These are works of fiction, and the views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors. Likewise, certain characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors’ imaginations, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Published by White Star Press
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Copyright © 2015 by Teyla Branton
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Printed in the United States of America
Year of first electronic printing: 2015
MADDY KNOWS SHE CAN’T GIVE her scientist husband the one thing he really wants—an heir with his genes and genius. Or can she? Nonomine offers them the chance they’ve both been waiting for, even if it means living at nine times the normal human rate. But when things start to go wrong, the price they must pay is more than either of them ever dreamed.
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LINDON STEPPED OFF THE FIVE o’clock shuttle with that look in his eyes, as he had every so often since their marriage nine years ago, but Maddy wasn’t putting up with it. “No,” she said before he could speak. “The answer is no. I won’t do it.”
His gray eyes glinted like fluid steel, and his beard-shadowed face hardened. He shrugged off the long white jacket he wore to work at the lab each day, tossed it into the cleaning unit embedded in the wall inside the front closet, and put his arms around her rigid body. Maddy watched over his shoulder as the shuttle flew away into the warm California night air and the automatic door on their private port slid shut.
“You know I can’t,” her voice was softer this time but still resolute. “Why bring it up again?” It had been a year since his last plea, and she’d hoped he had resigned himself to her decision. Each request stole another slice of her determination.
“Hear me out. It’s different this time.”
The suppressed excitement in his voice made her stare. He seriously expected her to change her mind. “We’ve been through this,” she said. “You knew about it before we married. How many times are we going to revisit the issue? Besides, you always accepted Stewart as your son. Why do you need another child?”
Lindon sighed as he released her, a hand running through his longish brown hair. His unruly, casual look was one of the things that had most attract her to him when they’d met at an earth preservation rally over a decade ago. “I guess I thought you’d change your mind, or that your so-called biological clock would convince you to try again.”
“Well, I’m thirty-eight and it hasn’t ticked once.” The words were a lie. She wanted Lindon’s child, had dreamed about it for years. But always looming in opposition was the terrifying memory of how her body had reacted when she was carrying Stewart.
She’d been a young twenty-two and in her first marriage, an ill-fated one to Phil Jacobs, Stewart’s father. After a brief week of happiness following conception, she learned the rare genetic deviation that caused her to be allergic to almost everything was also rebelling at the baby’s presence. She spent the next six months in bed—in violent, agonizing pain. Fearing for her life and having little hope for the baby, the doctors urged abortion from the third month, but Phil cajoled, begged, and even threatened her with a court order to make her continue the pregnancy. In the end, after seeing her son on the ultrasound, Maddy knew that ending the pregnancy would break her heart far more than Phil ever had, but she also knew that choosing not to abort would cost her life.
So she prepared to die. In her darkest moments, she cursed Phil for wanting a child more than he wanted her.
When her body went into cardiac arrest almost three months before term, no one was more surprised than she was when a team of physicians were able to save both her and her son.
There was no saving her marriage. She couldn’t forgive Phil for his indifference and lack of support, and he couldn’t forgive the fact that she loved Stewart more than she had ever loved him. They were divorced within the year.
Her nose twitched. I must look at the air filter, she thought with a remote part of her brain. Something must be caught in it. I don’t want to have a reaction.
“Let’s adopt,” she said to Lindon. “What about the orphans from the Moon colony? I saw them on the vidscreen yesterday. We could petition to—” She broke off at Lindon’s impatient grunt.
“I don’t want to adopt,” Lindon said. “Not yet anyway. I love you, and I want a child who looks like you—like us.”
“You want to pass along your genes you mean.” The words would hurt him, but she was feeling too wounded herself to care. Maybe if Lindon hadn’t been one of the most renowned research gynecologists in the world, he wouldn’t be so obsessed with making her body do what he wanted. “Well, he’d have my genes too—do you want to condemn him to that?” She turned from his stare and gazed through the transparent wall that looked out over the ocean behind their house. She loved the location, and she walked on the beach at least once a week, even if it meant wearing a film of Protect-a-Skin. The Skin was thin enough that she could feel the sand between her toes.
“You know we can make sure our child doesn’t get that gene. Besides, Stewart doesn’t have allergies.”
She whirled on him. “Leave Stewart out of it! The real issue is me, and you know it. This time I could die. The doctors said there was a ninety-nine percent chance of recurrence—your own testing confirmed that. And don’t give me another spiel about medical advancements. You and I both know they won’t make a difference. Not enough of one anyway.” She turned away again, walking toward her office with long, angry strides.
“Maddy, just listen!”
But she couldn’t. Would he finally dissolve their marriage now that she couldn’t give him what he wanted? The thought distressed her, yet there was also relief. The sword that had hung constantly above her head would fall and pierce her heart, but she would live on. And there was always Stewart.
He caught up to her and put his hands on her shoulders. Strong, warm hands that were usually comforting. Today they felt cold.
“Maddy, honey, I know how pregnancy was for you. I also know you want another child as much as I do. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been working so much overtime the past couple of years.”
Maddy turned slowly, drawing her brows together tightly as she studied her husband. What did his work have to do with their having a baby?
His hands dropped to his side. “A month. Only a month,” he said into the silence. “It won’t take nine.”
She smirked. “Only a month? To have a baby? Well then by all means, let’s have two. Or maybe six.”
He ignored her flippancy. “I’ve done it, Maddy. It’s taken me a decade of hard work and a hundred false starts, but I’ve done it! Dan and I have tested it over and over and it works. We can have a baby in one month.”
The laughter died in Maddy’s throat. “That’s what you’ve been working on?” She felt a level of betrayal that she couldn’t even name. Before their marriage, Lindon and his team of talented specialists had been given a government grant to study the issues of aging and metabolism. But neither subject was related to pregnancy—or so she had thought. Lately he had been more involved in his work, and it bothered her that he’d stopped talking about new discoveries that he’d once been so eager to share.
“Well, it wasn’t the idea we started with,” Lindon said, “but about eight years ago, we realized that our research into metabolism could have other implications.” He paused, his face flushing a dark red that told her more than words how much this meant to him. “At first I didn’t want to hope. But I’m sure now.”
Maddy’s sense of betrayal was fading, but she couldn’t find her voice. Stewart had been her miracle; she had never expected another.
Lindon’s smile was hesitant. “One month is different than nine. For one month we’ll be able to control your symptoms.”
She hated the way his heart seemed to be in his eyes. Or was that her heart? “Only one month? How is that possible?”
He dared to touch her again, his hand closing around hers. “We’ve come up with a drug that increases the metabolism. During the early twenty-first century similar drugs were used for weight loss. They achieved quite a bit of success, despite the side effects.”
“Side effects?” Maddy stiffened. “I have a deadline. I don’t have time for nonsense.” Pulling from him, she stalked down the corridor to her study where her computer waited blankly.
“Maddy!” Lindon called, but she didn’t falter.
She sat on her high-backed chair made of the finest black synthetic leather, the kind that cost ten times more than the real thing and that wore even better. Seven years old now and it still looked new.
One month? Side effects? She knew Lindon wanted a son, but that he might ask her to risk her health with an experimental drug was beyond belief. He wasn’t like Phil—or so she had thought.
“On, computer,” she said tersely. The oversized screen on the wall sprang to life exactly where she had left off a short time before, but she didn’t begin speaking the code that would eventually become part of a new architectural program she was designing. Her expression reflected from the dark glass, pursed lips and narrowed eyes full of—fear?
Lindon drew up another chair and sat close, resting a hand on her knee. “Don’t be angry, honey. Listen to what I’m saying. There are no serious side effects with Nonomine—that’s what we call the drug. Absolutely none. We’ve done the tests on animals, and we’ve had no lung failure, brain hemorrhaging, or any of the other problems that marked our experiments with other drugs. Nonomine has mild side effects, to be sure, but nothing we can’t easily handle. And this isn’t the only application. We believe low dosages will extend quality of life, if not add years to life expectancy. It’s really two sides of the same coin. Enough helps the body remain stronger for longer. More speeds it up, spending the years faster. It’s a matter of dosage for the purpose we intend.”
A compartment in the wall opened, triggered by her sitting in the chair, and a tray with her favorite foamleaf tea, one of the prime exports of the Zeppay Moon Colony, came within reach. From habit she took the steaming mug and set it on the side table next to her chair, the aroma of rich earth filling her nose. Her mouth watered, but the action did nothing for the sudden dryness in her throat.
