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A Time Machine
with thanks to Channing and to Jason Lehrer
It has happened again.
That it has happened before, and that there is an "it" at all come as sorts of bland surprises into what feels like an utterly new mind. But I couldn't tell the difference between "old" and "new" if I had not experienced both, one way or another, now could I?
I am cold. Rather, it is not myself that is cold, but the air and the surfaces around. Huge and cold, I small and warm among the hard colds and moving colds of some kind of street and some kind of wind.
It has happened again. I remember this form. Nothing else seems to have come in between, but it was weeks ago, if I know anything about weather, for this is cold, cold, cold. My body shivers under its down coating. I pull up a foot into my chest, but then all I can concentrate on is the sting of the chill beneath the other foot, the one supporting me.
I must find a place in which to get warm, or I have no hope of remembering what I am doing here. Is this what I am? For now, it is. What it means the rest of the time, I do not know. I am not certain whether I experience repetitive changings spanning many shapes and species, but I don't think I'm remembering anything but this. And it wasn't so cold last time. So _cold_.
The air is as dim as it is menacing around me; there are no stars and the down on my head is whipped up away from my thin skin. I blink up at towering poles, but only upon one is there any kind of light shining. It doesn't do much to illuminate the sidestreet upon which I stand, shivering on one leg. Out in the main street I am sure there are lamps, but they don't guide me out. Besides, out there is as cold as here. I was walking. I was walking, and not so cold. Perhaps I very much needed the fresh air, and somehow was not so fragile a moment ago as I feel now.
I glance around behind my soft body, that is shivering harder, and see a dark pile of something dull and something shiny. A lined jacket. No-- a coat. A real winter coat. It has no one inside, that I can see.
I put my foot down and patter towards the coat, but I can't take very long strides and my heels are scraped and chilled by the road's surface. I dive into the coat, burrowing down into a sleeve, but I can't control my shivering. I try to pull more material around me as my down fluffs out in an attempt to put some warm air between me and the outside. My bill is chattering like-- like teeth, though, and it's hard to do anything but sink into the lining of the clothes and hope fervently to warm up soon.
The night is dark, but I wouldn't know whether I started out into it in the early evening, the day, or even the morning. It's hard to say, although more of my memories are coming back to me. I must have gone walking, and this is my coat. It must not be too long since I shifted or I would have frozen out there. I don't recall what kind of human I am exactly when I wear this coat, but I know I am one. Yes, this is a repeated experience. But I don't know what to do now. And any other memories are being sapped out of my awareness by the fleeing warmth my blood is trying to build up. I can't think straight; I can only think about growing cold, and hating growing cold. The coat is not enough and I don't have much energy to be doing anything else about it.
It occurs to me that I am hungry, and I know I'm meant to eat often. How long since I ate anything? I don't recall...
The light that does get in to my eyes through the cracks and folds in the coat-sleeve flickers and disappears and comes back impossibly bright, then dims again. It doesn't seem right. I wonder why I would have been out in the air, on the street, so fragile, _knowing_ I was fragile, without anyone who would come to look for me if this happened. Something about it makes sense, but I don't know what it is. I must be forgetting something. I must be forgetting...
Suddenly everything goes black, as if I am inside an eye whose lid has closed. I blink, and force my own eyes to open as wide as they can, but the blackness is real. The wind seeping in through the coat and my down has stopped as suddenly as the blackness has ascended.
It has ascended, up from something, enclosing me and my shelter completely. I feel that I can begin to grow warm, and eagerly my heart cycles the warming blood; all of my extremities sting.
"You look cold," says a voice.
It must be a voice, I decide, for words are its result, but it is like no voice I have ever experienced. It doesn't seem a likely sound for a vodor, and I don't know of any creatures that sound like it. It is deep, and almost jovial, as if there's no matter to my being cold, since it's sure of the substance that surrounds it and its ability to warm me.
I open my bill, but only a half-raspy "peep" comes out of it; I don't know what else I was expecting anyway. I move my head in the darkness, but nothing feels different except that the space around me is becoming comfortable with my own radiated heat.
The voice rumbles around me again, seeming to chuckle warmly despite its own dry, huge sound. "Shh, no need. Just get warm and you can worry about the rest later. Someone will get you some food."
I become acutely aware of the pain in my tight crop and stomach and wait to see what will come of this mysterious offer.
A space seems to open up as if the pocket I occupy has been opened a slit, but I don't feel any colder. A voice, a nasal, feminine, almost human voice says, "What is it?"
