I NEVER ENTIRELY TRUSTED HER THROUGHOUT HER PREGNANCY. Marion was just too crazy, too unhinged, too traumatised by ‘Mickey’ for me to view her as entirely credible. Furthermore, she was barely three months pregnant. Her argument for explaining how I could be the father of her child after I had spent the best part of a year in the cage – that time moved differently here than on Earth – though plausible, seemed rather weak to me. Where had she come up with a glib explanation like that? The beings that kept us prisoner seemed to experience time at a different rate from us, certainly; but was that any reason to assume that time itself moved more slowly here? I had no convincing reason to think so.
‘Look, I don’t know how it’s possible either, the way you say it,’ she argued in her sensuous voice into one of my long, suspicious silences at the dinner table one evening. ‘You tell me you were here for three-hundred-odd sleeps before I arrived – I only have your word on that, don’t I?’ She pursed her full lips in satisfaction, clearly believing she had delivered a telling blow.
‘I’m not a liar, Marion,’ I scowled around a mouthful of uninspiringly bland, boiled potato.
‘No?’ Marion raised a cool eyebrow. ‘Well, you certainly used to associate with some pretty major league, badass liars back home on Earth, let me assure you.’ She watched me squirm uncomfortably for a moment, her cold eyes seeming to reveal a glint of sadistic satisfaction. Then, as so often happened, her expression changed and her eyes softened. ‘You really don’t remember, do you?’ she said quietly.
‘I don’t know who you met or think you met back on Earth,’ I retorted hotly. ‘But that man was not me, do you understand?’ And therein lay her strongest claim, though she wasn’t even aware of it. Just before Marion had arrived, I'd had a vivid dream about a famous and wealthy man known as ‘H’, who had looked like me. And she had uttered that very same name as being that of the man who was the father of the child she was carrying. It was too uncanny to be able to pass off easily as a coincidence. My logic seemed to contradict itself here – on the one hand, logic insisted that I could not be the father; I had been here too long. On the other hand, the fact that she had independently identified me by the same name as a man whom I had recently dreamed about and who resembled me, made it overwhelmingly likely that she was telling the truth (or at least her version of it).
‘Yeah, I get that part,’ Marion interrupted my train of thought in a surprisingly sincere tone. ‘I used to be, like, three different people in one body, remember? Maybe you were as well?’
My eyes widened as her point hit home. Could she be right? The idea that I might have more than one lost identity made my head spin so much that I began to feel nauseous, and I had to forcibly put it to one side.
‘That’s irrelevant,’ I said harshly. ‘I can’t afford to start worrying about that. I am who I am now, that’s all that matters.’
‘Wise words,’ Marion murmured. ‘That’s the kind of thing Mickey used to say to me whenever I got confused about who I was supposed to be. But where does that leave my baby?’
There was another dilemma staring me right in the face, and I had been avoiding confronting it ever since Marion’s shocking revelation. The tale of Trudie and Ray had been looming large in the back of my mind, and I knew that at some point I was going to have to prepare her for what was likely to happen to her baby.
I sighed. ‘Well, there’s no one else here, is there? I’ll be honest with you, Marion. I’m not entirely convinced I’m the father of this baby for all sorts of reasons. But I suppose I’m going to end up being the father anyway whichever way you look at it.’ I paused, thinking about how best to gently tell Marion that she was in all likelihood not going to be able to keep the baby anyway, but during that pause she got up, kissed me on the cheek in appreciation, and left the room.
Marion was not always so approachable, or even so lucid and coherent. She spent a great deal of her time in her room doing jigsaw puzzles or obsessively playing some kind of odd game involving two dice, a pen and paper, and an endless series of numbers written down carefully after each roll that did not seem to correspond to the numbers thrown. When I once asked her what she was doing, she answered simply, ‘fantasy top ten’ and went back to her rolling.
Perhaps half way through Marion's pregnancy The Eye returned, prompting me to try again to tell her what to expect after her baby was born. Telling her I had something important to say so that she would not suddenly disappear again like last time, I relayed Trudie’s story of her son Ray to her exactly as it had been told to me. As she listened, she nibbled absently around the edges of a large, raw carrot, chewing endlessly without swallowing. After I finished, she put the carrot to one side carefully and said, ‘They’ll have to kill me first.’
‘No, Marion, they won’t,’ I told her gently. ‘you’ll fall asleep, and when you wake up, the baby will be gone.’
‘Then I’ll stay awake,’ she said brightly.
‘Not indefinitely, you won’t. Listen, Marion. I think you should take a leaf out of Trudie’s book. She was sure Ray had been taken away to a better life.’
