|The Transformation Story Archive||The Paradise Saga|
Paradise Lost and Found (2)
He was mashed potatoes again. Such an odd sensation. Aaron would have shivered if he could, but his body didn't seem to exist except as a mass being pushed through a huge strainer. Then he was looking up at a 10 ft. tall purple octopus with scales and clawed tentacles. This made several things obvious. First, a 3 year-old can scream quite loudly when given good reason. And second, waste elimination had returned as a bodily function.
Retreat was blocked off by a massive wall of glowing lights and levers. He squashed himself into the corner, trying to make his already small body disappear into the machinery. It took a moment to realize that the monster was beating a hasty retreat in the opposite direction, making a gurgling wail of its own.
What the hell? Fear was replaced by bewilderment, and he checked himself carefully to make sure this doorway hadn't changed him into some sort of horrible monster. No, as best he could tell, he was still the same 3 year-old boy. Now he was a little indignant. Something that looked like killer sushi had no right to run screaming from a nice looking little kid like him.
This appeared to be some sort of narrow control room, all switches and lights. Some of the stuff looked vaguely familiar in shape, if not function. There were pushbuttons and digital readouts similar to those on his VCR. But there were also strangely-shaped panels which glowed with light, and screens which displayed 3-dimensional geometric shapes and strange symbols. The equipment stretched along both walls as far as he could see, sort of a stereo system from hell. The only way out was the corridor that the purple octopus had taken, and he wasn't sure he wanted to face that thing again.
As he looked around, a rhythmic plodding echoed from down the hallway, getting louder. There was something familiar about the sound. As the noise grew closer, he saw a dark shape approaching, apparently someone on horseback. Riding a horse in a hallway? And he thought the last place had been strange. As the approaching figure drew closer, Aaron could see that it was very large, filling most of the corridor. The rider was wearing a white lab coat, and looked to be a normal human. Except that it wasn't a rider. The man's waist melded into the body of a stallion, human parts replacing the animal neck and head.
A centaur. Aaron was pleased to come up with the identification, one scrap of data left over from high school literature courses. He much preferred being killed by a monster he recognized. The purple octopus was following the centaur, hanging back a bit. Oh, great. Maybe they were going to share him.
The centaur stopped about 10 feet away, and leaned over to peer at him with wide-set blue eyes. Close-up, Aaron could see that the head and body weren't completely human. Although the first impression was that of a dark-haired man in his 30s, the face was elongated and protruding. Pointed, pear-shaped ears poked up through hair that was too coarse and thick to be human, and the thick coat of the animal body seemed to cover the creature's arms and chest as well.
Large nostrils sniffed and then wrinkled in disgust. "It's just one of the primate-based organisms, Martha! Looks like a foal, not even housebroken." Aaron stared at the centaur's mouth. The movements didn't match up with the voice, as if he were in a badly-dubbed foreign film. "Martha" eased closer, peering over the centaur's rump. "I don't know, Rhudi. A baby glumphwat is just as deadly as an adult. You can't be too careful."
Glumphwat? Aaron had no idea what a glumphwat was, but he didn't like being compared to one. Especially by a giant purple octopus named Martha. Taking a deep breath, he scrambled up out of the corner and looked up at the centaur. "Uh, hello?" Rhudi raised his eyebrows and snorted. "So, it can talk! What do you think you're doing, scaring my staff half to death?" Aaron blinked, trying to understand how his present form could be threatening to anyone.
"Uh.. Look, I'm sorry if I frightened... uh... her? I stepped through this, uh, well sort of a door - " The centaur cut him off. "Of course you came through a portal.. Any idiot knows that! And look at this mess. Can't you control yourself any better than that?" Rhudi leaned down suddenly and scooped him up in his arms. "And don't you dare pee on this lab coat. I just got it back from the cleaners."
Aaron stared at the centaur's mouth again. Up close, it was even more obvious that the lips couldn't be making the same sounds that he was hearing. Also obvious was the misconception that horse's breath was like sweet clover and grass. Phew! He turned his head away, trying not to inhale the miasma of rotten cabbage and dead fish.
The octopus moved closer, apparently feeling a little braver now that Aaron was being held. "It's so ugly! What do you think it is?" There was no problem with lip-synch here - he couldn't even figure out what Martha used for a mouth. Still, the voice carried the image of a rather prim old lady. Rhudi sounded more like an accountant.
The centaur cocked his head to one side and grinned. "I don't know, Martha. It sorta looks like my sister's foal. At least above the waist." One of the octopus's tentacles swatted Rhudi's equine rump. "I'll tell her you said that. And then start looking for a new lab partner. But really. Can you tell anything about it? Is it male or female, or one of those fissioning things?"