Light shines on me, and wide hazel eyes with cats' pupils look in upon me. I let out a peep again, but the cat 'morph pays no direct attention. I don't suppose a "peep" means much anyway. "A little duck," she remarks, drawing back as the blackness ascends again. "Any ID?"
"No." That was the rumbling, surrounding voice. The whole thing seems surreal.
"Well, where are we going to get some baby duck food? Where can we get food for a duckling at this time of night?"
"I can get some," a muffled male voice comes from somewhere. I blink drowsily and feel the hunger tightening. If these people are real, whoever they are, I hope they can get something edible for me. I appreciate it in advance.
There is some more muffled conversation, but I am enclosed in my black pocket of reality. Once, I remember that I was freezing out on the street, but this doesn't feel like some hallucination before or during unconsciousness. But then, how would I know? I shudder my bill into some of my down, as if grooming, but really it's just because I don't know what else to do. It seems to all be out of my hands.
The blackness continues and time goes on. I doze, fitfully. Then, the slit opens into some other place again, where the cat 'morph is. She holds something folded in a napkin, offered into my space in a hand lit by what seems to be some indoor light.
"Here, I don't know who you are, but don't worry, we'll hope for the best. It ought to be warmer in the morning. Eat this, if you can."
I press the folds of the napkin aside, and do find duck feed inside. It's the formula kind, although I don't recall having eaten it before; I seem to be remembering things in pieces. Someone could get to a place where ducks were fed and gather up a little feed. I shake out my wings and neck and eat rapidly, which appears to please the staring cat-face that watches me raptly.
"Shh, now let it sleep."
"But what about--"
"We couldn't leave it there, now could we? Sometimes you just gotta."
"Sleep, whoever you are, and then in the morning just go on from there."
It sounds like good advice, so I do.
Morning is chilly. I huddle closer into the
folds of my coat, yet the air manages to reach me.
It feels chilly in my nostrils, but nothing like
the ache of last night.
A night has passed, or it would not be morning. Last night. Yes. Only now, the sun is out, so my blacker-than-night pocket has opened and left me here in the road where I first became aware.
What was it? It seems like a dream, or a very comforting nightmare, but I see no cat 'morphs nor, indeed, anything in the vicinity but some of the fringe university buildings and the side road I went down last night. I was walking. I needed the air.
I recall, now, the other form that is myself. She's tall, and doesn't carry ID because there's no one who would care but her students and she had to give up teaching when the SCABS changed her so much. She goes out walking in spite of the danger, because really what is the danger to a little duck when compared to the inevitable reach of her original being. She would just as soon be a duckling, in some ways. It's an ironic thing, is SCABS. And if it mattered to anyone, she might care to understand it better.
As it is, I know I am a duckling now and was mercifully fed by-- someone, last night, and helped to make it to a time when I can attempt to walk home. I recall my home, her home, the human woman's home with the array of support systems that has never been used because the edge is more comforting than the solid support. _Something_ has to be interesting. There is no class and no other pursuit anymore except the pursuit of risk.
The air holds me down in the coat. I know, if experience is any indicator, that the next change won't come for some time. I am reluctant to make the journey back to my house. It feels too long. Yet, much more of this hesitation and I will not only be cold but also weak and hungry, and I can't count on strangers such as may or may not have appeared from nowhere last night. It is briefly tempting to test their reality and beneficence, but really I know I cannot. I want to thank them, but the street is empty and the air carries no sounds--
There is one sound. There. Now. It does not remind me of any of the sensations of last night. Perhaps that was nothing at all. But then where is my gratitude to be expressed-- even if it is inadequately expressed in human terms?
The approaching sound is a grating tap, the sound of a man's hard-soled dress shoes on blacktop.
They tap closer, steadily, I think at first, but then I realize that there is a little shuffle in between each set of two footsteps; the man has a hard time keeping up with his own walk. It is a SCAB, I think. In dress shoes, used to the uneven walk.
I blink at how right I was, as soon as the SCAB comes into view upon the street.
He's tall, although my view of that could be skewed by my changed size. I push my head out a little from the smooth lining of the coat to get a better look. I could fear him, I realize, a stranger on an empty street, but there doesn't seem much to fear in my case and it is morning and he appears to desire to maintain a dignity that does not bespeak menace.
