The Aphrodisiac: Chapter I – The Birth of Venus | Juris Prudish

Sterile. That is all the surroundings appeared to be. The nurses in their lavender-white uniforms. The starched linen on the hospital bed, two shining silver arms erected either side. The unnaturally white walls with glossy grey skirting boards. There seemed something almost perverse about choosing this environment for childbirth. A feat so raw, so natural, in a room so synthetic. Even the nurses, their faces barely visible beneath their protective masks, appeared as simulations, hollow within. A young girl, of 21 years and approximately 9 months, lay on the bed. She was surprisingly lucid given the amount of pain medication she had requested – the initial dose being inadequate. She contemplated her surroundings with great interest; she had never been in a hospital ward before, let alone the maternity ward. At this strange and stressful time, contemplation may seem an unusual option, but she was an unusual girl. There was not much that one would not expect to see in a hospital room. The only outstanding feature was a print of Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, hung on the wall opposite the bed in a cheap silver frame. The picture hung in every room of the ward. 

The head midwife called her Elizabeth – which you would not expect for a girl named Cassandra. She did so honestly, for this is what Cassandra had written on the hospital form when she checked herself in the day before. It could not be explained why Cassandra did this, other than instinct. She felt uneasy, that something was not right. She had felt it throughout her pregnancy and felt it still now. 

The baby’s head had now partly emerged and the hospital staff seemed agitated. A nurse walked over to Cassandra’s side and picked up her hand. Cassandra saw a flash of red pass through her vision and narrowly resisted the urge to snatch her hand away. The nurse felt the hand twitch and held it more firmly. 

“Not to worry, dear. There’s not long to go now. You’ll be able to relax soon. Just keep breathing slowly through your mouth.”

“Why?” Cassandra asked brusquely.

“Well dear, the more relaxed you are the quicker you will get through this. We just want what is best for-”

“No. I Understood that. I just mean… why do you do this?”

The nurse paused and squinted at her from behind the white mask. She had dealt with many women in labour and the many strange questions posed by them. She had been verbally abused and even bitten by a patient on one occasion. But she had never been asked a question in this accusatory manner. It made her shudder a little, although this may have been from the expression on Cassandra’s face when she asked it. It was an expression suggesting that Cassandra knew something she ought not to. It may, of course, be an entirely innocent foible. The question was vague enough to mean any number of things; the discomfort was there all the same. 

This could be set aside for now, for the nurse was not there only to provide emotional comfort; she was there as a distraction.

“Don’t worry, dear. The forceps do look a little unkind, but we’re awful gentle with them. They’re just to guide the head a little. We don’t want anything pushing on where it shouldn’t.” 

She smiled warmly and looked into Cassandra’s dark eyes, hoping the answer would satisfy her. It didn’t. Cassandra glared back, but the nurse maintained her smile.

“The head is always the most difficult part. Is the pain medication currently sufficient?”

“Yes.”

“Wonderful. Well, let me know if that changes, of course. We are only here to help.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re doing great so far. Not a single rupture yet, which is unusual the first time!”

“I know” is what Cassandra thought. “Oh, really?” is what she said – a non-question posed as a question; a feigning of interest. The Great Sisterhood’s school curriculum filled girls with enough information on motherhood that they might almost be able to birth a textbook on the subject. Pregnancy was the defining moment of a woman’s life according to the Great Sisterhood. Half a sacred ritual, half a rite of passage. Some women seemed to have little else to them other than their pregnancies. Cassandra hoped she would never become one of them. 

“Oh, yes! That’s right. It’s a tough time for most women, though thoroughly rewarding in the end.”

The nurse prattled on while Cassandra zoned out, focussing on her thoughts. She occasionally gave a non-committal answer to a banal question. Was this nurse even real? She was real to touch, she was real to sight. But she felt unreal to the soul. She could be replaced by any one of the 30 nurses in the ward and Cassandra would barely know the difference. 

“Do you have any sisters? How did they find pregnancy?”

“That’s it, just keep breathing.”

“Have your friends had their first daughter yet? It’s so wonderful to raise them together. That’s the true spirit of Sisterhood.”

