Dr. Iatriss blinked several times and squinted at the info block in front of her. The crystal torch attached to the polished stone wall was beginning to dim. It normally produced enough light to brighten the entire bedroom. Today, it managed to illuminate only as far as the bed extending out from the adjacent wall, leaving the far corners of the room to the dark of the chilly pre-dawn hours. The torch’s fuel cell would need to be changed within the next rota or two, but it didn’t matter. Poor lighting wasn’t the reason for her confusion.
The face of the young woman lying on the bed was filled with the same mixture of hope and trepidation new mothers displayed during their fetal signature scans. Dr. Iatriss saw it every time. She was usually able to present them with good news. This, on the other hand…
“They are healthy,” she answered.
“They?” A smile touched the corners of the woman’s mouth. Single births were not uncommon, but they were also not generally preferred by young mothers. Dr. Iatriss heard the new mother exhale, long and relaxed, in relief. “Can you tell how many?”
The doctor chewed on her lower lip as she re-examined the results on the block in front of her. Dr. Iatriss was well-respected among her peers on Domis Elementia. She pioneered the routine use of signature scans for gestational purposes. They were designed to read basic energy signatures – sentient energy waves emitted undetected to the naked eye – in the last two stages of fetal development. The results were then interpreted to identify the number of babies, the gender of each one, and any abnormalities present. It had become a popular procedure with expectant mothers who wished to prepare for their newborns.
Fetal scans performed before the third quatra of pregnancy, however, were only accurate enough to predict the pregnancy itself, and sometimes the number of babies, but never the gender. Energy signatures grew as the body did, and infant signatures were nearly imperceptible. This scan, done barely midway through the first quatra of pregnancy, was different. Disturbingly different.
Dr. Iatriss performed hundreds of these scans over the last several annum, but never saw results like these before. They were not merely conclusive but powerfully clear. The babies’ signatures combined were already stronger than those of any full-grown adult. She’d performed a second scan just to be sure the machine wasn’t malfunctioning. The results – the ones presently showing on the screen of her info block – were the same. The soft sound of a child’s voice singing the words of a nursery rhyme drifted through her head as she stared at the screen. Not any particular child’s voice, but a specific verse. The dreaded one.
The doctor’s assistant, a much younger woman of around twenty-two annum, studied their patient as she packed the scan equipment into its case and staged it near the door. Each deccount of silence from the doctor carved deeper furrow lines into the poor woman’s forehead. She flashed a warm smile at the pregnant woman and gestured a reassurance with her hand. She approached Dr. Iatriss and peered over her shoulder at the info block. Her pale Dometian blue eyes scanned the screen from top to bottom, trying to make sense of the readout. They widened, the blue irises shrinking the field of white around them. Her left hand flew to her mouth to cover her gasp – a wretched, fearful sound.
Dr. Iatriss flipped off the power to the info block, slammed it onto the desk and spun around in her chair. She stood and grabbed her assistant by the arm, shaking her lightly. “Stop it. Stop, I say.” She spoke through her teeth, her voice low and threatening.
The assistant tore her eyes from the now-empty block screen and stared at the pregnant woman on the bed. Her face was now the one carved by worry and fear.
“Listen. Listen!” Dr. Iatriss tugged hard on her arm once more to gain her attention. The assistant looked back at her, though her eyes shifted to the bed every few counts. “Go gather up the equipment and wait for me outside. And remember your confidentiality oath,” she hissed.
The assistant nodded her head once and rushed about to do the doctor’s bidding. She coiled a power wire and two cables around her left hand and upper arm in a tangled mess of loops. A collection of folders and maternity pamphlets were stuffed into a briefcase. Several of the pamphlets escaped her grasp and floated to the floor. She headed for the door and exited without fanfare, her grimy footprint stamped across the faces of the smiling pregnant woman on the pamphlet covers.
Dr. Iatriss picked up the block and inhaled deeply before turning to face the expectant mother. The poor woman had witnessed the exchange between the two medical attendants and the assistant’s subsequent abrupt departure. The soft pink sheet that covered her now lay twisted in her hands.
Dr. Iatriss approached her, slow and cautious, as though she carried bombs rather than babies inside her. She needed to calm herself before discussing the results with her patient, but a seed of dread began to grow inside her like a newly conceived child. If she didn’t control it, the fear would come through in her voice.
It was stupid, really. Nothing more than a coincidence. She’d never bought into the reinterpretation of that nursery rhyme as a prophecy. Had ignored the rumors that swirled around it of late. Still, it permeated Dometian society, and now – here in front of her – was the embodiment of those rumors. The child’s voice in her head grew louder, repeating the rhyme on a constant loop.
“Please, Dr. Iatriss, what is it?” The woman resumed wrenching the soft pink sheet with her hands, uncovering her feet and calves in the process. She looked on the verge of tears.
“They are healthy…” Dr. Iatriss repeated. Her eyes darted to the far corner of the room where the sound of shuffling movement revealed what the darkness did not. The woman’s advisor was waiting to hear the results, as well.
“Yes, you said that,” she said as she laughed, “but how many? Is it twins?”
“No, it’s not twins.”
“Triplets?” The woman clapped her hands together once and laughed again in relief and nervous excitement.
Her laughing faded.
“Four daughters, your grace.” Dr. Iatriss held her chin out and her head high to negate the shaking in her voice. To counteract the fear. But that rhyme. She couldn’t expel it from her head.
“Four….sisters?” The pregnant woman looked to the man hidden by the dark of the far corner. Her expression turned again to one of concern. The small emerald wings on her back twitched against the back of the headboard. “Sisters four-born of royal winged line…”
A faint silver glow flickered in the blackness and just as quickly vanished.