“Second Skin” by AJ Fitzwater
As the train pushes through the outer skin of the city dome and into the shimmer of the country skin that wavers like water for miles in each direction, the old sense of nakedness tingles along my hands and face.
The two laced-up spinsters who share the carriage with me bear my shifting shoulders, pulled collar, ancient pad, and vocal pin with ill disguised impatience. Tech is allowed up to the country gates, but the conductor came round to remove any evidence of the city well before the skins were even in sight, and connection to the pin was lost soon after.
Another yank at the stiff collar knotted closed with a paisley afternoon tie. I adore a good suit as much as the next Lunedinian, but the bindings I have to endure to undertake my profession on this side of the skin are restrictive and hot. Without a holographic synger, a simple wardrobe malfunction or curious glimpse from the Downstairs could leave me exposed. Fraud! The ladies will cry with their well practised country horror. Unwoman!
But a synger is tech, and tech, just like a woman doctor, is illegal on this side of the skin.
There is also a Mkndr sized hole at my side. I am only half the physician without my Kyssyzk dopple ready to sing out a baby and swaddle it within their shell. I am exposed and open to old human frailties. I have done this dozens of times without Mkndr, and I am prepared, but each time is a gamble. I am naked without my tech as I am within these clothes. I wouldn’t be the doctor I am without my instincts, but out here they are the best I have.
Now we are in sight of the Purlieu, the two women relax, just a little. They smile for my excellent appropriation of country style. They smile in that way spinsters smile at a handsome man of means.
Mkndr tells me I am handsome in a country fashion, but that means little when I can redefine handsome any time I choose, with my clothes or my holographic skin.
If only these women knew I was country-born too, a Downstairs bastard. Ah, such conceit Doctor Everson.
But I am always careful. Mkndr helps keep me that way. The women, and the Purlieu practise of uterus-assisted child-birth, are far more important than my pride.
The train screeches and rumbles into the station with an overabundance of effects it did not require when leaving the city. The ladies and I rise in unison, and I tip my hat. The younger smiles behind her lace-gloved hand. She is quite handsome in a solid way, but this is neither the time or place for such fancies.
I retrieve my leather kit, step down from the carriage, and sight the shielded box containing my tech. It arrived safe. There have been times before when it has experienced an unfortunate accident.
My mark is immediately recognizable; she’s wearing the most stylish uniform on the platform, brass buttons fair gleaming in the unfiltered sunlight.
“Doctor Everson.” Razikiel Jones tips her hat, eyes at just the perfect obsequious angle. “Nice to see you again, sir. This way please.”
I fall into step as she takes my bags, though I keep hold of my kit. “Mister Jones. How are you, old chap. How is your lovely wife?”
“She’s doing keen, Doctor Everson. Working on number one as we speak, only a few weeks off popping.”
“Good show!” I exclaim as I hoist myself into the waiting motorcar. “Perhaps I can come down to the cottage to pay my respects if I have time this week.”
Raz’s eyes find mine in the rear-view mirror as she shoves the car into movement. “That would be keen, Doctor Everson. Much appreciated.”
I can barely hear above the country’s insistence on authenticity, but as we leave behind the quaint village, all stonework and creeping ivy and surreptitious glances, making our way along bumpy roads lined with cool trees, Raz gives the signal.
The moment she reaches into her pocket, the sound dampens and I can hear myself think, though my teeth are still rattled.
“You are brave to carry a dampening field on your person,” I tell my cousin as I shed the hat, scratching at my sweaty hair. “People have been flogged and jailed out here for less.”
Raz makes a rude noise. “Newer model since you were here last, Aly. Shows up on the sats only one blip in ten, and then shadows like a rodent.”
I grunt. “Shift, I love country hypocrisy.”
“No arrests for gender abnormalities in ten years local,” Raz says, proud of her criminal status.
“I cannot wait for the Sargenson youngest to hit puberty,” I reply grimly. “That is going to be a bag of Kyzzyzk kits for the underground.”
Raz’s grin fades, eyes flicking from the road and back to the mirror. “Might be sooner.”
“They are questioning already?” I sigh and rub my eyes. “Shift. If only they had listened to me and allowed Lady Milicent to give birth in a city hospital. Mkndr would have been able to sing her data about inter-sex children, and Peter wouldn’t be a sitter for the stocks.”