“In and out through the mouth.”

“I remember my first pregnancy like it was only yesterday! How time passes us by!”

The meaningless chatter made Cassandra lose all sense of time. After how-long-she-knew-not, her focus was jolted back to the hospital room by a change in the head midwife’s behaviour. She picked up the digital touchpad from the end of the bed and tapped something on it very intently. She then stood back and looked at the two other nurses in the room, as if in silent communication. The nurse standing beside the midwife retrieved a pair of scissors with short, thick blades like a mediaeval torture device used for dismembering toes. The nurse holding Cassandra’s hand drew a long breath through her mask and began to speak again, her tone softer and less buoyant.

“Elizabeth, your daughter is almost born. It should be just a couple more contractions now. Laura is ready to cut the umbilical cord when she is out.”

For a moment, Cassandra forgot her reprehensions and felt reassured. She was at the end of a long journey. She thought that, just maybe, she would feel like all those other doting mothers felt after all. But the nurse snatched that hope away just as she would Cassandra’s child.

“I’m afraid that there are a few…” she glanced up at the head midwife ”… complications. As soon as your daughter is born we will need to take her into critical care. I’m afraid it may be quite serious.”

Cassandra’s relief turned to rage. How dare they put her through all of this just to take her child away?

“Well, then I will go with her. I need to stay with her.” Cassandra spoke as one giving orders, knowing they would not be obeyed.

“I’m – I’m afraid that won’t be possible, my dear. You will need to pass the placenta first and then we will need to get you cleaned up. And the doctors will be quite busy with the little one. They wouldn’t want any distractions.”

The nurse appeared to smile through her mask but this only aggravated Cassandra further. It was not the indignation usual to a mother who had been told that her child might not survive, it was a clear conviction that the nurse was lying. Nothing in the grey, hooded eyes (the most that could be seen) gave it away – in fact, it seemed as if those eyes could never express anything at all. For what reason would she lie? It was unclear. But that she was lying, Cassandra was certain. And she was correct. “Elizabeth” and she were both engaged in mutual deception.

“I don’t believe you.” She spat, but then groaned as her muscles convulsed, an intense pressure building around her groin area. After a period of intense discomfort, the pressure was gone and she felt light: the baby had now been born. The nurse holding the scissors moved with a speed that seemed unnatural, swooping down to cut the umbilical cord with her instrument of torture. 

“I know this can be difficult to understand but you must remain calm. We will do all that we can, I promise.” the grey-eyed nurse whispered. The nurse with the scissors wrapped the baby up in a crisp white towel, one that looked far too rough for newborn skin, and carried it out of the room. Cassandra’s instinct was to run after her, to snatch her baby back. To hurt the nurse, even. But she was tired. She was in pain. She was still a little nauseous from the medication. It had all happened too fast to process. The nurse by her side held her hand so firmly that Cassandra felt it may detach from the rest of her arm if she had indeed run. She remained still, her gaze fixated on the door that her baby had just been carried out of. She wanted the simulation to be switched off, for the cruel spectacle to come to an end. Against her wishes, time continued with the events brought by it. The placenta was passed, the twilight had coloured the sky, the nurses had let her shower and eat. She now lay on a clean bed, resting her head on the plumped-up pillow. Food and exhaustion, two sisters in battle, overpowered her anxiety. She fell asleep.

*** 

She woke hours later to a tentative knock on the door. She heard the door slide open across the linoleum floor and the dull impact of black patent pumps approaching the bed. It was the head midwife. Illuminated by only the bedside lamp, this short wizened woman cast a long thin shadow up the wall as if Charon himself were standing behind her. She flicked a switch on the wall and Charon disappeared. 

“Elizabeth,” she said solemnly, “I’m afraid the news is not good. Are you okay to talk now?”

“Yes.”

“I’m so sorry. Your daughter did not survive. Her respiratory system was too weak. We tried to support it artificially but the damage to her brain was already too great. There was nothing we could do. We understand that this must be incredibly difficult for you, and we want to assure you that we will be here to help you in any way we can.”