Aaron stifled a strong impulse to say something really crude. After all, there really wasn't much down there, especially compared with what Rhudi had openly displayed. "I'm a man. Er, a male." Martha moved closer, and he could almost imagine wire-frame glasses on the purple beak. "The translator is working for it. Has to be a cataloged species."
Rhudi snorted, sending another choking cloud in Aaron's direction. Whatever technological wonders they had here, somebody needed to invent mouthwash. "I'll run a check. We know it's one of the primates." He punched some buttons, and moved his hand in a complex pattern over a lighted panel. There was a humming noise, and then a series of flashes from the panel.
"Language indicates Earth sector 9, primate derivative. Pre-neutron technology, no established contact. But the mental capabilities don't match physical development, according to the species profile." Rhudi frowned and took what looked like a fancy pen from his pocket. The tip started to glow with a pale greenish light, and he traced the outline of Aaron's body with it. Then he touched the tip to one of the panels on the wall, and looked at the flickering lights again.
"Something funny here. Base universe reading doesn't match up. It's from a Class 3 restricted code. No contact, no exploration." The centaur frowned. "Damn. How did it get here? And why did it have to choose our shift?"
"Excuse, me?" Aaron didn't try to hide his irritation, though it was hard to get much of that irritation in a 3 year-old's voice. "My name is Aaron, not 'it.' And I don't know where I am, but I can tell you how I got here. I think." The centaur and the octopus both stared at him, and Martha waved a tentacle in the air. "A bit touchy, isn't it? Excuse me - isn't HE?" Rhudi snorted. "All right then, Erin. Why don't you tell us what you're doing here."
"It's AARON, not Er-in." Three year old voices didn't handle anger well either. Sheesh. Sounded more like he was whining. "Look, I had some trouble with my car, and ended up finding this weird glowing cloud that sorta jumped me. Then I was in this big pasture with a bunch of naked kids, and we got in a mud fight, and when I cleaned up in the lake I turned into a 3 year old. And then I started thinkin like a 3 year-old, and anted to get out of there, and I figured out how to make the cloud come back, only it was different, and I ended up back in the forest, but still a little kid. So I started thinking about other places, and got more of the glowing clouds, and stepped in one. And then I was here."
Rhudi looked at his partner. "Did you follow that? 'Cause if you did, fill me in." The octopus waved a couple of tentacles in the air. "I think so. Sounds like he was Sector 9 normal who opened a portal to the Class 3 'verse. Dumb luck. But then he figured out how to open the gates on his own."
The centaur frowned. "Now that's a problem. Your species hasn't been cleared for access yet. None of your kind is supposed to even know the portals exist." He raised a hand to a panel and punched some buttons. Then he turned his head to Martha and started making strange noises which sounded like random gruntings. The octopus responded with a shrill whine followed by gurgling. They'd cut him out of the conversation! Aaron struggled to twist around, but the centaur held him firmly. "Hey! What are you talking about! I can't understand you!"
Translator or not, it was obvious that they were not having a friendly chat. Tentacles waved wildly and Rhudi's ears went flat against his skull a couple of times. Worse, they kept looking at him. Finally, Rhudi waved a hand and the translator came on with Martha in mid-sentence. "... and I'm telling you this should be reviewed. If he can get in, how long before his whole backward species is running around here? They're still killing each other for land and tribal cultures!"
The centaur silenced her with a sharp gesture. "This is a fluke. He should have ended up stuck in the Class 3. All we have to do is send him back." Aaron had not been able to follow much until this point, but now he was paying full attention. "Send me back? Back to where?"
"Back to the Class 3." Rhudi shifted Aaron on his arm, and started walking towards another panel. "We can't let you wander around the universes. Your race isn't developed enough. It would be like.." He groped for a comparison "... allowing foals to play with nuclear bombs."
Aaron struggled to put things together. The Class 3? That was the damned pasture! "Wait a minute! I don't want to go back there! I'll end up as one of those mindless little kids!" Rhudi held him firmly, but the centaur's expression seemed to soften. "I'm sorry, Aaron. Truly sorry. But your kind is not allowed to access the portals. If the council investigates, your whole species could be.. in trouble."
"Then send me back to my own world! I won't tell anyone!" Aaron didn't know what trouble meant, but he was sure it wasn't anything he wanted to find out. Still, he wasn't about to spend eternity playing in mud puddles, at least if he could help it. "I can pretend to be a little kid until I grow up again! Please, don't send me back to the kids!"
Martha sank down a little, giving the impression of sadness. "That is not possible. In order to spare your species, we must make sure that you cannot make use of the portals again. And the only way to do that is to finish your change to a child. We can block you from the portals until,,, it is done." Aaron was wild now. "NO! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME GO BACK! PLEASE! I DON'T WANT TO LOSE EVERYTHING!" He started sobbing, terrified of the very life his subconscious had been longing for such a short time ago.