“Three years ago we got permission to start limited testing on humans,” Lindon continue. “We now have thirty-four babies whose gestation period was slightly less than one month. In each of the test cases, the mother’s metabolism returned to normal after the births. Four of the mothers had twins, born three to five days early, and in five cases, the mothers actually went through the drug program twice and had two pregnancies within an eight-month period. There is no abnormality in any of the children, and according to Dan, they are developing as well as or better than children who are gestated normally. I’m not on that end of it, but Dan assures me it’s true. The point is we now have thirty-four children, each born in one month with next to no complications during or after pregnancy.”
The dryness in Maddy’s mouth deepened. Her heart pounded in her ears. Hope was sometimes a deadly thing. “Isn’t the speeded up rate of growth dangerous for the baby? And the mother?”
“Actually, our data indicates that it’s less risky for both fetus and the mother. You see, the mother actually is nine months older. She has aged just as she would have in any other nine months, but with less danger of falling, of being exposed to diseases, stress, etc. And the baby is less likely to be strangled by the cord or be damaged by a host of other internal accidents simply because he’s in the womb a shorter time. In the end, it’s actually safer to have your baby with Nonomine.”
“Yet the woman is still nine months older. She’s lost eight months of her life. Most women I know don’t want to lose a day, much less months.”
“But her body hasn’t been through all of the stress it would have in those extra eight months. She feels the entire strain of pregnancy, of course, but not all of the outside influences she would normally endure during those nine months—heat, tension, gravity, even cosmetics use—that add to the aging process. With these things out of the picture, we figure that it won’t really shorten a woman’s life all that much, and when it’s over she’ll have her baby.” Lindon fell silent, his eyes holding hers, compelling, pleading.
She sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before? Why today? Why not three years ago?”
“Next week Stewart is going to stay with his father for the summer. And we have an opening for a potential mother. I’ve wanted to tell you, even at the risk of losing my grant, but not until I was absolutely sure it was right for us. I didn’t want to get your hopes up, and every time we talked about it before, I really didn’t have all the answers. I feel I do now. Please, just think about it.”
She looked away. He had been preoccupied of late, but she hadn’t questioned him, fearing that he would bring up the possibility of having a baby and that she would have to say no.
“You said there were mild side effects,” she said, staring not at him but at the foamleaf tea. How did it get in her hand? She couldn’t remember picking it up. “What kind?”
Lindon leaned back in his chair, slipping into what Maddy recognized as his teaching mode. “Swelling mostly, and some leakage of amniotic fluid because of the rapid increase in volume, but we’ve found a way to counter both problems. For safety, the women have to live at the clinic during the month so they can be monitored. That’s why I thought it’d be good to do it when Stewart is with his dad, though he can certainly visit. I—I’ve even had special air filters installed, like those we have here, and the women aren’t allowed to use any sprays or perfume that might cause allergic reactions.”
Because of me, Maddy thought. Lindon might not be aware of it himself, but she understood that the direction his research had taken was entirely because of her. “What about people with my condition?” She saw the hot flare of hope in his eyes and the look seared her.
“Ten of the women have had previous difficult pregnancies similar to yours, though only two cases were as severe. It was hard to find even that many, but I insisted on including them. There was no use in discovering something that wouldn’t also help those who really need it.”
His smile grew large. “Each came through well. One of the mothers with allergies like yours gave birth last week and the other one today. It was incredible!”
So that was why he’d approached her now. Two women like her were new mothers because of his work. He wants it to be us. “But the sickness—”
He leaned forward again, his eyes bright. “It seems Nonomine has the good side effect of stifling the normal sickness in pregnancy, and it works for cases like yours that are normally resistant to medicines. In fact, those two particular mothers only had difficulties with sickness during the last week of the pregnancy.” He shook a finger. “One week!”
One week of agony. Would it be worth it? In her mind Maddy saw Stewart as he had been when they had finally placed him in her arms, so tiny, helpless, and all hers. An unexpected rush of warmth overwhelmed her.
There were tears in her eyes as she looked up at Lindon. “What’s a week?” she said softly.
He smiled in triumph and held her face between his hands. His touch was gentle. “You won’t regret it, you’ll see,” he said.
But Maddy already knew. Heaven help her, it had been worth it before. Almost dying had been worth Stewart. She couldn’t explain it, not even to herself, but it was true.
SHE SHOULD HAVE BEEN HERE by now. Lindon paced the corridor in front of the lab’s shuttleport. Where is she? Has she changed her mind? He knew how difficult the decision had been for her, even in the face of his great discovery.
She was so beautiful, his red-haired Maddy. From the moment he’d spotted her at the Save the Earth rally, with a ring of flowers circling her forehead like some kind of primitive crown, he had loved her. He hadn’t been close enough to see the shine of the Protect-a-Skin layer over her exposed flesh, or to see that the flowers were synthetic, but later when he had, she only intrigued him more. It had almost surprised him that she felt as equally attracted to him, the plain man who had always been isolated by his obsessions and futuristic dreams. She had awakened something profound inside him, and over the years, their relationship had rounded and filled in any gaps until he could not imagine existing without her at his side. Only one thing marred the perfection—the lack of a child, an heir, someone who would follow in his footsteps.
Her son Stewart had filled that need for a time, but as he’d grown, his curiosity about his biological father had surfaced, and now he spent the summers and weekends with Phil. It was Phil who went with Stewart on fishing trips, took him mountain climbing, and was now passing to Stewart his profession of archeology. More and more the fifteen-year-old lived in the past instead of looking forward to discoveries of the future. The mindset completely escaped Lindon.
It would be different with his own son. The genes of his talent would be passed on. His son would have Maddy’s passionate beauty and his own thirst for new knowledge. Or maybe Maddy’s computer expertise. He would be a product of the future. Or even if the gene selection failed, the boy would at least go fishing and camping and skiing with Lindon and not with Phil.
The low hum of an incoming shuttle made Lindon look up, and he forced his taut body to relax. Maddy stepped out of the double metallic doors, her high-heels clicking against the synthetic surface of the landing pad. She moved slowly, almost reluctantly. Her mass of hair, reaching to her shoulders, framed an unnaturally pale face, and the wide, brown eyes showed her dread, yet the set of her jaw was firm.
“I’m sorry I’m late. The shuttle had a delay, and I couldn’t just let Stewart fly to India without seeing him off personally. I know it’s only a short flight but—”
“You should have let him go alone,” Lindon said. “He’s old enough.”
She sighed. “I know, but it’s always hard for me. I wish Phil would find something closer to study. If anything happened to Stewart . . .”
Lindon softened because he loved Stewart too. “We’ll call him later. That’s almost as good as being there.”
Holding out a hand for the suitcase she carried, he led her down a tunnel-like hall to the sterile operating room where several of his assistants waited expectantly. At the door, Lindon passed the suitcase to the hovering lodging supervisor and put his arms around Maddy. Her trembling body felt small in his embrace.
“Come on,” he said gently. “It won’t be long now.”
“Not exactly a romantic way to get pregnant,” she murmured.
The two female assistants laughed as if they hadn’t heard the joke a hundred times before and sent Maddy into the shower to remove the Protect-a-Skin film she always wore on the rare occasions she left their home. Lindon waited until she was lying down on the operating table, her hair still slightly damp, before retrieving his son from the cyropreservation unit and placing him on the warming plate to thaw.
His son! Inside the glass tube, the cells that would eventually form a baby resumed dividing at an incredible pace for all that it was still at normal speed. Not until the cells were placed in Maddy’s body would they increase their growth rate by nine times. Since yesterday, Maddy had been receiving the Nonomine and would continue to do so three times a day until their son was born.
Maddy had suggested a daughter, but he had been adamant. Time enough for a daughter after this pregnancy was successful. No, the first had to be a boy to carry on the family name. Only X sperm had been placed with Maddy’s eggs—the sperm separated in a way much more efficient and fail proof than the old spin method—but that was only one reason the conception had been done at the lab, instead of in the conventional way. Preselection had also given them the ability to choose the color of his hair and his basic inclinations, and at the same time they weeded out potential for disease and allergies. Lindon hadn’t been exaggerating when he said the baby would look like Maddy, only taller and more masculine. Better still, this child would cherish his parents’ dreams. In return, they would give him life and all of their love.