“Oh” Cassandra rasped, in barely more than a whisper. She was not angry. She felt a confusing cocktail of emotion. She wanted to cry – or rather she felt she ought to want to cry. She did not actually feel sorrowful at all. Then, what did she feel? It was a repressed but familiar feeling – it was the feeling that, once again, she was being lied to. 

“Would you like to see her, Ms Nightingale? Laura is waiting outside with your daughter if you would like to hold her. To say hello – and goodbye.”

Cassandra blankly stared at the wall.

“Yes. No. I mean yes, of course, I would. Please bring her in. I would like to see her.”

“Laura,” the head nurse beckoned “please bring Ms Nightingale’s daughter in for her to see.”

She walked in with a sombre, uncomfortable expression on her face, visible behind the surgical mask. She carried in her arms a bundle of blankets with fluffy rims around the edges. Cassandra was hesitant to see what lay within. It would all become unavoidably real. The lies would become truths. The simulation would become reality -, a cruel reality seeking to set her already aching flesh aflame. She sat up in her bed and outstretched her arms, sniffling quietly. 

The nurse trotted purposefully but steadily to the bedside. After turning briefly to the head midwife, as if to gain approval, she leant over Cassandra and deposited the bundle in awaiting arms. The blankets shifted slightly to reveal a patch of skin: the side of a plump, smooth cheek. Cassandra pulled the folds of the blanket back and fire erupted in her blood. She wanted to throw the bundle as far away as she could – and yet, simultaneously, never wanted to let it leave her grasp. She looked upon a small, rotund face that did not look back. The eyelids were heavily closed over the bulbous eyes and the skin was the very colour of despair. The full lips were closed tightly and the round nostrils breathed no air. Desperately exploring the baby’s face, she tried to absorb every detail she could; every repulsive, beautiful detail. Yet, the more she looked, the less she found either repulsion or beauty. The closed eyes seemed remarkably unfamiliar. They slanted upwards; Cassandra’s down. The ear lobes were detached; Cassandra’s attached. Most remarkably of all, the infant had tufts of dark brown hair; Cassandra had been born with white-blonde hair that mellowed into gold during adolescence – it has been the same for her mother, and her mother before her. She knew that genetics were not definitive, but how could there be such – ? Her thoughts were interrupted by a dread that extinguished the fire in her as a winter breeze extinguishes a candle. She placed the bundle on the left side of the bed, twisted her body to the right, and vomited onto the floor.

***

Some time later, the bundle had been carried to a different part of the hospital. Cassandra had sipped through an entire jug of water “to replenish her fluids” and had been given paperwork to complete before leaving the hospital. The birth records, the death records, the hospital administration forms, the consents to keep the corpse of her child on the hospital premises until Cassandra decided what to do with it. She had completed them all but for one detail: the name of the deceased. She could not come up with any name loyal to the child she had birthed. Yet, perhaps fidelity to the truth was not the right path. Isn’t that what she had been led away from all this time? Her absent-minded gaze came to focus on the print hanging on the wall. She had her answer: the child’s name would be “Venus”. 

In the Great Sisterhood, the patriarchal guild surnames of old were eschewed in favour of those of the great women of history. There were Pankhursts, Curies, Lovelaces, Wollenstonecrafts – even a D’Arc here and there. Cassandra belonged to the Nightingales but, as she had given the name of Elizabeth Breedlove on the hospital check-in forms, she wrote Venus Breedlove. It was a silly name she thought, but fitting. Fitting for the artifice of the day’s events. Fitting for the artifice of life – or indeed death. To a fanatic, it would seem reverential; to the disbeliever, satirical. 

She handed the papers back to the head midwife, who checked over them and left the room after expressing her approval. Cassandra was to stay for the night to ensure that she was well enough before going home. At least, that was the expectation. 

