The pain had started about an hour before, but Cassia still forced herself to keep walking and putting one foot in front of the other. The tunnels were dark and cold, like nothing that Cassia had ever seen before. She held her hand out in front of her face, wiggling her fingers back and forth as if she were making spirit fingers, but she could barely see them in the dim light. And in her moment of pause, the rest of the party had drifted ahead.
“Please, wait,” she called up ahead, unable to see if anyone was actually there. Her head spun, and she gave consideration to maybe sitting down for a spell.
“Here,” came the call back.
Cassia rested her hand along the wall, feeling her way along until she could make out her group in the dark mist.
“We have to keep moving,” Patrick grumbled as she caught up to them. “Pregnant or not, you have to be able to keep up with the rest of us.”
Cassia was at a loss for words. “I just…” She tried to catch her breath, short from having hurried along so quickly. “Can I just sit for a second?”
Patrick handed her a bottle of water, and she could see a few of the others milling around behind him, waiting. “A quick second.” He was not totally without mercy.
Cassia lowered herself to the ground, her almost to term belly hindering her ability to bend at the waist. “Thank you,” she whispered, but he had already turned around to talk to someone in the shadows behind him.
The relocation was vitally important to the salvation of their society, and that was something that Cassia full heartedly understood. The tribes from the Surface, the ones that they referred to as the Others, were always looking to take over the resources of the people from tribes like hers, the tribes that lived down below. And so those tribes, the Diaspora, were continually moving, spreading, separating, and spawning new tribes and new ways to defend the things that they held dear. As much as she understood this, all Cassia wanted to do was lay down in bed and never get up.
The baby was coming. That much she knew. But if she didn’t keep going, her people would leave the area without her–and that was decidedly not ideal.
Cassia finished the bottle of water, gritting her teeth against the tightness in her belly as she heaved herself back to her feet. There was a scurry of feet overhead-the Others.
“Try to keep up,” Patrick admonished her. “It is vital that we keep moving.
They walked as a group further down into the darkness. Cassia longed for someone just to lean on, but she was too proud to ask, and too afraid to admit any from of weakness. There was a booming sound from somewhere behind them, akin to the sound of a large barrier falling or an explosion. Or both. Which was, of course, the moment that Cassia felt an enormous gush of liquid from between her legs. The baby was definitely coming.
“I…” she panted anxiously.
“What?” Patrick snapped, spinning around in exasperation.
“The baby,” she moaned, having no choice but to admit it. “It’s coming.”
A full contraction gripped Cassia, and that was the end of her ability to stay on her feet. She slammed down on her knees against the concrete, biting down so hard on her lip that she started to bleed.
“Can it wait?”
That was quite simply the most ludicrous question that Cassia had ever heard. But he was a man, and would never experience the level of pain that she was currently feeling. Another contraction ripped through her–things seemed to be happening very quickly. Too quickly. She bit down again to keep from screaming. “No, no, it can’t wait,” she spit out. “She’s not waiting.”
He grabbed her by the elbow, hoisting her to her feet. “Up here.”
Cassia stumbled after him, her teeth grinding together as he hauled her through the darkness and into a small slit off of the main tunnel. “What is this?” she asked, sinking the ground in a poorly lit corner.
“For the good of….for the good of the tribe, for the good of everyone…we have to keep moving. You’ll be safe here.”
Another contraction tightened across Cassia’s belly, and the scream escaped her lips before she could stop it.
Patrick rushed to silence her. “If you can stay quiet, Cassia, they won’t find you here.”
Cassia struggled to wrap her brain around what was happening. Her worst fears were coming true–the tribe was leaving without her. “Wait,” she pleaded. “Pleased don’t go. Please don’t leave me alone. I need help. Leave me someone, leave me anyone.”
“It isn’t safe,” he whispered, slowly backing away from where she had sprawled on the ground, fading into the shadows. “If you can just keep quiet, it will be okay. They won’t find you here. You would only slow us down.”
Like hell they wouldn’t find her. Like hell he wasn’t leaving both her and her incoming baby girl to die. “Patrick!” she screamed as he retreated. “Don’t leave me here, please don’t leave me here! Don’t leave your baby! Patrick!”
He was gone, not even the sound of his footsteps remaining. But there was still the scurrying from above, and in the absence of other sound, that seemed to fill the space all around her.
The world faded out of focus. It didn’t seem like things were normal. This was her first baby, yes, but it seemed like the amount of pain was enormous and overwhelming. Something inside of her didn’t feel right. It felt almost like her insides were ripping apart. She screamed, her hands knotting into iron fists around the fabric of her dress. It was not supposed to be like this. She wasn’t supposed to be alone. They were supposed to be happy. They were supposed to be a family. And now the entire tribe had gone on without her. The cold, moistness of the concrete seemed through her thin dress and into her skin, making her feel more alone that she had ever felt before.
She screamed again, feeling like her entire body was going to implode, and slipped out of consciousness.
When Cassia came to, there was a tiny little girl kneeling in front of her, so close that she could almost make out her features. She couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old.
“You’re bleeding,” the girl said simply. “You’re bleeding a lot.”
“I’m having a baby,” Cassia said, lacking any other way to say it to a small child. “A little girl. She’s coming right now.”
The girl frowned, staring at Cassia’s stomach. “Out of there?”
The expression on the girl’s face was so comical that Cassia would have laughed in any other situation. But the strength of the contractions made it impossible to laugh. She didn’t want to ask the child for help, but there was nobody else to ask and she thus really had no other choice. “Do you think that you could be a big girl and help me?”
“I am a big girl,” the girl clarified, seeming insulted at the suggestion that she was anything but.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Nine,” the little girl answered. “My name is Nine.”
“Nine, I need you to look between my legs and tell me if you can see the baby. Can you do that?”
Nine nodded eagerly. “I think so.” After a moment, she added, “There’s a lot of blood.”
It suddenly occurred to Cassia that she and the baby might not survive. How could she survive, in a dark, disgustingly unsanitary tunnel with all of the blood that was coming out of her? And what about the baby?
“Do you see the baby?” she asked.
“Yes,” Nine said solemnly. “I can see its head.”
Cassia screamed, ducking her chin down against her chest. It hurt like hell. There were no words to describe how much it hurt. “I need you,” she panted, “to catch the baby when she comes out. Don’t let her fall down and hit the ground. Can you do that?”
Nine nodded. “I’ll protect her.”
Blood. So much blood.
The last thing that Cassia heard was the sound of a baby crying, somewhere far, far away.