“YOU DIDN’T TELL ME I’d be so hungry,” Maddy said to Lindon three days into the pregnancy. On the table in the cafeteria, her tray brimmed with second-helpings of everything, even cooked carrots which she normally didn’t like.
“Look at the bright side.” Lindon stole a piece of codfish from her plate. “You can’t eat enough to get fat.”
She laughed. “But the baby’s getting plenty, isn’t he?”
“Of course.” He pointed at the catheter in Maddy’s left wrist where a tiny tube ran up her arm and dangled from her shoulder. He picked up the end of the tub and plugged it into the wall behind them. “As long as you remember to keep hooking this up as you go from room to room.”
“It makes me feel chained to the walls.”
“Sorry, that’s something you have to live with. The nutritional tablets we’ve come up with just don’t do it like the IV.”
“I know.” She stuck a carrot in her mouth and sighed.
“What is it?”
“I’m craving pickles again.”
Lindon loved the way her nose wrinkled as she said it. He stood. “I’ll go get some.”
“And bring a chocolate cake. I might as well try to enjoy myself.”
He returned shortly with a jar of dill pickles and a large piece of double layer chocolate cake—synthetic chocolate, of course, because of her allergy to the real thing. Maddy grinned as she reached into the jar with her fork. He wanted to reach out and hold her close, kissing her the way he had on that first day they’d met, but kissing was often difficult for ordinary women in the first trimester of pregnancy. So far she’d shown no signs of illness, and he wanted to keep it that way.
He stayed with her while she ate the entire jar of pickles, followed by most of the cake. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Mmm. Ice cream. That non-dairy kind is okay, I guess. Wish the other didn’t give me hives. And beef jerky would be nice. Maybe a couple of oranges?”
Lindon laughed. “Are you sure you took your supplements this morning?” If he hadn’t seen this kind of appetite before with the other test subjects, he wouldn’t have believed that she—or anyone—was capable of eating so much.
“Yes.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, forget the ice cream. Time to grease up now.” She grabbed a handful of salted soy nuts—the only nuts she wasn’t allergic to—from her pocket and ate them as they left the cafeteria.
In the examination room, Lindon excused the nurse. “I’ll do it myself.” Sexual intimacy with Maddy was put on hold during this month, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to touch her at least this much.
Maddy lifted her shirt and flakes of dry, dead skin floated to the ground like a flurry of snowflakes. “I feel like a lizard shedding my skin.”
He brushed more flakes from her skin. “That’s exactly what you’re doing—at nine times the normal rate.” He squeezed a handful of warmed cream and helped her rub it into her stomach area. The women had to undergo this procedure three times a day to prepare their skin for the rapid stretching that would soon occur.
Maddy groaned suddenly.
“What? Are you feeling sick?” he asked, knowing worry tinged his voice.
“No, but look at this. I’m going bald.” She ran her fingers through her hair and came out with a handful of loose hair.
He took the hair and placed it in the waste chute next to the wall. “No, you’re just shedding hair at—”
“At nine times the normal rate. I know. I think it already looks longer. Are we about done? I’d like more pickles.”
He smiled. “It’s time for your exercise session. And then your nap.”
“Seven naps a day,” she grumbled, unplugging her IV from the wall. “You’d think I was a baby.”
“Hey, it should be nine naps.”
She gave him a farewell kiss and headed for the gym, reaching for another handful of soy nuts.
After the first week of Maddy’s pregnancy, Lindon moved in with her at the clinic, hating the empty house on the coast and the fifteen minute shuttle commute. Why should he go home when everything precious to him was at the clinic? Well, besides Stewart, who was busy with his father in India. The closeness between Lindon and Maddy was like in the early days of their marriage—except the lack of sex. Maddy laughed at his determination to follow the program rules, and sometimes she drove him to distraction, but he would do it all again a thousand times to see her this happy. She began planning excitedly for the baby’s birth and already ordered more outfits than any baby would ever be able to wear.
The end of the second week marked the halfway point. With the exception of several minor bouts of nausea each day, Maddy hadn’t been ill. Her mood swings became more noticeable, though, and her fear still lurked under her contentment.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for something bad to happen,” she confessed.
But everything was proceeding normally. Though Maddy was thinner than Lindon liked to see her, she had gained adequate weight, and daily ultrasounds revealed that their son was in excellent health.
“You just need more ice cream,” he replied, taking her hand. “Come on. I ordered a new kind.”
In her third week of pregnancy, Stewart came for an overnight visit at the clinic when his father had a business meeting in the States. The teen sat with Maddy and Lindon on the couch in their suite at the clinic, watching some old movie he picked out on the vidscreen. Maddy was clipping her nails in a little garbage can, as she did every day, an annoying task, but her spirits were high. She couldn’t believe she was almost through the pregnancy. In less than ten days, she’d be holding her little boy. She didn’t doubt for a moment that she’d love him every bit as much as she loved Stewart.
“You look so different, Mom,” Stewart said, turning his dark head in her direction for the hundredth time. “And it’s only been a few weeks.”
“I’m fatter.” She smoothed her belly that jutted awkwardly from her thin frame. The skin was itching again, and she’d have to rub in more ointment soon.
He titled his head, studying her. “No, I think it’s mostly your hair. It’s long now—and redder too. It reminds me of watching our old home movies from when I was little.”
On her other side, Lindon laughed. “The color looks the same to me, but he’s right about the length. It looks like when we first met.”
Maddy shrugged. “Well, it’s no use cutting it now. Not until after.”
“Maybe you’ll keep it long,” Lindon said in a voice that told her he liked her new look.
“It might be easier with it long enough for a ponytail,” she conceded. “Especially taking care of the baby.”
“What are we going to call him anyway?” Stewart said. “We can’t keep calling him baby.”
“We’ve been talking about naming him Michael after Lindon’s dad. How do you like that?” As Maddy spoke, her son’s smile faltered. “You don’t like it?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s good.”
“Then what’s the problem? You are okay about the baby, aren’t you?”
Stewart’s smile returned. “Are you kidding? I can’t wait! It’s just that I wish I didn’t have to go back to Dad’s now. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Lindon said. “They don’t grow all that fast, and we’ll make sure you get to see him. No matter what, you’ll always be his big brother—and a great one at that. Michael’s going to worship you.”
Stewart was content at that, and Maddy cast Lindon a thankful glance, but he didn’t appear to see it as he arose and went over to his briefcase. “All this talk reminds me of something I brought from home yesterday when I stopped by.” He pulled out a chain of synthetic flowers. “Remember these?”
Maddy’s heart melted. She remembered them too well. She’d worn the crown of white flowers the first day they’d met and also on their wedding day. Lindon settled them around her head.
Stewart laughed. “That’s perfect. You look great, Mom.”
“Beautiful,” Lindon agreed.
Maddy sat between her men, thinking that nothing could ever be as perfect as this moment.
It was even okay that she was just starting to feel a tiny bit sick.
AT THE START OF THE FOURTH week, Maddy’s smile dimmed, then ceased altogether. She began throwing up all her food, and only two continuous IVs sustained her. Splotchy red rashes appeared on her skin. Cramps ripped through her body, and she experienced severe swelling in her face and extremities. Her red hair lost its sheen, and her eyes no longer sparkled. Her face was drawn and weary.
Lindon loved her even more. “I want someone with her at all times,” he ordered his assistants.
At first he found himself neglecting his regular duties to stay with her, fearing for her life. Drugs helped ease the pain, but the allergic symptoms relentlessly battered at her failing body. Her case baffled him, and once or twice he found himself doubting his ability to get her through. He tried to suppress his feelings but knew that she could feel the fear radiating from him. More and more, he found excuses to leave her bedside, if only for a few minutes at a time.
“Don’t leave me,” she pleaded four days before her due date. Her dark, pain-filled eyes were a sickening contrast against her pallid complexion.
“I should check on the other mothers.”
“Let someone else.”
He gave in, knowing he had no right to refuse her anything. She was here because of his desire for a child. His pride in his own genius had convinced him she would be all right; now he wasn’t sure if he could deliver his promise. The thought terrified him. Maddy was his life. He couldn’t live without her.
He held her hand. “Let’s take the baby early.”
“No. There might be complications.” She fought to give him a smile. “Didn’t you listen during that pre-pregnancy class? The one taught by a wonderful doctor named Lindon.”
Tenderness filled his heart. “Maddy, I love our son more than I can say. But you . . . you’re my life. I’m so sorry.”