***

In a world that valued individuality, Cassandra could be led to great social successes by the qualities she possessed. She had an original mind that did not fear censure from others. She had little respect for authority – especially when it was unearned. She completely trusted her instincts and, most importantly, she had an overwhelming respect for truth. Even as a child, when the repercussions of dishonesty are least threatening, she chose punishment rather than deception. Even now, it gave her physical discomfort to lie on her hospital forms. One might say that a penchant for telling inconvenient truths makes someone a rebel. One might say it makes them a fool. What is certain, however, is that The Great Sisterhood would go to any lengths necessary to maintain the facade of public truth. This was one form of censure Cassandra would yet learn to fear. For now, her thoughts were consumed by the events of the day. There was so much that didn’t make sense. So much unanswered: she determined to find out more. 

It was now well into the evening. The hospital staff were changing shifts. The corridors were eerily quiet in comparison to the earlier bustle of the day. Occasionally, a consultant and nurse would walk past, deep in conversation about a patient’s touchpad. Given this, Cassandra resolved to explore the hospital a little. She had been manoeuvred around like a piece of machinery upon her arrival and, in her state of labour, had little time to look at where she was taken. She changed from the hospital gown into her own clothes and walked to the door of the room. Putting one hand on the handle, she took in a deep breath. She was not entirely sure what she was about to do. Eschewing her anxiety, she exited the room.

Where should she go first? The sign hanging from the ceiling indicated that the main reception was left. Yes, she should head there first. She could then decide where to go on from there. As composed as possible, she walked left down the corridor. She approached a slight bend where the reception of the maternity ward started. Behind the desk was the tall figure of a nurse with her back to Cassandra, apparently preparing to end her shift. She turned around as she heard Cassandra approaching and peered at her with grey, hooded eyes. It was the nurse who had been present at the birth of Venus. Cassandra smiled – a smile that disguised a nervous panic. 

“Could you please direct me to the bathroom?”

“Yes, dear. They’re just back the way you came.”

The nurse’s friendly tone stood in stark contrast to her cold gaze. She and Cassandra stood looking at each other for a moment as if waiting to see who would break first. 

“Oh… Oh right. Thanks very much.” was Cassandra’s outward reply; internally she cursed. She turned on her heel and retreated, the nurse’s suspicious gaze tracing her path. The bathroom door was barely out of sight. The nurse would know if she didn’t go in; she had little choice but to enter. Doing so, she noticed a nearby door marked ‘SUPPLIES AND UNIFORM STORAGE’. She locked the bathroom door behind her and headed to the sink. Her heart was beating quickly and she could feel her pulse in her throat. She splashed cold water on her face to calm herself down, leaving strands of golden hair stuck to her forehead. 

“What am I doing?” she murmured to herself. “I suppose I must wait until that woman is gone. I won’t get anywhere at all with her around.”

She sank down onto the floor and rested the back of her head on the wall. After waiting awhile she tentatively unlocked the door. Pulling it ajar, she froze. There were footsteps outside. Holding her breath, she peeked through the gap to see the grey-eyed nurse walking down the corridor. The heavy storage room door creaked shut behind her. She had, evidently, just deposited her coat and mask in the room, as she was now wearing plain clothes. This gave Cassandra an idea: the nurse’s uniform could be used as a disguise. Nobody would question her then. She waited until the nurse was definitely gone before making a dash to the storage room, pulling open the thick wooden door, and disappearing inside. 

The storage room was much larger than she had anticipated. It seemed to be divided into stationary, laundry, equipment and medication. She headed straight for the laundry section. There were two large grey metal units, the left marked ‘LAUNDERED’, the right marked ‘USED’. She pulled a handle on the left unit and a drawer rolled smoothly out to reveal a neatly folded overcoat, white with a lavender hue. Upon the breast pocket was embroidered ‘Maternity Ward’. She unfolded it and put her arms through the sleeves. It was a little too big for her, but it would have to do. Next was a mask, which was easily located in the equipment section. She browsed the stationary section for anything that may be of use and decided upon a digital touchpad and lanyard. The lanyard was attached to a piece of blank white plastic, evidently intended to have the picture and details of a staff member imprinted upon it. She thought for a moment whether it would be more suspect to walk about with a blank ID card than with none at all. She slipped it over her head and twisted it around so that the black plastic clip was visible and the blank white card faced her coat. She pulled the mask over her ears and adjusted it on her nose. Finally, she used a rubber band to tie up her hair into a ponytail. Wishing she had a mirror, she brushed herself down to even out the folds in the coat. As confidently as possible, she opened the door of the storage room and exited into the corridor.

