Harry St. Clair was through with life. Well, clinically that may not have been true, but that was how he felt. He felt especially lousy on this particular day, and he wasn’t even completely awake yet. Eyes closed, he lay in bed and contemplated his first day of retirement.
He imagined an unhurried breakfast with the Missus, a leisurely day doing – oh, he’d find something to do, maybe fix up the house or collect stamps – and after a quiet evening of Parcheesi and crackers with clam dip, he’d watch whoever was doing the late night talk show and go to bed.
Forget old age, he was going to die of pointlessness.
Not that the tire factory was Shangri-La, but he’d worked hard to make his way up from the shop floor into management. Now what did he have to show for it? His wife Iris would be the real breadwinner now.
I’ll just be her arm-candy at the holiday party, he said to himself. She’ll probably have me cooking dinner for her boss. Harry imagined her teasing him, trying to force one of her aprons over his head. He smiled and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. His moment of self pity had gone on long enough; he’d figure this retirement thing out.
He opened his eyes.
He closed his eyes.
He wasn’t smiling anymore. His heart was hammering and his skin was tingling. His brain swirled in confusion as his tail twitched uncontrollably. His – “TAIL?”
Once more Harry opened his eyes, and once more he wished he hadn’t.
“What the hell…?“
He found himself in a dimly lit room, sitting in an enclosure surrounded by bars. He scrambled to his feet and gripped the bars with his one, two, three, four hands.
A door opened, and two figures entered the room. They were mostly obscured by the light pouring in from behind them, but Harry could see one of them make a motion with its arm. The lights in the room brightened.
With the lights up, Harry could see that his enclosure sat against one wall of a peach-colored, oval-shaped room. He quickly realized that the creatures stood between him and the only exit.
Both creatures had small flat heads with huge, yellow eyes that closed inward from the outside edge when they blinked. They had no noses to speak of and little black holes where their mouths would be. The taller of the two had brown skin, and the smaller one had blue skin. And like him, they had four arms and long, hairy tails.
The blue creature inched closer, holding its upper body motionless, arms outward, palms down, like someone trying to calm a spooked dog. The effect of its bright yellow eyes against blue skin was unnerving enough; then it opened its mouth hole wider, revealing several rows of unfriendly looking teeth. Harry gasped and the creature immediately closed its mouth hole.
The tall, brown creature came and stood beside the blue one, and what Harry guessed were their ears unfolded like wings on either side of their heads, angling in his direction. The tall one leaned forward and its mouth stretched open, convulsing to produce a series of whining sounds which, to Harry’s surprise, he understood perfectly.
“Hello. Don’t be afraid, we’re not going to hurt you.”
The short one looked to the tall one briefly, then back to Harry. “Can you understand us, Tzane?” it asked.
“Yes,” Harry finally managed to croak. He didn’t know what “Tzane” meant, but he noted that his breathing had returned to normal and his heart had stopped pounding. He had no idea why he was feeling so calm. He should have been coming up with a way to get the hell away from these creatures, and yet he had this inexplicable feeling that he could actually trust them. Then he felt it: there was some kind of presence in his mind like a hand on skin.
His face flushed and he pushed the feelings of comfort aside. “Who… who are you?” he demanded, “What are you doing to me?”
“I’m so sorry to have invaded your privacy, Tzane,” said the smaller one. “It’s merely a form of communication we use at times, especially with small children and animals.”
“Children? Animals?” he blustered. He looked down at himself, and from what he could tell, he seemed to be a smaller version of the blue being standing in front of him.
“Honestly,” grumbled the brown creature into the blue one’s ear, “we could have done this the easy way, the normal way, but you had to go through with this ‘natural childbirth’…”
“Tzane, please stay calm,” said the blue one, “we’ll explain everything.”
“Who the hell is Tzane?!” roared Harry. “Why do you keep calling me that?” Yelling always made him feel more in charge.
The creatures looked at each other, then back at him.
“Okay,” Harry announced, “this dream is over as of now!” He turned away from them and sat down, closing his eyes and shaking his head to wake himself up.
“Tzane, darling, this isn’t a dream.” The blue creature brought a holographic mirror to the side of his crib. “Look. Look at yourself, little one. You can see that you are most certainly conscious and you are our daughter.”
