by Sybil Cameron

The woman on the delivery table took a slow, deep breath and tried to relax. These precious minutes of reprieve between contractions were to be used to rest and gather strength, not to be wasted by remaining tense.

"Not much longer", the doctor said encouragingly. "You're doing just fine, Caroline."

Humor undiminished by long hours of labor flashed in sea-green eyes as Caroline responded, "That's stretching the definition of 'fine' very close to the limit, Peter." She continued, "I'm sorry for keeping you up all night. It must be almost dawn."

"Don't worry about me"' he said. "You're the one doing all the work - I'm just an idle bystander."

Caroline smiled. Idle was not a word she would consider using to describe Peter Alcott. He was one of the most energetic people she had ever met. She started to tell him so, but Peter gestured for silence.

"Now you just be quiet and rest, young lady", he said firmly in his best 'old family doctor' manner. The effect was spoiled by a quick boyish grin that made him look even younger than he was.

Caroline closed her eyes and let her mind fill with visions of a wonderful future. She thought about the deep love she shared with her husband, confident that their love would only grow richer as it expanded to include their child. Remembering her own unhappy childhood, she made a silent vow that this child would have a happy life. She felt a sudden intense longing to hold her child in her arms and begin that happy life.

"Not much longer", she whispered softly.

Peter shifted position to ease his own cramping muscles while his thoughts turned to another birth and the mystery that surrounded it. Who was that unknown mother, and what had happened to her? Who, if anyone, had assisted in the delivery of her child? Peter had no answers to these questions. All he knew for certain was that the birth had taken place, the child was evidence of that. So much was speculated about that unusual child, but so little was really known.

The newly-born child had been found, wrapped in rags, behind St. Vincent's Hospital and had been brought to Peter's friend, Jacob, in the place of refuge he had found beneath the city. For days the child's hold on life had been tenuous at best. The miracle of his survival was surpassed only by the miracle of his very existence.

Peter had known that Jacob was a dedicated physician but his determined efforts to save the child's life went well beyond dedication. He remained with the child constantly, holding him in his arms for hours at a time as if to pour all of his own strength into the child as it struggled to survive. Anyone would have thought that it was his own life that Jacob was fighting for. Peter believed that, in Jacob's mind, it was. The child had struck a chord somewhere deep within Jacob that resonated through his entire being. Peter had feared the consequences to Jacob if the child did not survive.

Jacob had lost so much already. Peter remembered well the bleakness that had enveloped his friend after the hearings. He had lost the woman he loved, his career, his good name, and his chance for the kind of life that had seemed within his grasp just months before. Jacob's own inner strength had never been so apparent as it was when he painfully rose from the ruins of the past and began to build a new life for himself. The bleakness had returned for a time, after the death in childbirth of one of the members of the small community he had founded in the forgotten tunnels far below the city. It too had passed but Peter could tell, by the haunted look he sometimes glimpsed in Jacob's eyes, that this further loss had scored deeply across that caring, sensitive heart. He feared that the loss of the child would prove to be too much for even Jacob's resilience.

"Jacob", Peter had cautioned after an especially violent and prolonged seizure had left the child almost lifeless, "you must prepare yourself......"

"NO!" Jacob had shouted. "He will live. HE WILL LIVE!" His outburst appeared to have shocked Jacob almost as much as it had Peter. He continued in a voice that was lower but no less vehement, "He must".

To Peter's astonishment, those sentiments had been echoed by John Pater. That brilliant, enigmatic man had lost his usual coldly clinical detachment and seemed to be almost obsessed with the child. He shared Jacob's vigil and worked under his direction, but something about the way he looked at the child had made Peter feel uneasy.

Peter himself had not been unmoved by the desperate plight of the tiny child. He viewed the child with compassion, but also with an objectivity that seemed to have deserted Jacob. On his initial examination of the then-unconscious child, he had doubted whether the tremendous effort to ensure the child's survival was really the most humane course of action.. He had wondered what kind of future there could be for the child if he did survive. He even questioned whether a human mind existed in the body that was clearly not fully human.

Peter's reservations had been swept aside the moment the child opened his eyes and looked at him. Their blue depths held the very essence of human suffering, and human compassion. For one shattering moment, Peter felt as if those eyes had looked into his soul and it was his own humanity that was being weighed and judged. He later told himself that he was becoming as fanciful as Narcissa but he had no more doubts. He had entered fully into the struggle to save the child's life.

The child was thriving now. The others in the community, after an initial period of rejection, were all fiercely protective of the child whom Jacob had adopted as his son. John Pater now lived in exile from the world he had helped create. The events that had culminated in his expulsion were still painfully fresh but the healing process had begun. Jacob's determination to provide a place of refuge and safety for those rejected by the world above was slowly forging a strong, united community. They were becoming a family and even the adults had begun to refer to Jacob as Father.

Peter still worried about the child's future. His physical differences would not become less apparent as he matured but would most likely become more pronounced. Peter knew his world. It was a world intolerant of that which is different, a world in which this unique child would be considered a monster. He would be safe only as long as he remained hidden in the world below. Peter regretted the opportunities the child would not have as a result of this necessary seclusion but, in his estimation, it was the world above that, all unknowingly, would have the greater loss.

A slight movement by his patient brought Peter back to the present. At least he had no worries or doubts about the future of the child soon to be brought into the world. It was eagerly awaited by loving parents who had wealth and position to provide all of the luxuries of life. This child would be accepted by the world. It would always be safe.

Caroline tensed slightly as she felt the initial tightening of another contraction, then adjusted her breathing to a rhythmic pattern. As the contraction reached its peak, she took a deep breath and began to bear down. The sequence was repeated until at last the cry of a newborn rang through the delivery room.

"You have a daughter", Peter announced. He quickly but carefully examined the infant. He had not lost his sense of wonder in the presence of a new life - he was certain that he never would. The infant was quiet now in his gentle, capable hands and he felt humbled by that implicit trust. She already showed promise of remarkable beauty, even at this early stage, and Peter could see a strong resemblance to her mother.

As he smiled down at the infant in his arms, another face was suddenly superimposed on hers and Peter looked into a pair of familiar blue eyes. Startled, he blinked and shook his head to clear his vision, thinking ruefully that he must be more tired than he'd realized. When he looked again, all was as it should be. The only face he saw was that of the infant whose mother was looking at him with fear in her eyes. That startled expression had not escaped her notice.

Caroline asked anxiously, "Peter, is something wrong?"

"No, everything's fine", Peter hastened to reassure her while silently berating himself for that momentary slip in his composure. "Here, see for yourself", he said as he placed the infant in her mother's arms. "She's strong and healthy and already a beauty. Have you and Charles decided on a name yet?"

Caroline Chandler gently traced the curve of her daughter's cheek with her fingers and raised eyes that glowed with love. "Her name is Catherine."

In a chamber deep beneath the city, a unique child lay in his bed, held motionless in the grip of a waking dream. Images flashed in rapid succession across his mind's eye, images that were accompanied by a barrage of emotions. Pain, joy that was almost painful in its intensity, wonder, rage and sorrow swept over him like a tide. Woven through it all, like a shining path through the darkness, was the sense of a deep, abiding love.

The child remained still as his future relentlessly unfolded, his face expressionless even though tears welled up in his eyes. Then, as quickly as they had come, the images and emotions were gone, taking even their memory with them. Only one lingering echo remained in a voice filled with tenderness.

"Remember love."

A rare smile lit the child's face with a startling beauty and he slowly closed his eyes. Within a heartbeat, Vincent was asleep.

The end.