To avoid the reception area, she walked in the opposite direction as before. She passed a consultant too preoccupied with a digital touchpad to notice her. A patient opened a bedroom door and peered at her, deciding whether to ask a question. Cassandra pretended not to see her and walked straight past. She discovered that the floor looped around back to the reception desk. This time, however, the doors were on the right of the desk, instead of behind it. Perhaps she would be able to slip through without anyone at reception noticing. Her lungs ached from anxiety, her breath short as if her airways were closing upon themselves. The click of fingernails on a touchpad echoed from around the corner. A nurse was sitting at the desk working. In one smooth movement, Cassandra veered right, opened the door and stepped through it. The nurse on the night shift looked up to see the door swing shut. Cassandra was out of the ward.

***

A long glossy grey linoleum spread from one ward to the next. Once through the second set of doors, the walls turned to glass. From the third floor, one side looked down to a courtyard full of silver tables and chairs. On the other was the hospital car park, headlights occasionally twinkling in the gloom. She peered out to see if she could make out the shape of her own car – she had been driven to the hospital in it by a friend who later went home on public transport. She touched her trouser pocket to check if the car fob was still there. Thankfully, it was. Cassandra reached an intersection and a decision had to be made. Ahead was paediatrics. On the left and right were the stairwell and the elevators. She scanned the floor descriptions: Critical Care, Orthopaedics, Pharmacy, Radiotherapy, Gynecology. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until she saw the below ground level. It read ‘Below Ground – Maintenance and Digital Support and Patient Transportation Unit’. 

Patient Transportation?!” she said aloud. “What could that mean? And why would it be below ground, of all places?”

Resolving to find the answers to these questions, she called the elevator. When the doors opened she strode in purposefully, almost knocking into a mother and miserable-looking child exiting. The mother glared at her scornfully but Cassandra did not register it. She jabbed the button marked ‘BG’ and the elevator doors concealed her from the scorn. She impatiently watched the floor numbers flicker on the screen. First Floor… Ground Floor… finally, Below Ground. The elevator ground to a halt and the doors opened painfully slowly. Cassandra poked her head out of them. To the right, Maintenance and Digital Support. To the left, the Patient Transportation Unit. She ran to the left, down a corridor quite unlike the polished gleaming hallways of the floors above. This was bare and dull. There were no windows at all. It was, clearly, not intended to be seen by the public. Moving at considerable speed, she outstretched her hand as she approached the door. Unexpectedly, she felt her arm crumple and her elbow dig into her stomach. Her forehead smacked into the hard wooden door and she yelled in pain. Confused, she shook herself back to focus before realising that the door was locked. She had walked straight into it. A little flustered, she thought to herself that she must be less excitable; the last thing she wanted was to be exposed. 

A black panel was fixed on the wall next to the door. Cassandra walked over to it and poked it with her finger. It lit up, glowing an unnatural white. The words ‘PRESENT ACCESS CARD’ asserted themselves from within the glow. She looked down at the blank card dangling over her chest, lifted it up with her left hand – her right still a little sore -, and presented it to the panel. It flickered in acknowledgement but then turned red. ‘INVALID CREDENTIALS. SPECIAL ACCESS REQUIRED.’ appeared on the screen. She cursed loudly, before quickly looking around to see if anyone had heard her. Thankfully, nobody was about. What should she do now? Perhaps she should find somewhere else to look – she didn’t even know what she was even looking for. It was just that it had seemed so strange a place to be in a hospital. She started to walk away, disgruntled by being thwarted so soon but was halted by a faint sound. She tilted her head to listen. It was a kind of yell, a raspy wail that did not quite understand its own purpose. It somehow made her want to cover her ears and simultaneously drew her towards it. It continued for a few seconds before she realised what it was: a baby crying. 

