Childbirth, John realizes, is a torture he can never comprehend.
Moneta is too silent, clutching at her chest as they hurry to the hospital. There is no color on her face, no sweat on her brow, and John mistakenly thinks she’s taking it well, but as he helps her out of the car blood rushes down the insides of her legs and onto his shoes before she whimpers and collapses. He’s helpless and the medical staff can do no better, talking about the precarious balance of two lives; one doctor takes him to the side and asks which one he would chose should it come to such a point.
He stares dumbly at the man and can’t find the right answer. ”Both,” he says, ”I want them both alive.”
The doctor sighs, shakes his head, and John punches him in the blind rage that wells up. Losing either is not an option. In turn, the doctor swings back, and then John is confined to the waiting room with cotton stuffed up his nose as he contemplates the prospect of losing wife or child, or both.
They expected it, a little at least, but he never guessed it would be this bad. The child, through the entire pregnancy, took a severe toll on Moneta who became confined to bed for months, sleeping and eating and stroking her belly, beseeching the terrible child to be nice to her. ”I’ll treat you well,” she promised, hand moving back and forth as she writhed in bed, gasping for air. ”I’ll love you forever. I already do.”
Yet the child wrings the last life from her already suffering heart, and Moneta almost gives in. When the doors swing open to the maternity ward, everyone in the room hears her cries, hears the ripping and tearing and wet splashes. They all freeze, terrified, glance at him and then away. Many leave. His nose continues bleeding and his head grows light.
Leaning back, he thinks of their brief love and the possibility of it ending right then and there. Of the way Moneta first smiled at him two years ago when he spilled ink all across his shirt and how she slipped him a t-shirt. First day of his job and she being the only one looking out for him. A cutthroat office and she didn’t care to put the knife to his neck, just about making him smile, about covering his back.
And the day he took her hand, asking her to stay late and help him on a project – that she accepted, yet again with that smile that drove him slightly insane. And love, how insidious, how sneaky, how utterly destroying. They caused a scandal in the office and ended up leaving under honorable circumstances, more or less. What did it matter to them? They had each other, a big house, severance, and he found a new job within the day.
He rose and she fell into bed, where she has kept falling further away from him, energy leeched away. Towards the end, she can barely muster up the strength to lift her head and kiss him on the lips.
Their child has been a murderous parasite from day one. He wonders how much worse she will get.
The thoughts leave him tired. Another place beckons. Despite the horrifying sounds he gives in, too drained to stay.
In his nightmares, he finds himself back where he began: Pandora. The terrible planet which drew in his family and then killed his parents when fortunes turned, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. He has long since left the place behind, not even spared it as much as a thought. What has there been to think about but sand and misery and turquoise skies?
Yet Pandora unravels before him, the thick night sinking fast with only blue lights to guide him. The path is the same caked earth as the dirt road outside their home, leading down the hill to the village. All the buildings are empty, the streets silent. The blue light grows stronger, pulling at him with a force that makes his teeth ache.
Do you remember the legend of the Vault? The question makes him laugh. Of course he knows it. As a child, he dreamt of it, of being the hero crowned with the glory of discovery.
Then he grew up and tore himself away, leaving. Do you know the legend of the Vault? What he knows is that it once nearly drove him insane, just like everyone else. He had to leave. He doesn’t want to remember and he doesn’t want to know, because that Vault, it sinks its claws into you, a ghost that haunts each thought and drive away any semblance of peace. It gnaws, insistent, calling your name over and over. The only way to silence it is to find it or…
He wakes with a start, rubbing at his face as a nurse stares him down. His nose hurts less and he pulls the cotton out from his nostrils.
She hands him a slender glass of champagne. ”Congratulations,” she says, ”it’s a baby girl.”
”And my wife?”
He knocks it back and gets up. ”Let me see her.”
”Sir, your wife, she’s…”
”No, not her. I want to see my daughter.”
Swaddled in white cloth and put in a plastic box to stabilize, she looks little more than a shrunken prune of a child. The skin, pinkish-purple and wrinkled, isn’t what he expected. The mouth opens and closes, the remaining umbilical cord looking like a cancerous lump protruding from her convex stomach. So feeble and weak – Moneta has already told him of the softness of their heads, how pushing at the wrong place can send your finger spearing right through their brain, and how he will have to hold her a certain way to keep her neck from snapping.