‘Babies get taken away back on Earth too,’ Marion’s voice had become callow and girlish, and I realised she was slipping back into one of her alter-egos, something she still did from time to time. Without warning, she broke into some kind of dark nursery rhyme: ‘So many babies, food for the god / altar and puppy, earth and sod / watch as the senator, tall and fair / dines on emotion, cremates his care!’ She let loose a mad giggle.
I sighed and walked away, throwing my hands in the air. Marion carried on chanting loudly:
Mickey Mouse tells us, listen and learn,
We are the princes of the sugar we earn,
Barcode our number, six-six-six
Watch as we play our ancient tricks!
Mickey Mouse hides me, sheen and shine,
I am the king and the world is mine,
Light up the darkness, sick! sick! sick!
Good Morning Angel, suck my...lollipop!
Her belly seemed to grow impossibly large and distended as she progressed through her term. Neither of us knew anything about childbirth, and we spent many long hours (when she was in one of her more ‘normal’ moods) discussing and debating possible scenarios in the most excruciating and gory detail. The Eye presided over lengthy periods of our growing apprehension, glaring dispassionately down at us even when we waved and screamed at it, indicating Marion’s expanding waistline and making ridiculously loud baby noises in the vain hope of successfully communicating our predicament so that help would be sent to us.
But no-one came; The Eye disappeared again as it always did, and Marion slipped into labour one afternoon while I fussed and panicked and made a million useless suggestions. Marion lost patience with me entirely and ordered me out of her chamber to ‘go boil some towels or something’ – which I obeyed like an automaton, glad to be given a purpose I could comprehend at last. She screamed and howled for hours, and whenever I went to check up on her, she growled at me to get out from between clenched teeth and dishevelled hair.
And then, after several hours of cycling and rowing had produced enough food to give us a couple of weeks off, it finally dawned on me that it was now silent upstairs.
Wait – not silent!
Marion had stopped screaming, but there was the weak cry of a baby. One baby? No...was that a chorus? Two babies?
I leapt off the exercise bike and almost vaulted up the stairs to burst into her chamber. She lay unconscious on her bed, blood and gore everywhere, curled up in a foetal position.
Wrapped up in one of Trudie’s voluminous knitted shawls at the foot of her bed...one, two, three, four, FIVE tiny faces peeped out. Two or three were burbling or crying softly, the others were asleep. They were all incredibly, terrifyingly small and fragile-looking.
I stared at them stupidly for a long moment, my brain unable to process what I was looking at.
All the blood seemed to drain from my head. The room spun, and I keeled over from the shock.
The next several hours passed by in a blur. Marion slept right through it all, mumbling occasionally in her sleep. I changed her bedclothes, put water to her lips which she drank greedily before falling straight back to sleep, and I gently put all the babies in a third bedroom, checking up on them occasionally despite expecting them to be taken off our hands pretty soon anyway. They were all boys; all identical, all surely far smaller and weaker than had Marion just given birth to one. Each of their heads was barely half the size of my clenched fist. Five babies, my mind kept repeating silently like a mantra. Five babies. What are the odds of that? What are the odds of them even surviving?
I remained in the room with the babies during what would normally have been sleep-time. I wasn’t able to sleep myself with the shock of what had just happened, plus the apprehension of thinking about how Marion would deal with the babies being taken away, plus my own curiosity about how this would be done.
I had already decided I would not resist the babies being taken away. Why fight to keep them here? I reasoned to myself. I knew there was a far wider and more fascinating universe out there; I had seen a glimpse of it myself. But I sat there like a sentinel over their bed, waiting for the moment of their own abduction into the unknown as if my presence could somehow ensure that it would be a peaceful and trauma-free transition.
A shadow fell across the open doorway. Marion stood there, looking dreadfully pale and weak, wearing only a thin bedsheet wrapped around her shoulders, clutching to the side of the door for support. ‘I was taught once,’ she murmured weakly, ‘that four babies born together are called quads.’
I didn’t look at her, instead continuing to brood over the sleeping baby boys.
‘Any idea what they call five?’ Marion added into my silence.
I clenched my jaw together and swallowed hard, but did not reply.
‘They call them quins,’ Marion concluded unnecessarily, before turning and tottering slowly back down the corridor on unsteady feet.
Eventually I fell asleep in my chair from exhaustion, but when I woke up, the babies were still there.
It was only a few days later when a hammering sound from the quarantine room indicated that another companion had arrived. Marion had – thankfully – managed to start nursing the babies who, to my shameful annoyance, had not yet been mysteriously spirited away while we slept as I had expected them to be. Though all tiny and exquisitely frail, they all seemed to cling stubbornly and idiotically to life as if they anticipated that they had some kind of a future here. Marion had given them names inspired by the five elements: Ernie (Earth), Waltie (Water), Aaron (Air), Freddie (Fire) and Sammie (Spirit); as she recovered her strength, she would not let them out of her sight. Therefore, it fell to me to go and greet our newcomer on that day.
