Infinity: Part Four
"There's only so much we can tell about a baby while they're still in the egg. From what we can see, it appears to be just fine."
That was what the doctors told Lumin. Part of him wanted to take those words as proof that his child would be alright and that there was nothing wrong. But the other part, the part that was dominating him, couldn't believe it and instead grew increasingly worried over the egg's well-being. He thought about it constantly and the stress was quickly starting to overwhelm him.
Infrared's and Neon's search for The Engineer produced no results. They didn't catch even so much of a glimpse of her. Aside from Lumin and the Royal Guards, no one in the City of Lights had seen or even heard of The Engineer. It wasn't like she would be able to blend in with the Fireflies, either. In a city where every citizen belonged to the same species and color, anyone that wasn't a Glowing Buzz would stand out and quickly be noticed.
The sounds of Glowstick and Lampyri competing with each other in the palace became noticeably absent. They were still often seen around each other, but to everyone else they became suddenly distant, including -and especially- Lumin. Since the day where they had to report to Lumin that they failed to protect the egg like they were ordered, they couldn't bring themselves to make eye-contact with him. They no longer struck up friendly conversations with the King in their spare time. Instead, they only spoke to him when receiving orders or reporting information, all while their eyes looked away in shame. Lumin didn't say anything to them regarding their failure to protect his egg, but he didn't need to. He tried to hold back his anger and disappointment towards them, but it still leaked out in the form of his facial expressions and tone of voice while interacting with them.
Nearly eleven days had passed since the incident in the nursery. The Engineer had not been heard of since then, but the effects of her presence still lingered. There was an air of anxiety and bitterness hanging around the palace, making it clear that The Engineer was still on the minds of the five Buzzes that met her.
Lumin did his best to ignore those nagging thoughts and feelings, especially in the presence of the many Fireflies packed into the throne room. A month was hardly enough time for anyone to forget the ordeal with the poisoning. Many Fireflies were concerned and scared of their water supply getting contaminated again. Even though they now had the cure on hand, Lumin wanted to look into way to prevent another outbreak from happening at all. He invited the city's scientists and anyone that was interested in the issue to discuss it with him publically.
One Firefly brought up the subject of water filters and purification techniques. The City of Lights did have that kind of technology, but the filters they had were basic at best and clearly couldn't do a good enough job at keeping the poison out. Another Firefly spoke up, "I heard the surface-dwellers have much better filters than anybody else in Moltara has. Apparently they're good enough so that poisonous chemicals aren't a problem for them."
The words, "surface-dwellers" brought silence to the room. Some Fireflies murmured in suspicion while others remained quiet, keeping their opinions to themselves. The subject of outsiders always brought mixed opinions from the secluded Fireflies. But the surface-dwellers were special in that regard. As their name implied, they weren't from Moltara, rather they came from various places on Neopia's surface. One day several years ago they suddenly arrived in Moltara and settled in the largest cave. Lumin didn't know why; that sort of information never reached him. The Fireflies in general knew very little of them, only that they came from far away and that other Moltarans were wary of them as well.
Regardless, Lumin wasn't going to let suspicion get the best of him. "It's worth a try to contact them and see if they're willing to sell their technology. I realize that there's not much that we know about the surface-dwellers. But we can't afford to act hostile towards strangers when they have not presented any reason that we should consider them a threat." Lumin fully expected to hear at least some opposition from the crowd. The City of Lights had been more open to outsiders in the past decade than it had been for centuries, but that wasn't an easy feat to accomplish.
He probably would have heard an objection or two had the meeting not have been interrupted by a guard loudly rushing into the throne room. "Sire! Sire!" He yelled, barely having the breath to do so. Lumin turned towards him, sensing the urgency in his voice. He asked what was wrong and the guard answered once he stopped panting, "The egg... The egg is hatching!"
Lumin stood up, quickly becoming just as perturbed as the guard in front of him. "What?! That's impossible! The egg isn't due to hatch for another month!"
"That may be, but it's hatching right now! There's no mistake about it, sire!"
Lumin's hands trembled as he brought them to his forehead. He wasn't prepared for this. He thought that he'd still have another month to mentally ready himself. But now that the day he had been waiting months for had suddenly made its arrival, he had no other choice but to force himself to be ready. Lumin turned around to face the citizens and Royal Guards sharing his confused expression and shakily announced, "I-I'm sorry. I need to cut this meeting short."
He promptly excused himself as the throne room suddenly became much louder. Lumin could hear the citizen's bewildered voices even in the hall leading to the nursery. By the time he arrived, he could no longer hear the other Fireflies. But there was still much noise in his head from all the anxious thoughts swimming around.