Shoulders slumping, he turned and looked into the mirror. He blinked slowly to confirm that his eyelids opened from the outside in, just like theirs. He opened and closed his own small round mouth and touched his tiny, sharp teeth. He unfurled his wing-like ears and folded them back in. This is going to be one hell of a dream to tell Iris.
The mother leaned toward the father and whispered, “Do you think we should call her ‘Mr. St. Clair’ to start? Would that put her at ease, or only retard her development?”
“You can’t be serious!” the male spat back. “I’m calling the hospital right now…”
“Please, darling, wait. I just need to finish sounding her out.” She’d been going through the checklist her physician had given her when she’d chosen to deliver at home. She’d already accomplished the physical health checks while the baby was asleep, but according to the instructions, the mental health checks had to be performed while the child was awake. The tricky part was that the readings had to happen without the child noticing, because an awareness of the inspection could change its thought patterns.
“All right, Triana, but please hurry.” He looked over to find his newborn daughter glaring at him with suspicion. “I know you’re curious about this part of the child’s development, but any unnecessary delay could cause her severe emotional trauma.”
“Oh, Drnad, you’re exaggerating,” she whispered, glancing anxiously toward the crib. “Stay calm and try to keep your voice down. You’re the one who’s upsetting her.”
“And what about the others?” Drnad demanded, ignoring her. He pointed toward the opposite end of the room. “What happens to them when they’re born, will you put all the others through this too?”
Harry’s eyes followed Drnad’s gesture to a group of round objects on one end of the oval room. They were about the size and color of small watermelons, and they rested on cushions in a clear-walled enclosure. Of course, he doubted they were watermelons. In fact, it looked like one of them was split open and empty, like something had hatched. Was that something him?
Oh, this is one fucked up dream, thought Harry. I’m done being an alien baby. WAKEUP WAKEUP WAKEUP!
Drnad folded his arms and glowered at Triana.
“Oh dear,” she sighed, “I think ‘Mr. St. Clair’ needs an explanation to settle her down.” She wasn’t getting anywhere with the scans while the baby was agitated, and figured explaining the situation to her might help calm her down.
Harry stiffened with a fresh wave of fear as Triana’s lower pair of arms gripped the side of his crib. She leaned over to pick him up but resisted the impulse to caress his mind with reassurance, knowing he wasn’t fond of the mental intrusion.
Harry relaxed as soon as he was in her arms. Her skin was warm and soft, almost liquid. He felt a queer but pleasant sensation everywhere they touched, like he was floating in the perfect bath, buoyed by a supple yet impenetrable surface tension. Then he shuddered, noticing the gills on either side of her torso.
“Don’t worry, darling,” she cooed. “Yours will come in soon enough. Are you hungry?”
Drnad huffed impatiently. He could tell when Triana was stalling.
“All right,” she said. “Tzane, you are our daughter. You were born just last night.”
Harry tried to look over her shoulder in the direction of the eggs. “You mean to say I hatched out of one of those things, like a bird? Like a – snake?”
These new words drew Drnad out of his peevish silence. “Whatever this ‘bird’ and ‘snake’ are, they had nothing to do with it.”
“Please, Drnad, be patient,” said Triana soothingly. Then to Harry: “I don’t know anything about ‘hatched.’ Your father and I made these birth capsules by – a certain kind of cooperation.” Harry caught a glimpse of her teeth in what he could sense was a smile.
Some things never change, said Harry to himself.
Triana cocked her head.
Apparently they can hear me, he thought.
“Yes,” she replied. “But we’ll continue to verbalize for now so you can learn.”
Of course, anything goes in a dream, Harry reminded himself uneasily.
Drnad stepped forward. “She’s resisting, Triana. Either we call your doctor now, or I’m taking her straight to the hospital.”
“Oh, but she’s fine,” pleaded Triana, “such a wonderful, healthy baby girl!”
“She won’t be for long if we don’t make a decision,” warned Drnad sternly. But he also understood that Triana needed more time for her readings.