Before I even got there, I was certain it would be a man this time. There was no screaming, but the power and strength of the pounding that rattled the upper walls and floor of the cage surely could not have been coming from a woman. Sure enough, when I arrived, the pounding stopped and a hulk of a man, heroically muscled and at least half a head taller than me, stood to regard my approach. His glare immediately conveyed menace and intimidation which he wore to cover his fright like medieval plate mail. He immediately pressed his face against the transparent wall of the quarantine room and started spewing curses at me, demanding to know where he was, what had happened and telling me what he was going to do to me if I didn’t let him out of here immediately.
‘Chill out, bro,’ I told him soothingly. ‘You’re safe. I’ll let you out of here if you promise to calm down, okay?’
‘You’ll let me out right now, asshole, or I’ll break every one of your fingers when I get my hands on you,’ the man snarled.
I discovered something new about myself that day. I discovered that I really didn’t like being talked to in that way, and that being threatened made me feel very belligerent.
‘Bad response, bro,’ I drawled. ‘Baaad response.’. Then, slowly and deliberately, I sat down in front of him and started examining my fingernails nonchalantly while he continued to rage at me, making some truly hair-raising promises about how sorry he would make me.
‘Mate, this really isn’t helping, is it?’ I said reasonably after about ten minutes. I definitely didn’t want to let him out before he’d calmed down, considering the size of him. I was pretty robust and in good shape myself, I knew, but I didn’t fancy my chances of overpowering this beast, particularly in the mood he was in. And there was still those five babies and Marion to consider. ‘I’m not the enemy. I didn’t put you here, okay? What I am, though, is a guy who can get you out. But you’re not giving me much reason to do so at the moment.’
The man glowered at me, violence in every line of his posture, breathing hard from all his shouting and banging on the wall. ‘Just get me,’ he panted, ‘the fuck out of here, you little punk!’
‘What’s your name, mate?’ I asked in the friendliest tone I could muster. ‘I’m...Quin.’ I introduced myself, realising bitterly that I couldn’t even say my name anymore without thinking of the five babies downstairs.
‘What’s with all the shouting?’ Marion’s voice called from up the corridor. A moment later she was standing next to me, wearing one of the loose dressing gowns which was all she had worn since the birth. ‘Oh my,’ she breathed, eyeing the nude Adonis in the quarantine room.
I rolled my eyes.
As soon as he saw Marion, the man’s whole bearing changed. ‘Hi. I’m Basil,’ he introduced himself to her in what I thought was a nauseating, wheedling tone. ‘Call me Baz.’
‘Where are you from, “Baz”?’ I asked casually, not looking up from my fingernail examination.
Baz’s eyes flicked dismissively towards me for a moment, then returned immediately to regarding Marion. ‘I’m from - ’ he paused and frowned. ‘I’m from - ’ he began again, but was clearly unable to finish. His look of puzzlement was slowly replaced with growing consternation and then outright alarm. He sat down heavily. ‘I...don’t know where I’m from,’ he muttered, almost to himself.
‘Aren’t you going to let the poor guy out, Quin?’ Marion said.
‘I’m making sure he’s calmed down first,’ I replied. ‘He seemed pretty aggro before you showed up.’
Baz was rubbing his eyes and banging his forehead and temples with the heel of his fist, swearing and asking himself where he was, who he was and what was happening to him over and over again, even pleading with himself and with God for some answers. I found my initial antagonism towards him turn towards pity and empathy. I knew exactly how he was feeling right now.
‘Okay, get the guy some clothes,’ I murmured to Marion. ‘I’ll let him out.’
Baz was too shocked and disturbed to say or do anything much during his first few hours in the cage. I tried explaining our predicament to him, but he just ignored me, staring off into empty space as if trying to see beyond or through or past his surroundings to something that was familiar to him. After a while I gave up and suggested to Marion that she have a go, since he was clearly far better disposed towards her than me. But Marion declined, being of the opinion that he should be left alone until he felt like talking again. I couldn’t help but notice that she had taken up a very contrary attitude towards me since the birth of the babies. I suspected that it was because after all my insistent warnings throughout the second half of her pregnancy, the babies were still here after several sleeps, and no-one or nothing had come to take them away from her. Of course, I was at a complete loss to explain the reason for this.