”What a little shit,” he mutters to himself, all alone with a glass of stale, cheap champagne and a newborn baby. Never before in his life has he felt as powerless and useless as in that moment.
As John paces up and down the corridor, waiting to hear word on Moneta’s life dangling by the thread, he presses his face against the observation glass and glares at their child. Angel. Moneta said the name spoke to her, but it merely annoys him, a leftover myth from ancient times. He read up on them, about how they act as the bridge between the flawed mortals and the divine celestials, but seeing as the sky has become space has become conquered, what use is there for them?
”Guarding,” Moneta argues in his head, in the same tone she used when she wrung his hand while still smiling. She hates losing arguments. ”They guard, they protect, they guide.”
”Neither of which we need,” John would say back, only that now Moneta is closer to death than his arms and Angel has already failed to fulfill her task – she’s more of a demon than anything benevolent. Or would be, but he doesn’t believe in angels, demons, or anything of that sort, because he’s a civilized man who has let go of any superstitious beliefs.
And he is a civilized man biting his hand in the bathroom stall, trying not to kick down the walls. He has no idea what to do with himself because his wife is dying and his daughter, born four hours ago, has entered life on a lethal note and she can’t even look at him, just… Lies there. Red and useless and frail, tiny and… His.
She’s his daughter and he doesn’t really grasp that either, a concept that suddenly brings him to that strange brink he recognizes so well.
Asking one of the nurses if he can hold her, they carefully place Angel in his arms, beaming at them. He reflects their facial expressions, mirroring the joy they think he should be going through. Hunching over her he makes himself into the protective bubble around her and he whispers a curse in her ear, a curse aimed at her. She sleeps blissfully, snuggling closer to his chest, and he curses her once more for all the misery she’s caused.
Together they wait. The nurses teach him how to care for her, and it dawns upon him how reliant she is, her survival hinging upon his will to give. Her life in his hands.
As the sun creeps over the horizon, the doctor comes to let him know. His relieved laughter bounces between the walls as they walk to her room; he squeezes Angel so hard she wakes up and starts crying. Though the doctor talks with a severe voice, listing complications, precautions, future scenarios, John can’t stop himself as he rushes in to Moneta.
”Look at you,” she croaks out, one hand on his cheek and the other curled around Angel’s tiny ones. ”My loves.”
Time heals all wounds, supposedly. John waits, and some hurts do close up.
He grows to love Angel in spite of what she did to Moneta, but the nugget of distrustful hatred remains, waiting to take root again. At night, he wonders, tumbling into the dark abyss of questions no father should need to answer, and pulls himself out through going into her bedroom and watching her sleep. He reminds himself that he has hands large enough to crush her neck in a few seconds. That if need be, he can end it… Physically.
Mentally is another thing.
So he kisses her forehead and goes back to the rhythms of the day, content enough.
Moneta quits her job and becomes a housewife, reluctantly at first but then blissfully. The weakness in her heart is remedied and augmented with cybernetics, implants that do the beating her muscles are too weak to do on their own. Her breath is shallow and her sighs deeper, but she smiles just the same, bouncing Angel on her lap. Their miracle, she says, though John argues that there is nothing miraculous, just fortune dealing them a good hand.
”You believe in nothing,” she accuses.
”No, I believe in many things.” A hand crawls under the covers, cupping her left breast. ”I believe that this heart of yours will keep beating because I feel it, because when I do this…” He rolls her over onto her back, pressing his ear against the chest. ”I hear the little ticks of technology. I believe in that. In progress.”
”Myths aren’t part of the real life experience.” Kissing the curve of her breast, bigger than he remembers them, he traces his lips up her neck. ”Myths are lies told to keep the fools at bay. What’s real is what you can grasp.” He smiles and she does too.
She believes his lies so well that he almost does too.
Angel grows too quick for him to keep up; years pass while he chips away at tasks that never seems to end… And once one does, another consumes all his time. Work defines his life and Angel registers only on weekends, but when he does wake up on those days, they’re completely dedicated to her. They play the classic games, chess and cards; anything where she can develop a strategy to use against him tickles her fancy and he admits, it does for him as well. She’s clever and quick, often outmaneuvering him with a few feints so finely placed that he can only applaud her effort.