“They’re doing alright. They have a flair for Shakespeare, and performing the women’s parts is enough for now.”
“For now,” I mutter, turning my irate gaze on the endless fields of sheep and cattle, bordered by aesthetically pleasing crumbling stone walls.
Raz removes the dampening field well before the long driveway, giving me time to rearrange my hair, hat and tie. As the wheels crunch to a stop before the grand facade of Wainsforth Manor, my face is in place, a practised square set to my shoulders.
There is the usual polite rush of greetings: handshakes from Lord Woolston Wainsforth and a kiss from the Lady Cynthia; an overtly masculine thump and shake from the son-in-law Kingsley; a limp, damp hand from the youngest daughter Heather; curtsies and bowed heads from the Downstairs lined up by the door, just the perfect number to implicate the size of Lord Wainsforth’s pocketbook.
“Lady Petunia is abed these last few weeks,” Lady Cynthia explains, taking my arm and guiding me gently into the great house. “I am sure you can forgive her not being here to greet you.”
“Of course, my lady,” I reply, voice smooth and deep. “I am here to serve the family, and the best interests of Lady Petunia and her baby.”
Raz has disappeared and is replaced by a personal valet. He is not the ideal choice, but Raz has given me a run down on all the Upstairs and Downstairs of Wainsforth Manor, and I know just what level of obfuscation is needed with each one. I am well practised being dressed by strangers, and my “corset” – support for an old back injury suffered while riding – is a well known secret. It even garners the odd breathless drawing room discussion about my “bravery” from the more spritely young ladies.
It is suggested that I change for a walking tour of the estate. Lord Wainsforth must impress me, of course, because somehow that will make the baby come easier. I would rather sit with the women over tea but it is just not done. I comply, and hope I can glean something before the stiff formalities of Lady Petunia’s boudoir smother all sense and fact.
Lord Woolston is enthusiastic about the beauty and vitality of his eldest daughter, and sees no need for me to disturb her, prattling off into how well his bulls did at the spring fair. I suppress my impatience and plaster an interested mien on my face as I am once more introduced to the intricacies of animal husbandry, as if this and my profession are one and the same.
To the likes of Lord Woolston, they often are.
It takes me a while, but eventually I am rolling through the excruciatingly polite script. I begin to loosen up and enjoy the unfiltered air and sunshine, tasting with glee bad smells usually overridden within the skin of the city. I am glad I took an anti-radiation dose before I left, the sun is quite hot this close to a full Alpha Reckon summer. It is not as hot as the summers I experienced studying on Alpha Terra and bonding with Mkndr on Kyss, but it is enough to make me sweat inside my full suit and bindings.
Kingsley Addington the Third, the Lady Petunia’s husband, is easier to read than his father-in-law. The younger Purlieu-bred generations always are before some tragedy closes them up forever. There is always death. I have never been able to prove anything – autopsies are not my allowed field out here – but “misadventure” covers many sins.
Only a few of us gender outlaws have escaped the Purlieu. And then there are the likes of cousin Raz, working from within. I am not brave at all.
The script runs to the letter, and it is dinner time before I can enquire after the Lady Petunia. Even the Downstairs are reluctant to let anything loose, and I cannot tell whether they are stiff because of the tension of an impending birth in the household or if they are wary of me – a doctor with a chronic injury, how does that play well?
The attraction of the old fashioned food and liquor wavers quickly, so I enjoy it while the sensation lasts. Often the smell of potatoes or steak will trigger me right back to days in the meat locker.
Alas, it is the brandy that sours first.
“Oh yes, a picnic up river would be divine,” Lady Heather is saying, enthusiastic as she is allowed, but seemingly disinterested at the same time. “It would be lovely to get out of the house if the weather is fine on Wednesday.”
I cover my annoyance at the adherence to the seven day week out here with a sip of my liquor.
“Would that not be wonderful, Doctor Everson?” Lady Cynthia says, tipping her head just so at me.
“Yes, yes, quite. Though it may be optimal for me to linger closer to the house in case Lady Petunia should go into labour.”
