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Thursday’s Child

by Eric Brown

I crested the hill, pulled the Range Rover into the side of the lane and stared through the windscreen. There was something about the freezing February landscape, with the westering sun laying a gold leaf patina over the snow-covered farmland in the valley bottom, that struck me as even more beautiful than the same scene in summer.

I took a deep breath and worked to control my anger. It was always the same when I collected Lucy from Marianne. I had to stop somewhere, calm myself.

I was on call for the next hour, but calculated that the chances of being summoned during that time were slight. Marianne would object to my early arrival, but Lucy would be eager to get away. I told myself that I arrived early on these occasions so that I’d have an extra hour with my daughter, but I wondered if, subconsciously, I did it on purpose to spite Marianne.

I started the engine and cruised down the hill. Three minutes later I entered the village of Hockton and pulled up outside a row of cottages, each one quaintly bonneted with a thick mantle of snow.

A light glowed behind the mullioned window of Marianne’s front room. Lucy would be watching a DVD of her latest favourite film.

I pressed the horn twice, my signal to Lucy that I was here, and climbed out.

Lucy had hauled the door open before I reached the gate, and only the fact that she was in her stockinged feet prevented her rushing out to meet me.

She was a beautiful skinny kid, six years old, with a pale elfin face and long black hair. My heart always kicked at the sight of her, after an absence of days.

She seemed a little subdued today: usually she would launch herself into my arms. I stepped inside and picked her up, her long legs around my waist, and kissed her nose, lips, neck in an exaggerated pantomime of affection which made her giggle.

„Love you,“ I said. „Bag packed?“

„Mmm.“

„Where’s your mum?“

„I think in the kitchen.“

„Get you bag and put some shoes on. I’ll just pop through and tell her I’m here.“

She skipped into the front room and I moved towards the kitchen, a psychosomatic pain starting in my gut.

Marianne was peeling carrots at the draining board, her back to me. „You’re early again, Daniel,“ she said without turning. She knew I disliked the long form of my name.

I leaned against the jamb of the door. „I was in the area, working.“

She turned quickly, knife in her hand. „You mean to say you have a body with you?“

She was a small, pretty woman, an adult version of Lucy. In the early days of our separation, alternating with the anger, I had experienced a soul-destroying sorrow that all the love I’d felt for this woman had turned to hate.

Before our marriage, I should have seen what might have happened, extrapolated from her beliefs – but at the time my love for her had allowed no doubt.

Lately she had taken to wearing a big wooden crucifix around her neck. Her left temple was not implanted and neither, thanks to her, was Lucy’s.

„Not all my work involves collection,“ I said. „What time should I bring her back on Thursday?“

„I’m working till five.“ She turned and resumed her peeling.

I pushed myself away from the door and moved to the lounge. Lucy was sitting on the floor, forcing her feet into a pair of trainers. I picked up her bag and she ran into the kitchen for a goodbye kiss. Marianne, the bitch, didn’t even come to the door to wave her off.

I led Lucy to the Range Rover and fastened her into the middle section of the back seat. When I started collecting her, a year ago, she had said that she wanted to sit in the front, next to me. „But why can’t I?“ she had wailed.

How could I begin to explain my paranoia? „Because it’s safer in case of accidents,“ I’d told her.

I reversed into the drive, then set off along the road back to Welling, ten miles away over the moors.

„Enjoying your holidays?“ I asked.

„Bit boring.“

I glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. „You okay?“

She hesitated. „Feeling a bit cough,“ she said, and to illustrate pantomimed a hacking cough into her right fist.

„Did mum take you to the doctor’s?“

I saw her nod.

„And?“ I asked.

„He gave me some pills.“

„Pills?“ I said. „What did he say was wrong?“

She looked away, through the window. „I don’t know.“

„Do you have the pills with you?“ Perhaps I’d be able to determine her ailment from the medication.

She shook her head. „Mummy said I didn’t need them.“

I decided to ring Marianne when we got back, find out what was going on. Or was this yet another manifestation of my paranoia?

We drove on in silence for a while. Cresting the snow-covered moorland, we passed the glittering obelisk of the Onward Station. It never failed to provoke a feeling of awe in me – and I saw the Station every working day. Quite apart what it represented, it was perhaps aesthetically the most beautiful object I had ever seen.

I wondered if it was the sight of it which prompted Lucy to say, „Daddy, the girls at school have been making fun of me.“

I glanced at her. „Why’s that?“

„It’s because I’m not implanted. They say I’ll die.“

I shook my head, wondering how to respond. „They’re just being silly,“ I said.

„But if I have an accident,“ she began.

„Don’t worry,“ I said, marvelling at the fact that she was only six years old, and yet had worked out the consequences of not being implanted. „You won’t have an accident.“

Then she asked, „Why aren’t I implanted?“

It was the first time she had ever mentioned the fact, and it was a while before I replied. „Because mum doesn’t want you to be,“ I said.

„But why doesn’t she?“

„I think you’d better ask her that yourself,“ I said, and left it at that. I changed the subject. „How about a meal at the Fleece when we get back? Would you like that?“

„Mmm,“ she said, without her usual enthusiasm for the idea, and fell silent.

* * *

We were a couple of miles from home when the onboard mobile rang. I cursed.

„Dan Chester here,“ I said, hoping the collection would be nearby.

„Dan.“ It was Masters, the Controller at the Station. „I’ve just had a call from someone over in Bradley. This is most irregular. They’ve reported a death.“

I slowed down, the better to concentrate. „I don’t understand. Was the subject implanted?“

„Apparently so-„

„Then why didn’t it register with you?“

„Exactly what I was wondering. That’s why I want you to investigate. I’m sending a team from the Station straight away, but I thought that as you’re in the area…“

I sighed. „Okay. Where is it?“

Masters relayed the address.

