Fantasy Fiction

Author’s Note  Some may recognise the reluctant astronaut Tabitha Delaney from my earlier stories “Mission Improbable” and “A Second Sleep”. But I hope this story also works as a stand-alone!

Tabitha had learnt to be adaptable. She’d had little choice in the matter. When the mission to the moon that she’d never wanted to go in had turned into a mission to Saturn, she had found wells of stoicism that took her by surprise, and when it turned out that the so-called mission to Saturn was a trick to use her as a breeding machine for aliens she had discovered, before she slipped back into her drugged cryogenic sleep, that it’s quite true that in space nobody hears you scream. Or if they do, they don’t take any notice.

     When she woke up on the planet Vita Nova (there was some talk of changing that name, but aliens can be very conservative in their ways) to discover that she was already the mother of two, her first, prosaic thought was that though she had meant to have a family, she had meant to leave it until she was older, not while she was still at university. It is amazing how much you can think in a nanosecond, and then she realised, with a quite unnerving clarity, that she was quite possibly one of the oldest mothers in the history of the universe. Or was she? For all she knew there could be mothers thousands of years older than she was.

     But how can I ever love my children, she thought. They were conceived through an experiment, not through love, and they are part alien. This is not the kind of motherhood you welcome. Her children, too, a male and a female (as the metallic voice in the spaceship said, rather than a boy and a girl or a son and a daughter) had been kept asleep, too. They were identical twins (no, thought Tabitha, a girl and a boy, by definition, can’t be identical, though from somewhere she recalled the term Pigeon Pair) and had been frozen at the age of two (In earth terms you will understand) and had been awakened at that age.

     Tabitha steeled herself to meet her children, and then she saw them, and then she was overwhelmed by a massive love and protectiveness. They were, to all intents and purposes, just normal toddlers – and very beautiful ones, with big blue eyes and curly dark hair. True, if you looked closely, you could see differences, see little nuances. Their skin had a silvery tinge, and they were tall for their age, already walking upright, more like five or six year old children. But that skin was soft and not hard to the touch, and they had normal childish laughs – in fact, unusually musical ones. When she said “I’m your Mummy”, they seemed to understand exactly what she meant and tumbled into her arms. 

     You may name them, said the voice.

     She had no hesitation. They would be called Richard and Veronica, after her own parents. And like her own parents, she supposed they would be known as Ricky and Ronnie, and that was fine. She supposed that her parents’ last resting place was now buried under the rocks and decay and rebirth of millennia. Had they been told that she was killed on an unsuccessful mission? She blinked back her tears, sighed, and squared her shoulders. It would have been more merciful if her memories had been completely obliterated, and yet she was glad they had not been. Still, there was nothing she could do about it. Her world was on the planet Vita Nova with her children, and the only thing to do to save her sanity was to live for the present and the future. She did not even ask the disembodied voice if the planet Earth existed any more. But she couldn’t help reflecting, just a little, on the fact that her new home was called Vita Nova and not Terra Nova.

     Once the craft had landed, smoothly, on a shimmering runway surrounded by hills in the light of the setting sun – well, in the light of a setting sun, she soon realised that there were worse places to live than Vita Nova. Whether it was natural or terraformed, in many ways it was comfortingly like earth. There was very slightly less gravity, but once she got used to it, it was far from unpleasant to feel lighter and move further when you were walking. The clouds had something of the look of opals about them, shimmering and sifting a spectrum of colours, not just grey and black and the hint of pink or tangerine at dawn and dusk. She was never really quite sure whether it was a little lighter or a little darker than it was on Earth. It most certainly wasn’t an arid or a barren planet! It took a while to get used to the great emerald green plants almost the size of houses with jewel-bright blossoms, and the glittering canopies heavy with exotic fruit. But soon enough, Tabitha realised that these were no malign and menacing triffids, and though she wasn’t quite sure she would ever quite get used to them, she lost her fear. Not all the flora was so overwhelming, though, and she was delighted to discover that there were still daisies, or at least, something that looked very much like them, though even the humble daisies had that shimmering and jewelled look. 

     She discovered very soon that she was a person of some standing and status. Vita Nova was a republic (though there was not much sign in everyday life of either the representatives or the structure of government, things simply functioned, and everyone expected them to function, and anything that, temporarily, did not, was fixed rapidly and without any fuss) but some folk nicknamed her the Queen from Afar. She couldn’t quite make her mind up if she liked that or was embarrassed by it. She and the children had a lovely house, a spacious bungalow by a lake with sapphire waters. There was barely any need for her or for anyone else to do any work – everything functioned in that quiet, inauspicious, utterly efficient way that it did in the larger community.