The butler, Mister Ferry, oozes discomfit for such discussions, though it doesn’t show in his smooth refreshing of my glass. My neurals for instant reading of physiologies may be switched off, but residuals still linger up to twenty-four hours after power down, especially when someone comes this physically close.
“Oh, I would say the Lady Petunia is some time off,” Lord Woolston says, leaning up against the roaring wasteful fossil fire place – honestly, it is summertime! – the picture of gentility with brandy balloon in hand.
“Do you agree, Doctor Everson?” The Lady Cynthia tips her head the other way, an expectant smile urging me on. She is not quite mid-forties by Terra or Purlieu calendars, not that much older than me, but she looks much older.
I wonder if she ever stops pushing the conversation along with her inane questions. I cannot hate her; she is just as much a product of the Purlieu as I was.
“I could give you a better judgment my lady, once I have had the chance to examine your daughter.”
“Oh it is late, dear boy,” Lord Woolston says, the smile not wavering from his face. “She is asleep by now. Is that not right, Ferry?”
“Quite, m’lord,” Ferry says, his voice soft but tinged with iron.
I hide a smile behind another sip of my beverage. Mister Ferry has shown me his hand. The old curmudgeon. He may be of use to me yet, even if he is fully unaware of Raz or my true leanings.
“Well then.” I smack my lips in appreciation of the beverage. Curmudgeon indeed; Ferry had broken out the good stuff for the evening. “I must insist on seeing the Lady Petunia at her earliest possible convenience tomorrow, and then I could make a call on whether I can attend your picnic, Lady Heather.”
“Lovely,” sighs the Lady Heather, clasping her hands together with glee in her lap. She has no glass to set aside, and she sounds sour for it.
“We will find a moment tomorrow morning when Petunia is not feeling so…uncomfortable,” the Lady Cynthia says, her beatific countenance still holding.
I murmur my acceptance of terms in this verbal contract, and the conversation turns towards a game of Bridge. I would have preferred to visit Petunia when she was uncomfortable, but like many things out here in the Purlieu, that is just not done.
I never sleep well outside Lunedin, even on a ship shifting across the Great Expanse. All those years spent huddled in the sheer dark of the attic in my mother’s drafty cottage had trained my subconscious. I only feel safe with the house synger on and Mkndr nearby.
I come instantly awake when Raz slips through the walls of my bedroom. I know it can be only Raz, but still my heart knocks painfully against the tight bindings beneath my ridiculous striped pyjamas. I can never get used to wearing clothing in bed.
Raz slips close so I can see her making a show of bringing up a dampening field. Even so, her whisper is barely a breath in my ear.
“It’s safe as it will be. You can come now. Pet wants to see you.”
Raz leads me through the low hidden door obscured in the wood panelling of the room. Thankfully, tight spaces do not worry me and soon we are exiting into a room which is a hideous explosion of pink.
The Lady Petunia, round and frazzled, grimaces as she struggles up amongst her bedding. “You took your time.”
Raz waggles the dampener to indicate what volume level to maintain.
“Sorry, Petunia,” I whisper back. “Getting past the wall of well-meaning parents is nigh impossible.”
Petunia groans as she tries to find a more comfortable position, and Raz, taking up guard at the main door, allows the noise since it would be compatible with a pregnant lady’s midnight discomfit.
“I have been virtually a prisoner in this hell hole for almost three weeks. I swear, if it is a girl, I do not care what anyone says, I am redecorating this nursery in anything but pink.”
I lift my hands, asking for consent to touch her. Pet stares at my hands for a moment, dumbfounded by the gesture, then shakes herself with another little groan.
“Oh, of course,” she says, as if a strange male touching her within her private sanctuary is a given.
But we are not strangers, though her parents think so.
I would have liked to disinfect, especially with the special neuro-conducting gel tweaked to my bios, but that is tech.
Petunia flinches as I gently probe her stomach. “Any luck on liberating the Doctor’s gear?” She’s never quite got used to calling me by my first name without a signifier first.
Raz shakes her head, Pet drops her demeanour for a moment of cursing, and I grin. After a lifetime of practise, Petunia plays her part to perfection. She has the privilege of being able to enjoy the charade.
“I wish I could bring Kingsley in on this,” she sighs, as I read her vitals via old fashioned means. The neurals are so far powered down now, I cannot get a reading on the status of the foetus.
