly shows the way. The sun is bright; it hurts my eyes.
“Not without you,” I say.
“No choice, love.” He hugs me. I cry. I don’t want him to leave me.
“We can escape together; hide out until dark,” I offer.
“There isn’t time. I am dying, Helen.”
“No! You just need rest. We can rest in the ditch, you and me...”
“Helen.” His voice is firm. Both of his hands find my face and he holds on tight. “The sun has done something to me, changed the Data-flow. Helen,” he says softly, “please, just this once, do what I ask. Please,” John begs. He eases away from me and slides from under the blanket. “Head to the ditch, hide there until nightfall. I love you, Helen.” That is the last I hear from him.
The ground is rough on my knees, but I can’t stand, the pain in my back is growing. The smell of the blanket, probably from a horse, no longer bothers me. I fight against panic. I think I’m headed in the wrong direction.
“He must have come from this way.” I hear the voice. My heart stops. They’ve found John. “You follow the path back to the house. I’ll search through the trees.” I have to move.
Crawling as fast as I can manage, letting the sticks and small stones rip at my hands and knees I head in the direction John has told me. I can hear running feet. I have to find the ditch.
The sun burns for a few seconds as I roll and bump against something hard. When I come to rest I find myself in water; mud. I edge toward the side of the ditch, feeling my way. I press myself into the bank making sure the blanket covers me in complete darkness. The baby kicks and I stifle a cry.
“Not now, not now,” I whisper as I rub my bulging tummy. A gush of fluid escapes between my legs; I bite my lip. The pressure builds and tears sting my eyes. “Not now!”
Again the pain, harder, stronger. I want to push.
“Over here,” I hear the call.
* * *
The bed is soft, warm and I snuggle into the pillow, feeling its crispness, its coolness against my face. Where am I? I open my eyes to stare at a blank wall. I am in half light, in a room. In that moment I can’t move, can’t breathe. Carefully I slide my right had to where my stomach is. I find it bandaged and tender. My baby? They’ve removed my baby.
“I know you are awake, Helen,” a male says. “You have been live-linked into your bed, the monitor tells us everything.”
Turning is painful, difficult, but no one comes forward to help. Once on my back and the dull illumination of the ceiling settles into view, I dare to turn my head fully to the right. “Where’s my baby? What have you done with John?” I can barely whisper my anger.
“John has died,” the shadowed man says. The shadows hide his face, his colours.
“You killed him,” I say, needing water to ease my throat.
“The sun killed him, Helen. We found him too late, we almost found you too late.” The man stands, but still remains hidden. “You would have died without the Takers.”
“My baby, what have you done?”
“Isaac is well.”
“Isaac?” I want to yell but my stomach hurts. “Who called him Isaac!?” Now I was angry.
“That is what he has named himself.” He steps from the shadows, a wide smile on his face, his razor teeth gleaming white.
“Hello, Helen,” he says as he sits on the edge of the bed beside me. I want to move away but can’t. “You saved my existence by chance and I am now returning that favour.”
“What is happening?” I cry. “I don’t understand. Where is my baby, what have you done to him?” Delaware grips my hand, his touch cold but firm. I want to cry for John but I’m confused; frustrated.
“Your pregnancy changed the Data-flow in you, the foetus altered the information pathways in your node filament and in doing so altered the Data-flow I collected and processed.” He pulls back his hair and displays a circular tattoo on his neck. The place where I plunged the knife.
“But I killed you,” I say, “I saw you die.”
“We cannot die in the manner of humans,” he says letting his hair fall over the tattoo. “Where I thought I was to die your actions released me from one existence into another. As I have said, by chance you have created a new beginning for the Takers.”
“I want to see my baby,” I ask. “Is he all right, is he human?” The fear of my child being malformed rises quickly in me. “Is my baby all right?” I grip Delaware’s hand.
“Isaac is fine, though not quite what you would call human.”
“What do you mean? Oh God! Oh God...”
“Helen,” Delaware says with a short tug on my arm. “He is fine. He was born with an information node and network already in place, he needs no implants. He is smart, perhaps as knowledgeable as a ten-year old human boy.”
I cry. “My baby is a freak!”
“Isaac is a baby,” Delaware says, “and will still need mothering in pretty much the same way a human child will.” Delaware releases my hand and stands. “But, Helen, he is a Taker in a sense, one of us.”
“Will I be allowed to keep him?” I want to see my child.
“Yes, but you will be taken from the town and transported to our ship in the orbit of Venus. There you and Isaac will be protected and studied.”
“Studied!” I feel anger. “I don’t want to be studied; I don’t want my child to be a lab rat!”
“It is for your protection. The Takers here in town feel you and Isaac should be terminated.” He bowed his head. “They think that I have already terminated John.”
I stare at him and I can see now that this is not the same Delaware I had known. He is different in his manner, less formal in stance and movement.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask, fighting against the pain to sit slightly in my bed. Delaware stacks a few pillows behind my back.
“The pregnancy altered the Data-flow and thus me. I no longer need to feed to absorb information, Helen. Do you know what this means to my race?”
“Can I see my baby, now, please?”
“Soon, soon,” Delaware says, sounding annoyed. “Your son, Isaac has given us hope, a hope we never dreamed of before, Helen.” He says my name with reverence.
“You’re scaring me, Delaware,” I say.
“I have survived the contamination of new life.” He stands straighter, with pride. “I am now unique amongst my kind, and it will be Isaac who will, in the end, allow us to live independent of another life form.”
“What are you going to do with my child?” I am frightened, but the pain of my c-section is greater. I can’t jump from my bed. I can’t rescue my baby.
“Nothing,” he says. I relax a little; I see resignation in his face. “We will do some tests of course, but other than that, nothing. He is precious, precious to us both.”
“And me?” I ask. “What is to happen with me?”
“We still have some tests to do on you, but you haven’t changed as I have and so will need to remain in the data collection program,” he says plainly. “But you will be with your son through his life, though it will not be here. I have no say with my people on this and those in town do not know what has happened to me. To them I am still just Delaware.”
I want to see my child. Delaware looks at me briefly and nods once. It appears some kind of agreement has been forged between us, but I still don’t understand.
A nurse walks into the room wheeling a clear plastic crib, the lights of its network terminal illuminating the darkened surroundings. A lump forms in my throat as I press my fingertips to my mouth. I am shaking.
“Your son, Helen.” Delaware waits for the nurse to leave before saying more. “He is more like us than you may wish, but he is your son nonetheless.”
I think of John and cannot hold back the tears.
“The women in town will be permitted to have children, now,” Delaware says, “and in time you and I will guide them along this new path.” He pats my foot, then quietly leaves the room.
I look into the crib. The baby is all pink, wrapped tight in his hospital blanket of blue bunnies. He is asleep. He is beautiful. I reach down and stroke his cheek, feeling the silkiness of his skin. He has John’s nose and lips.
My head begins to ache and I rub at the pain in my neck. I am startled to see a toddler with dark hair and darker eyes sitting on the end of my bed. The child smiles with pointed teeth. “Hello, Mommy. I’m Isaac.”
Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson