Nova was lying down, peacefully asleep, on the bed of a medical scanner – Aaron would probably know the specific medical name for it, but Marian couldn’t be bothered to remember. She called it a Gen-Scan, like everyone else, and was done with it.
What she knew, was that if there was something wrong with her little girl, this machine would tell them.
With modern medicine to help her along, Marian had already recovered from giving birth to Nova, last night. She was up and about in the morning without any sequelae, though she wasn’t back at her best, just yet.
Now they needed to be sure that Nova was just as fine.
On one of the screens was a view of the inside of the scanner, where Nova was snoozing, her mouth slightly open and a thread of saliva trailing down the side of her chin. She was so cute Marian wanted to hug the screen to her chest.
*bzzt, bzzt, bzzt*
Small arcs of electricity – too weak to be of any harm even to the weakest organism in the world, let alone a human child – flickered here and there over her body as the scanner did its work.
She idly wondered how Nova’s two siblings would react upon seeing her for the first time – right now, they were both waiting outside, with one of Aaron’s friends. They’d tried to hold on until Marian gave birth to see their little sister, yesterday, but the delivery had been longer and more difficult than expected, and they’d eventually fallen asleep before they could see Nova, so their meeting had been delayed until today.
Eventually, the scanner beeped twice, and the results appeared on the screen. Aaron, along with the same female doctor from yesterday, leaned over the computer. Marian didn’t look over their shoulder – she wouldn’t understand any of it, anyway – and waited patiently for their diagnostic.
However, when she saw Aaron’s shoulders suddenly stiffen, she couldn’t hold her silence any longer. “Something wrong? Aaron? Talk to me.”
Aaron straightened up and turned back toward her. “There, uh, there appears to be some slight problem with her facial muscles and her vocal cords.”
Marian could feel a sick feeling of dread and guilt welling up into her throat, almost choking her words as they made their way out. “Problem? W–What sort of problem?”
“She… They appear to be paralyzed. They don’t respond to any kind of command to move. She can still open her mouth, fortunately, but she won’t be able to form any sort of facial expression. And… she’ll be unable to speak at all.”
Marian could only stare blankly ahead, almost uncomprehending.
And then the words hit her.
The weight of what she’d done to her own daughter out of sheer neglect and stupidity and recklessness.
At the start of her pregnancy, when she still hadn’t shown much physical change and could still go into the field to command her troops, the forces she’d been fighting had unexpectedly managed to sneak a strike team all the way up to their headquarters. Marian had been injured during the ensuing firefight – lightly, but to the belly. At the time, she’d completely freaked out over what had happened and immediately taken herself off active service, but apparently, the evil had already been done, and now her daughter would suffer the consequences of Marian’s faults.
“C–Can it be fixed? A surgery, maybe?”
Aaron looked at her with sympathy. “That… would be difficult. We can’t actually locate the precise source of the problem. Yesterday, she reacted normally when you touched her cheek, so the nerves still clearly react to outside stimulus, but it looks like her brain can’t send them instructions, somehow.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s probably a neurological problem. You know how difficult treating something like that can be. A heavy touch might only worsen things.”
“Are her vocal cords the same?”
Aaron only nodded.
Because of her, her little girl would never talk.
Most parents waited impatiently for their child’s first words, wondering what they might be, quarreling and betting whether it would be ‘papa’ or ‘mama’.
But not they.
They already knew that there would be no first words.
If Marian had had her gun at her hip at this moment, she would have put a bullet in her own brain as punishment for her crime.
“Shh, shh, shh…” Aaron whispered as he hugged her to his chest, and only then did Marian realize she was crying.
“It was me. It was me…”
“Marian,” Aaron interrupted in a firm voice. “Don’t be stupid. It wasn’t anyone. It was a fluke. A stupid fluke. There is no point in blaming yourself for this, and you know it.”
Marian couldn’t help but feel that there was a lot of point to it, and that this stupid fluke wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been that stupid, as well.
It took a long time for Marian to finally calm down. Her pretty face was a mess of snot and tears. Fortunately, no one but Aaron was there to see her – the female doctor had once again discreetly left at some point to leave them some privacy. She took a deep breath, sniffling, and rubbed at her reddened eyes.