“Do you trust him yet? You weren’t so sure seven months ago.”
I hold back my grimace. The baby is not sitting right. I gesture that I want to turn it, and Petunia hurries me on, groaning as I probe again.
“That was a merry dance,” Petunia sighs once I am done. She scrapes her frazzled brown curls turned black by sweat out of her eyes. “Oh, I am not sure. I want to, but he is terribly keen on following papa’s lead on everything.”
I hold my tongue. Petunia holds me in high enough esteem to have insinuated my name into family conversation. She is very good like that, and I have often wondered whether she sports black market neurals. But she loves her husband and father more, and I have to respect it.
I conduct the rest of the examination in silence, acutely aware of the many bodies surrounding us in the house.
“Well?” Petunia grunts as I wash off my hands.
“I am not happy,” I whisper back.
“You never are.”
My smile is half in place, and nowhere near amused. “The baby has not turned yet. I am worried about a breech. I would prefer you to give birth in a city hospital at best. The village hospital will do at a pinch.”
“I would feel better if I knew you had access to some tech.” Petunia speaks as if all technology in all corners of the Expanse is some good, mystical thing. “And that is no slight on you, Doctor. I know you do the absolute best you can with what you have available.”
I have to leave it at that. In all her reckonings of my talents, Petunia’s never once made a reference to my Kyssyzk dopple. To most country folk, Mkndr’s chitinous shell, multiple legs, and clicking mandibles are abhorrent. They refuse to see their compassion, sharp minds, and hyper-awareness of biology, and care nothing for their inherent neurals that allowed them to sing a child to a state of comfort, health and enlightenment.
Kyssyzk are shot on sight within the Purlieu.
The picnic goes ahead, despite my having packed for the long range forecast. His Lordship must have had a quiet word to the weather sats. More hypocrisy.
There is riding, and a bit of shooting too. Riding I can manage only because my neurals are now fully off line and I receive no backwash from the horses. The shooting is much harder; I only see guns when I return to the Purlieu, and in my nightmares.
There are lavish dinners and visiting neighbours curious to see if I would be suitable for any of their daughters. There is the Lady Heather, book in hand, doing her best to avoid me, and one of the maids doing her best to bump into me at every opportunity. Raz takes care of the latter, while I walk the delicate wire of dinner conversation while not seeming to give her mother too many ideas.
And then there is Petunia, who I officially see only twenty minutes each day, but unofficially spend as much time as is safe talking her through her situation, investments and publishing opportunities; she is a fine pen-woman, with a sharp eye for gem trading.
After five days, I am desperate for Petunia to give birth if as much for her sake as mine.
The only other bright spot is visiting Raz and her wife Rayleen for tea and baby talk, with his Lordship’s permission of course.
Rayleen sits me down and beneath the blanket of the dampener extracts as much city gossip as she can. She waddles about her tiny kitchen, happily the size of a Shift ship, serving me my favourite Chinese-Kyss mountain blend, and chasing cats from underfoot.
“You watch out for that Lady Heather,” she drawls, pointing an oat biscuit my way, chipped cup tilted at such a precarious angle that my fingers twitch. “She’s quite the madam once you get down to it.”
I lay a sharp look on Rayleen. “She is very quiet, not much fuss at all. A good little organizer, if that picnic is anything to go by.”
Rayleen grimaces as she chews her biscuit, leaning forward, legs splayed to ease the bulk of her belly. “You city folk get complacent when you rely too much on neurals. Believe you me, too many years in service to that house taught me a thing or two about Madam Puss in Boots.”
I sit back in my chair, eyebrows racing to my hairline at the local slang. “Well I never.”
“Aye, there’s been a bit of hedge creeping going on over the years.” Rayleen nods sagely, enjoying my shock. “She bemoans the spinster life just enough and gives the fellas just the right amount of the eye to keep ‘er ladyship on the level.”
“But not enough to make a dash for the city.”
Raz looks up from her careful scrutiny of the local newspaper. “She doesn’t know about the underground. I wouldn’t let her.”
Rayleen pokes her biscuit at me again. “Sal Porter,” she says around another large bite.
“Must we,” I say, my voice rising.
Rayleen hisses and rubs her belly, but waves away my concern. “Aye, we must.”
