#fridayflash : the leave-taking

Queen pushed the last branches away and stood on the bare strip of gravel between the woods and the water. The sound of the branches springing back into place startled a few pelicans, and they lazily flapped away from the perceived threat, the light of the full moon bright enough for them to fly in.

Queen closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled. The salt water, the sweet, rich rot of the mud — this is what she’d miss the most, the smells. Kevin had promised the team an amazing garden, and she was sure he would deliver, but it wouldn’t be the same. She listened to the sound of the waves change intensity as an offshore breeze pushed them a little more forcefully into the shore.

A twig snapped behind her and she jumped, turning towards the sound. All of a sudden her white uniform shirt was too visible in the moonlight, her silhouette too sharp against the backdrop of the ocean and empty sky. “Someone there?” Her years of military service came rushing back, and she automatically reached for a hip holster she wasn’t wearing.

A woman appeared behind the last row of trees. Her skin was pale in the moon’s glow, and her hair, probably pale blonde in daytime, looked as white as a wraith’s. Her eyes were pale too, blue or grey. Queen could just make out the woman’s large black pupils.

“Please,” said the woman, making a gesture Queen couldn’t interpret with the tree branches in the way. “You’re not just ground crew, are you? You’re going.” The woman nodded, probably meaning to indicate Queen’s uniform.

“Ma’am, this is a secured area.” Queen raised both her hands slowly to shoulder level, palms held out towards the woman. She hoped the moon wasn’t backlighting her so much that her face and gestures were obscured. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m reaching in my shirt pocket now, see? and I’m going to call someone to pick you up. If you don’t make a fuss, I’ll be happy to tell them you just got lost and didn’t realise you’d passed the perimeter.” Her right hand moved slowly but steadily towards the pocket while she kept her left hand up.

“I was hoping I’d find one of you,” said the woman, bobbing her head up and down with an enthusiasm that was almost violent. “I figured some of you would be wandering around, last night and all. I don’t want to scare you. I’m just going to set her down right here, between the trees, and you can pick her up when you’re ready to go. It’s a mild night. She’ll be fine.”

Queen saw the woman’s pale head duck below the branches, and set something down among the tree roots, on the ground. She froze, phone half-pulled out of her pocket, and watched as the woman ran away, a pale ghost escaping from a bad dream.

She closed her eyes and listened, wishing her only route of escape wasn’t the ocean, wishing she’d gone and joined the leaving-Earth party with the rest of her crew. A laugh choked out of her when she realised she was listening for ticking. As the launch window had neared, there had been rumours about mad bombers and apocalypse cults. As if even the craziest of the science deniers would depend on a clockwork bomb.

Instead, her laugh triggered a high, thin wail. Queen’s eyes popped open, and she groaned.

The blanket the baby was wrapped in was dark. Queen had to approach obliquely, so the moonlight could illuminate the pale, scrunched-up little face peeking out of the swaddling. She picked the baby up and gently checked for signs of injury, but there was nothing obvious. Judging from the strength of its cries, it was perfectly healthy.

It had just been born too late for this world, though few of the planet's inhabitants knew how bad things really were.

Queen bobbed the infant up and down against her shoulder. When the baby finally quieted, she allowed herself one last long, hard look at the moonlight reflecting on the ocean, then turned and trudged back to the crew quarters.

Past the stand of trees, the grounds were illuminated by the giant spotlights trained on the generation ship. Queen stuck to the edges. Not that anyone was around so close to launch anyhow. The ship was as ready to leave the planet as it ever would be.

She slipped into quarters, sliding the light switch off before its motion detector could sense her presence. She could hear that in the mess hall, the party was still in full swing.

Her room was at the end of the corridor. She shut the door behind her and flicked on the lights with the point of her elbow.

“Let’s take a look at you,” she breathed, gently lowering the baby onto her bed. The infant had fallen asleep during the walk back. Queen undid the swaddling and checked the baby’s diaper was clean, discovering at the same time it was a girl.

Queen gently laid a flap of blanket over the baby’s body, straightened up, and put her hands on her hips. She was chief engineer for life support, and as such had been accorded four berths: one for her, one for her husband, and two for the children they were supposed to have to replace themselves and continue the mission to the colony star system. Well, she was still single, still not pregnant. It wouldn’t take more than a medical checkup to give the baby a berth. Two of the three pediatricians owed her a favour, and one of them didn’t drink. They could hurry through breakfast in the morning and do enough tests to rule on fitness for space travel.

She bent down and softly kissed the sleeping baby’s forehead. “You’re going to grow up and be an engineer, just like your new mama,” she whispered. She straightened up and sighed. “Like your new mama and your old mama.”