“I know.” She smiled again as her hand caressed his face, and for a brief instant, a hint of her normal color was back. The next second she began convulsing violently. Her eyes rolled up in her head, and her face grew still. Startled, Lindon leapt to check her pulse. It was there, but faint and growing fainter with each second. He hit the red emergency button near the bed, calculating the terrible seconds before a crew could race to their suite. With fumbling hands, he gave her an injection from the emergency bag they kept in every room.
His assistants arrived, followed shortly by Dan, his partner. Lindon bellowed orders mechanically, allowing the trained part of him to take over. Yet behind the calm exterior and able hands, a burning agony of guilt exploded inside him. What had he done? How could he have hurt her this way? He should have researched more. He shouldn’t have been so impatient.
“She’s going to be all right,” said Dan, glancing up from the monitor where he watched the vital signs of both mother and baby. “Look, her heart rate’s coming back up.”
Lindon tasted grit in his mouth and said nothing. When Maddy was finally stabilized, he wheeled her to the operating room and prepared to take the baby.
“But she’s all right now,” Dan protested. “And the ultrasound confirms your son isn’t in immediate danger. Think about it. Four days early means thirty-six days. Is that a risk we want to take?” As the top pediatrician on the team, he always looked out for the interests of the baby.
“The baby’s old enough to live on his own,” Lindon grated. “Maddy might not. I won’t allow her to go through any more. She’s been the worse yet of all the women with her condition, and we can’t risk her. I won’t risk her. She’s my wife.” He didn’t care that his voice broke on the words. “Please, will you help me?”
Dan studied him for a long moment before nodding slowly. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
Lindon held his breath a few minutes later as he lifted his son from the dark cradle of Maddy’s womb. “Look at him!” An unidentifiable feeling of heat surged through Lindon’s entire body. “Hey there, little guy. I’m your dad.” He wiped the blood from the baby’s face with a soft sterile tissue, and suctioned out his mouth and nose. The miniature features screwed together tightly and breathlessly for a few seconds before the newborn let out a healthy squall.
“Give him to me,” Dan said, his hands outstretched.
“Oh, yeah.” Lindon allowed his partner to take the baby to the waiting bassinet for examination while he removed the placenta and stitched the gaping hole in Maddy’s lower abdomen.
By the time he was finished, Dan was ready to place the baby in his arms. “We’re going to need to keep a close eye on him. But he’s a strong little fellow. Congratulations.”
Hours later, Maddy’s eyelids fluttered as she fought for consciousness. “Lindon?” she groaned.
“Here,” he said, reaching out to caress her hand. They were alone and once again in her private suite.
“You passed out. But you’re okay now.”
Her hand went instinctively to her flattened belly, her eyes widening with fear. “The baby! Where’s Michael?”
Lindon stood and pushed the heated bassinet closer to the bed. With steady hands, he drew out the infant. “He’s fine. A little early, but doing great.”
“He’s so tiny!” She cuddled her son with awe.
Tears came to Lindon’s eyes. She’d risked her life to have this child, and in an instant, that sacrifice was forgotten in the miracle of life. Maybe he’d been right to insist that she have another baby. Even so, he’d never ask her for another thing as long as he lived.
“Hey, little one,” she crooned.
Lindon watched, pleased, as she continued to talk to the infant. His beautiful, professional wife had become a cooing, baby-talking mommy, just like all the other mothers at the clinic. He couldn’t blame her; he’d been doing a lot of goo-goo ga-ga-ing himself in the past hours since Michael’s birth.
All our troubles are behind us, he thought, smiling.
Maddy watched as little Michael nursed at her breast. She had too much milk, but Lindon assured her that was both a side effect of her enhanced metabolism and a natural occurrence of new mothers. She had to express milk every hour. “I’ll be so glad when the Nonomine is out of my system,” she said with a laugh. “Or maybe I should keep taking it. I’d be able to supply the hospitals in the entire state with all the mother’s milk they could ever need.”
The nurse, an older lady with short blonde hair, paused in gathering Maddy’s lunch tray. “Don’t joke about that,” she said with a noticeable shiver. “Living life at nine times the normal rate—that’s creepy.”
“I know.” Maddy stroked her baby’s cheek. “But look at him. He was worth it.”
“Yes, there is that. It’s just when you get to be my age, every minute counts.” The nurse smiled. “Now when you’ve come up with a way to reverse aging, I’ll gladly volunteer!”
Maddy laughed but barely noticed when the woman left the room. She couldn’t take her eyes from her perfect little boy. Little Michael brought an entirely new feeling to her heart. Though she deeply loved Stewart, he resembled his father, and when she was with him Maddy was invariably reminded of the past and of how much Phil had hurt her. With Michael, all she felt was Lindon’s love. All his work these many years had been for her, and she loved him for it.
As she stroked Michael’s cheek again, her stomach rumbled with hunger—despite the IV and the large chicken salad she’d devoured scarcely an hour before. I will be so glad when I’m back to normal.
It wasn’t until the day after Michael’s birth that Lindon’s assistant came to him with Maddy’s routine test results. Lindon stared at them for a minute before running each test again to make sure there had been no error. He called for more tests. A week passed, then another, and the results always remained the same. Lindon slumped in his chair. “Oh, Maddy,” he muttered. “What have I done?”
“WE’RE GOING HOME!” MADDY said to baby Michael. He was two weeks old, and finally they could leave the sanitary environment of the clinic. “You’re going to like your big brother,” she added. Today her sons would meet in person for the first time. Stewart was leaving his father’s archeological dig for the weekend and taking an overseas shuttle home. He might be there already. Maddy hummed as she packed her few belongings into her canvas suitcase.
She glanced up when Lindon entered the room. His face was drawn and unshaven, and he was quieter than normal. During the past week his jubilance at their baby’s birth had dimmed, until she wondered if he regretted the decision. In her complacent state she might not have noticed, but for the occasional worry that crept into her mind—worry about the baby because of the way he’d been brought into the world.
“What’s wrong?” she asked stifling the urge to bite her nails. Though she had cut them yesterday, they were long again.
Lindon shifted his weight and looked away. Hunger gnawed in the pit of her stomach. Why was she still hungry? Lindon hadn’t allowed the IV to be removed, and she was still taking her nutritional supplements. She knew most of the mothers didn’t have to do that so long after giving birth, but she’d figured Lindon was being extra careful because she hadn’t gained adequate weight during the pregnancy.
When Lindon reached for Michael, not quite meeting her gaze, she clutched the baby to her chest and took two steps backward. “What is it, Lindon?”
His jaw worked but nothing came out.
Maddy wanted to run from the room, to escape with little Michael, but she forced herself to be calm. “Is it Michael?” She glanced at the bundle in her arms. The gray eyes that so reminded her of Lindon’s stared back at her wisely, as if aware of her words, a quiet perceptiveness she’d never noticed with Stewart.
“No.” Lindon’s words came quickly. “Michael’s fine.” He reached again for the baby, and this time she relinquished her hold. Her husband smiled at Michael, and for a brief instant the grave expression on his face lightened. “He smiled at me. He did!”
“He’s bright,” she said and waited for him to say more.
Lindon laid the baby in his bassinet and then paced the room, running his hands repeatedly through his dark hair. At long last, he turned and faced her. “Your metabolism still isn’t returning to normal,” he said, spitting out the words as if they tasted bitter. “Michael’s fine, but we can’t get your system to slow back down.”
Maddy swallowed dryly, suppressing her alarm. “You told me it would. You told me I was just taking longer than the others. That all the shedding skin and hair, the hunger, the nails that won’t quit growing—you said my body was simply readjusting.”
“I’d hoped that it was. I hoped that—”
Her voice rose an octave. “Hope? You’re a doctor, a scientist. Scientists don’t hope. They make it happen.”
“Maddy,” he pleaded.
“So fix it.” She spoke slowly and without expression, enunciating each word.
“I’ve tried. I’ve given you all the drugs that should kick your metabolism back to normal, but it hasn’t made a difference. I don’t know what else to try.”
Panic fell like a shroud around Maddy, threatening to squeeze her heart till it burst. “What are you saying? That I’m going to continue aging at nine times the normal rate? Forever? Until I die?”
He didn’t answer.
“No!” she whispered.
Lindon nodded once, misery etched on his face. “It may fix itself in time, but then again—”
“Did this happen to any of the other women?”