There was now silence; the crying had ceased. Cassandra returned to her original plan with greater resolve: she must find out what is behind those doors. But how? She needed to find someone with special access and get them to let her in – but this was no mean feat. How, exactly, was to be determined. She headed back through the dull corridor towards the elevators, her heart pumping loudly once again. Where should she go? She dare not risk going back to the Maternity Ward. Where else could she find someone with access? Paediatrics seemed unlikely. Neonatal? Critical Care? Both were a possibility. The prospect of being surrounded by ailing newborns disturbed her, so she chose the Critical Care Ward. 

Nobody passed her in the elevator this time; she only had to go up one floor. The Ground Floor has a different layout to the others. It was much wider, containing a semicircular foyer and cafeteria in the centre. The Critical Care Ward was on the opposite side of the hospital; Cassandra walked around the circumference to avoid being seen. She reached the ward and pressed a hand on each door to open them simultaneously, doing the same for the second set of double doors. She was met with a wall of sound, initially startling her. She had not anticipated that the ward would be so busy at this time of the evening. In retrospect, it was probably the busiest ward in the hospital at all times. Perhaps this has the upside that nobody would pay attention to her, she thought. 

Cassandra remembered the touchpad in her hand and switched it on as she strode into the ward. Unlike the Maternity Ward, the reception desk was on the far side of the corridors, connecting to a separate entrance that led out to the car park, evidently so that emergency vehicles could drop off patients directly. The loading screen of the touchpad glowed at her gently. Still, she must decide between left and right. She decided on the right corridor, but an elderly woman was wheeled out of a side room to the right on a rattling bed. A nurse behind her pushed a ventilation machine which provided oxygen to the unconscious patient. Cassandra diverted left. 

Most of the patients, she observed, were elderly. She had expected to see more patients with accidental injuries, but from what little she saw these were mostly children. But she must focus on the task at hand: finding someone with the requisite access. She passed nurse after nurse. None looked senior enough. They were all wearing overcoats of a different hue to hers; light blue rather than lavender. Under the fluorescent lighting, the difference was made all the more subtle, and she hoped that nobody would realise. She noticed that there were telecom panels dotted along the walls, much more frequently than in the Maternity Ward. Continual communication must be highly valued, she thought. She reached the end of the left corridor, which widened into a patient seating area and reception. This reception was again different from the Maternity Ward, for it was used half for the registration of new patients, half as a staff desk. 

A po-faced woman stood at the patient desk, apparently complaining about something to an exhausted-looking receptionist. On the staff side was a grizzled looking consultant struggling to read something she had input into her touchpad, unable to decide whether it was clearer with or without the aid of her glasses. Cassandra walked past the bickering patient to the other side of the reception, pausing to pretend to look at something on her touchpad. She peered over at the consultant. There were wisps of grey streaking through the dull blonde hair, hastily brushed back away from her face. There was a lanyard curled on the desk next to her. Cassandra inched closer and squinted to make out what was printed upon it. She read: ‘Norah Hurston. Senior Consultant.’ There was some small, illegible print and a picture of Norah imitating a smile. Underneath the picture were red letters printed in bold font: ‘SPECIAL ACCESS AUTHORISATION’. Cassandra jumped backwards and the consultant looked at her bemusedly. Cassandra nodded in greeting, then walked past the reception down the other corridor. 

She had to come up with a plan. Somehow, asking her directly to borrow the pass seemed unlikely to be successful. She looked at the touchpad in her hands. It was split into four sections: Patient Records, Medical Supplies, Staff Information, Support Services. She looked for Norah Hurston under Staff Information, only to find the ID number of her touchpad and her department. She looked up and scanned around the corridor. Could she say that there was an issue with one of the patients? No, that would be too transparent a lie; Norah would have at least a rough idea of what was going on in her ward.

She looked again at the telecom panels on the wall and an idea struck her. She recalled the Maintenance and Digital Department below her. The whole place was run on technology. Disruption to that would require attention. She jumped to the nearest telecom panel and prodded it. It lit up in much the same way as the touchpads but was divided into two sections: Staff Information and Support Services. She clicked on Support Services. Then Staff Support, then Digital Support. She scrolled past a list of frequently asked questions and was asked whether she wished to call the helpline. She pressed ‘Yes’, then picked up the earpiece from the slot in the top of the system and placed it in her ear. It buzzed gently as the screen displayed a ‘Connecting…’ message. Cassandra stood impatiently, glancing around her. A faint buzzing grew in her ear in proportion to the frustration she felt in waiting for an answer. She was about to end the call when a gruff-sounding voice answered.