Raz nods. “Lady Heather visits her far too often for my comfort.”
I squirm, carved wood quaint only a moment ago now hard against my restless bones.
“Don’t fret,” Raz says, breaking away from her guard post for a moment to squeeze my shoulder and rub her wife’s belly. “For all intents and purposes, Sal Porter still thinks you’re dead.”
I sip my tea, unable to say anything for a very long time as a phantom ache takes up in my back and along the backs of my thighs.
Petunia’s baby is coming, and I do all that I am allowed. The men smoke cigars and belch self congratulations towards manhood, while the women take shifts at the maternal bedside, twisting words and hands.
A nurse is brought up from what passes for the local hospital. She is always in the room, disapproving in her silence. I am not allowed alone with Petunia.
I am wary and grateful for her assistance all at once. Perhaps she knows of the midwife flogged and banished a generation ago for giving birth to and sheltering a bastard abomination. Perhaps she does not. But local lore serves better than the law.
The usual, terrible reckoning tumbles through my head as it always does at these times: memories of my mother’s wounds, my own, her compassion, her death from those wounds; the warp and weft of separatist history, the anachronistic who took to places like the Purlieu with glee. It would be so easy to Shift an entire galaxy over, find a place that tolerates these cousins with nothing more than bemused affection. But then the Purlieu would win.
Petunia is struggling – “but no more than any good woman has before, and will do again,” declares the Lady Cynthia with a betraying firmness – but there are no nano-monitors, no Mkndr to soothe the mother and child with their purring, ticking voice. Petunia bears it well, but the strain is beginning to show after only a few hours. Kingsley goes up in my estimation as he paces the long hallways.
To complicate things, news comes from Downstairs that Raz has left to attend Rayleen, also in labour. Lady Cynthia, currently on shift brushing back her daughter’s damp curls and uttering useless nonsense, doesn’t acknowledge the news brought in by one of the maids. I wash my hands, an opportunity to turn my back and compose my face.
I have attended many births at big estates without an underground member lurking nearby, but tonight is different. Without Raz, my bindings pinch me tighter, I cannot look at Petunia. Then guilt for my selfishness pushes harder still; Rayleen needs Raz far more than I. Shift, Rayleen needs me as well, but I would expose myself, expose the future women of the Purlieu to further danger, if I made a call in either direction.
The crunch of wheels on gravel punctuates the increasingly incoherent cursing from Petunia. Lady Cynthia has vacated the room, unable to bear such unladylike behaviour.
Feet thump on the stairs and the door to Petunia’s chamber bangs open, followed by shouts about impropriety and disturbances of sleep. Raz tumbles in, hair mussed, uniform jacket askew.
“You must come! It’s Rayleen. The baby. She’s no good.” Raz stumbles over her words as much as her feet.
“Mister Jones!” Lord Woolston appears behind Raz, pulling tight at a bathrobe cord as if he would like to perform the same action on his chauffer’s neck.
Mister Ferry is not far behind his lordship. “This is highly inappropriate behaviour in a lady’s chamber at this time of the night, Mister Jones, and under such delicate circumstances!”
“I do apologize, your Lordship, Mister Ferry,” Raz manages to stammer out, falling back into the Downstair’s accent out of instinct. “But surely Doctor Everson could spare…”
“He most certainly cannot!” Lord Woolston does not bellow, but the ladies gathering like dust at his heels flinch.
I look from the desperate Raz to the nurse to the panting, grey Petunia. In all the years I have been delivering babies out in the Purlieu, I am frozen. Mkndr would know what to do.
But Mkndr is not here.
Petunia’s groan breaks the hot silence in the room.
Pretending calm, I say: “I believe Lady Petunia’s situation is now too difficult and advanced for any attention to be spread thin.”
You know this Raz, you do. Your recklessness could undo it all.
“What do you mean difficult? Speak plain, man!” Kingsley shoves past Raz and he hovers near his wife, afraid to touch her.
“A breech birth is not an unusual thing,” I explain. “I have delivered many breech babies to no ill effect. However, in Lady Petunia’s case, I am concerned. She is small of pelvis, the baby is quite large, and I fear the umbilical cord may have become entwined around the baby’s neck.”