When her gaze wandered over the computer screen, she saw that Nova was awake, looking at the scanner around herself with inquisitive eyes. Her face was still that blank mask, as if she was completely unaffected by the strangeness of her surroundings or the absence of her parents from her immediate surroundings. If she hadn’t known about her daughter’s disability, Marian could perhaps have convinced herself of that, but now she knew that Nova might be screaming in terror inside. She wouldn’t be able to tell.
She had to suppress the urge to cry again as she rushed out of the observation room and slapped the red emergency opening button on the outer surface of the scanner, Aaron following behind her.
The scanner quickly slid open with a pneumatic hiss and allowed Marian access to her daughter. She swept Nova into her arms and hugged her as closely as she felt safe doing. The little girl clearly noticed the puffy eyes of her mother and she reached out a stubby hand to pat at her cheeks, as if she wanted to dry them, looking quietly nonplussed all the while.
That almost set Marian off again, and she had to fight to hold back her tears. And even though she knew Nova couldn’t understand her, she leaned close and whispered, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” into her ears again and again.
As if that could somehow make it better.
# # #
What’s wrong with her?
Her mother had come to pick her up from the MRI machine – that’s what it looked like, at least – and the woman clearly had been crying. And looked about to do it again.
Ah, I see…
No doubt, the scan had somehow revealed the abnormalities in Nova’s brain, caused by the traits she had chosen. That would explain the sudden distress. Behind, her father also looked concerned, clearly for both her and her mother.
After patting her mother’s face to try and get her to calm down a little, the woman suddenly started whispering words into her ear, and although she still couldn’t understand the language, she didn’t have to. The meaning was clear enough, and it drove more pangs of guilt to stab into her chest. She had known this man and woman for less than a day, but she could tell that they most likely weren’t bad people. At least, they cared deeply about her and her well-being. It was quite unfair and ungrateful that they should feel sadness – and maybe even guilt; parents had a way of blaming themselves for the imperfections of their children – because of her selfishness.
But still, she didn’t intend to say the truth about her situation or what had happened to her.
At worst, they’d even take her for a nutjob. After all, if her traits had really taken the form of brain damage, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think her mental faculties had also somehow been affected, and she’d gone bonkers.
No, she would just have to show them that she could lead a perfectly fulfilling life, in spite of an excellent poker face and a lack of a voice.
# # #
Aaron watched his wife leave the scanner room with Nova in her arms, going to meet their other children to introduce them to the new addition to their family.
He stayed behind on the pretext of cleaning up the place and resetting the scanner for the next person to use it.
At least, it looks like Marian got ahold of herself. For now.
Aaron let out a sigh.
He knew why his wife blamed herself, of course. He understood her guilt. But in his opinion as a scientist – he was not technically a medical doctor, but he knew a thing or two about biology – the injuries Marian had suffered at the start of her pregnancy wouldn’t have caused harm to the child. At the time, Marian had been absolutely terrified and guilt-stricken, and she had demanded he do absolutely every exam he could come up with to make sure that the fetus had not been touched.
And those exams had been explicit.
No damage of any kind.
He’d done them thrice, too, just to be sure.
Perhaps it was the stress that had done it? Stress was a nebulous thing that affected everything in one’s body in various, almost unquantifiably negative ways. It was to medics what he felt dark energy was to physicists, a crutch to explain what could not be so readily explained.
Sitting before the computer, he called up again the scan’s results. The window showed a second-by-second graph of Nova’s cerebral activity.
For reference, even though he already knew what it would tell him, Aaron also displayed another scan on the second screen. This one was from an anonymous patient who had allowed the clinic to store it as a reference for comparison. The images on this one looked a lot more subdued.
Yes. This was what a brain scan should look like.
His gaze turned once more to Nova’s scan. The whole thing was lit up like – a smirk rose on Aaron’s lips – an exploding supernova.
Aaron felt quietly proud of his devastating sense of humor as he pondered on the implications. He’d preferred to hide this from Marian, worried that she’d see it only as yet another reason to blame herself for her mistakes – real or otherwise – but he wasn’t actually sure what it all meant. Was this the effect of some sort of disease?
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the door to the observation room open behind him. Fast as lightning and with the ease of long practice, he minimized the scan windows and, his hands flickering over the keyboard, almost instantly called up a porn site to divert from what he’d just been doing. Just to make it look more real, he slouched in his seat like he’d been really enjoying his time alone.
The footsteps approached, then faltered as the person behind him caught sight of the pictures of naked women plastered all over the screen.
A snort resounded and Amelia’s voice followed it. “Who do you think you’re fooling? And how on earth did you access the internet from a computer that’s supposed to be on a closed network?”