„I’ll be in touch when I’ve found out what’s going on,“ I said, and cut the connection.

Bradley was only a mile or two out of my way. I could be there in ten minutes, sort out the problem in the same time, and be at the Fleece with a pint within the half hour.

I glanced back at Lucy. She was asleep, her head nodding with the motion of the Rover.

The Grange, Bradley Lower Road, turned out to be a Georgian house tucked away in a dense copse a mile down a treacherous, rutted track. The Range Rover negotiated the pot holes with ease, rocking back and forth like a fairground ride.

Only when the foursquare manse came into view, surrounded by denuded elm and sycamore, did I remember hearing that the Grange had been bought at a knockdown price a few years ago by some kind of New Age eco-community.

A great painted rainbow decorated the façade of the building, together with a collection of smiley faces, peace symbols and anarchist logos.

A motley group of men and women in their thirties had gathered on the steps of the front door, evidently awaiting my arrival. They wore dungarees and over-sized cardigans and sweaters; many of them sported dreadlocks.

Lucy was still sleeping. I locked the Rover and hurried over to the waiting group, a briefcase containing release forms and death certificates tucked under my arm.

A stout woman with a positive comet’s tail of blonde dreads greeted me. I was pleased to see that she was implanted – as were, so far as a brief glance could tell me, most of the other men and women standing behind her. Some radical groups I’d heard of were opposed to the intervention of the Kéthani, and openly hostile to their representatives.

„Dan Chester,“ I said. „I’m the ferryman from the Station.“

„Dan, I’m Marsha,“ the woman said. „Welcome to New Haven. I’ll show you to…“

The press parted, and Marsha escorted me across a garishly painted hallway and down a corridor.

Marsha was saying, „Sanjay was against the resurrection process, Dan. We were surprised when he decided to be implanted, a couple of weeks ago.“

I nodded, wondering again why the subject’s death had failed to register at the Station.

Marsha paused outside a door, pushed it open and stood back. I stepped over the threshold and stopped in my tracks.

Sanjay lay on a mattress in the corner of the room. He had opened the vein of his left arm all the way from the wrist to the crook of his elbow.

Blood had spurted up the far wall, across the window, and soaked into the mattress around the body.

„Billy found him about thirty minutes ago,“ Marsha was explaining. „We knew Sanjay was depressed, but we never thought…“

I took in the scene, and knew immediately that there was something not quite right about the corpse. By now the nano-mechs released by the implant should have been effecting repairs on the wound. The body should have the relaxed appearance of someone asleep, not the stone-cold aspect of a corpse.

I hurried over, knelt, and placed my finger-tips to the implant beneath the skin of the young man’s left temple.

The implant should have emitted a definite vibration, similar to the contented purring of a cat. I felt nothing.

I glanced over my shoulder; Marsha and half a dozen others were watching him from the door. „If I could be left alone for a minute or two…“ I said.

They retreated, closing the door behind them.

I pulled out my mobile and got through to Masters at the Station.

„Dan here,“ I said. „I’m with the subject. You’re not going to believe this – he’s implanted, but he’s dead.“

„That’s impossible.“

„Perhaps… I don’t know. I’ve never heard of a malfunction before. But there’s always a first time.“

„No way,“ Masters said. „They can’t go wrong.“

„Well, it looks as though this one has.“ I paused. „What the hell should I do?“

„The team should be with you any minute. I’ve called the police in. They’ll take over once they arrive.“

I cut the connection, moved to the window and stared out, touching my own implant. I avoided another glance at the corpse, but I knew I would see the man’s pained, brown face for a long time to come. He had been implanted, and had taken his own life, fully expecting to be resurrected to begin a new life among the stars… How had the implant failed him?

Five minutes later I watched another Range Rover draw up beside mine, followed by a police car. Four Station officials, led by Richard Lincoln, hurried across the snow-covered drive and up the steps, two constables in their wake.

A minute later Richard appeared at the door, along with the officials and the police officers.

„What the hell’s going on, Dan?“ Richard said.

„I wish I knew.“ I indicated the corpse and went though my findings. The other officials recorded my statement and took video footage of the room.

Richard questioned Marsha and a few of the others, while the Station officials fetched a container and eased the body inside.

I followed Richard outside and climbed into the Rover. Lucy was still asleep.

Richard tramped through the snow and I wound down the window. „We’ll take the body back to the Station,“ he said, „try to find out what happened with the implant.“

I looked beyond him, to the posse of communees on the steps of the Grange, silent and watchful.

„Has anyone told them?“

Richard shook his head. „I’ll come back and explain the situation when we’ve found out exactly what happened. See you later, Dan.“

I fired the engine and headed up the track. The Fleece beckoned. I considered a rich pint of Taylor’s Landlord and a hot meal, and tried to forget about what I’d seen back at the Grange.

* * *

The Fleece was one of those horse-brass and beams establishments that had resisted the tide of modernisation sweeping the country. Norman, the landlord, had the twin assets of a good publican: friendliness and the ability to keep a good pint. The food wasn’t bad, either.

It was seven o’clock by the time we settled ourselves in the bar room, a little too early for the regular Tuesday night crowd. I ordered myself a pint of Landlord and steak and kidney pie with roast potatoes, and for Lucy a fresh orange juice and chicken nuggets with chips.

The food arrived. Lucy was far from her lively self tonight; she was tired and hardly talked, answered my questions with monosyllabic replies and pushed her food around the plate with a distinct lack of interest.