Lord Woolston grimaces at such talk, while Mister Ferry grumbles at Raz under his breath, trying to push the protesting chauffer out of the room.
“But what about Rayleen!” Raz demands, voice muffled by arms and doors. “Doctor Everson, I think it might be pre-eclampsia. Her mind has gone to the dogs!”
“What in the devil’s name is that man on about?” Lord Woolston snaps.
Lady Cynthia smiles a tired, patient smile. “Let us not fuss his lordship with too many womanly problems now shall we, Doctor Everson?”
I stare from her ladyship, to his lordship, to the half open door, to Petunia still gallantly straining and breathing in time. The blood on the sheets is well hidden by the ridiculous heavy eiderdown.
I take a deep breath.
“I am about to suggest something that must be considered under the most grievous urgency.”
Lady Heather now enters the room, bound up in a sensible robe, keeping her distance from Kingsley. She gives me a hard, unreadable look, but I plough on regardless.
“Lady Petunia must be moved with all haste. To the local hospital if we must, but ideally she must be taken to a city facility. I would request the same of Mister Jones’ wife.”
Everyone bursts out talking at once, except Petunia who gives another harsh moan and clenches her fists in the eiderdown.
“The village hospital?” Lady Cynthia says, ignoring my second suggestion completely. “What on earth for?”
Lord Woolston does not ignore the better option. “The city? You must be out of your mind, man! I simply will not allow it!”
Lady Heather gives a snort for what she thought of the suggestion to help Rayleen.
“Your ladyship, Lord Woolston, I believe Lady Petunia requires an emergency caesarean. I fear, to be quite blunt, that the baby may become stuck in the birth canal. And as for Mrs Jones, pre-eclampsia, if that is what it is, is deadly, and she may require a caesarean also. Within the auspices of the hospital, or a city clinic, I can attend to both.”
“But it would take such a long time to move my sister down to the village, and by then you could be too late,” argues Lady Heather quite sensibly. “A trip to the city would be impossible.”
I let the room argue for a moment longer as I summon up the courage. Petunia glances up briefly from beneath her dripping hair, gasping, assent evident in her weary eyes even though she knows her opinion will never be entertained by her father.
“You must have a skip,” I say.
It is more a statement; every estate hides a site-to-site transport for dire emergencies, whether they wanted to admit it or not. And this need is dire.
The room continues to argue, so I ask again in a louder voice.
All noise ceases, save Petunia’s anguished cries. My head swims, ill from the waiting.
Mister Ferry speaks.
“It’s in the cellar, beneath the carriage house.”
Mkndr folds the front plates of their shell closed, crooning at the two red faced shapes tucked in their thorax. Everyone who could pull a gun on the Kyssyzk is asleep.
My dopple turns on their synger, and a holographic human form hides the Kyssyzk’s many limbs and segmented body. I immediately thumb the dampener on, glad Raz palmed it off to me amongst all the confusion.
“A few minutes should be enough for the two wee bairns.” Mkndr’s clicking voice is transformed by the synger into something more acceptable for the region.
Empty of words, I rub my eyes and scratch my chest above my corset.
“That was a close call,” Mkndr continues. “I would rather not consider how well your reputation sits with Wainsforth Manor.”
I shake my head, using the wooden back of the creaking chair to massage my neck. A low hum vibrates the air, a sensuous pitch familiar only to me, and my muscles ease slightly.
“Don’t worry about me,” I mumble. “Focus on singing as much as you can to the babies.”
My snatches of sleep are distorted by old half memories I would rather forget, until the dampener thrums a warning. By the time I open my eyes, Mkndr has replaced the new Wainsforth heir in its cot and retreated out of harm’s way, the Jones baby still tucked inside its carapace.
Kingsley Addington steps into the room with all the authority of a new father, the sunshine of the new day slipping in around his feet. He keeps an appropriate distance from the cot and myself, hands in pocket, rocking on his heels.
“I cannot say I condone your methods,” Kingsley tumbles right to it. “But I do appreciate what you did to save my son and my wife.”
Such is the hierarchy of care. I only bend my head in thanks.
“You will be recompensed as per your usual fee,” Kingsley continues. “And we will keep this little…incident…between ourselves, shall we?”
I am too tired to argue. I would be a fool to expect the usual bonus for a successful delivery under these circumstances.