When they take a break, he pulls out a book and she climbs into his lap, following his finger as he reads out loud. Her furrowed brow is entirely focused on making sense of the letters connecting to the spoken words, and though Moneta says he’s pushing her to develop too fast, he sees no fault with that. ”Angel’s intelligent,” he points out, ”don’t stifle that. Or is this about something else? Huh? Do you feel left out?” While his words are just teasing, Moneta pulls her shoulders up and looks out the window.
”She really likes you. She looks up to you, but me? It’s… It’s hard to tell.”
”You’re her mother, of course she loves you.”
The weeks stack up, becoming years, as Angel grows taller and her smile widens, the big blue eyes becoming all the more captivating. As daughter loves father, he manages to love her almost as much, except for one thing that unsettles him: each year upon her birthday, he comes back to the dream begun that night in the hospital.
On her fifth, it comes back to him as he drifts off in the evening. The party is long since over, but Angel, riding high on the effects of sugar upon her nervous system, keeps him up. Finally having convinced her to play with something else, he tries to read but his head is too heavy. Closing his eyes, he immediately finds himself back in that terrible landscape of his youth.
In his dreams, he remembers Pandora. He tastes the dust on his tongue, the acrid sand slipping between the cracks and into their rooms; no matter how much they swept it stayed. Outside the landscape shifted day by day, the scorched ground cracking as the summer went on, years growing longer as the days grew crueler.
Under his feet, the ground shifts, unstable; above, the night sweeps in, offering a cool protection as shadowy figures resembling people he vaguely recalls unwrap their rough clothing around the fire. The stories all bore him, tedious and rambling, except one. It lacks in nuance, always told with the same suggestions: of the great hunter, guided by the guardian, that will reveal the greatness within the vaults. There is not much embellishment to add, but everyone who tells it makes the same mistake. They claim it’s a legend, a story inherit in Pandora’s wild nature to drive weaker men insane with impossible dreams.
They commit a grave error. It’s not a legend, but a prophecy.
In his dreams, he stands on Pandora’s soil, knowing the path. Key in hand and guardian’s instructions in mind, he finds the way to glory.
The cruelest things about dreams is how they end: abruptly, right at the moment when the gates open everything crashes as he jolts upright. He fell asleep mid-sentence again, and lacks the energy to try to find his place. Putting down the book in his lap, John stretches out on the couch and yawns. On the floor, Angel sits hunched over a pile of papers. She grabs the crayon box, puts one in and then takes another out before closing up, movements neat and efficient.
”What are you drawing?” he asks, dutifully curious. Moneta has told him to show interest, even when all she holds up is poor stick figures she claims to be people he knows. Lines are lines.
When she holds up the drawing he drops the book, then grabs her by the wrist and wrenches the drawing out of her hand. He’d know the symbol anywhere. It’s ingrained into his bones; if someone woke him up in the middle of the night and asked him to identify his home-world, he’d just draw that symbol. It is home, as much as anything can be.
”Where did you see this?” He’s angry, unable to control the rise of his voice. From further down the corridor, he hears Moneta open a door to tell him ’calm down’. ”Where, Angel?”
”I…” She stutters, eyes looking everywhere but at him.
”John!” Moneta’s stern shout does nothing to stem the rising tide.
Angel’s eyes darken, in a way no human eye should. Her skin becomes fire under his hands and then a burst of light knocks him back, sending her to one side of the room and him to another.
Struggling to regain the breath knocked out of him, he crawls across the floor to where she lays. ”Angel?" He shakes her, electric sparks shooting from her naked skin to his hand. The sharp sting of the shock makes him pull away again, and he sees a strange shimmer all around her, a shift in the room's atmosphere happening as white light encircles her head, the jagged edges of electric arcs creating a thorn crown. "Angel, honey! What are you doing?"
”It came to me in a dream…” Her eyes brim over with tears, but as soon as they hit her skin they fizzle to nothing. "I'm so sorry, dad." She lets out a piercing scream, and he barely has time to cover his eyes before being lashed with the electricity himself. His arms ache and the entire room smells of burnt wires and skin, the light burning his retinas raw. Then it stops as suddenly as it started, ended with the dull thud of a body hitting the floor.
"What's going on?" Moneta calls from down the hall, hurried footsteps echoing against the laminated floor.
John peels himself off the floor just in time to see his wife give out a silent cry as she dives for their daughter's limp body, shielding Angel from him. "Baby, it's okay…"
"What have you done to her?" Moneta demands, cradling the unconscious Angel in her arms. "Why would you do this? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing…" Anger rises in him, the frustration Moneta often manages to awaken and worsen with her poorly chosen words. "She just did it herself…"
"Look at her arms! Look at these burns! We need to get her to a hospital!"