I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards me. „Home and an early night for you, m’girl.“

„Can I watch TV for a bit before I go to bed? Please.“

„Okay, seeing as there’s no school in the morning.“

I was about to suggest we leave when Khalid pushed through the door, a swirl of snow entering with him, and signalled across to me. He mimed downing a pint and pointed at my empty glass. I relented and gave him the thumbs up.

No doubt Lucy would tell Marianne that I’d kept her at the pub way past her bedtime, and I wouldn’t hear the last of it the next time I picked her up. Marianne thought alcohol the tipple of the devil, and all who drank it damned.

Khalid ferried two pints from the bar and sat down across the table from me.

„Hi, sleepy-bones,“ he said to Lucy. Her eyelids were fighting a losing battle against sleep.

„Just the man,“ Khalid said to me. „I hoped you’d be here.“

„It’s Tuesday night,“ I said. „What’s wrong?“

„The implanted suicide you investigated today,“ he said.

Khalid Azzam was a junior doctor working at Bradley General; he looked after the Implant ward. I’d met him a couple of years ago when he moved to the village from Bradford. He and his wife Zara were regulars on Tuesday nights.

„Masters contacted you?“ I asked.

„They brought the body in and I inspected the implant.“

I voiced what I’d been dreading since discovering the dead man. „It malfunctioned?“ I asked, hard though that was to believe.

„Malfunctioned?“ Khalid shook his head and accounted for the top two inches of his pint. He sighed with satisfaction. „I’d say that was well nigh impossible.“

„So…?“

„This is only the second case I’ve come across, but I’ve heard rumours that they’re more widespread than we first believed.“

He took another mouthful.

„What,“ I said, unable to stop myself smiling, „is more widespread?“

„This is between you and me, okay? Don’t tell Masters I said anything. Your people at the Station have yet to come out with an official statement.“ He saw that I was about to jump in with the obvious question, and raised a hand. „Okay, okay…“ He leaned forward, a little melodramatically – only Old Wilf was at the bar, and he was stone deaf. „Some cowboys have started pirating fake implants.“

I lowered my pint and stared at him. „Why on earth…?“ I began.

„It was only a matter of time,“ Khalid said. „Think about it. There are thousands of people out there who refuse for whatever reasons to be implanted-“ his eyes flickered, almost imperceptibly, towards Lucy. „They’re… what… one in a few hundred thousand? A minority, anyway. And like any minority, they occasionally suffer victimisation. Wouldn’t it be easier, they reckon, if they could have something that looks like, but wasn’t, an implant? They’d blend in, become one of the crowd. They would no longer stand out.“

„It makes sense,“ I said. „And so some enterprising back-street surgeon has started offering the service?“

„Doesn’t have to be a surgeon. Anyone with a little medical knowledge can perform the operation. A quick slit, insert something the same shape as an implant, and seal the wound with synthiflesh. Thirty minutes later you’re back out on the street.“

I thought through the implications. „But if these people don’t inform friends, loved ones?“

He was nodding. „Exactly. Like today. Sanjay’s friends thought he was implanted, and fully expected him to be resurrected.“

„Christ,“ I said, „the whole thing’s tragic.“

„And there are thousands of people going around out there with these fake, useless implants. Masters said something about a law to make them illegal. He’s talking to a few politicians tomorrow.“

Lucy had stretched out on the seat next to me and was snoring away. Had she been awake and bored, guilt might have driven me homeward. As it was, I owed Khalid a pint, and at that very second Ben Knightly dashed in from the snowstorm that was evidently raging outside. I was off work for a couple of days, and I could treat myself to a lie-in in the morning.

I pointed to Khalid’s empty glass. „Another?“

„You’ve twisted my arm.“

I bought another round. Ben joined us and we stopped talking shop.

It was another hour, and two more pints, before conscience got the better of me. I refused all offers of more beer, eased the still sleeping Lucy into my arms, and carried her from the bar and along the street.

The cold had awoken her by the time I pushed through the front door. I carried her to her room, where she changed into her pyjamas. Five minutes later she was snuggling into my lap before the fire and we were watching a DVD of a French mime act, which apparently was the latest craze in kids‘ entertainment.

She was asleep ten minutes later, and I turned down the sound and switched over to a news programme. Half awake myself, and cradling my daughter in my arms, I allowed a succession of images to wash over me and considered how lucky I was.

So I might have married the last religious zealot in North Yorkshire, but from that match made in Hell had issued Lucy Katia Chester. And to think that, back in my twenties, I’d vowed never to have children. I sometimes shudder to think of the joy I would have missed had I stuck to my bachelor principles.

A newscaster was reporting anti-Kéthani riots in Islamabad, but by then I was fading fast.

* * *

I took Lucy to Bolton Abbey the following day. I bundled her up in her chunky pink parka, bobble hat and mittens against the biting cold, and we walked through the trees along the riverbank. Down below, the river was frozen for the first time in living memory, its usually quicksilver torrent paused in shattered slabs of grey and silver. Later we lobbed snowballs at each other among the stark ruins of the Abbey. It was quiet – no-one else had dared to venture out, with the thermometer ten below zero – and to hear her laughter echoing in the stillness was a delight. I had quite forgotten to ring Marianne last night, to enquire about Lucy’s illness, but she seemed fine today so I decided not to bother.