Kingsley makes a few more jabs at small talk – it is not within my purvey to give him tips on fathering and I utter meaningless platitudes – until an obscene vase of garden flowers enters the room escorted by the Lady Heather.
The woman’s breezy smile sets me right back on alert, and aware of Mkndr’s presence I mimic Kingsley’s hands in pocket pose, fingers stroking the dampener.
Lady Heather coos over her new nephew, causing him to shudder and wail when she tries to pick him up. At least she allows Mkndr – Nurse Marron – to show her how to re-swaddle the child.
The Lady Heather lingers after Kingsley excuses himself from the room. She looks up from her nonsense making at the child, turning her shrewd gaze from Mkndr to myself.
“Aside from certain…allowances…you have done such a fine job here. Not just today, but all week.” Her smile almost reaches her eyes. “A successful birth is the best reference a doctor of your repute could have.”
“Thank you my lady,” I murmur, supping at the tea Mkndr pours for us all from a steaming kettle. The child settles immediately with Mkndr in the room, but we allow Lady Heather the conceit that it was her attention alone that soothed the fractious newborn.
“As I understand it, another expectant family may be desirous of your services soon,” Lady Heather continues, holding the hospital cup for as little time as possible. “Would you like me to give you an introduction?”
I search carefully for the right words. “I would be delighted to know which family has gained wind of my reputation.”
“The Lady Salmund Porter’s daughter just announced that she is…with child.” Lady Heather’s smile drains down her face until it is only an unpleasant angle around her lips.
My words come harder still. “That is lovely news for the family.”
“It is indeed.”
The Lady Heather is not forthcoming with the name of Sal’s daughter. This implication races around my head along with the concept that Sal Porter has somehow, miraculously, had children of her own.
“I am unfamiliar with Lady Porter.” The lie comes easy and hard at the same time. “Unfortunately, I will have to decline your very kind offer of a personal introduction as I have tarried far too long away from my practise and I must return…home…very soon. I will give you a card to take to the Lady Porter, and communicate that it would be an honour if she would visit my chambers in the city to discuss arrangements.”
The Lady Heather seems to shrink a little as I offer her my calling card – one with an address that acts as a front for my clinic for country folk – though the practised smile never quite leaves her face.
Once we are alone again, my dopple begins packing up my leather kit. Despite my weariness, I hurry the preparations to leave. I do not want to leave Petunia or Rayleen so quickly, but I have pushed my luck and nerve about as far as they will go. Raz will understand.
“Do you think she knows anything?” My lack of neurals has become a physical ache of need.
Mkndr bends over the cot with one final gentle hum. The soporific almost takes me as well as the child. “No. But my studies of human behaviour suggests jealousy, shrewdness. She is one who likes to guess.”
“All that from just a few moments in the room together?”
“We have been dopples for a very long time. There is always some of their reading in you.” Wearing a synger is the only time I am able to see a human-like smile from Mkndr, though I intimately know the inflections of their voice that serve in place of body language.
“Come on, one last check on our patients, then let us go home.” I hoist up my leather kit in one hand and my precious tech, now shielded in its box again, in the other. “The dampener will last up to the city skin, if we get ourselves an empty carriage.”
No skip this time; we would have to brave it again.
“Shall I prepare the chambers for a near future visit from the Lady Porter and daughter?”
“No need,” I reply, hand on doorknob. “Sal Porter has never left the sanctuary of the Purlieu, and she will not start now for the sake of some supposed child of hers.”
“You speak like you doubt the veracity of the child’s parenthood.”
I contemplate the knotted whorls of the nursery door for longer than necessary. “I do. Anything is possible out here. You only need to scratch the surface and the paint will flake off the glamour.”
I say no more as we press homeward, desperate to leave behind something of myself that doesn’t belong within the skin of my city.
About the Author
AJ Fitzwater lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, a landscape that changes on a daily basis as the city is reborn. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Future Fire, Fantastique Unfettered, and Aoife’s Kiss. For Crossed Genres Publications, her stories have appeared in Fat Girl in a Strange Land and Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, and the upcoming Oomph: A Little Super Goes a Long Way. Her perfect dinner guests would include James Tiptree Jr, Joanna Russ, Freddie Mercury, and Darren Hayes.