He does not notice me, at first, and I get a good look at him. The man is, indeed, a SCAB, a black and brown, hard-shelled, shimmering obvious SCAB in a brown-striped scarf, pleated chocolate-brown slacks, a white vest and dark coat, and a deep blue and black tie. Where the collar of his coat would stand up it instead is folded under a high, rigid black-brown shell-like structure that is, by the appearance of it, part of him. I can tell where his neck is by the tie he wears. Above it is a pensive face, I suppose, although I am taking a chance on labeling the expression. Spikes of various dark colors and textures pattern and protrude from his face and hands. He steps twice, briskly, then draws his right foot quickly into line to make the next two steps, since it has angled out at the heel. After the next two steps, he seems to do the same with his left foot. I stare, spellbound. What an odd night and a strange morning. I have no idea what form this man might have taken, except that its literal parts and pieces are before me. What they make altogether is beyond my guessing. He could be some kind of spider, but the posture and thick shell-like carapace don't seem to make that fit.
The man takes two more steps before he sees me.
Something crackles in the air around him, and the next instant it proves to be a vodor, for speech vibrates in my ear-openings. "Hello."
I cock my head and peer up at him. I realize that I am shivering, but to draw back into the coat completely might imply an unwillingness to greet the stranger.
"Are you cold."
I nod, bringing on a new bout of shivering. The man bends down at what seem to be his knees and brushes the asphalt with a set of long, curved mahogany nails. His vodor cracks a few syllables again and then says: "Who are you. I am go-ing to check for I-D. All right."
I hunker down into my sleeve and do not object. Soon, the curved claws of the man are fingering aside folds of the coat to find and empty the pockets, but there is not much in them, and no ID. I briefly consider trying some sort of code to communicate, but I feel too dull. At home, there is the pan of food and water I have set out for myself, refreshed every day, just in case. It is the one preparation I have made. However, I do not really care whether or not I get to it. I would rather see what this man intends to do. It is interesting to be an unknown.
"You wore no I-D," observes the gentleman, mechanically. His eyes, or what appear to be his eyes, glitter concernedly on either side of an extravagantly toothed mouth.
I peep, noncommittally.
"Are you a SCAB."
I almost don't nod. I wonder whether all of my memories are false. Then I decide that it certainly seems an odd season for a baby duck to be out and about, if such were _not_ a SCAB, and that this will have to do for my own evidence to myself. I nod.
He picks me up, then. He keeps the coat wrapped around me, gathering the other sleeve and folds into a round nest in his sharp arms, and looks about the sidestreet. All that is visible is the laundry building for MacLeod University, an unpaved path down to the motor pool, some old streetlamp poles, the street we are on, and an aluminum sided building that must house something to do with the university. We can sense the next street over, from here, the one he must have turned off of to step down this one. A few more blocks, not much to walk for a human, will lead down the repair-needing sidewalk to my old little house on the very edge of what could be considered campus neighborhood. It used to be convenient to my job.
"My name is Alexander," the vodor informs me. "You will come with me to the police." This last is paced so that it will come across as a request rather than a demand. I hesitate, thinking it over. The police would eventually find someone who could identify me. I don't know whether I would care to be unceremoniously returned home or not. If they don't send me home, they will likely send me to the hospital. Either way I can't expect much change nor company.
"Something wrong with the police."
I again hesitate about replying.
"To the vet then."
That sounds good. I nod.
Alexander carries me to the sound of his affected footsteps. We take a turn towards the main road that assures our bypassing of what has been my home. I yawn widely and balance easily in the carefully held coat.
"I will get some-one to take us in a car."
I lean sleepily first to one side, then the other.
Alexander walks, and I feel hungry so I avert the discomfort by sleeping. When I hear a car door slam, I startle awake.
"Thank you Larry."
"No problem. Where to?"
The air is warm, stuffy, and I poke my head up and glance around. We're in a car, all right, and out one window is a building I have seen before-- the Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre. I've attended a show or two there. The car is idling out front of the glass door, containing its driver, who appears to be Normal but dressed much like Alexander, and Alexander and myself. I wait.
"The vet please."
"Who is this?"
The black-haired, bearded Normal, Larry, looks concerned. "Well, I suppose the vet's the place to take them, but..."
Intriguingly, Alexander's "yes" seems to have a sort of extrasensory effect on the other man. It is quite an unquestionable tone for a vodor to be able to make, but he seems adept at using it. Larry does not question the unquestionable, the answer that didn't go anywhere, but instead puts the car in drive and pulls away from the curb. Alexander, I decide, is a man of some influence, but then so is Larry or the concern would not have been made so evident. I am rather liking this. I haven't had so much attention since I became a SCAB.