We had lunch in the Devonshire Arms across the road from the Abbey, and in the afternoon visited Marsworld, a couple of miles north of Skipton. We wandered around the replica rockets that had carried the scientific team to the red planet a couple of years ago, then visited mock-ups of the dozen domes where the explorers were living right at that moment. I had worried that Lucy might find it boring, but she turned out to be fascinated; she’d had lessons about the mission at school, and actually knew more about it than I did.

We drove home through the narrow lanes at four, with dusk rapidly falling. I proceeded with a caution I would not have shown had I been alone: I carried a precious cargo on the back-seat… The only time I was truly content, and could rest easy, was when Lucy was with me: at other times, I envisaged, perhaps unfairly, the unthinking neglect with which Marianne might treat her.

„Do you know what would be nice, daddy?“ Lucy said now.

„What?“ I asked, glancing at her in the rear-view.

„I would really like it if you and mummy would live together again.“

She had said this before, and always I had experienced a hopeless despair. I would have done anything to secure my daughter’s happiness, but this was one thing that I could not contemplate.

„Lucy, we can’t do that. We have our separate lives now.“

„Don’t you love mummy any more?“

„Not in the same way that I once did,“ I said.

„But a little bit?“ she went on.

I nodded. „A little bit,“ I lied.

She was quiet for a time, and then said, „Why did you move away, daddy? Was it because of me?“

I slowed and looked at her in the mirror. „Of course not. What made you think-?“

„Mummy said that you stopped loving her because you couldn’t agree about me,“ she said.

I gripped the wheel, anger welling. I might have hated the bitch, but I had kept that animosity to myself. Never once had I attempted to turn Lucy against her mother.

„That’s not true, Lucy. We disagreed about a lot of things. What you’ve got to remember is that we both love you more than anything else, okay?“

We underestimate children’s capacity for not being fobbed off with platitudes. Lucy said, „But the biggest thing you disagreed about was me, wasn’t it? You wanted me to be implanted, and mummy didn’t.“

I sighed. „That was one of the things.“

„Mummy says that God doesn’t want people to be implanted. If we’re implanted, then we don’t go to heaven. She says that the aliens are evil – she says that they’re in the same football league as the Devil.“

I smiled to myself. I just wanted to take Lucy in my arms and hug her to me. I concentrated on that, rather than the anger I felt towards Marianne.

„That isn’t true,“ I said. „God made everyone, even the Kéthani. If you’re implanted, then you don’t die. Eventually you can visit the stars, which I suppose is a kind of heaven.“

She nodded, thinking about this. „But if I die, then I’ll go to a different heaven?“ she asked at last.

If you die without the implant, I thought, you will remain dead for ever and ever, amen, and no Christian sky-god will effect your resurrection.

„That’s what your mum thinks,“ I said.

She was relentless with her dogged six-year-old logic. „But what do you think, daddy?“

„I think that in twelve years, when you’re eighteen, you can make up your own mind. If you want, you can be implanted then.“ Twelve years, I thought: they seemed like an eternity.

„Hey,“ I said, „we’re almost home. What do you want for dinner? Will you help me make it?“

„Spaghetti!“ she cried, and for the rest of the journey lectured me on the proper way to make bolognese sauce.

That evening, after we’d prepared spaghetti together and eaten it messily in front of the TV, Lucy slept next to me and I tried to concentrate on a documentary about ancient Egypt.

I could not erase memories of Marianne from my mind’s eye.

I had met her ten years ago, when I was thirty. She was twenty-six, and I suspected that I was her very first boyfriend. At that time her Catholicism had intrigued me, her moral and ethical codes setting her apart in my mind from the hedonism I saw all around. The Kéthani had arrived the year before, and their gift of the implants had changed society for ever: in the early days, many people adopted a devil-may-care attitude towards life – they were implanted, they could not die, so why not live for the day? Others opposed the changes.

I was implanted within a year of the Kéthani’s arrival. I was not religious, and had always feared extinction: it had seemed the natural thing to do to accept the gift of immortality, especially after the first returnees arrived back on Earth with the stories of their resurrection.

Not long after my implantation, I trained to become a Ferryman – and but for this I might never have met Marianne. Her mother, an atheist and implanted, had died unexpectedly of a cerebral haemorrhage, and I had collected the body.

I had been immediately attracted to Marianne’s physicality, and found her worldview – during our many discussions in the weeks that followed our first date – intriguing, if absurd.

She thought the Kéthani evil, the implantation process an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, and looked forward to the day when she would die and join the virtuous in heaven.

She was appalled by my blithe acceptance of what I took to be our alien saviours.

We were married six months after our first meeting.

I was in love, whatever I thought that meant at the time. I loved her so much that I wanted to save her. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before she came to see that my acceptance of the Kéthani was sane and sensible.

She probably thought the reverse: given time, her arguments would bring about my religious salvation.

We had never spoken about what we might do if we had children. She was a successful accountant for a firm in Leeds, and told me that she did not want children. She claimed that Lucy was a mistake, but I’d often wondered since whether she had intended conceiving a child, and whether she had consciously planned what followed.

During the course of her pregnancy, I refrained from raising the topic of implants, but a couple of days after Lucy was born I presented the implantation request form to Marianne for her signature.

She would not sign, and of course, because both our signatures were required, Lucy could not undergo the simple operation to ensure her continual life.

We remained together for another year, and it was without doubt the worst year of my life. We argued, I accused my wife of terrible crimes in the name of her mythical god, while she called me an evil blasphemer. Our positions could not be reconciled. My love for Lucy grew in direct proportion to my hatred of Marianne. We separated at the end of the year, though Marianne, citing her religious principles, would not grant me a divorce.

I saw Lucy for two or three days every week over the course of the next five years, and the love of my daughter sustained me, and at the same time drove me to the edge of sanity, plagued continually by fear and paranoia.