“You see,” Drnad began, “incubation is a time of development, development of arms, legs, two good, strong hearts… There is, naturally, development of the mind as well as of the body. We have discovered that, in order to promote the maturation of the brain, the unborn child will create an existence of its own. It will create the necessary land, creatures, cultures, whatever history necessary, all of it seeming real to the child. Do you understand?”
“No, but go on,” Harry grunted, trying not to think about what a windbag Drnad was being. You have to be careful when “Dad” can hear inside your head.
Drnad leaned back and folded both sets of arms behind his back. “The fabrication of any existence, no matter how unsophisticated it may be, is an extremely complex process. We’re just starting to find out how it’s done. The child immerses itself in its own creation and lives out an arbitrarily selected ‘life span.’ However long it seems to last to the child, the incubation period normally ranges between fifteen and twenty Spands in reality.”
“Mr. St. Clair, darling, what your father says is true,” Triana interjected. “You must understand, the life you think you’ve just lived wasn’t real. It was part of your growth. It was all a figment of your developing mind.”
“When you died, or thought you died,” concluded Drnad, “it wasn’t the end of your life span. It was the beginning. It was the beginning of your real life span here with us.”
“Wait, who’s dead here?” Harry argued. “I’m only sixty-five, I’m not dead yet.”
“Yes,” mused Drnad, “we were a little worried you wouldn’t feel ready to go yet.”
“But we checked you out and everything is just fine,” Triana assured him. “You’ll be a little weak, naturally, as a premature baby. Otherwise you’re perfectly healthy.”
Healthy? Harry swished his tail and looked down at his four arms and blue skin. This is healthy?
“Interestingly enough,” Drnad continued, “from what our doctors have been able to figure out, most of our young seem to experience a similar mental construct prior to being born. They tend to imagine themselves as bipedal mammals living above ground, unable to breathe under water. Of course, that makes sense, given that your gills don’t come in until after birth.” He smiled at Harry and continued. “Developing children also tend to imagine themselves with only two arms, but that doesn’t stop their societies from making and using tools. Like us, they have many different colors of skin, but unlike us, their colors do not denote gender – of which they only have two.”
Drnad stopped, not wanting to remind Tzane that they were rooting around her mind at that very moment.
“Perhaps you’re wondering why you’re already here at home,” he went on, quickly changing the subject. “The hospital is merely a matter of convenience, freeing expectant parents from the effort of looking after their birth capsules. But, as you see, my mate also had the option of keeping her birth capsules at home instead of depositing them and waiting to collect the children when they were ready.”
Drnad decided not to go into the details of this part of the story. Normally, once hospital staff determined that a newborn child was physically and mentally healthy, it would be given a neutralization formula to wipe out any memories that had built up in its brain during development. The child’s new identity would be able to develop unimpeded by prenatal debris. He had always assumed this process happened relatively quickly in the hospital, and was uncomfortable with how long it seemed to be taking at home.
By this time, however, Triana had scanned enough of her child’s mind to realize that “Harry,” her child’s mental development construct, was actually a “he.” This wouldn’t matter after the neutralization formula had been administered, but she hadn’t thought about how to address him/her at the moment. She would have to read up on this part more closely before the others were born.
Scanning his mind, she’d seen glimpses of his wife, his home and his work – and had found the concept of transportation using “tires” amusing. She had seen his planet in its solar system, knew about the oceans and landmasses, and the countries that carved these lands up. She had discovered some things about the different cultures; for example, that for most of them the acquisition of “money” seemed to be a central element of survival and happiness. And she could tell that Harry had never felt like he’d had enough of it.
But she’d also come upon a disturbing trend in her child’s emotional development, and she wondered if perhaps they really did need to go to the hospital.
“Tzane – Mr. St. Clair – darling, get some more rest,” said Triana. “Your father and I will be back in a moment.”
Even before they left the room, Drnad was needling Triana’s mind for information. The door slid shut behind them and she turned to him in a state of agitation.
“Drnad, I think there may be a problem. According to the checklist, everything seems to be fine except…”
“What is it?”
She paced the room, holding the list with one set of hands and wringing the other two together. “Well, it’s a small thing, really…”
He sighed impatiently.
“I don’t know,” she continued, “I’m just a little concerned. She’s – he’s never broken any laws of his local jurisdiction.”
“And this causes you concern?” asked Drnad with bewilderment.