“Of course not. Do you think I’d knowingly risk you? Most of the women returned to normal hours after giving birth. The only women who had problems at all took a few days. The longest was four days. I—I . . .” His face had paled even more. “Oh Maddy, it’s my fault! Each of the women who took more than a day to go back to normal had allergic reactions similar to yours. I should have surmised you might have a problem.”
Maddy’s emotions sprang out of control. She slapped him hard, and Lindon leaned into the blow, as if welcoming the pain. “You overlooked the possibilities because you wanted a son,” she hissed. Her fingers stung, and an angry red welt appeared across his cheek.
“Would you take him back?” he asked. She’d never heard his voice so despondent.
Maddy’s anger died. She crossed to the bassinet and ran a finger over Michael’s soft skin. The baby smiled up at her. “No, heaven help me,” she whispered, her voice sounding raw, “I wouldn’t. How could I?”
Her tears came, and Lindon wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry, Maddy. So sorry. But I’ll make it better, I swear. I won’t give up until I do.”
MADDY HAD NO HOPE LEFT. In the year since Michael’s birth, she’d aged nine. She saw her older self in the mirror, a daily reminder of her living hell. Each new wrinkle or sag threw her into deeper depression. Biologically, she was now forty-seven, older than Lindon by three years. Next year she would be fifty-six, and in five more she would be a hundred and one—which was the current median life expectancy. Michael would only be seven.
She no longer worked full-time but occupied herself with her children. They played games or watched the vidscreen. They built clay houses, erupted model volcanoes, read books, and traveled the world virtually with 4D programs in the comfort of their living room. The only time she left the house was for their long walks on the beach. She still had to wear her Protect-a-Skin to do that, but her increased metabolism seemed to help alleviate her allergy attacks before they became overwhelming. It was a silver lining that didn’t begin to cover her cloud of despair.
By contrast, Lindon practically lived at his lab, working late each day. Maddy went there every evening to see if he had any new drugs or treatments to try. So far he’d offered many, but each had failed. During the first few months, Maddy had tried not to show him how much it hurt to have her hope destroyed daily, but now that she held no hope, the inevitable failures meant nothing—except perhaps more of the awful loneliness that no one could share.
With Lindon’s constant absence, Maddy’s isolation grew. Not that her friends didn’t try. “Come with us to Portugal this evening,” they would urge. “There’s a cute little ocean-front restaurant you’ve just got to try. It’s out of the way and full of the old Portuguese culture. Men still fish in boats, and every now and then you can see a few of the working class driving automobiles.” Or “We’re going hiking for a month through the Amazon. Can’t you find a babysitter for Michael?”
Their desires seemed petty now with her life’s end looming so near. Each moment had to be lived to its fullness, and being with her boys was all important. Except now Stewart had dropped the bomb that he wanted to go live with his father—permanently.
“I can’t stand another day near Lindon,” Stewart insisted. “It’s his fault. I hate him!”
“He didn’t mean for it to happen,” Maddy protested. “And I need you here. Michael needs you too. That’s why I asked you not to visit your father this summer.”
“It hurts too much, Mom.” Stewart blinked back his tears. “You always being hooked up to that IV, never wanting to leave the house, except for the beach. And every time I look at Michael, I remember he’s the reason you’re going to die. Please, Mom. I just need to get away for a while.”
In the end she let him go, and all that she had left was Michael. He didn’t understand that she was aging or that she would soon leave him forever. The baby filled her days with his bright smile. He showed an incredible eagerness to live, to experience life. Some days it was all Maddy could do to keep up with him. He had crawled at four months, walked at seven, and now spent countless hours advancing the pages on his read-aloud computer stories, pressing the buttons with chubby fingers. He didn’t speak much yet, just the few words all babies learn, but he seemed to understand everything she said.
Maddy knew her son was special. She loved Michael in an amount equal to the sacrifice she had given for her baby. She mourned her lost life, but not even in her darkest dreams did she imagine changing the fact of Michael’s existence.
LINDON DIDN’T LOOK UP when Dan came into the lab. He couldn’t waste the time. “Lindon, I need to talk to you,” Dan said.
“You’ve been saying that for a year. I can’t be put off anymore. I have to tell you about the other children, and I want you to bring Michael in for some tests.”
Lindon turned from the vidscope and glared at his friend. “And I told you before, I won’t have my family in for any more tests. I want them to be left alone. Look at what happened the last time I tried to mix work and family. I won’t have Maddy hurt again!”
“Is he in danger? Is something wrong?”
Lindon poked his finger at Dan’s wide chest to accentuate each syllable. “Then—leave—us—alone. Now get out of here before Maddy comes. She’ll be here any minute, and I don’t want her to see you.” He returned to his work, adding another drop of the saline mixture to the view disk in the computer. Still no change in the mutating cells. He was all too aware of Dan hovering nearby, witness to one more failure. “Still here, Dan?”
His friend sighed, mouth twisting in a frown. “Look, I’m really sorry. I know it’s been hard, but my news is good, and I thought you’d like to know.”
Lindon ignored him, keeping his eyes glued to the vidscope.
“Well, here are the reports, if you ever want to look at them.” Dan slapped a thick sheaf of papers onto the table.
Lindon held his breath until Dan left the room. Then he drew away from the vidscope and sank to the chair, his head in his hands. Once again he would have to face Maddy. He would have to see the beauty fading from her face and the life from her soul and know he couldn’t do anything to stop it.
If only I had more time, he thought. There is a cure, but I don’t think she’ll live long enough for me to find it. It was something he admitted only to himself in these moments of solitary despair in the lab.
“Lindon.” Maddy’s voice came from the door.
His eyes devoured her greedily, the constant pain in his chest bursting into hot white flame. She was still beautiful to him, despite the fresh, shiny layer of Protect-a-Skin. He stood and crossed the room. “I think I’ve almost got it.” He said the same thing every night, and every night they both knew he lied.
“Daddy,” Michael said, holding out his arms.
Lindon returned the little boy’s exuberant hug. He’d worried about growing to hate the child because of the circumstances regarding his birth, but he adored Michael more than he’d imagined was possible. He was a son, an heir, a father’s immortality. But also a mother’s death. If only . . .
Michael kicked and Lindon let him down to investigate. “Now remember what I told you,” he warned, “just play with the puzzle, nothing more.” The baby smiled mischievously and toddled away.
Little Michael came every night to the lab with his mother, and he also spent time with Lindon on the rare afternoon that Maddy worked on her architectural program. His favorite game was to play with the intricate, three-dimensional puzzle of the human body that stood on a stand near the door, gaping open, interior organs, muscles, and ligaments spilling out onto the wide base. It hadn’t been together since Lindon had completed it during Maddy’s pregnancy over a year ago. He’d had to consult his anatomy books at the time.
“What was that about?” Maddy asked. “What else would he do except play with the puzzle?”
“A couple days ago while you were receiving the treatment, he got into my medical files on the main computer while I was occupied at the vidscope. I thought I’d turned it off, but I guess hadn’t.”
“Did he delete any files?”
“No, he just scrolled through the text.”
“He’s good with computers.”
Lindon knew, but Michael’s intent expression had unnerved him, and he’d put in a new password to prevent it from happening again—not that Michael had known the last one, or how to key it in. I just left the computer on, he told himself again.
“Any treatment today?” Maddy asked. Her eyes didn’t meet his. “Or shot?”
Lindon shook his head. A part of him wanted to give her something—anything—but he shied away from causing her useless pain.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “when I’m closer.” He watched Michael as he spoke; it was easier than looking at Maddy. For her the one day would be nine. Michael picked up a plastic puzzle piece and stared at it. Lindon saw it was the left ventricle of the heart, but he didn’t worry that Michael would put the small section in his mouth and choke on it. He hadn’t done that since he was a few months old.
“Let me just get some stuff into the freezer,” he said to Maddy. “It’ll take me fifteen or twenty minutes. If you don’t mind waiting, we’ll go home together. I need a few hours of sleep on a good bed. I’ll come back early in the morning.”
She checked her watch. “If you hurry, we can make the ten o’clock shuttle.”
When he returned, she was leaning back in the chair behind his desk, staring into space. She did that a lot lately. He wished he could hold her and promise to make things better, but except to give her treatments, he couldn’t bring himself to even touch her, not since he’d stolen her life.