That night, in the early hours, Lucy crept into my bed and snuggled up against me, and I dozed, utterly content.

We slept in late the following morning, lunched at the Fleece, and then went for a long walk. At five we set off for Hockton, Lucy quiet in the back seat.

I led her from the Range Rover to the front door, where I knelt and stroked a tress of hair from her face. I kissed her. „See you next week, poppet. Love you.“

She hugged me and, as always, I had to restrain myself from weeping.

She hurried into the house and I left without exchanging a word with Marianne.

I threw myself into my work for the next five days. We were busy; Richard Lincoln was away on holiday, and I took over his workload. I averaged half a dozen collections a day, ranging across the length and breadth of North Yorkshire.

Tuesday night arrived, and not a day too soon; I was due to pick up Lucy in the morning and keep her for the duration of my three day break. I celebrated with a few pints among congenial company at the Fleece. The regulars were present: Khalid and Zara, Ben Knightly, Jeff Morrow and Richard Lincoln, the latter just back from the Bahamas with a tan to prove it.

It was midnight by the time I made my way home, and there was a message from Marianne on the answer-phone. Would I ring her immediately about tomorrow?

Six pints to the good, I had no qualms about ringing her when she might be in bed.

In the event, she answered the call with disconcerting alacrity. „Yes?“

„Dan here,“ I said. „I got the message.“

„It’s about Lucy. I wouldn’t bother coming tomorrow. She came down with something and she’ll be in bed for a couple of days.“

„What’s wrong?“ I asked, fear gripping me by the throat.

„It’s nothing serious. The doctor came, said something about a virus.“

„I’ll come anyway,“ I said. „I want to see her.“

„Don’t bother,“ Marianne said. „I really don’t want to have you over here if it isn’t absolutely necessary.“

„I couldn’t give a damn about what you want!“ I said. „I want to see Lucy. I’m coming over.“

But she had slammed down the receiver, leaving me talking to myself.

I considered phoning back, but didn’t. It would only show her how angry I was. I’d go over in the morning anyway, whether she liked it or not.

* * *

A blizzard began just as I set off, and the road over the moors to Hockton was treacherous. It took me almost an hour to reach the village, and it was after eleven by the time I pulled up outside Marianne’s cottage.

I fully expected her not to answer the door, but to my surprise she pulled it open after the first knock. „Oh,“ she said. „It’s you.“

I stepped past her. „Where’s Lucy?“

She indicated the stairs with a plastic beaker full of juice. I climbed to Lucy’s room, Marianne following.

„Daddy!“ Lucy called out when I entered. She was sitting up in bed, a colouring book on her lap. She looked thin and pale.

I sat on the bed and took her hand. Marianne passed her the beaker of juice. I looked up at her. „What did the doctor say?“

She shrugged. She was hugging herself, and looked pinched and mean, resentful of my presence. „He just said it was a virus, that it would pass in a few days. Nothing to worry about.“

„What about medication?“

„He suggested Calpol if her temperature rose.“

She retreated to the door, watching me. I turned to Lucy and squeezed her hand. „How are you feeling, poppet?“

Her head against the pillow, she smiled bravely. „Bit sick,“ she said.

I looked up. Marianne was still watching me. „If you’d give us a few minutes alone…“

Reluctantly she withdrew.

I winked at Lucy. „You’ll be better in no time,“ I said.

„Will I have to have more tests, daddy?“

„I don’t know. What did the doctor say when he came to see you?“

She shook her head. „He didn’t come here. Mummy took me to the hospital. A doctor needled me and took some blood.“

A hollow sensation opened up in my stomach. I smiled inanely. „What did the doctor say, Lucy? Can you remember what the doctor told mummy?“

She pulled a face in concentration. „They said something about my blood. It wasn’t good enough. I think they said they might have to take it all out and put some new blood in. Then another doctor said something about my bones. I might need an operation on my bones.“

My vision swam. My heart hammered.

„Was this at the hospital in Bradley?“ I asked her.

She shook her head. „Mummy took me to Leeds.“

„Can you remember which hospital?“

She made her concentrating face. „It was a hospital for army people,“ she said.

I blinked. „What?“

„I think the sign said General,“ she said.

„Leeds General,“ I said. „Was that it?“

She nodded. I squeezed her hand. My first impulse was to go downstairs and confront Marianne, find out just what the hell was going on.

Lucy had something wrong with her blood, and might need an operation on her bones… A bone marrow transplant, for chrissake?

I tried not to jump to the obvious conclusion.

I remained with Lucy for a while, read her a book and then chatted about nothing in particular, all the time my mind racing.

By noon, I had decided what to do. I leaned forward and kissed her. „I’ve got to go now, Lucy. I’ll pop in and see you tomorrow, okay?“

I hurried from the room and down the stairs. I paused before the living room door, but didn’t trust myself to confront Marianne just yet. I left the cottage and drove home through the snowstorm.

For the next half hour I ransacked the house for the photo-copy of Lucy’s birth certificate, and my passport, for identification purposes. Then I set off again, heading towards Leeds.

It was almost three before I pulled into the bleak car-park in the shadow of the towerblock buildings. At reception I explained the situation and requested to see someone in charge. The head registrar examined my documents and spoke in hushed tones to someone in a black suit.

I was shown into the waiting room of a Mr Chandler, and told by his secretary that he would try to fit me in within the hour.

At four-thirty the secretary called my name and, heart thumping, I stepped into the consulting room.

Mr Chandler was a thin-faced, grey-haired man in his late fifties. The bulge of an implant showed at his left temple.