“Helpdesk here, what can we do for you?”

“Oh, Hi. Um, I was wondering if you could assist us. We’ve had some trouble with the, um…” Cassandra thought back to what she had seen on her touchpad. “Patient Records. It’s the Patient Records. Our systems seem to be down. We can’t access any of the information.”

“Is that so?” the gruff voice retorted. “I see. We’ve updated the servers recently, these sorts of things can happen after a reset.”

“Well, is there a way to fix it? Will you have to send someone up? We’re in the Critical Care Ward.”

There was a brief pause while the disembodied woman stopped to think. 

“What we can do is reboot the data system. Shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. I can do that now for you, just give me another call in five minutes if it’s you’ve still got the problem.”

Cassandra scolded herself silently – what is the use in a distraction that can be solved so easily? She had to think of something else.

“Oh, that’s fantastic thank you. But there is something else too.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that then?”

“There’s, um, there’s a problem with one of the machines. The ventilation machine, that’s it, one of those. One of them is currently in use so it is important the spare is working too.”

“Hmm. Alright. Are you able to tell me any more? What exactly is wrong with it?”

She seemed to have stumbled into the opportune moment. She had to take her chance now, she thought.  

“No, actually. I don’t know that much about it. Sorry, I should have found that out first. But if you hold on a moment I can just get someone who does?”

The gruff-voiced woman began to reply that she couldn’t do much without more information but Cassandra had already taken the earpiece off and put it on top of the telecom unit. She was marching back around the corner to the reception area. To her relief, Norah was still sitting at the desk, her forehead resting on her finger, her eyes shut in thought and her glasses resting on the finger holding up her head. Cassandra abruptly stopped in front of the desk and Norah looked up, her glasses sliding down onto her nose as she pulled her finger away. She looked at Cassandra quizzically. 

“Hi, Norah.” Cassandra gushed.

Norah said nothing, wondering if she recognised this girl behind the surgical mask. She couldn’t keep track of all the new recruits. In any case, the girl recognised her. 

“We’ve just had a call from maintenance. An emergency call. They said there’s been a major server failure that might affect some of the equipment in our ward. They wanted to talk to someone senior about it to make sure they know what is going on.”

Norah signed. She looked away from Cassandra and shook her head, before saying to nobody in particular “Technology is brilliant when it works. It’s a bloody pain when it doesn’t.”

Cassandra paused, unsure of how to respond. She glanced at the access card that was still sitting on the desk. 

“Well,” Norah said, irritated “where’s the call?”

“Oh, the telecom just outside door eleven.”

“Very well.”

Norah lifted the flap of the desk to walk through it and disappeared around the corner, muttering something to herself. She left her lanyard behind. 

Cassandra’s vision was now blurred. She saw nothing but the access card. Without even hesitating, she snatched it from the desk and stuffed it in the pocket of her overcoat. She strode back down the corridor she had walked through, barely noticing what was going on around her. Her only purpose was to get back to the below ground level, nothing else was perceptible to her except that destination. That locked door. That baby’s cry. She swung open the first set of double doors at the end of the corridor so hard they smacked against the wall and startled a nearby patient. She continued out through the second double doors and straight across the foyer; she had little concern for being seen this time. Caution had abandoned her. She jabbed the button repeatedly to call the elevator and did so again to go down a floor. She almost ran down the corridor to the restricted door. She slammed the card onto the panel. It flashed the green letters ‘ACCESS GRANTED’ across the screen. 