When he entered the room, he was told by the doctor and one of his assistants that the guards posted by the entrance heard faint cries coming from inside the room. They went in to investigate the source and found that the egg was squirming with small parts of the shell breaking off. It was still early in the hatching process and it could take up to an hour for the baby to make its way out. Until then, no one was allowed to touch the egg unless the baby's life was in danger, so all Lumin could do was stand back and wait.
After a while, Infrared entered the room, followed by the other three Royal Guards a few minutes later. They all watched in silence as the egg rocked back and forth, the baby vigorously pushing itself against the shell. Eventually it knocked off enough of the shell so that Lumin could see its big eyes peering out at him. Lumin stepped closer to the egg, whispering to it, "You're almost there, just a little more..."
The baby took a minute of rest and then responded to Lumin's encouragement. It used what strength it had left to break enough of the shell so that it could push its way out. It wiggled out of the egg and threw the rest of the shell off of it so that it was laying on its back, staring up at the ceiling.
The Baby Buzz looked vastly different from the adults surrounding it. The grub-like baby was limbless, wingless, and had a pale green color that lacked the glow that the other Fireflies had. But all Buzzes started life like that. In a year its body would become more defined and grow its wings and limbs. When a Buzz turned two years old, they would usually lose their green color in favor of a different one; in this baby's case it would turn Glowing.
It took a quick look at its surroundings before squirming in place to try to roll over. But the baby, exhausted from the work it took to hatch, found that it didn't have the energy to move much at all. After a few more futile attempts, it closed its eyes and began to cry.
Lumin sighed in relief. Seeing the baby successfully hatch with no problems was a good sign. The past hour was spent knee-deep in anxiety over whether or not the baby would even get out of its egg alright, and Lumin was glad to have that off his shoulders. It was a mutual feeling shared by everyone else in the room. Lumin glanced at each of the Royal Guards and they looked just as relieved as he was, especially Infrared.
The doctor picked up the baby, looking it over and cleaning off bits and pieces of the egg shell that was still stuck to it. Within a few moments, the doctor raised his voice just enough to be heard over the baby's crying to announce, "It's a boy, sire!"
The doctor and his assistant spent another few minutes doing a quick check-up on the baby, making sure that he was healthy. In that time, Lumin became more and more anxious, but in a completely different way than before. With each passing minute, his eagerness to hold his newborn son grew.
"What is this?"
"I... I don't know..."
But those few words from the doctor and his assistant was all it took for Lumin's heart to sink.
Lumin immediately walked over to the two Buzzes. He didn't even bother trying to mask the panic in his face as he once again began to think of the worst. The doctor told Lumin, "There's something on his back and it's not coming off..." and showed him what they became alarmed about. The baby had a small, black mark in the middle of his back. It was about an inch long and resembled a figure-eight turned on its side.
The Royal Guards came in for a closer look. Once they saw the mark that refused to wash off, they became just as uneasy as Lumin. The room fell silent, save for the baby's crying, although he was calming down by that point. No one was quite sure what the mark meant for the baby, but Lumin and the Royal Guards all had the same idea as to who put it there.
Lampyri was the one to break the silence. "I-It could just be a birthmark, sire..." she stammered in an attempt to not immediately assume the worst, but the nervous way she said it was more than enough indication that such thoughts were on her mind.
"Pretty specific looking birthmark..." Glowstick mumbled under his breath. His remark was met with a glare from Lampyri, to which he retorted, "Well?! You saw it too! The Engineer did something to him! You can't honestly stand there and tell me that she didn't-"
"Glowstick, enough," Lumin sternly broke in, instantly silencing Glowstick. "I can't be paranoid over every little thing."
The truth was that he was immersed in worry over the mark and its probable origins. Lumin desperately tried to convince himself that it was just an ordinary birthmark like Lampyri suggested. He tried to tell himself over and over in his head that his son was just fine.
Once the tension in the room dissipated, the doctor held the baby out to Lumin. Without hesitation, Lumin took the baby in his arms. Lumin turned to everyone else in the room and once they got a look at the baby he quietly said, "I wish to be alone, please."
The others obliged and left the room one-by-one. After all of them had gone and left Lumin and his son alone, he walked over to the chair and sat down. He took a long look at his son as the realization began to set in that he had just become a father. Emotions began to well up inside him as he took his hand and stroked the baby's forehead. "I wish your mother could be here to see you..." The baby let out a few sobs before he started to cry again. Lumin responded by holding the baby closer, rocking himself slightly as he whispered, "Shh. Shh. It's alright. I'm here. Papa's here."