He was examining a computer flat-screen on his desk, and looked up when I entered. We shook hands.

„Mr Chester,“ he said. „According to my secretary, you haven’t been informed of your daughter’s condition?“

„I’m separated from my wife. We’re not exactly on speaking terms.“

„This is highly irregular,“ he muttered to himself.

I resisted the urge to tell him that Marianne was a highly irregular woman. „Can you tell me what’s wrong with my daughter, Mr Chandler?“

He consulted his files, lips pursed.

„Lucy was diagnosed one month ago as having contracted leukaemia…“ He went on, and I heard him say that the type she was suffering from was pernicious and incurable, but it was as if I had suddenly been plucked from this reality, as if I were experiencing the events in the consulting room at a remove of miles. I seemed to have possession of my body only by remote control.

„Incurable?“ I echoed.

„I’m sorry. Of course, if your daughter were implanted…“

I stared at him. „Don’t you think I know that?“ I said. „Why the hell do you think my damned wife kept her condition quiet?“

He looked away. „I’m sorry.“

„Is there nothing you can do? I mean, surely under the Hippocratic oath…?“

He was shaking his head. „Unfortunately I’ve been in this situation before, Mr Chester. It requires the consent of both legal guardians to allow the implantation process to be undertaken in the case of minors. I’m quite powerless to intervene, as much as I sympathise with your predicament.“

I worked to calm myself, regulate my breathing. „How long might Lucy…?“ I began.

He said, „As things stand, perhaps one month. You see, since the advent of the Kéthani, the funding once spent on research into terminal diseases has been drastically cut back.“

I listened, but heard nothing. Ten minutes later I thanked him and moved from the room in a daze.

I have no recollection whatsoever of leaving the hospital and driving away from Leeds. I recall isolated incidents: a traffic jam on the York road, passing a nasty accident on the road to Bradley, and almost skidding from the lane myself a mile outside Hockton.

Then I was parked outside Marianne’s cottage, gripping the wheel and going over and over the words I would use in an attempt to make her agree to save our daughter’s life.

At last I left the Rover and hurried up the path. I had the curious sensation of being an actor on stage, and that, if I fluffed my lines now, the consequences would be dire.

I didn’t bother knocking, but opened the front door and moved down the hall.

Marianne was in the living room. She sat in her armchair, legs drawn up beneath her. She was hugging herself as if cold.

„I’ve been to the hospital,“ I said. „I talked with Chandler…“

She looked up, showing no surprise.

Heart thumping, I sat in the armchair opposite and stared at her. „We’ve got to talk about this,“ I said. „There’s more at stake than our principles or beliefs.“

She looked away. She was fingering her damned crucifix. „You mean, you want me to sacrifice my principles and beliefs in order to satisfy your own?“

I leaned forward, almost insensible with rage. „I mean,“ I said, resisting the urge to launch myself at her, „that if we do nothing, then Lucy will be dead. Does that mean anything to you? She’ll be bloody well dead!“

„Don’t you think I don’t know that? This isn’t easy for me, you know.“

I shook my head. „I don’t see how you can have a moment’s hesitation. The simple fact is, if you don’t agree to the implantation, then Lucy will die. We won’t have any second chances, no opportunity to regret. She’ll be dead.“

„And if I agree, I’ll be damning her in the eyes of God.“

I closed my eyes, controlled my breathing. I looked at her. I could not help myself, but I was crying. „Please, Marianne, for Lucy’s sake.“

She shook her head. „I don’t know… I’ve been thinking about nothing else. I need time.“

I gave a panicky nod at the thought that she might be relenting. „Chandler said she had a month, but who knows? We need to make a decision pretty damned quickly.“

She stared at me, her face ashen. „I need time to think, Dan. You can’t pressure me into this.“

I wiped away the tears. „Lucy is all we have left, Marianne. We don’t have each other anymore. Lucy is everything.“

This, so far as I recall, was the gist of the exchange; I have a feeling it went on for longer, with clichés from both sides bandied back and forth, to no definite conclusion. The last thing I did before leaving the house was to climb the stairs to Lucy’s bedroom, kneel beside the bed and watch my daughter as she slept.

I arrived home around midnight and, unable to sleep, stared at a succession of meaningless images passing before me on the TV screen.

* * *

I slept on the settee until ten o’clock the next morning, then showered and tried to eat breakfast. Between ten-thirty and midday I must have phoned Marianne a dozen times. She was either out, or not answering.

At one o’clock, the phone rang, startling me. Shaking, I lifted the receiver. „Hello?“

„Daniel?“

„Marianne?“

A silence, then, „Daniel. I have a form you need to sign.“

„My God, you mean-?“

„I’ll be in all afternoon,“ she said, and replaced the receiver.

I drove to Hockton, crying all the way. I pulled up before the cottage and dried my eyes, at once grateful for the decision Marianne had come to, and yet resentful that she had made me so pathetically indebted to her.

I hurried up the path, knocked and entered. Marianne was in her usual armchair. A slip of paper sat on the coffee table before her. I sat down and read through the release form. She had already appended her signature on the dotted line at the foot of the page. Fumbling, I pulled a pen from my pocket and signed my name below hers.

I looked up. Marianne was watching me. „You won’t regret this, Marianne,“ I said.

„I’ve made an appointment for the implant. I’m taking her in at one tomorrow.“

I nodded. „I’ll drop by to see her after work, okay?“

„Whatever…“

I made my way upstairs. Lucy was sitting up in bed. Intoxicated, I hugged her to me, smothering her in kisses. I stayed an hour, talking, reading her books, laughing…

When I made my way downstairs, Marianne was still in her armchair in the lounge. The room was in darkness.