Cassandra stopped to compose herself. Her heart was beating so fast it may in fact break through her ribcage. She had to be prepared for whatever lay beyond that door. She drew a breath of courage, then entered. A second set of double doors faced her, this time glass rather than wood. She opened them onto a narrow corridor with glass panelling on one side. She stopped to look through. She saw a small, mostly empty room. The exceptions were two cots erected in the middle of the room and a bored-looking nurse in a pale rose-tinted overcoat. At the other end of the hallway was a door marked ‘EXIT TO CAR PARK’. The glass door clicked shut and the bored nurse’s expression changed to surprise. She looked at Cassandra through the glass panels and began walking over to the entrance of the room. Cassandra felt herself flush with panic.

“What are you doing here? My shift doesn’t end for another hour and a half. Oh, I’ve been counting the minutes, trust me!” the pink overcoat barked at Cassandra. She noticed the words “Neonatal Ward” were embroidered upon the breast pocket. 

“There’s been another child born with… complications.” Cassandra borrowed the word she had heard used earlier.

“What? You mean, another one?” the bored-turned-shocked nurse gasped.

“Yes, another one”, Cassandra replied, entirely unsure what it was she meant. “You see, I’m new in the ward and they asked me to swap with you as someone who would be better able to deal with it.”

The pink nurse was taken aback. “Well, it might have been nice of them to telecom me first!” She rolled her eyes in feigned indignation but was evidently flattered that she was considered important enough to call upon. 

“I’ll head up right away. I expect overtime for this though!” she laughed to herself as she headed towards the double doors. “By the way, they’re both scheduled to be taken to the containment facility at 8 am tomorrow. I expect you’ll be doing plenty of waiting and not much else before then. Enjoy!”

Cassandra immediately forgot about the bored-turned-surprised-turned-smug nurse and headed towards the door of the small room. It opened noiselessly and she headed towards the cots. As she did so the familiar screeching yell infused the air. It was again painful yet comforting to her ears. It was coming from the cot closest to her. She pulled back the cloth draped over the top to reveal a baby, one not more than a few hours old. It was clothed in a pure white bodysuit and was wailing as loud as its little lungs could manage. Cassandra instinctively put her hand underneath its neck and stroked its head. The wailing subsided a little. It was a small baby with a button nose and strands of dark hair across its round head. She removed her hand and lowered its head slowly. It flailed its arms and legs around indiscriminately for a second, gently gurgled and then fell silent. Her eyes then glided over to the next cot. She walked beside it, pulled back the covering cloth and barely managed to stifle her scream. She stood petrified in horror. Again, she looked upon a baby dressed all in plain white. This time, it was a baby whose face seemed all too familiar. Its eyes slanted downwards. The small ears had earlobes that were attached to the face. Most remarkably of all, it had a large tuft of white-blonde hair atop its head. 

Without a single thought for the potential repercussions of what she was about to do, Cassandra swept the baby up in her arms and wrapped it in the cloth that had been covering the cot. Being careful so as not to trip, she sped out of the room and into the hallway. She realised what she had, deep down, known all along: the child she had held in the hospital bed – the one she had named Venus – was not her own. Was it a foul abomination of science; a perversion of life; an infant bred just to be killed and used for deception? Or yet worse still, the body of a baby truly lost to another wretched mother in the hospital? Was it even ever alive – or a synthetic mimicry of an infant? She could not bear to think about. All she could think of was how to flee, how to get as far away from this sinister place as possible. With one arm holding the baby, she shoved the door to the car park open. There was another elevator on her left but this time she opted for the stairs, stepping up them two at a time. She reached the exit, which was locked from the inside. She turned the mechanism and swung the door open. It was now the early hours of the morning and the glare of artificial lights in the car park obscured the stars in the dark sky beyond. Everything was a blur as Cassandra ran desperately, searching for her car in the darkness. After what seemed like an hour of running, she found her car and waved the fob over the sensor. The door opened and she sat in the front seat, baby in her lap.

“Destination?” the car requested.

“Home.” Cassandra managed to choke out, her mouth dry.

The engine ignited and the car began to drive. Cassandra felt exhausted. She felt disgusted. She felt terrified. She felt overwhelmed. She had used dishonesty to uncover the truth. This troubled her greatly. Perhaps it was necessary, perhaps not. The question would cause much conflict in Cassandra’s later life. But for now, she was free.

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