Lumin sat there quietly with his son for a long time, cradling him as he slowly began to calm down. The baby fell asleep shortly after he stopped crying, which was when Lumin spoke up again, "Your name... Flicker. That... That was the name that your mother wanted for you."
* * *
It had been about six weeks since the egg hatched. As the days went on, Lumin's anxiety over the mark on Flicker's back faded in favor of enthusiasm over his new son. Almost all of his free time was spent with the baby, whether it was playing with him or insisting to the nannies that he was more than capable of dealing with the messier parts of raising a child. On more than one occasion was Lumin told that the palace atmosphere had grown much happier since Flicker was born.
One day before Lumin went to bed, he stopped by Flicker's room. When he opened the door, he was met with a rather surreal sight. In the middle of the colorful room filled with toys was Infrared on the floor playing with Flicker. Lumin stood in the doorway and watched the no-nonsense Royal Guard make foolish-looking faces and speak to the baby in a sickeningly-sweet tone of voice barely audible over Flicker's laughter. Lumin had to hold his hand over his mouth just to contain his own laughter. A chuckle managed to escape his lips, which Infrared immediately picked up. His face when his eyes met Lumin's looked like that of someone that just got caught in deep trouble. Infrared instantly stood up and regained his stoic expression that denied that anything in the past few minutes actually happened. "Oh, sire. I didn't hear you come in."
"Mm-hm," Lumin decided to play along with Infrared's insistence that the gruff and serious Buzz would never enjoy spending time with his young nephew. There was no way he'd ever get Infrared to admit it out loud anyways.
Flicker also took notice of Lumin and began to crawl towards him. Crawling was an instinct to Baby Buzzes that was mastered not long after hatching. Flicker had clearly become proficient at it; in no time at all he reached Lumin's feet and was stretching his body upwards, begging to be held. Lumin happily gave into his demands, hoisting the baby up into the air. For his age, Flicker had grown to be quite big. But considering that his mother and uncle were large Buzzes as well, it came to no surprise to Lumin.
The baby giggled as his father held him and Lumin responded with a small laugh of his own. Flicker, in his simple joy over Lumin just being there, began to make incoherent and unintelligible noises. Lumin humored Flicker in his attempt to communicate with him, "You're happy to see Papa, aren't you, Flicker?"
Lumin's smile slowly began to fade. For a moment, he thought he was hearing things. But as doubt started to gnaw on him, he lowered Flicker to his eye level and stared at him. "'Papa?"
"Papa! Papa!" Flicker repeated loudly, still laughing and completely oblivious to his father's confusion.
Even though Flicker became cheerful at successfully forming a word, Lumin was less so. If such a thing had happened several months later, Lumin would have been overjoyed to hear his son speak for the first time. But instead, the anxiety that Lumin thought he could leave behind him returned. Flicker was only six weeks old and no Buzz at that age was capable of saying their first words. It was one thing for a child to be advanced compared to their peers, but it was another thing to do something that was just outright impossible.
Infrared heard what happened as well, proving that Lumin wasn't imagining things. "Did I hear that correctly?" he said, just as shocked and disbelieving as Lumin was.
Suddenly, the thoughts on the mark on Flicker's back came back to Lumin. He wanted to forget about that. He spent the first few days of Flicker's life trying to tell himself that the mark probably meant nothing. But now he had a reason to be suspicious and Lumin found that he couldn't ignore it anymore. "Go get the doctor. Quickly."
Infrared, beginning to become overwhelmed with worry as well, swiftly fetched the doctor and explained the situation to him. The doctor took the child and spent a long time checking him over. Far too long for Lumin's tastes. The fear in him just built up every second he waited for the doctor to give him an answer. But when the doctor finally came out of his office and handed Flicker to Lumin, the King found that he had little answers to give.
"If I wasn't there to watch him hatch, I would never have believed that Flicker is only six weeks old. He looks and acts more like he's six months old. But the only thing I can tell you is the obvious: Flicker's growing at abnormally fast rate," the doctor took a deep sigh. "The thing is, I'm just as confused as you are, sire. He's perfectly healthy otherwise. I didn't find anything that gave any clues to what the source of the problem is. Investigating the mark on his back isn't yielding any information either."
That wasn't enough for Lumin and he tried to get more information out of the doctor. There had to be some explanation. The doctor reiterated that any explanation was beyond his reach, and he would continue to say after every test and check-up he made on Flicker.