My chest moves in and out and I can't help breathing in the cloying car-heater air, and my hunger comes back in force. It's embarrassing to be thinking only of temperature, tiredness and food so constantly even in my own private mind, but there it is. I yawn.
The car vibrates over several miles of road until we come to a small, wood-trim white-stucco building with a sign out front that reads "Animal Hospital." Simple and to the point. It's been some time since I've been to a doctor.
Larry comes in with Alexander and myself, but I get the feeling that it's only because he doesn't want to sit alone in the car. He's not certain we should be here rather than at the police station. Alexander keeps his focus straight ahead and pushes open the clinic door, and announces at the receptionist's desk that he has a found animal he needs to have looked at.
"All right, what kind of animal is it?"
"A duck," replies the imposing vodor. Larry folds his hands behind his back and looks at the posters of kittens on the walls.
"Oh, I can see it in there, he's so _cute_! Okay, Doctor Adams is with a client right now, but we'll call you into an exam room as soon as we're ready."
Alexander moves some of the motile parts of his head in a nod, and sits on one of the maple benches. Larry joins him.
"Alexander, are you sure this is a good idea? This--" he doesn't seem to know how to gesture and speak about me in my presence without being rude, yet he doesn't have the slightest clue as to my identity-- "person is obviously a SCAB. If there's nothing wrong with them besides that, what are you going to do? Take them home? You don't even know if they've been to a human hospital. Have you called the police?"
"The police." Alexander seems to simply be mentioning a new idea.
"Well, of course..."
"I do-n't know. They did not just change."
"How do you know?"
Alexander aims his voice at me. "Did you just change."
I nod, then shake my head "no." It's hard to explain.
"This person," Alexander informs his companion, "does not wish to see the police. This person has no information for the police. It would be a waste of their time."
He caught on to me quick. I pull my body a little closer to his chest, hard yet strangely limbed and flexible under his vest. I wonder what he is.
Larry has nothing more to say. He has been left out of this situation since we arrived to ask for a ride in his car, and he seems to decide to just take our thanks for the ride at face value and leave it at that.
Finally, a very angry-sounding carrying crate emerges from the exam room, rocking in the grip of its owner; the receptionist smiles and begins to figure the payment for that client and the doctor beckons us in. This time, Larry stays behind.
"I'm Doctor Adams," the veterinarian volunteers pleasantly. He shakes hands with Alexander, an interesting exchange to witness. I may or may not imagine the slight shudder of the doctor's elbow when one of the SCAB's claws touches it in the process. It's more, if it's there, a response to a tickle than any sort of dread, I suppose. "Now," he goes on, "let's have a look at you."
The vet knows almost instantly that I am not merely a found animal; or rather, he knows that I _am_, but that there is only one likely explanation for my being found at all.
He turns me over in a broad, gentle hand and feels my keel, presses my abdomen with a thumb, and touches the end of my spine. "I'd guess... a little Mallard hen." He glances seriously at Alexander. "Where did you find her?"
Alexander gives the name of the next street over from the service road we met upon. "That area."
"This is no ordinary duckling. There aren't any this age around that I know of, Sir. I highly suggest that you take her to the police."
"In-quir-ies are being made in-to her iden-ti-ty," Alexander replies smoothly, much as this may seem awkward with the vodor's stops and starts.
"I see. I... Well, I'd better have a look into her health, although of course she must see a doctor for Norms as well. I can't begin to predict all the possible consequences of SCABS."
"Well, little one, let's just see about your blood work, shall we? And--" to Alexander-- "she's undernourished. I'll give you some recommendations for feed. Be sure and follow them."
The next half-hour passes comfortably; it seems to be a slow day for the clinic and Doctor Adams is especially concerned for my welfare. I wonder whether or not he is afraid that something may happen to what amounts to a human patient, and he will be held responsible. He needn't worry. I am, after all, just a SCAB.
Alexander pays a hefty amount of money, and I begin to feel things, conflicting things. He doesn't need to do this for me. It's wrong of me to let him do it. But-- I like it.
Larry seems relieved to get out of the Animal Hospital with a creature that has been deemed not a public health nuisance, and drives whistling back to the Theatre where Alexander met up with him. I'm still riding in the coat. Alexander looks down at me as we exit the automobile carefully, and I watch as white and black teeth show more of themselves in his crowded mouth. In his way, he has a very nice smile.