 Tabitha did not live a life of idleness in her bungalow by the sapphire lake, although it was one of privilege. She discovered that she was considered a valued advisor. This seemed strange at first. Yes, she had been one of the most gifted students at university (and that had led to her being selected for the moon mission that had started all this business off, but there was no point on dwelling on that now) but surely things had moved on beyond all recognition and comprehension in the millennia between then and now. Yet she found that, almost without knowing why, she could give advice and make suggestions, and knew enough to know that they were intelligent and viable. It occurred to her that some kind of sleep learning (she remembered Brave New World) could have taken place whilst she was in her long, long sleep silently speeding through the galaxy. That made her a bit uneasy, but it had its advantages and she could live with it. She was less keen on the idea that there had been some kind of implant but it was best not to dwell on that, either. She also gained some reputation as a writer. 

     She accepted it as natural that the children were immensely gifted. And at least some of it comes from me and not from – well, whatever, she told herself. Whatever was a useful word, a protective sort of word. Not that it always worked. But it was not an intimidating, frightening intelligence. They were just bright, precocious children and remained an absolute joy. No matter how they were conceived, half of them came from her, and from her parents and grandparents.

     She made friends, but formed no romantic attachments, and it seemed that was expected, though she didn’t know if anyone (or anything) would intervene if she did embark on a relationship. 

     In a few ways, Vita Nova was quite old fashioned and traditional, and there was something both comforting and painful about that. As Tabitha walked round the street market that was held every Monday and Wednesday (they used two calendars, one for more official purposes, one informally) she was reminded of the market in the quiet town where her maternal grandparents had lived. She had always loved visiting them, and somehow even mundane things seemed more interesting when they were on market stalls instead of in shops. There were a few mundane things on the market she visited sometimes in her new life, but somehow they were among the things that were seen to. She was delighted by the bright cloths that had powers of their own, that could glisten with the light of the shimmering sun or the opaline clouds, and could bear with them, somehow infused into their fabric, the shimmer of crystal snow and the fragrance of forests or lavender. When she bought them, they were made into clothes and drapes and she never seemed to need to ask, it just happened. There were tiny, nearly invisible contraptions that looked just the slightest bit like buttons, that you could put on your wall, and they played any music you asked them to, and some music like nothing Tabitha had ever heard before. She knew they could be operated by mind control, but somehow she never felt quite easy about that. All the same, she thought, if only I could take one back to earth, oh, how I would bemuse and mystify people. But she could not take them back to earth. There might very well not be an earth for her to take them back to. And it was best not to dwell on that.

     There were food stalls on the market, too. In general, food on Vita Nova was good and plentiful, and appeared at the white bungalow by the lake at regular intervals. Tabitha developed a taste for some of the strange fruits that had initially unnerved her, and for the silver and ruby wine that tasted rich and heady, but somehow left her with a clear head. 

     The children, and she was very glad about it, had an endearingly normal side to them, too, and when they walked round the market, they often pestered her to buy them some little bags of what were called goody drops. She supposed she indulged them more often than she should, and had to admit that she was rather partial to them herself. They came in little cones patterned with stars, and were often in the shape of stars themselves. It was hard to specify exactly what they tasted of, or at least, to pin them down to just one taste. They were sweet, and they were savoury, and they were both at the same time, and they were neither. And they were also, to use one of her Grandma’s words, decidedly moreish. They were satisfying without making you feel bloated, and left a very pleasant aftertaste that made you want to have another bite at the before taste. She determinedly rationed both herself and the children, as she had a feeling that something that tasted that good surely couldn’t be healthy, but depriving them of them altogether would be folly. The stallholder always made a point of being polite, just the right side of fawning, and joked about having a royal patron. The Queen from Afar. Well, there was no denying she was from afar. As she and the children enjoyed their goody drops, they sometimes listened to the street musicians playing. For despite the music that came as if by magic, there were still plenty of these performers, all of them looking well fed and all of them skilled. Sometimes people did old-fashioned conjuring tricks, too, and for all they were brought up on the most modern and advanced technology, Ricky and Ronnie laughed in delight and applauded. Tabitha was so glad that they were generous children, and even though the performers were in no need of food they always offered to share their goody drops. It was always met with a courteous refusal. Perhaps they area bit of a childish thing to eat, Tabitha mused, but if you couldn’t be a bit childish sometimes when you were thousands of years old, then when could you? Generally speaking, she had noticed, though people in Vita Nova celebrated birthdays, they didn’t speak much about their age. They talked even less about death. It was another of those things that wasn’t forbidden, but one of those conversations that very rarely happened. Most people had never even known someone who’d died, though it hadn’t been banished. Not yet, as Lianna, one of Tabitha’s new circle of friends said, very casually, very much in passing, as if it were something that didn’t really need to concern them one way or the other.

