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1100 HOURS: URGENT CARE

Marianna wiped sleep and tears from her eyes and turned to her husband. “Where did you say they took her?”

Jon had let her continue drowsing in the palliative care suite’s bed throughout his whispered conversation with the nurse. Much as she needed the rest, Marianna wished he hadn’t, not when it concerned her baby.

“Uh, something the doctors wanted to try,” Jon stammered. “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy.”

Marianna had heard of it, as part of her field-agent training. It involved boosting the amount of oxygen the blood carried to the body’s organs by sealing the patient in a special hyperbaric chamber and pumping the inside air pressure up to three times normal. “But that’s only used to treat scuba divers, right? For when they get the bends.”

“Apparently not,” Jon said. “The nurse told me that nowadays it’s also prescribed for a whole range of other ailments: sepsis, carbon monoxide poisoning, and—here’s the kicker—radiation sickness.”

“Jon, tell me you didn’t talk about—”

“No, of course not. I get the sense this is just a desperate play on their part. Nothing else left to try. The hell of it is—it’s showing signs of working, and the radiation connection might hint at the reason why.”

“Back up. You said it’s working?” Marianna could hardly credit what she was hearing.

“It’s not like they’ve reversed Persephone’s, uh, condition, mind you. But Dr. Burke seems pretty sure her stay in the hyperbaric chamber is slowing down the progress of this…this ‘triploidy changeover,’ they’re calling it. Maybe even stabilizing it.”

“So they think there’s a chance she might…” Marianna swallowed the lump in her throat, fought to get the words out. “Persephone might live?”

Jon heaved a sigh. “No one’s making any promises. All the hyperbaric therapy is doing so far is buying time. And maybe not even all that much of it.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“Well, the treatment does seem to be putting the brakes on this changeover thing, but at the same time Persephone’s vitals are beginning to fluctuate. Her BP’s up a notch, and her temperature’s rising too. Burke says if they can’t get that under control …”

Marianna didn’t need to hear the rest of it. She just wanted to hold her little girl once more before … the end.

The end. And then what? There wasn’t even a word for what Marianna herself was about to become. Orphaned at the age of eighteen, she knew only too well that there was a word for a child who’d lost her parents. As there was for a wife who’d lost her husband. Labeling a loss in that fashion conferred an identity of sorts on the person who’d suffered it. A terrible, soul-crushing identity, true. Still, an identity all the same.

But for a mother who’d lost her first and only child, her precious little girl? Nothing. A linguistic blank spot, an aching void where a concept ought to be.

For the rest of her life, for the rest of time, she’d be just the mother of a memory.

The tears came again, and this time they didn’t stop.

Lars Nyquist, Deputy Director of SGI, was seated at his desk, gazing at the view of the Washington Square Arch through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his corner office, when the call came through. Not with a ring, though. Rather a shifting pattern of light, forming and reforming on his desktop into what looked like higher-dimensional geometries, betokened an incoming, secure communication from the Institute’s Director.

Nyquist depressed the touchpad button that initiated his end of the connection. “Go ahead, sir.”

The plasma screen on the opposite wall came alight. Not with a face, merely a silhouette. “A situation has arisen with regard to the Child. The attending physicians at St. Bartholomew’s have initiated a course of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Futile, of course, but the unintended side effects could still ruin everything.”

Not for the first time, Nyquist wondered at the source of the Director’s information, which had been so unerringly accurate thus far. The Director had pinpointed the time of the Child’s birth, specifying the identity of Her doctors, not to mention predicting their utter cluelessness. True, the Director hadn’t foreseen this latest turn of events. But then, who could have guessed that the Child’s hapless doctors would have inadvertently stumbled upon the one thing sure to halt the Transfiguration in its tracks?

Not that the therapy by itself would have had any effect, positive or negative. No, it was rather that sealing the Child in an airtight hyperbaric chamber also meant cutting Her off from the Light!

“Something must be done,” the Director was saying, “and quickly.”

“I thought we had already set the groundwork in place with this Finley Laurence person,” Nyquist ventured.

“Ah, yes, your carefully laid trail of breadcrumbs leading straight to SGI’s doorstep. Regrettably, that ploy proves to have been too clever by half. Perhaps to have been expected, given whom we’re dealing with.”

The Director seemed about to say more on that topic, but evidently thought better of it. Instead: “But that’s neither here nor there. As matters stand, your gambit has merely succeeded in arousing the Father’s suspicions, thereby all but foreclosing the possibility that He might reach out to us of His own accord.”

Nyquist could see where this was heading. It was his plan, his responsibility. “Please, Director, give me a chance to fix this.”

“How do you propose to proceed?”

Nyquist took a deep breath. “When subtlety fails, try the direct approach.”

Knox was doing his best to comfort Marianna, well aware that he was barely keeping it together himself.

His cell phone chimed. An unfamiliar number.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Knox? This is Lars Nyquist of StarChild Genomics. It’s urgent that you bring your daughter to us immediately. Her life depends on it.”


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