All the while, Flicker's speech became more fluent as the days passed by. By the time he turned three months old, he began to grow his limbs, wings, and tail. At six months he started to glow.
* * *
149 Years B.N.
Taking a trip to Flicker's room to spend time with him became something of a routine to Lumin. Regardless of how tired he was by the time he decided to retire for the day, he never failed to drop by at least once. Sometimes he would be met with Flicker playing with Infrared –who still had yet to admit he would ever willingly do such a thing- and other times it would be just Flicker eagerly waiting for his father to show up.
That day he was met with something different when he opened the door. It made Lumin's heart jump for a moment, seeing the child sitting in the middle of the room, crying with his hands pressed on the top of his head. "Flicker!" Not knowing a thing about why he was crying, Lumin frantically ran over to him and bent down. He gently removed Flicker's hands from his head, finding nothing more than a small bump barely hidden by his black hair. In a way, it relieved Lumin to know that it wasn't anything serious, but he also became irritated once he realized where it probably came from. "What were you doing?"
Flicker's wings began to vibrate as he turned his head, avoided eye contact, and sniffled, "Nothing."
Lumin didn't buy it. "Don't lie to me, Flicker. You were trying to fly again, weren't you?" Flicker nodded, receiving a groan from Lumin, "This is exactly why I told you not to practice unless there's a grown-up with you! What if you seriously hurt yourself and I didn't come in when I did?"
Lumin stood Flicker on his feet to look at him directly. Tears were still rolling out of Flicker's eyes when Lumin put both of his hands on the boy's shoulders. "I don't want to have to put someone in here to watch you all day just because you can't do as you're told. Do you understand now, Flicker?" Lumin explained. Flicker wiped the remaining tears out of his eyes and quietly nodded. Lumin accepted it and nodded in return. He stood up and held his hand out to Flicker. "Come on, let's take a walk."
That seemed to be all it took for Flicker's mood to improve, as he smiled and eagerly took Lumin's hand. He always enjoyed those walks, even if it consisted of nothing more than a short trip down the hall and back. It was a chance to leave his room, and that was all that mattered.
Lumin had the whole section of the palace that Flicker's room was located in locked up. Access was very limited. Only a few Fireflies were allowed to enter and Flicker wasn't allowed to leave. Lumin hated to have to make that decision. He hated the prospect of essentially keeping his own son imprisoned from the rest of the kingdom and he began to hate himself for carrying it out. But he also realized that for the time being, it was probably in Flicker's best interests. Lumin had no idea what the reaction of the public would be if they found out that the one-year-old prince looked and acted like a small child. He didn't know whether they would react in acceptance or revulsion, and he wasn't going to take the risk of it being the latter.
Flicker was plenty curious and asked many questions about life like all children did. But it didn't appear to occur to him yet just how much he was missing. He seemed to believe that staying in his room all the time -barring the daily walks that only lasted fifteen or so minutes- was perfectly normal for a child like him. He had yet to realize that the fact that he was even a child instead of an infant at that age was grossly abnormal as well.
The boy noticed one of the windows on the wall. It was closed and locked up like all the other ones in that section, but Flicker was bound and determined to get it open somehow. Lumin was about to stop him, but instead he told Flicker to move aside and unlocked it. "Just a peek, alright?" Lumin opened the window just enough for Flicker to look through with one eye.
He stared outside, tilting his head like he wasn't sure what to think of what he was seeing. It was a while before Flicker took his attention off of what was outside to turn to Lumin. "Papa, what're all those lights?"
The king cracked a smile. "It's beautiful, isn't it? Those lights are other Fireflies flying around. Everybody in this city glows just like you and me. The fact that we all glow is something that we're very proud of and it's an important part of our identity."
Lumin didn't know if Flicker really understood the part about pride and identity, judging from the vacant look on his face. Flicker took another peek before giving a beaming smile at Lumin. "When I learn how to fly, can I go out there too?"
Lumin truly wanted to tell Flicker that he could. But he tightened his lips as he knew that he couldn't in good conscience say something like that definitively. He had no idea what the future held in store for Flicker and all he could say to that sort of question was, "We'll see."
Just then, Lumin heard shouting from further down the hall. He turned his head to see Neon running towards him with an uneasy look on his face, more so than usual. "Sire, come quickly! There's a situation concerning one of my soldiers in the throne room!"
"A situation? What kind of situation?"
Neon remained silent, looking down while his hands jittered nervously. He seemed to struggle to find the words to use before he eventually shook his head and said, "You... You need to see it for yourself, sire. You'd never believe me if I just told you."
To be continued...