I said goodbye before I left, but she did not respond.

It was six by the time I arrived home, and I dropped into the Fleece for a celebratory meal and a pint or three.

Khalid was there, along with Richard and Ben, and three pints turned to six as I told them the news: that, first, Lucy was going to be implanted, and second, that she was suffering from a terminal illness. My friends were a little unsure how to respond, then took my line and decided to celebrate.

It was well past one when I staggered home, and I had a raging headache all the next day at work. Fortunately, with Richard back from the Bahamas the workload was not intense, and I was finished by four.

I returned home, showered and changed, and then made my way over the moors to Hockton.

The cottage door was locked, and I thought at first that perhaps they had not returned. Then it struck me that, perhaps, Marianne had gone back on her word, decided not to take Lucy to the hospital…

Then the door opened.

„How is she?“ I asked, pushing past Marianne and making my way upstairs.

Marianne followed me into Lucy’s room. She was lying flat out, staring at the ceiling. She looked exhausted.

She beamed when she saw me. „Daddy, look. Look what I’ve got!“

Her small fingers traced the implant at her temple. I looked up; Marianne pushed herself away from the door and went downstairs.

I pulled Lucy to me – she seemed no more than a bundle of skin and bone – and could not stop myself from crying. „I love you,“ I whispered.

„Love you, too,“ Lucy replied, then said, „Now that I have the implant, daddy, will God love me as well?“

I lay her down, gently, and smiled. „I’m sure he will, poppet,“ I said.

Later, as she slept, I stroked her hair and listened to the words of the rhyme in my head: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go…

I made my way downstairs. Marianne was in the kitchen, washing dishes.

I leaned against the jamb.

„You’ve made the right decision, Marianne.“ I said.

She turned and stared at me. „You don’t know how difficult it was, Daniel,“ she said, without meeting my eyes, and turned back to the dishes.

I said goodbye, left the cottage and drove home.

* * *

Lucy went downhill rapidly after that.

The next time she stayed with me, she spent most of the entire two days in bed, listless and apathetic, and too drugged up even to talk much or play games. I told her that she was ill but that in time she would recover, and she gave a brave smile and squeezed my fingers.

During the course of the last two weeks, Marianne and I took time off work and nursed her at home, looking after her for alternating periods of two days.

At one point, Lucy lowered the book she was reading and stared at me from the sofa. „If I die,“ she said, „will the aliens take me away and make me better again?“

I nodded. „If that happens, you mustn’t be frightened, okay? The Kéthani will take good care of you, and in six months you’ll come back home to mum and me.“

She smiled to herself. „I wonder what the aliens look like?“

Two days before Lucy died, she was admitted to Bradley General. I was with her until the end.

She was unconscious, and dosed with pain killers. She had lost a lot of weight and looked pitifully thin beneath the crisp hospital sheets.

I held her hand during the first day and well into the night, falling asleep in my chair and waking at dawn with cramps and multiple aches. Marianne arrived shortly after that and sat with Lucy. I took the opportunity to grab a bite to eat.

On the evening of the second day, Lucy’s breathing became uneven. A doctor murmured to Marianne and me that she had only a matter of hours to live.

Marianne sat across the bed from me, gripping her daughter’s hand and weeping. After an hour, she could take no more.

She stood and made for the door.

„Marianne…?“ I said.

„I’m sorry. This is too much. I’m going.“

„This is just the start,“ I said. „She isn’t truly dying, Marianne.“

She looked at me. „I’m sorry Dan,“ she said, and hurried out.

I returned to my vigil. I stared at my daughter, and thought of the time, six months hence, when she would be returned to me, remade. Glorious years stretched ahead.

I thought of Marianne, and her inability to see it through to the end. I was struck, then, by a thought so terrible that I was ashamed that it had occurred to me.

I told myself that I was being paranoid, that even Marianne could not do such a thing. But once the seed of doubt had been planted, it would not be eradicated.

What if I were right, I asked myself? I had to be sure. I had to know for certain.

Beside myself with panic, I fumbled with my mobile and somehow found Khalid’s number.

The dial tone purred for an age. I swore at him to reply, and at last he did.

„Hello?“

„Khalid, thank god! Where are you?“

„Dan? I’m just leaving the hospital.“

„Khalid, I need your help.“ I explained the situation, my fear. „Please, will you come over?“

There was no hesitation. „Of course. I’m on my way.“ He cut the connection.

He seemed to take aeons to arrive, but only two minutes elapsed before his neat, suited figure appeared around the door. He hurried over, concern etched on his face.

„I need to be sure, Khalid. It might be okay, but I need to know.“

He nodded. „Fine. You don’t need to explain yourself, Dan. I understand.“

He moved around the bed, and I watched in silent desperation. He pulled something from his inside pocket, a device like a miniature mobile phone, and stabbed a code into the keypad.

Then he glanced at me, stepped towards Lucy, and applied the device to the implant at her temple.

He read something from the tiny screen, and shock invaded his expression. He slumped into the seat which minutes before my wife had occupied, and he said something, rapidly, in Urdu.

„Khalid?“ I almost wept.

He was shaking his head, shaking fingers at his mouth. „Dan, it’s a fake. It’s a fake!“

I nodded. I felt very cold. I pressed my hands to my cheeks and stared at him. I wanted to throw up, but I hadn’t eaten anything for half a day. Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it with difficulty.

„Khalid,“ I said. „You’ve got to help me.“

„Dan…“ It was a plea to make me understand the impossibility of what I was asking him.