     Anyway her life was too taken up with her everyday duties and pleasure for her to spend too much time on existential crises, and she was pretty sure that was how it was meant to be.

     Sunny-natured as her children were, they were only human – well, at any rate, half-human, and they had their worries and frets. They were six now, and at school, where they were popular and able students. One evening it was obvious that Ronnie, especially, was upset about something. “Is it anything you’d like to talk about, sweetheart?” Tabitha asked. After a moment’s hesitation, Ronnie nodded. “Milly isn’t at school anymore, Mummy,” she said, “And she never told me she was leaving!” Tabitha felt her pain! Even after thousands of years she could remember what it was like when it seemed that your best friend had deserted you. The truth was, she had never much taken to Milly, though she had nothing against her. She struck her as a rather insipid child, too eager to please and yet not truly endearing. But there was that saying about opposites attracting, and Milly was devoted to her. “Oh, Ronnie, that’s not nice,” she said, firmly believing in never telling her children that it didn’t matter when it plainly did. “But – it could be that her parents had to move away without much notice, you know,” She realised she wasn’t totally sure what Milly’s parents did, only that it was something in research, but that seemed to apply to at least half of the adult population of Vita Nova. “I’m sure she’ll be in touch!”

     “And you’ve got me!” Ricky said, giving her a hug. Tabitha was touched by his kindness as she wondered if his nose had felt a little out of joint. Ronnie muttered, “Brothers don’t count,” but Tabitha could tell that she was moved, too, and felt one of those familiar and yet always wonderful surges of love for her children. No matter how she had come to bear them, they were the most precious things in her long life. 

     To her relief, though Ronnie was still not quite her ebullient self, she was a resilient child, and when they next went on a trip to the market she evidently hadn’t lost her appetite for Goody Drops, but she and her brother were temporarily distracted by a musician playing an accordion, making music that would cause the most leaden of feet to tap and dance and the gloomiest heart to lift. The stallholder attracted her attention. “Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten you!” she said, but something in his face riveted her attention and she went over to talk to him as, along with several other children, Ricky and Ronnie danced to the music of the accordion that somehow seemed to come from the air and up from the ground, too.

     “Madam, listen, and listen well,” he said, and though he addressed her respectfully, there was an urgency in his tone that told her courtesy was just force of habit. “I could face – consequences I don’t care to think of for telling you this. And oh, how I wish I could save them all …..” tears were rolling down his cheeks and suddenly, out of the blue it dawned on Tabitha that they managed to be haggard and chubby at the same time, in a most unnatural way. “But those children are special. I – I feel terrible about little Milly, she was a nice child but …..”

     “Oh, for God’s sake” (old habits died hard!) “What are you trying to tell me?”

     “The goody drops, Madam – oh, for sure, most of them are just made from an old recipe, and nothing to get upset about, but sometimes – into the mixture, especially near high days and holidays, and you know it’s the Serene Stars Day soon – to make it special, they need –they need something else. Something to season it. Something to – to give life to it –“ he shuddered as he spoke that phrase. “They say that they – they do away with the children they choose mercifully, and I suppose it’s true, why would they do otherwise, for their own sake as much as anything else, to avoid any unpleasantness …. Well, Madam, I’ve heard a rumour – that this year the Serene Stars Day is a special one as there is an unusual alignment and that – that the feasting should have royal blood in it – that the children of the Queen from Afar …..”

     Tabitha wanted to mutter that was rubbish. But somehow she knew it wasn’t. Blind, utter panic suffused her whole being.

     “Listen,” he said. “You are an astronaut. You know how to pilot a rocket. On the edge of town, on the Wasteland – take your children! Take them and flee. At least give them a chance!”

     She needed no second telling …..

November 12, 2020 07:41

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Crystal Lewis
14:06 Nov 17, 2020

Your descriptions were absolutely beautiful and you really painted the picture of an almost paradise, yet somehow it felt like it was building up to something darker which it is because no place or life can be that perfect... Only criticism I have is that the build up to the ending felt really long and I found myself wanting to skip over parts to get to the crescendo. I don’t know if that’s because I don’t have the context of the previous two stories you wrote for the character or if it’s the fact that I am quite an impatient reader. 😂 but...


Deborah Mercer
07:18 Nov 18, 2020

Thank you for your much appreciated and kind feedback. Yes, I do tend to string things out too much and I really must work at this. I will be glad to read your story, but please bear with me as I want time for proper reading and feedback and at the moment I'm at work and may, er, actually have to do some work in the immediate future - WAAAH!!!


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