“I’ll get Michael,” he said but stopped short. “Maddy, did you do this?” He pointed to the finished puzzle on its stand. Michael sat on the base clapping his hands and grinning his four-toothed smile.
“What? I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Maddy said listlessly.
Lindon stared at his son and then back at Maddy. “Did someone come in here?” he asked. “Maybe one of the assistants?” But how could they have done it so quickly?
She focused on him now. “No one. Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know.” An uneasy feeling came to the pit of his stomach. Michael gazed up at him innocently. Lindon took several pieces off the puzzle and handed them to Michael. Immediately, the baby returned them to their rightful place and let out a delighted squeal.
Lindon exchanged blank stares with Maddy. It just can’t be!
Michael was taking out all the pieces now, not putting them in a jumble, but laying them carefully in a pattern Lindon had seen numerous times in the past month during his own simulations on the lab computer.
Dan’s voice came back to him: I have to tell you about the other children, and I want you to bring Michael in for some tests.
For a moment, Lindon felt dizzy. Wait. The reports! He strode across the room and snatched up the sheaf of papers Dan had left earlier, scanning them rapidly. Page after page of startling information. Proof that forced him to believe. He shook his head with disbelief. “How could I have been so blind?”
“What’s wrong?” Maddy’s breath came in soft gasps. “You look shocked. What’s on those paper?”
“It’s the children,” he said.
Her eyes grew wide. “Michael’s okay, isn’t he?” Her words were forced, and she looked so pale and fragile that she’d probably faint if she tried to rise.
Dropping the papers back onto the table, Lindon grabbed Maddy, clutching her to his chest and spinning her around. “It’s going to be all right!” he shouted. “It really is!” Holding her against him with one hand, he used the other to call Dan on the computer. “Hello, Dan? Are you still there?”
Dan’s face appeared on the wide monitor, surrounded by the equipment in his lab. “I’m here.”
“We need to talk.”
“I’ll be right there.” The screen went blank.
Maddy stared at Lindon, her brown eyes glowing with a hope he hadn’t seen for six months, ever since she’d lost faith in his ability. “What is it?” Her voice was a plea.
“Look! It’s all right here,” he said, jabbing a finger at the papers.
She shook her head, gripping his waist tightly. “Just tell me! I don’t understand that medical mumbo-jumbo.”
“It’s Michael. He’s nine times ahead!”
Her face paled. “Like me?”
“No. Like as in up here, in his mind.” Lindon tapped his skull. “Dan’s been trying to tell me, but I haven’t listened. I’ve been too afraid of what he would say. These children are normal physiologically, except their brains learn faster than ours—more than nine times in some cases! Receiving the Nonomine while they were still developing changed them genetically. It’s all documented in these papers. Why wouldn’t I listen?” He hugged her tightly rubbing his face against the softness of her cheek before pulling away to explain further. “These children read before they can walk. A three-year-old just wrote a computer game because the existing ones bored her.”
“And by the time she’s five, she’ll have learned more about medicine than I will ever know,” Dan interjected from across the room. “I couldn’t believe it myself when the tests began coming in, but the proof was there, staring me in the face. I just had to wait until they were old enough to communicate it to me.” He leaned down and picked up Michael, who had lost interest in the anatomy puzzle. “Isn’t that right, Michael?” The baby giggled and chewed on his finger, a sure sign he was teething again.
Coming to stand by them, Dan set Michael on the chair in front of the main computer. “They learn as fast as I can give them knowledge—or as fast as they can find the information themselves. If anything, it’s me who’s holding them back. They derive great enjoyment out of learning, as though it’s a game. Nonomine—who would have ever guessed? I’ve been studying how it happened, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. But it appears the change occurred on a genetic level, so the ability may pass on to their children like any other trait. I project that the rate of learning will slow down—at least slightly—after age five, exactly like it does in normal children. Even so, they’ll still be nine times as intelligent as their average peer. But before five is the greatest window of opportunity. That’s why I wanted to work with Michael now, to give him the best opportunity.”
Lindon glanced over to where Michael stood, fingers typing not on the physical computer keyboard but manipulating the 3D controls that could only be called up after putting in the password. Lindon had never been able to memorize all of the commands that utilized hundreds of both minute and sweeping hand movements, often in combination, but here Michael was, navigating them with ease. He resembled a miniature conductor, leading a symphony only he could hear. Words and files appeared on the screen in a purposeful pattern
“Michael,” Lindon said, and the 3D keyboard vanished as the child looked up and grinned, hands falling to his side. For the first time Lindon understood the intelligent glint in his son’s eyes. Michael not only knew what was going on but was thoroughly enjoying the process.
“He doesn’t even talk yet,” Lindon murmured.
Dan laughed. “He’s probably been too intent on learning other things to figure out how his mouth works. That’s more physical, after all. Not as easy as hands. Or maybe he doesn’t have much to say. Eh, Michael?”
The boy giggled, his slight shoulders lifting in a shrug.
Lindon turned from Michael’s telling grin to gaze down into Maddy’s eyes, grateful for the hope there that made him feel like living again. “Think of what they’ll accomplish,” he said, tightening his hold on her. “You’re going to be all right—you and all the other sick people in the world. I may not be able to find a cure for you, or a way to reverse the aging, but I guarantee you Michael will!”
[*Note from the author: *]Thanks for reading Times Nine! I hope you have enjoyed it. Be sure to check out my other titles on the About the Author section. For your enjoyment, I have included in the next section the first chapter of The Change, the first novel in my contemporary urban fantasy series.
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ON THE DAY I SET foot on the path to immortality, I was with Justine in her car driving down 95th on our way to pick out her new sofa. Ordinary. That’s what the day was. The plain kind of ordinary that obscures the secrets lurking in the shadows—or behind the faces of those you love.
Justine was the sister I’d never had, and our relationship was close to official since her brother had asked me twice to marry him. Tom was sexy, persuasive, and best of all, dependable. The next time he asked, I was considering saying yes.
A van came from nowhere, slamming into Justine’s side of the car.
Just like that. No warning.
Justine jerked toward me but was ultimately held in her seat by the safety belt. My head bounced hard off the right side window. A low screeching grated in my ears, followed by several long seconds of utter silence.
An explosion shattered the world.
When the smoke began to clear, I saw Justine’s head swing in my direction, though not of her own volition. Her blue eyes were open but vacant, her face still. Fire licked up the front of her shirt. Her blond hair melted and her skin blackened.
“No!” The word ripped from my throat.
I tried to reach out to Justine, but my arms wouldn’t move. Heat. All around me. Terror.
Pain. The stench of burning flesh.
Fire and smoke obscured my vision, but not before I saw something drip from the mess that had been Justine’s face. We were dying. This was it. The point of no return. I thought of my parents, my grandmother, my brothers, and how they would mourn me. I couldn’t even think about Tom.
A premonition of things to come?
I lost consciousness, and when I came to I was lying flat on my back. A sheet covered my face. I was suffocating.
“Witnesses say . . . in flames almost on impact,” a man’s voice was saying. “A fluke . . . not for the fire . . . might have survived.”
I turned my face, struggling to move my mouth from the sheet. Searching for air. Agony rippled up my neck and all over my head and down my body, the pain so decimating that it sapped all strength from me. I couldn’t move again, but that little bit had been enough.
“What the freak!” the voice said. I could barely hear the words, but they gave me something to focus on through the pain. I clung to them. “Gunnar . . . the oxygen . . . thought you said she was dead.”
The sheet lifted and air rushed into my tortured lungs. I could sense people all around me, though I couldn’t see anything except a hazy light. My throat was tight and burning, reminding me of the time I’d had both strep throat and tonsillitis as a child. Only far worse. Blinding pain so intense that I couldn’t even moan.
More snatches of conversation filtered to my brain. “Black as a crisp . . . try an IV . . . have to be amputated . . . University of Kansas . . . Burn Center.”
Motion. The blare of a siren. Then blessed nothing.
When I awoke the next time, my throat still hurt, and so did every single inch of my body, though not with the all-consuming pain that made me wish I were dead. Probably they’d given me drugs. Or maybe too many nerves were damaged. I could feel an oxygen tube in my nose and cold seeping into a vein in my right shoulder. How could that be? I’d had IVs before and I’d never felt the liquid. It was so good, so necessary, that for a moment I concentrated all my attention on that small, steady flow. Life seeping into my body. But far too slowly. I wanted more.
