Chapter 16: Star-born
I woke to the sound of Ari moaning and retching. My head hurt, every heart-beat was like a trip hammer crushing my skull. My eyes registered nothing but flashes and sparks. As my vision gradually cleared, Ari unbuckled and crawled onto the deck, where she curled into a fetal position.
“It hurts. Everything hurts,” she whimpered.
I wanted to comfort her, but knew that my head would explode like a rotted gas-pumpkin if I moved. Finally, I opened my mouth. “It’ll pass,” My voice croaked.
“I take back what I said about this being better than vaporization,” she groaned and then started retching again.
Eventually, I made myself check our position. We were less than a hundred thousand kilometers from where we were supposed to be. Not too bad. I then checked on the others.
“We’re alive.” Windridge’s voice sounded old and tired over the speaker. “Rather hard on the pregnant girl, but I think she’ll be alright.”
I got up from the pilot’s seat, got down on the deck next to Ari, raised her head and placed it gently on my lap.
“Better…Better,” she mumbled. We remained like that for a while, until she sat up and leaned on my shoulder. “I’m alright now, I’m pretty sure.”
“I’ll set our course for New Samarkand.” I returned to the seat, made sure all systems were operating, and then jumped as soon as the course was laid in. This leap was hardly noticeable compared to the previous one. “We’ll be there in about five and a half days.”
“I’m going to check on everyone.” Ari rolled over onto her tail. “Then I’m gonna see if there’s a tub or shower or any way to get wet and clean up.” She started to slide herself toward the door.
Instead, I got up and lifted her into my arms. “If you don’t mind, I believe I’ll join you.”
“Please do,” she grinned wickedly. “‘Cause quite frankly, Love, you’re starting to smell.”
We were fortunate to have a well-equipped sick bay with an interactive AI, and that Windridge and Yuri both knew enough of basic first-aid to follow its instructions. Courier ships are occasionally used as ambulances for VIP’s. The ship, named the Compass Rose, was obviously King Edgar’s personal transport, which made its appropriation especially sweet and the facilities on board especially good. Justin was pale and weak but conscious and smiling thanks to all of the above. Parthan’s knife had punctured one of his lungs and he’d lost a great deal of blood, but he looked like he’d live.
Jen was ensconced comfortably in the royal suite, her left hand swathed in bandages. Once she had rested and recovered from the micro-jump, it was difficult keeping her out of the sick bay, where she would sit by Justin’s side, sometimes for hours.
Lady Ariadne and I shared the captain’s cabin which, to her delight, also had a large bathtub. She splashed about in there for a very long time. I waited my turn, until she eventually invited me in to share.
Windridge and the marines divided themselves between the other four staterooms and the lounge.
The ship was intended to carry two crew and four to eight passengers, so we were slightly overcrowded, but not enough to stretch the life support. Food especially was plentiful and of royal quality.
The nav-computer flew the ship through hyper-space. No human mind is fast enough to make the proper mid-course corrections. Only occasional supervision was called for. Any variation out of safe parameters would trip an alarm or even, if necessary, bring the vessel back into normal space. Interception and attack was difficult and unlikely enough as to be dismissed. In addition, every instrument and control on the bridge could be accessed from the captain’s personal computer in his quarters.
Therefore, I didn’t really need to be on the bridge on the second day out, but this was my first independent command, and the thrill had not subsided yet. I sat in the pilot’s seat just watching the numbers change and listening to the hum of a living ship, when the intercom buzzed, it was Ari. Jen was going into labor.
“Would be better if she could wait a few days,” I said.
“Perhaps you’d like to tell her that,” she replied, not without some sarcasm.
“I’ll be right there.”
I met Ari and Windridge in the lounge. Yuri was sitting just outside Jen’s quarters. We had found no chair on board for Ari to move. We either carried her, when she was patient enough to wait for one of us, or she crawled. The sergeant had just then brought her in and placed her on the couch.
“Can we handle this?” I asked Ari. The sergeant and I both looked at her.
“Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I know anything about child birthing, especially for bipeds. I don’t even know what to do with her legs, how do I keep them out of the way?” She shook her head.
“What about you?” I looked at Windridge.
He also shook his head. “Yuri and I probably could, if there are no complications. The young lady, however, insists on there being no men present. I guess it’s a cultural thing.”
I turned back to Ari. She sat on the couch looking worried, with both hands over her mouth. “It’s a bit late for her to be concerned about men and her privacy,” she mumbled.
I sat down next to her and put my arm around her shoulder. “You can do it. Women have been having babies on land with legs and often very little help for about a million years now.”
“Oh, so you’re an expert too. Everyone’s an expert but me.” She rolled her eyes.
“Yuri and I’ll be just outside,” said Windridge. “If you need us, you can call us in.”
“If there are problems,” I asked, “would it be safe to take Justin out of sickbay and put Jen in?”
Windridge shrugged. “Probably. I’m certain he’d volunteer if he knew.”