Instinct tells John not to, a nagging memory at the back of his mind, pushed far and deep away. There is something eerily familiar about the marks on Angel's skin, a legend or a fairy tale, an unreal saga… And like all things from Pandora, a terrible curse to shatter any semblance of peace.
He prides himself on giving not only Moneta, but Angel, anything they desire. He has means, he possesses wealth, and he knows how to get his way. They live an opulent life, their house adorned with only the finest. He had it built to complement Moneta, tailored to suit her tastes down to the kitchen sink and ceiling fixtures. Nothing has been out of his reach, because he loves her so and he knows of no way to limit that adoration, so he built her a mansion to keep her. She entered in love, and she continues to love him in that strange homely bliss he doesn’t fully understand. Everything about their lives is like a dream, a foreign sensation he pinches himself to make sure it didn't dissolve.
Their lives are nothing like what he comes from, yet he never worries it will end, because what can threaten a blessed heaven? And yet as he sits in the doctor’s office, he finds that the threat was the one they took in years ago.
"They aren't burns," doctor Lythe says, dialing up a number at his console. "I'm afraid your daughter is a siren."
How easily the world crumbles. How easily the civilized man finds himself reduced to nothing. ”What?"
"Siren. Surely you've heard of them."
"They are children's stories. Stories. As in, not real." If he listens hard enough, he can hear Pandora laughing.
"Quite the opposite. Rare as they are, their existence is real, just poorly documented. Congratulations, and my condolences, but this is the law." Lythe taps his fingers on the desk’s surface. ”Hello? Yes, I have to report–”
Catching on, John leans over the table and ends the call, much to doctor Lythe's frustration. "Sir, it's not my decision, the government…"
"What would they do to her?"
"I'm not sure, but trust in them to give her a better life…”
John bristles. Taking the doctor by the throat, he slams the shorter man against the wall. "No, you listen to me," he hisses, "they want my baby girl. They want to take her away from me."
"It's standard procedure…"
"Sssh." He punches the man in the ribs and a bone cracks under his hands, only making him tighten his hold around the throat. "Don't you dare suggest anyone can give her a better life than me. Don't you dare."
”This is…” Lythe’s face reddens, becoming purple. Blood vessels burst in eyes that look ready to pop out of his skull, tongue lolling out and getting saliva all over John’s hand. The body stiffens and then goes soft, but John keeps pressing at the throat for another five minutes, just to make sure. His head is pleasantly empty of thoughts as he waits – no panic, no nervousness, no regrets – just a very simple desire: to protect Angel. To keep her.
When he’s sure the doctor is dead, he sits him down at the desk, pulls the blinds and goes through the pockets. Finding the keycard, he considers the options and decides quickly. He turns off the lights and locks the door after himself, walking with a restrained hurry in his steps to get back to where Moneta and Angel wait for him.
"We're leaving," he says in a tense whisper pushed out between a faked smile. "Grab your coats, hurry home and pack, but we have to go. Now."
Moneta follows in silence. She packs a few belongings, less than he’d expect, but she makes a lazy motion with her hand, imitating the swiping of a card. They can always get new stuff. She runs her hands across the surfaces – the wallpaper in the living room, the marble countertops in the kitchen, the oak desk in her study. She lingers in the garden house, coming out with dirty fingernails and red eyes.
For himself, he only fills half a bag with his own stuff – three books, some clothes, all the necessary valuables – then takes the rosewood chess set and two sets of cards. Though he looks everywhere, he can’t find the drawing Angel made. Without it, the entire day seems frustratingly unreal, as if none of it happened for a reason. As if it was all random chance.
On the last departing night shuttle, they take up a row to themselves. Moneta sits by the aisle and Angel by the window, John sandwiched between them. He holds a book open and while he manages to read, it only registers on a shallow note, far too conscious of the miseries of his girls.
Moneta, taking two pills to help her sleep, reaches over him and pats Angel on the cheek. ”What trouble you have caused us,” she says, resigned, slumping back into her seat as the drugs takes effect.
Angel curls up in her seat, and John places his jacket around her shoulders. He doubts she understands the quiet conspiracy between them, but what goes unsaid that night on the shuttle could fill Tolstoy novels.