Abruptly the sensation was gone. The pain cranked up a notch.
I tried to open my eyes, but only the right one was uncovered. From what I could tell, I seemed to be completely swathed in bandages and unable to move. My single eye rested on Tom, who was standing near the window, staring out with the unfocused expression of a man who saw nothing.
Tom shifted his weight, his muscles flexing under his T-shirt and jeans. In the past months I’d learned his body almost as well as my own, and even now I felt a sense of wonder at the miracle of our relationship. He didn’t push me for commitment, didn’t question why I was so hesitant to take the next step, and I loved him for that perhaps more than anything. It was also why I didn’t know if things would work out between us.
A tiny rush of air escaped the hole they’d left in the bandages near my mouth. He turned toward me, his face stricken, looking older than his thirty-five years. “Erin? Are you awake?”
I tried to nod, but found I couldn’t. I lay mute and helpless. Finally, I thought to close and open my single eye.
He was at my side instantly. “Oh, honey. Thank God! I thought I’d lost—” He broke off, struggling for control. “Erin, can you understand me?”
I blinked again.
“Okay, good. That’s really good. Do you remember what happened?” He took a shaky breath and hesitated before adding, “Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
I remembered the accident. I remembered the fire and how Justine had burned, but I wanted the rest explained. I wanted to hear if Justine was in a bed like I was. I wanted to hear if we’d be okay.
I blinked twice.
He leaned closer, not touching me, his eyes rimmed in red. His eyes had a tendency to change color with what he wore, and today they were the inviting shade of a lake on a hot summer day. My favorite color.
“This morning you and Justine were in a car accident. There was a fire. You were burned.”
[_Over seventy percent of my body. _]The thought came from nowhere, and I wondered if I’d unconsciously heard someone talking about my condition. If that was true, my chances weren’t good. I’d heard of a formula at the insurance company where I worked: take your age, add the percentage of your body burned, and the sum was your chance of fatality. I’d be over a hundred percent.
I’m still alive. I’m the exception.
“Your parents just stepped out for a while. Your grandmother was here, too, almost all day, but they finally convinced her to go home. Chris is on his way.”
Had that much time passed? My older brother, Chris, had left that morning to pilot a charter flight from Kansas City to Tulsa. I’d been planning to go over tonight when he returned so I could spend time with him and Lorrie and their kids.
“They called Jace. He’ll be here soon.”
Jace was on his way from Texas? My younger brother had barely arrived at his new unit, and the army would never allow him to come home.
I knew then what Tom wasn’t saying: I was dying. Was that why there wasn’t as much pain? Or had my limbs been amputated? I tried to move my legs, but they felt heavy, and I wondered if that was the sensation the nerves sent to the brain after amputation. I concentrated on moving my arms, and though they were sheathed in bandages, I managed to move my right one slightly.
Tom’s eyes followed the movement, swallowing so hard I could see the lump in his throat go up and down. He wet his lips, started to speak, stopped, and then tried again. “It’s going to be okay, Erin. You’ll see.” The lie was so bad I felt sorry for him. I knew it was killing him not to do something useful for me, to somehow alleviate my suffering, but there was nothing he could do now, nothing either of us could do. This was one of those moments you endured and survived. Or you didn’t.
A nurse entered, and Tom eased away from the bed. “She’s awake,” he said. A pleading kind of hope had come into his face, and it was painful to see. More painful than the lie. “She understands what I’m saying.”
The nurse leaned in front of my good eye, doubt etched on her round face. Two bright spots of red stood out on her plump cheeks like awkwardly applied blush. “Well, that’s a good sign,” she said, but hesitantly, as though I was somehow breaking the rules by regaining consciousness.
Her eyes lifted toward something behind me. “What happened to the IV? It shouldn’t need changing already. That’s the third time we’ve run out in the last hour.” She shook her head. “Must be something wrong with the valve. I’ll check it and get another bag.”
After she left, Tom said more encouraging words, which only made me feel worse because I’d seen the truth in the nurse’s face. Talk about something real, _]I wanted to scream. [_Talk about the things we didn’t do. Talk about Justine. Tell me she’s okay.
He didn’t, and I guessed what that meant. A tear slipped from my eye into the bandage. She was gone. Justine was gone.
Meeting the siblings at the Red Night Club six months earlier had been a changing point in my life. Tom hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away from me that night, or since, and over the past months Justine had loved and bullied me into thinking seriously about my future, something I’d lacked the confidence to do since leaving law school in disgrace. So what if I was thirty-one and living in the basement apartment at my parents’ house in Kansas City? Or that I worked a boring job as an insurance claims clerk when I’d always longed to do something more adventurous? I could change all that. I bought new clothes, took up biking, and began looking for a new apartment.
Tom couldn’t see my tear, but it really didn’t matter. I was dying. I’d lost my best friend, my almost sister. I’d lost any future I might have had with Tom. I couldn’t wrap my understanding around either loss.
The nurse returned, and shortly I felt cool liquid seeping into my veins again. Purely imaginary but sweet all the same. I closed my right eye and concentrated on that lifeline, as though I could suck it into me and repair the damage to my body from the inside out.
“Don’t worry.” Tom’s voice came from far away. “I’m here for you. We’re going to make you well again. No matter how long it takes.” I couldn’t hear the lie in his voice anymore. Maybe it made him feel better to believe.
I wished I could.
The next time I woke, it was dark except for a dim light over the sink that stood against the wall. I sensed someone in the room but couldn’t move my head to see who it was. Tom? My brother Chris? More likely my mother or father.
The door opened and light sliced into the room. In walked a short, broad man with longish dark brown hair, intense brown eyes, and a trim mustache. Not good-looking, exactly, but so sure of himself that he exuded an animal attractiveness. A stethoscope hung from his neck and down his white lab coat. If anyone could accomplish a miracle, this man could; his presence was almost palpable.
Behind him came a similarly dressed blonde, and my single eye riveted on her in surprise. She carried her head and lean body with the same regal confidence of the man, but her face was familiar, though I had no idea where I might have seen her before. The fierce, possessive way her eyes fixed on my unmoving body gave me the unnerving feeling that she’d been looking for something for a long time.
And had found it.
The woman turned on the light, and I shut my eye momentarily at the brightness. “We need to take her for a few tests,” she said to the person at my bedside.
“More tests?” The voice was my mother’s, exhausted but not quite devoid of hope. I opened my eye, straining to see her, but she was out of my line of sight. “She woke up earlier. Isn’t that a good sign? Could the doctors be wrong?”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t believe so, but I promise we’ll do everything we can for your daughter.” Her smooth, clear skin was wrinkle-free, and I pinpointed her age near mine, or perhaps a few years older. Could she be a doctor? A specialist maybe? Her attitude suggested absolute authority. Even if I could have moved my head, I doubted I’d be able to look away from her for long.
“Thank you.” My mother sounded unhappy. Things weren’t perfect between us, but I would give anything to be able to console her, anything not to be trapped in this ruined shell of a body.
“Dimitri,” the woman said. “The IV.” The man nodded and moved around the bed, but not before I caught a glimpse of another IV bag in his hands, though it seemed different. Larger, maybe.
“The bags keep running out before they should,” my mother said. “I’m worried it’s not helping her condition. Where’s all the liquid going?”
Was that a flash of excitement in the woman’s eyes? It was hard to tell with my monovision. “We’re monitoring it carefully,” she assured my mother.
Within seconds I could feel the drip of the liquid again—different this time. Sweeter, thicker, and coming faster. I closed my eye and drew the liquid into my body, though I knew the effect had to be entirely in my mind.
“Don’t I know you?” my mother asked the woman. “You seem familiar.”
“I must have one of those faces.”
“No, I’ve seen you before. I know I have. Aren’t you my mother’s neighbor? The one who teaches karate?”
“I have a sister who teaches taekwondo. People often confuse us.”
A lie. I couldn’t hear it in her voice, but I felt it all the same. An unease, a hint of uncertainty that marred her perfect confidence. What was she trying to hide? Or maybe my imagination was kicking in again.
“That must be it,” my mother said.
“Probably. If you’ll excuse us? We should be back within the hour.”
“I’ll be here.” My mother’s hand briefly touched my shoulder as I was rolled from the room. I wished I could see her face.
The hallway was quiet, nearly deserted, though the lights overhead blazed brightly. We passed several tired-looking nurses and an orderly mopping a section of floor.
