Zora opened her mouth and let go a stream of every bad word she'd ever heard. She cursed in Bomorian, Venusian, three dialects from Rigus V, and one language that hadn't been heard in Gen-Fed space in over a hundred years. Her mind had cataloged every filthy phrase uttered in every single dive, derelict, and backwater joint she'd ever had a drink in, and she found each one now and tossed them, like an offering, to the hospital ceiling.
When she paused for breath, Ignatius' face appeared. He grinned as if the world weren't ending and held out a clear cup. "Ice chip, dear?"
"Slangostine," she snarled.
"You've used that one already."
"Oh." The pain subsided. The sensation that her insides were attempting to tear their way free through her spine passed, and a wave of rummy contentment returned. "Then ice, please."
He handed her the cup, and she slipped a few of the ice slivers into her mouth. It helped, but only because the pain had paused. The fact that it would come back any second definitely didn't help.
"How many days have we been doing this, Ig?"
"It's been five hours."
"How are we, Mrs. Superious?" The purple-faced nurse appeared on the other side of her bed. She held a scanner in one tentacle, a towel, chart and pen in several others.
"Sucky," Zora answered. "This really sucks."
"You're doing very well." The nurse smiled and blinked half of her eyes.
"Slangostine," Zora said. She handed the cup back to Iggy and caught his wink of approval just in time for the next contraction to begin.
"Are you ready to push, then?"
"Nope. Definitely not ready."
"Time to push!" The purple face vanished and then reappeared near Zora's feet. "One, two..."
"Owie!" Zora kicked, landed a solid heel against a squishy purple cheek and grabbed Ignatius' arm with both hands. "Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow."
"I...concur." Iggy leaned closer, wincing. "Ow."
"Push, Mrs. Superius!" The nurse recovered from the kick and grabbed Zora's ankles with four tentalcles. "PUSH!"
Zora pushed. She tried to kick the woman in the face again. Instead, the tentacles braced her feet and folded her legs up to her ears.
"Couldn't we get a different nurse?" She panted, gasped for breath and then clenched her teeth against the next wave of pain. Too close together now--she'd never survive this.
"She's the best the galaxy has to offer, dear." Iggy smiled.
Zora twisted his arm harder and pushed her heels toward nurse perfect's fat face.
"That's it," the purple bitch said. "Almost there."
The pain subsided in a rush. The hospital room, deep inside the Emperor's secret cloning facility, fell silent. One second passed, and the whole planet held a collective breath. Zora released her death grip on Iggys arm, and his hand flexed once and then slid into hers. She exhaled, and her sigh drowned in the first cries of their child.
It sounded fragile, a warble of protest in one giant universe. Zora tensed and felt Ignatius squeeze her hand in reply.
"It's a girl," purple face said.
"Give her," Zora said. "Give."
"I just need to cut the cord."
"Cut what?" Zora sat up fast, but the room spun. Iggy leaned in and pressed her back down. "She's cutting..."
"It's fine," he said. "Perfectly normal."
The baby cried again, however, and Zora wasn't remotely convinced. She tried to see, to drop her knees and lean around, but her body had gone to putty. In the end, she waited for the tentacles to offer her the impossibly small, blanket-wrapped baby.
She looked human. Of course, only her face was visible inside the swaddling. Still, she had two eyes, one tiny nose and a little bow of a mouth in an ordinarily colored face.
"She's so beautiful." Ignatius leaned over. He reached one finger underneath the cloth and pulled the blanket back just a little, exposing more of the tiny body. "She has red hair like her momma."
"She's got Murray's nose," Zora said. "Don't tell Mur."
"Of course not."
The baby blinked and crinkled her nose. It was cuter on her, somehow. She weighed almost nothing, felt like a wisp in Zora's arms. Fragile. She had the overpowering urge to hide her, to keep her away from the universe full of dangerous, dangerous things.
"Let's have a better look." Iggy peeled the blankets back.
Zora closed her eyes. Time to face the piper, after all. But she'd warned him. She'd told him over and over.
"Now look at that," he said. "I told you it would be fine."
Zora hugged the baby closer and peeked with just one eye. He had a tiny hand in his, and counted each pink finger. She opened the other eye and counted with him. Two arms. Ten fingers. What the hell?
"Maybe it was a leg?"
"I think the image was just screwy."
"She's perfect, Zora. Look."
She looked. They examined the baby together, every human-looking inch of her. Zora wasn't convinced. She knew about reptilian DNA. The doctor had told her all about it. Unless the quack on Mercur had been messing with her. Maybe Mur had paid them off. Or maybe the limb just came and went. Maybe, it would pop out again at any second.
But the baby opened its little mouth and let out a tiny coo, and Zora didn't care anymore. Limbs didn't really matter in the end.
"Do you have a name picked out?" Purple face hovered at the side of the room. She'd done a good job after all, too.
"Taira," Iggy said. "It means three."
"Still?" Zora scrunched up her nose and focused on the baby's face.
"Don't you think so?"
"Yes." She cuddled the baby close and nodded. "Taira's perfect."
Three. Zora sighed and smiled at their child. It was perfect. Taira, just in case. Because if she knew anything at all about the universe it was to expect anything. Anything. Even a disappearing--or reappearing--third arm.
"I love you," the Emperor said. "Both of you."
"I love you too."
Zora grinned. You just never knew what could happen next.◦