A pink and blue swirl appeared in the corner, though its familiar colors filled him with dread. "You'll be so happy there." Martha was crooning to him like a doting Grandmother. "Playing and laughing, lots of little friends. You'll never be sick, or hungry, or hurt." The centaur was moving slowly towards the portal, and Aaron clung to his burly arm with all the strength he could muster. "What are you so afraid of losing, anyway? It is a wonderful life, with no worries, not problems."
Aaron shivered, suddenly drained of all hope. "And no art, no love, no caring." The centaur stopped and looked down at him. "What did you say?" Aaron didn't even bother to look up. "There's no love there. The kids don't even worry about each other. It's all just a game." Rhudi shook his head. "No. before that. About art."
"I'll forget how to draw. All that will be gone." He stiffened as the centaur shifted to hold him with both hands. Was this it? Rhudi frowned at him. "You are an artist?" Aaron forced bitter tears back. "Yes, dammit!. But not there. I'll be doin stick figures in the mud." The centaur looked back at Martha with a curious expression, and Aaron realized they had stopped moving towards the portal.
"This artwork you do. Is it machine-generated?" Something in Martha's voice sparked hope. "No. I do everything by hand. Real drafting, not computer crap." Noting the centaur's blank expression, Aaron realized that the translator didn't have a reference. "Pen and paper. Ink, or pencil drawings. And I'm really good." He didn't know what drawing had to do with this sudden reprieve, but he was going to make the most of it.
Rhudi looked at him with new interest. "Could you draw something for us? Say, the Class 3 world?" Aaron nodded, and was promptly set down on the floor. The pink and blue portal faded, but did not completely vanish. It actually took his two captors a few minutes to come up with the necessary materials. Automation and computers had apparently eliminated the need for hard copy.
He had a bit of trouble with the writing implement - it was actually some sort of multi-function drawing tool that not only changed line width, but color as well, all in response to his thoughts. After several false starts, he managed to figure out settings, but the pen still felt awkward. His child's body was hard to coordinate, fingers and arms too short. Somehow, he managed to work around all of the obstacles, and on the fourth try, was able to focus properly.
He decided on the mud puddle, showing the red-haired boy and the blonde girl playing. Their faces were clear in his mind, and he tried to capture the essence of the eternal sunshine around them. Rhudi and Martha watched in obvious fascination, silent despite the length of time it took for him to work. When he finally finished, he sat back and laid the pen on the floor. Not his best work, but pretty damned good. The drawing illustrated that perfect childhood, but there was an emptiness in the children's eyes that made him shiver. Would that emptiness soon be in his eyes?
The octopus picked up the artwork and held it where they could both see it. Rhudi shook his head and looked down at Aaron. "Would you be interested in a job? I can't promise you'd like it, but it would mean that you wouldn't be sent back to the Class 3. At least not yet."
Aaron scrambled up. "Yes! I don't care what it is. I'll do anything. Plea.." Martha cut him off with a sharp wave of a tentacle. "We get the idea, uh.. Ar-run." She looked back at the drawing. "We represent a great number of species and universes. You are in part of the Maintenance Department which the advanced species established to control and safeguard the portals which took you from your world."
Rhudi nodded. "Our technology is far in advance of your own, and has been for several of your centuries. However, there are some universes where our technology doesn't work. And some species which cannot use the data we generate with that technology. In both cases, your talent is needed to bridge the gap, to provide pictures where technology cannot. One price of our advancement is the loss of many skills which you call art. Almost no one can write or draw by hand."
Aaron's spirit soared, and he almost fainted with relief. "I love drawing. And once I get used to things, I could do even better." Martha chuckled. "An eager recruit. Too bad some of our regular staff isn't this enthusiastic." Then her voice got serious again. "There will be much to learn, and little time to learn it. Many of the places you would need to visit are dangerous We cannot change you, though you may find transformation possible in another universe. Until then, you would remain as you are."
The centaur cleared his throat. "And you will have to follow orders. If we try this, both Martha and I will be responsible for your actions. No matter where you go, we will always be able to track you. Cause problems, and you will be back in the Class 3 world before you can blink. Permanently."
Aaron swallowed hard at the threat. "I'll do what you tell me to. And go wherever you ask, whatever the risk." He stopped, and then shook his head in amazement. "Not because I am being forced into anything. This is like a dream come true. I love my work, it was just getting dull. Now I can travel to new worlds, new universes, doing what I like best!"
Rhudi smiled, and the octopus lifted him up gently with her tentacles. The purple flesh was actually very soft and warm, and he began to relax. Too much. The centaur laughed as Martha grumbled. "Well, Ar-run. Before you begin representing countless species and worlds, let's see if we can get you potty trained!"
- end -
Paradise Lost and Found (2) copyright 1996 by Bob Stein.
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