Without turning back, Aaron closed the browser window and brought the two scans back up – Amelia had already seen them earlier so hiding them would be pointless. “Closed networks are a myth, like ninjas or love at first sight. And I thought Marian had forgotten something in the room.”
“Oh, that would have been a beautiful scene, that,” Amelia said, taking a seat next to him, her eyes flicking back and forth between the two screens, making comparisons. “Your wife catching you jerking off by yourself to pictures of someone who’s not her, only a day after your daughter’s birth. Classy.” A small silence settled over the room before Amelia continued in a more serious voice. “Look at the hippocampus. It’s insane.”
“Don’t talk about my daughter with an ‘it’. That’s incredibly rude.”
Aaron heard a half-amused, half-shocked gasp come from next to him as Amelia got the terribly crude joke he’d just made. If Marian had been there to hear it, he’d probably be dead, right about now, with a smoking hole in his skull and a few grams of metal lodged in his brain.
“Seriously, though. That’s no normal brain activity. And yet, Nova doesn’t look… I don’t know… absent or lightheaded or dazed. She’s not suffering from seizures or anything of the sort. Really, there is absolutely no outward symptom, beyond her facial paralysis and her mutism, and even that wouldn’t be affected by defects in the hippocampus. I’m really not sure what’s going on.”
“I don’t know, either.”
“But this is really fast, isn’t it? Isn’t your daughter’s brain actually faster than this computer?” Amelia asked in a tone that told Aaron she wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
“I told you. I don’t know.”
Aaron felt her gaze turn to him. He just kept his own focused on the scan and refused to make eye contact.
“What should we do? Are you sure you shouldn’t tell Marian? I’m sorry to say this, but we don’t know what might happen to Nova. She might just… I think Marian should know. If something did happen, she’d be less devastated if she’d prepared herself for the eventuality.”
Aaron took a deep breath and pawed at his chest pocket for the cigarette pack that should have been there, before remembering that he’d never smoked in his life before and thus had never even bought any cancer sticks at all, ever. Also, they were in a clinic where smoking was strictly forbidden.
“We’re not telling Marian. We’re not telling anybody,” he said finally.
His hands pressed a few keys, and soon, Nova’s scan has been deleted. Just to make doubly sure – and also to be melodramatic about it – he opened the virtual shredder designed to remove important documents and launched a 37-looped pass on the hard drive to scramble the free space on it and remove any possible residual trace of the file. Now, anybody could come and try whatever data retrieval software they wanted, no one would be getting a look at that scan ever again.
“If you’re sure,” Amelia said with a tinge of hesitation.
“I am. With Marian’s mood as it is right now, Nova is going to be under close scrutiny for the foreseeable future, so we’ll know if something’s happening to her as soon as it does. She’ll be safe. In the end, that’s all that matters.” After a moment of consideration, he added, “We’ll do weekly exams, too, just to make sure nothing is visibly breaking inside her little head. Can’t hurt to be careful.”
Aaron glanced to the side to check Amelia’s reaction – he might be missing some obvious thing, and he didn’t want to put his daughter at risk because he hadn’t thought through the issue properly – but after a few seconds of pondering, she nodded decisively, apparently reassured.
“All right, Aaron. Let’s do it this way, then. Just in case, I’ll tell the rest of the guys to prepare for a medical emergency. At least, we’ll be ready if something happens.”
“Don’t mention it. Your kids are like my kids. No way would I let anything happen to them if I can help it.”
Aaron chortled as he got up from his seat. He slapped Amelia’s shoulder as he passed next to her. “Don’t let Marian hear you say that. She’ll be jealous again.”
Yawning after the long, sleepless night, Aaron headed out the door and through the deserted hallways toward the rest area, where Marian and the kids must have been waiting for him.
One good thing about this place was that there were no other patients here but them – which made sense, of course, since it all belonged to Aaron himself, for his research and experiments – so they could have some much-appreciated privacy.
Another clear advantage was the state-of-the-art tech the facility held. Aaron shuddered to think how yesterday would have ended if not for it. At the very least, little Nova wouldn’t have survived it. Whether Marian herself would have suffered the same fate was hard to say.
Aaron shook his head to clear it of these depressing thoughts and hurried his steps. Right now, he just wanted to see his family. Ryner and Lynn would no doubt be pleased to finally meet their long-awaited little sister.