„How long does an implantation take?“ I asked. „Thirty minutes? We have time. If you can get an implant, make the cut…“ I realised, as I was speaking, that I was weeping, pleading with him through my tears.

„Dan, we need the signatures of both parents. If anyone found out…“

I recalled, then, the consent form which I had signed two weeks ago. My heart skipped at the sudden thought that there had existed a form bearing both our signatures… But for how long, before Marianne had destroyed it?

I said, „What’s more important, Khalid? Your job or Lucy’s life?“

He shook his head, staring at me. „You can’t blackmail me, Dan! Marianne doesn’t want this. I’m not saying that what she did was right, but you’ve got to understand that there are laws we have to obey.“

„Sod the fucking laws!“ I yelled. „We’re talking about the life of my daughter!“

My mobile rang, and I snatched it from my pocket. „What?“

„Mr Daniel Chester?“

„What do you want? Who is it?“

The woman said her name. I cannot recall it now, but she was a police officer. „If you could make your way to Hockton police station…“ she was saying.

I laughed at the absurdity of the situation. „Listen, I’m at Bradley hospital with my daughter. She’s dying, and if you think for a second that I’m leaving her-„

„I’m sorry, Mr Chester. We’ll be over right away.“ She cut the connection.

I sat down and gripped Lucy’s hand. I looked up, across the bed at Khalid. „If this were your daughter, in this situation, what would you do? All it would take is a quick cut. Replace the implant with a genuine one.“

He was shaking his head, tears tracking down his cheeks.

„For chrissake,“ I hissed. „We’re alone. No-one would see.“

„Dan, I’d need to do paperwork, make a requisition order for an implant. They’re all numbered, accounted for. If one went missing…“

I stared at him. I am not proud of what I said then, but I was driven by desperation. „You could replace the genuine implant with this fake,“ I said, gesturing towards Lucy.

He stared at me in shock, and only then did I realise what I’d asked him to do.

„Mr Chester?“

The interruption was unwelcome. A small, Asian WPC stood by the door. A constable, who appeared about half my age, accompanied her.

„What the hell?“ I began.

„Mr Chester, it’s about your wife, Marianne Chester.“

„What?“ I said, my stomach turning.

„If you’d kindly step out here…“

In a daze I left my seat and accompanied the police officers into the corridor. They escorted me to a side room, where we could be alone.

I sat down, and the WPC sat opposite me, on the edge of the chair. The juvenile constable remained by the door, avoiding my eyes.

„Mr Chester,“ the woman said, „I’m sorry to inform you that your wife was found dead a little under one hour ago. A neighbour noticed the front door open. I’m sorry. It appears that she took her own life.“

I stared at her. „What?“ I said, though I had heard her clearly enough.

I’ve since learned that police officers are prepared to repeat bad news to people in shock. Patiently, kindly, she told me again.

Marianne was dead. What she had done to my daughter, what she had done to me, had been too much of a burden to bear. She had taken her own life. I understood the words, but not the actuality of what she had done.

I nodded, stood and moved from the room. I returned to Lucy’s room. Khalid was still there, seated beside the bed, clutching my daughter’s hand and quietly crying.

I sat down and told him what had happened.

* * *

One of the joys of being a father is not only the wonder of the moment, the love one feels for one’s child every minute of every day, but contemplation of the future. How long had I spent day-dreaming about the girl Lucy would at the age of thirteen, and then at eighteen, on the verge of womanhood? I saw myself with her when she was twenty, and thirty, sharing her life, loving her. Such pre-emptive ‚memories‘, as it were, are one of the delights of fatherhood.

* * *

One hour later, Lucy died.

I was holding her hand, listening to her stertorous breathing and to the regular pulse of the cardiogram. Then her breathing hiccuped, rattled, and a second later the cardiogram flatlined, maintaining an even, continuous note.

I looked across at Khalid, and he nodded.

I reached out and touched the implant at her temple, the implant which Khalid had installed thirty minutes ago when, as Lucy’s sole remaining parent, I had signed the consent form. The implant purred beneath my finger-tips, restoring my daughter to life.

Presently a ferryman arrived and, between us, we lifted Lucy into the container, which we do not call coffins. Before she was taken away, I kissed her forehead and told her that I would be there to welcome her back in six months.

Later, I left the hospital and drove to Hockton, where I called in at the police station and read the note which Marianne had left. It was sealed in a cellophane folder, and I could not take it away with me.

Dear Dan, I read, Please forgive me. You will never understand. I know I have done the right thing by saving Lucy from the Kéthani, even though what I have done to you is unforgivable. Also, what I am about to do to myself. It’s enough to know that Lucy is saved, even if I am damned by my actions.

Marianne.

I left the police station and drove onto the moors overlooking the towering obelisk of the Onward Station. It rose in the moonlight like a pinnacle of ice, and, as I climbed from the Rover and watched, the first of that evening’s energy beams pulsed from its summit and arced through the stratosphere. Thus the dead of Earth were transmitted to the Kéthani starship waiting high above.

I stared up at the massed stars overhead, thought of Lucy, and gave thanks.

Thursday’s child has far to go…

Copyright © 2004 by Eric Brown

Eric Brown was born in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England in 1960 and is generally acknowledged as one of the finest British sf writers of his generation. He has lived in Australia, India, and Greece. His first novel Meridian Days was published in 1992 and was followed, to much critical acclaim, by thirteen further novels, seven story collections (one in collaboration with Keith Brooke), several novellas und children’s books. He has supported InterNova as a proofreader for IN 1. His homepage is at www.ericbrown.co.uk

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