“Ava,” the man said from the head of my bed. “The bag’s half gone.”
“Then we were right.” The woman walking beside me fell silent a moment before adding, “It’s about time.”
“Too bad it had to happen like this. She’s suffered a lot.”
“At least we’re sure. And there won’t be anything to explain to her family. They’re already prepared for the worst.”
“She might not cooperate. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“She must cooperate. There’s too much at stake.”
I didn’t like her clipped tone, or any of their words. They were talking about me, but I couldn’t understand the context. None of it made sense. Maybe the drugs had scrambled my brain.
When they began discussing transfer papers with another man, icy suspicion crawled through my mind. Where were they taking me? Maybe they weren’t with the hospital at all. As they loaded me into an ambulance, panic ramped up my breathing, but no one noticed my distress. My mouth refused to utter a sound.
The woman sat near my head out of sight while the man stayed at my side. I didn’t see who was driving. “This bag’s gone,” the man said. “I’ll get a new one. I’ll start another IV, too. The idiots already amputated half her left arm. She’ll need the extra.”
My left arm was gone? Bile threatened to choke me. [_No! _]This was too much. I couldn’t survive another minute.
Yet when the man put the second IV in my upper chest, I felt another rush of cool liquid, and my body gulped it down as though it were life itself. My fear numbed at this relief, and I dozed as the ambulance cruised through the streets, rousing a little each time we stopped at the traffic lights. I heard honking, a snatch of music, the throb of the engine, and my own breathing, which seemed loud and fast in the small confines of the ambulance.
Something was very wrong. They’d told my mother I’d be back within an hour, but we’d been driving too long for that now. Not to mention that removing me from the burn center would lower what minimal chance I had of survival. Yet whoever these people were, they didn’t seem to want me dead—for now.
I tried to move, but the only limb I could get to obey me was my right arm. I lifted it halfway in the air before the man grabbed it. “It’s okay, Erin. I really am a doctor. Best one in the world, I daresay. I’m Dimitri, and my friend is Ava. We’re here to help you.” To the woman, he added, “She’s a fighter.”
“So it seems.” Satisfaction laced Ava’s voice, and I felt a sudden and distinct hatred for her. What did she want from me? Was she an organ harvester? It was the only rational explanation—though utterly terrifying.
Dimitri laid something on my chest. Another IV bag. “Hold onto this.” He placed my right hand over the bag. Immediately, a delicious coolness entered my fingertips even through the plastic bag and the bandages. I blessed him silently and gave myself up to this drug-induced hallucination.
The next thing I knew, I was being rolled into a cavernous room. I had the impression of large crates and of a woman sitting in front of several computers which she seemed to be using all at once. One of the computers was connected by a thin black cord to a woven metal headpiece the woman wore on her head like a crown. Her chair turned toward us, one hand twisting up a circular section of the headpiece that obscured one eye. “Good, you’re back.” A smile spread over her face.
I stared. I’d been wrong thinking Ava and Dimitri were the most assured, compelling people I’d ever seen. This new woman had the same confident bearing as the other two, but it was coupled with straight dark hair, a heart-shaped face, slanted Asian eyes, and flawless golden skin. Her revealing green tank showed an ample bosom and a torso that fell to an impossibly thin waist, flaring again for perfect hips. Her delicacy and utter perfection was the kind that inspired poets and started wars between nations—and made me feel completely inadequate.
I knew that feeling well. I felt it often in the presence of my mother.
“Cort’s got the room ready,” the woman said. She was younger than the others, perhaps in her late twenties, though her dark eyes were far too knowing for true innocence. A chill shuddered in my chest.
I knew Stella meant star in some other language, and the name fit her perfectly.
We were moving away, and Stella vanished from my line of sight. My thoughts of her cut off abruptly as I was wheeled into a smaller room, bare except for what looked like a coffin on a long table.
My heart slammed into my chest, its beating furious and erratic.
Ava withdrew scissors from the pocket of her lab coat and started cutting the bandages from my feet and legs. Dimitri began at my head. I caught a glimpse of blackened tissue, the bloody stub of my left arm. Tears leaked from my right eye, but I couldn’t see anything through my left and I doubted I still had tear ducts there. Now I knew why Tom had felt the need to lie. No one could be this badly burned and survive.
If by some cruel twist of fate I did live, I would be a monster.
I tried to struggle against them, but any tiny movement sent shards of pain in every direction until it seemed pain was all I had ever known. Neither would my mouth open to scream, though hoarse sounds of distress issued from my throat, sounding grotesque and panicked. My chest convulsed wildly with the effort. Before too long, my throat became too raw for sound, and even that haunting noise ceased.
“It’s okay,” Dimitri said, his voice gentle. “It’ll be over soon.” Somehow I didn’t feel comforted.
When I was nothing more than a mass of burned and bleeding raw flesh, Ava and Dimitri lifted me into the coffin. Exquisite torture. My vision blurred and darkened. Nausea gouged at my insides.
A gelatinous substance oozed around me and the pain slightly eased. Dimitri pushed it up against my chin and smoothed a layer over my entire face. They’re drowning me in Jell-O, I thought, but Dimitri made sure I had ample space beneath my nose to breathe. The syrupy sweetness I’d felt with the IV bags was increased a hundredfold, as though each of my damaged nerve cells had become a conduit for an IV.
Dimitri’s face leaned close to mine. “I’ve added something to one of these IV bags to put you out. It’d be impossible for you to sleep in this stuff otherwise. But you’ll heal better if you aren’t awake.” Already I struggled to keep my good eye open.
Ava stood by the coffin looking in. “Don’t fight it, Erin. You’ll have your answers soon. Sleep, Granddaughter. Sleep.”
[_Granddaughter? _]I must not have heard her correctly.
Well, I suppose there could be worse ways to die than cradled in a coffin full of sweet gelatin. I gave up fighting and let my right eye close.
END OF PREVIEW. To purchase The Change (Unbounded #1) please visit your ebookstore and search for The Change (Unbounded). You can also continue to the next section to learn more about the author and her books.
TEYLA BRANTON grew up avidly reading science fiction and fantasy and watching Star Trek reruns with her large family. They lived on a little farm where she loved to visit the solitary cow and collect (and juggle) the eggs, usually making it back to the house with most of them intact. On that same farm she once owned thirty-three gerbils and eighteen cats, not a good mix, as it turns out. Teyla always had her nose in a book and daydreamed about someday creating her own worlds.
Teyla is now married, mostly grown up, and has seven kids, including a three-year-old, so life at her house can be very interesting (and loud), but writing keeps her sane. She thrives on the energy and daily amusement offered by her children, the semi-ordered chaos giving her a constant source of writing material. Grabbing any snatch of free time from her hectic life, Teyla writes novels, often with a child on her lap. She warns her children that if they don’t behave, they just might find themselves in her next book! She’s been known to wear pajamas all day when working on a deadline, and is often distracted enough to burn dinner. (Okay, pretty much 90% of the time.) A sign on her office door reads: DANGER. WRITER AT WORK. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
She loves writing fiction and traveling, and she hopes to write and travel a lot more. She also loves shooting guns, martial arts, and belly dancing. She has worked in the publishing business for over twenty years. Teyla also writes romance and suspense under the name Rachel Branton. For more information or to sign up to hear about new releases, please visit TeylaBranton.com. Member of Tip My Author, where readers can connect with and encourage their favorite authors.
BOOKS BY TEYLA BRANTON
Unbounded Series (urban fantasy)
Unbounded Series novellas (urban fantasy)
Sci-Fi short stories
UNDER THE NAME RACHEL BRANTON
Tell Me No Lies
Your Eyes Don’t Lie
Table of Contents
Bonus! Preview of The Change
About the Author
Books by Teyla Branton
Under the name Rachel Branton
Maddy knows she canâ€™t give her scientist husband the one thing he really wantsâ€”an heir with his genes and genius. Or can she? Nonomine offers them the chance theyâ€™ve both been waiting for, even if it means living at nine times the normal human rate. But when things start to go wrong, the price they must pay is more than either of them ever dreamed. Please note: This is a complete science fictional short story with an "aha" ending. There is no sequel to buy to get the rest of the story. It's not a romance or a saga, but a short story that we hope will get you wondering what YOU would do in Maddy's place. The scenario she faces might not be too far away in our own future. We have included a sample chapter of one of the author's full-length books for your added enjoyment.