“How will I know if there’s a problem?” Ari was beginning to look resigned.
“If an arm or a leg comes out first, that’s a problem.” Windridge turned toward the passengers’ quarters. “I’ll go see how things are progressing.”
A few minutes later, I stood before the entrance to the suite, holding Ari in my arms. I let her down. She stood on her tail and knocked.
“Remember,” said Yuri, “she has to be dilated to ten centimeters and the baby’s head down in her pelvis before she can push. Other than that, just listen to the AI.”
The door slid open, Ari nodded and crawled in.
As the door slid shut again, Ari looked around. The stateroom may have been royally appointed, but it was also small. Space is limited on a courier-packet. To the left were a desk with computer terminal and chair. On the right, a small table with two chairs and on the wall a shelf for paper books. The wall opposite the door was filled by the bed where Jen lay on her side, her face was flushed and damp with perspiration.
“How are you, sweetie?”
Jen stared at the mermaid standing on hands and tail in front of her. “Can you help me?”
“That’s why I’m here.” Ari crawled over to the desk and activated the AI, then made her way to Jen’s side and brushed the girl’s damp hair from her face.
“Please state time since last contraction,” said the AI in a rather bland male voice.
This is a birthing! Whoever programmed this thing should have recorded someone a little more upbeat. Thought Ari. And a little more feminine for sympathy’s sake!
“What was that?” Jen raised her head, looking worried.
“It’s an artificial intelligence, a computer. It’ll help us.”
“Justin told me about computers. So that’s what that thing on the desk is. I…oh!” She grimaced and moaned. “That hurts!”
“It’s a contraction, dear.”
“I know,” she said through clenched teeth. “The court midwives told me what to expect.”
Good, then at least one of us knows what’s going on.
“Please state time since last contraction.”
“She’s just having one. Give us a minute!” said Ari, irritated.
“One minute since last contraction.”
“No! It’s not been a minute yet!”
“Please state pulse and respiration rates or pass sensor over patient’s body.”
“Sensor? Nobody said anything about any sensors!”
“Response not understood.”
“Oh shut up!”
“Response not understood.”
“It doesn’t sound very intelligent to me,” Jen giggled. “I feel better now, the contraction’s passed.”
“State time since last contraction,”
“Oh be quiet!” shouted Ari. It’s not even bothering to say please now!
“NO! YOU BASTARD! DON’T SHUT DOWN!”
“Stop! Don’t make me laugh! Here, help me turn over then rub my back for the next contraction.”
“Sure, honey, I’m sorry.” This is going to be a long day.
Time passed, the contractions came closer together and more intense; the back rubs were no longer helping. Ari’s tail grew numb and sore from holding up her weight. Eventually, she crawled into the bed and let Jen rest her head on her lap.
“I’m glad you’re here.” Said the younger female. “Even when I first saw you and felt so frightened of you; I knew, somehow, that you were a good witch.”
But a witch nonetheless! Ari tried not to laugh; she realized that Jen was sincere.
At the next contraction Jen let a loud groan escape her. “Sorry!” she said.
“Sorry? Honey please! I know it hurts and no one else can hear you.” Ari stroked her hair. “Make all the noise you want. Don’t be embarrassed!”
“Very well. You’ve had a baby too?”
Ari didn’t know what to say, so she changed the subject. “And don’t tense up. That just makes it hurt more.”
A minute later Jen gave out a blood-curdling shriek that nearly caused Ari to empty her bladder. “I don’t think I can take this much longer!” She grabbed Ari’s wrist with her good hand. “I feel my bones coming apart! Something’s wrong! It can’t hurt this much!”
Ari was becoming frightened herself. “I fear it can dear. It’s perfectly normal.” She prayed she was correct.
“I’m going to push! I have to push, NOW!”
“Yes! By all means, push!” How do I know she’s ready? She must be if her body’s telling her so. Ari bunched up a pillow and stuck it under Jen’s head, then slid onto the floor. Should I call for help? No. Nothing was happening yet that she couldn’t handle. She pulled the covers off of Jen. I guess now is when I figure out what to do with her legs.
Ari was surprised at how quickly the baby came, once the pushing started. It was rather like a very messy, sticky champagne cork.
The AI proved more useful after the fact. Ari followed its instructions, crawling hither and thither, looking for what she needed while Jen cooed and sang to the little girl placed on her chest. She discovered elastic bands in the writing desk, but found nothing with which to cut the cord. She was about to give up and ask for help when her gaze fell upon a plaque on the wall near the bookshelf. From it hung a ceremonial dagger. Ari stretched and extended herself as tall as she could and brought it down. This will do nicely! She drew the blade and noticed the inscription. “To His Royal Majesty Edgar I, from the mothers of His Realm, for use against His foes.” Ari giggled as she separated the newborn princess from her placenta.
I was snoozing in the lounge when Ari emerged from the passenger compartment, stood on her tail and announced, “It’s done! It’s a girl! And I’m afraid we left a bit of a mess.”