“No, what I mean is, Tzane has never had any major emotional shocks in her development phase. Her ‘Harry’ was born and matured in the same town, never changed occupations, never changed mates, never had to learn how to live and communicate with beings from different cultures…”
“So are you saying Tzane isn’t fully developed?” asked Drnad.
She stopped pacing. “Well, I don’t know. Harry did experience the death of a parent.”
“Is that important in the development stage?” asked Drnad.
“Yes, from what I’m reading here, that is actually an important occurrence in the pre-natal mind.”
“So, where does that leave us? I mean, is she all right or not?”
“I don’t know,” she said, holding the list out to him.
He took it and scanned through it. “Here,” he said, pointing to a passage toward the end of the document. “It says that she may need to be incubated if she doesn’t exhibit all signs of maturity. They may need to send her back into the pre-birth phase to make some adjustments to her environment. Let’s not take any chances, Triana.” He opened the door and strode back into the nursery, heading for Tzane’s crib.
“What are you doing?” Triana asked, following him.
“I’m taking her to the hospital. You read the guidelines.” He lifted Tzane out of her crib.
“Wait, Drnad, let’s at least call the doctor first.”
“Triana, she’s not fully developed,” said Drnad, carrying Tzane into the next room. “Do you want her to go through life impaired?”
“Hey, who are you calling impaired?” Harry protested. “Put me down!”
“Drnad, don’t forget she can hear you,” Triana warned as she followed them.
“That doesn’t matter, she won’t remember any of this after she’s been neutralized.”
“Neutralized?!” Harry barked, squirming in Drnad’s arms.
“No, it’s not what you think,” he laughed (at least, that was how Harry interpreted the gurgling noise he made). “You’ll be fine. We just have to take you to the hospital for some fine-tuning.”
“Fine-tuning? She’s not a machine. But,” admitted Triana, “I suppose we should go get her checked out.” So much for her foray into natural childbirth…
Drnad nodded. He’d known she’d come around in the end. He hoped this would convince her to let him bring the rest of their eggs to the hospital.
“Not to worry, little one, they won’t hurt you,” said Drnad briskly, picking up the key to his transport unit and heading toward the front door. “You’re just going to go back to sleep for a bit. You even get to go back to your own little world, won’t that be fun? They’re just going to make a couple of minor adjustments while you’re there…”
“Where are we going? What do you mean ‘adjustments’?” sputtered Harry, holding his arms hopefully out to Triana.
“Don’t worry,” Drnad answered, deftly twisting Tzane out of her mother’s reach, “they just need to change one or two things. Then you’ll be in perfect shape to come back again.” Drnad opened the front door and stepped outside.
In his triumphal march out of the house, Drnad had forgotten to shield the baby’s eyes against the outdoor light. Tzane was overwhelmed by the bright, lime green sunlight as soon as he carried her outside. She fainted in his arms.
Harry woke to the sound of his own ragged gasp for air. His body jerked and his eyes sprang open. His heart was racing and silver spots danced around the edges of his vision. It took a moment for him to realize that he was back in his own room at home. He lay still in bed and tried to catch his breath.
A few minutes later the door opened and Iris walked in. “You’re awake,” she said quietly.
“Uh, yeah,” said Harry, rubbing his ears to try to stop them from ringing. He was still having a hard time getting enough air.
“I took the day off, Harry.” She stood just inside the doorway, twisting her wedding ring around her finger.
“Oh?” Harry struggled to clear his head. Had he stopped breathing in his sleep?
She stopped twisting the ring and cocked her head. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he lied, “just waking up.” It felt more like he was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean.
“Well, why don’t you get dressed and come on down. There are some things we need to talk about.” She stepped back out of the room and closed the door.
Harry took a deep breath and sat up in bed. It wasn’t like Iris to take a day off just to talk. Something was up, something big, and it didn’t sound good.
As he got up and moved around, Drnad and Triana began to fade from his mind. By the time he was dressed, he had just about convinced himself it had all been a dream.
There was nothing to do but open the door and find out.
Tara Campbell is a university admissions professional by day and a writer, painter and cellist by night. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives and works in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Washington Writers’ Group and the D.C. Writers’ Group.