The Eye had been gone for longer than usual...did They want us to keep these babies for some obscure reason? Had things changed in the near-century since Trudie had given birth? Was it possible, even, that Trudie had been crazier than I thought, and had invented the whole story to add colour and meaning to such a long and lonely life?
Then I remembered her story of the Human Picnic, which was something I had experienced as well (albeit very differently from her). I had put the gazillion questions that episode had raised firmly aside, resigning myself to the likelihood that such questions would never be answered. Humans that weren’t from Earth, reptilian rock bands, the Earth in quarantine and the apparent inspiration for an entire festival of inter-species solidarity...when I had mentioned these things to Marion, she had been remarkably blasé about it all, hinting that such knowledge was relatively commonplace in her Hollywood starlet world. She had even sung a snippet from a song I knew to be from the Red Hot Chili Peppers:
Can’t stop the Gods from engineering
Feel no need for any interfering!
No, Trudie could not have made up something like the birth and abduction of her own child, I decided. Her lucid wisdom and her assessment of our predicament here in the cage had simply been too sharp, her emotions too real and raw, her persona too wholesome and humane. I could not start second guessing her now. Furthermore, I could not help but conclude that she had been a far saner companion than either Marion or (apparently) our latest cage-mate, ‘Baz’, in spite of the interminable length of her incarceration. Whatever They had in mind for Marion’s five babies, it seemed that it was different this time than it had been for poor Trudie and Ray.
‘So I take it you and Marion are the happy family around here, huh?’ a deep voice said from somewhere to one side. I looked around to see Baz standing at the entrance to the nature room. He had donned an ill-fitting tuxedo and was taking enormous bites from one of the ton of apples that had fallen from the chute during my exercise frenzy while Marion was giving birth.
‘I wouldn’t put it like that exactly,’ I replied guardedly.
Baz shrugged and strode purposefully into the nature room, looking around at everything. ‘Looks like I’m gonna have to make myself comfortable in this shithole,’ he announced, throwing the apple core away heedlessly.
‘Well, yes, you might as well,’ I agreed. ‘Glad to see you’ve calmed down...Baz.’
‘Yeah? Well, don’t be fooled, pal. I ain’t forgotten your cocky ass punk attitude when I got here. The only reason I ain’t teaching you a lesson right now is cos there’re women and children present. But you try any more of that shit on me again, and I might lose what little restraint I got, and then daddy gets his ass whooped. You understand me?’ he gave me a very direct, bellicose stare.
I smiled coldly at him, remembering the bubble which Trudie said had gassed to death the last violent man that had come here, and which had even come to check me out briefly after the old woman’s death. ‘You might want to think about dropping the alpha chimp attitude, “Baaaz”,’ I retorted. ‘I’m saying this for your own good.’
Without hesitation, Baz walked right up to me and grabbed me by the lapels. ‘And I’m saying this for your own good,’ he said softly. ‘While I’m here, you back off, keep a respectful mouth in your head and mind your own business, right?’
This wasn’t going to work, I realised. The guy was an utter prick. The thought of spending the next umpteen years cooped up with him, and having to deal with five babies that may or may not be mine, and their crazy traumatised mother was entirely too much. Better to let matters come to a head nice and early...
‘I will say,’ I said in the slowest, clearest voice I could manage with half my air supply being cut off, ‘and do, whatever I like, whenever I like, for as long as I like. And if you have a problem with that, Baaaaz, well, that’s just too bad. Because you’re about as scary as my grandma’s knitted sweaters. You know – the big pink frilly ones with the huge daffodils on the front.’
I had the satisfaction of seeing genuine shock and incredulity in Baz’s eyes. He may not remember who he was, but he clearly didn’t expect this kind of reaction from me at all. Slowly, he released his grip on me, his amazed expression slowly being replaced with a kind of angry resolve.
Here it comes, I thought, bracing myself and closing my eyes.
This time it was my face’s turn to register extreme surprise. I opened my eyes to see Baz standing in front of me, trying without much success not to laugh. ‘Big, pink frilly ones, is it?’ he repeated back to me, his voice shaking.
The tension in the air reversed instantly like the poles of a gyroscope. ‘Yeah,’ I replied, grinning. ‘The ones only complete and total pussies wear. Because they’re scared of little old ladies.’
you are such a dork!’ said Baz, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘A
ballsy dork, maybe, but definitely a dork.’
'You may not believe it, but this dork probably just saved your life.'
'Okay, Quin, don't push it...' He clapped me on the shoulder and sat down. ‘Now then. Tell me about this place. What’s the story, eh?'
And then the nascent joviality was shattered when Marion flung herself into the nature room, screaming that all five babies had disappeared.
END OF PART VI.
Click here for Part
VII, The Man Who Wasn't From Earth