I think the magic of science is in looking at everything with fresh eyes, with being astounded by the little things that go overlooked. Nothing amazes me like trees grown out of carbon they pulled from the air, or the way the human body is put together, and how it works: it's all so complex! That grass can grow is incredible. That birds can fly, or even that birds can live, even more so.
I believe the world is a miracle.
I was twenty-three when I graduated from college with a degree in biology. I was hired by a good research firm, and I worked hard: I enjoyed it. In the evenings I played with my dog, a silly golden retriever called Grace who never lived up to her name, and on the weekends we went camping or hiking, Gracie and I. My apartment just outside of town was nothing special—but then, I didn't need it to be.
I graduated six years ago, now. I'll be turning thirty in five months. I've had three sisters call me up in a tizzy about that exact same thing over the years, but I really don't think it'll be that big of a deal.
But things aren't quite normal for me anymore. I used to be quite average; boringly average, if it weren't for my gift for science—and that's fairly boring in and of itself. Well, I say science, but it's biology, really. I never did manage to break my C-plus average in high school chemistry.
I don't know what I would think about turning thirty, though, if things hadn't changed, a few years ago. I must have been twenty-five or twenty-six, then, a real adult for the first time, almost—nobody's grown up at eighteen or even twenty-one, it takes longer than that. Your mid-twenties at the very least. I didn't realize that at the time, of course, but everyone's hindsight is twenty-twenty at the very least. Mine's probably twenty-forty.
I was walking. At the time, I hadn't known that my life was about to change. Almost end, really. Figuratively, I supposed it changed enough that, in a way, it did end. I wasn't the same person afterwards.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I was walking, and I was angry. I still remember almost every little detail of the whole thing, but what stands out, ridiculously clearly, was that I was angry.
It was a coworker. Considering that I'm just not capable of being angry at Gracie—the closest I've ever come is extremely annoyed when she ruined a new couch—and other than that the only real presence in my life other than family (and I get along well with them, usually) was work, it wasn't that surprising. I wasn't angry often, but when I was it was almost always someone from the lab.
His name was Luca and he was good-looking, brilliant and charming. Underneath all that he was an utter ass, I was convinced. In hindsight (and you know what I have to say about that) he was just cripplingly incapable of admitting when he was wrong. Not all that unusual, at my job. Scientists, especially brilliant ones, tend to have some personality trait that makes up for their gifts, usually a personality problem. It's like balancing stats in a role-playing game—there's a certain number of positive points, and too many in one field unbalances another. That was Luca all over. I would've fallen for him hard if I'd just met him in a bar or something, but as things were I had to work with him and I loathed that man with a passion—which probably means that I was half in love with him anyways.
So I wasn't paying much attention to some things. Like always, I was half-noticing the vegetation and focused intently on the birdlife of the region: I'd been keeping a life list, a list of every bird I'd ever seen, for just a year or so and it was something of a novelty, but bird watching has always been a passion of mine.
It was everything else that I wasn't focusing on at all. I don't know what it would have changed if I had been. Not much, probably. All those theories about alternate universes? If they're true, it just means that there's an almost endless number of universes out there almost exactly like ours. Some would be startlingly different, of course, but a lot more would be just like this one. Theoretically, Martin Luther King, Jr. taking a left turn where he usually made a right at nine years of age could cause him to be run over in a tragic accident causing a delay in equal civil rights for black people becoming widely accepted, but it would probably just mean that he took a left turn instead of a right. And that's a decision, an unknown, and it would cause a splintered-off universe, but it would be almost identical.
I wasn't concentrating, so I didn't notice it wasn't my car when I got in. Outwardly, it looked exactly like mine, right down to the occasional scratch, although it was slightly cleaner, and the inside was remarkably similar.
I'm not a car person, you see. Never have been. My car ran and had reasonable gas mileage, and that was all I asked it to do. It wasn't particularly attractive, true, but neither was I. It worked.
And I was so much not-a-car-person that I didn't really keep anything in the car. I mean, I used it to carry things, there were always books or stacks of paper or whatever else, but they were never permanent residents. The interior of the thing was often surprisingly clean.
I didn't realize it wasn't my car until I reached to turn on my music and my CDs weren't there.
And then my life plunged out of normalcy and into something like an unbelievable sci-fi flick. It's a lot scarier when it's actually happening to you.
I probably sound pretty calm about all this now, but let me tell you, it wasn't like that back then.
I find myself floundering for words. I've never really been a verbal person: I can manage a lab report when I have to, and I've got a handful of essays and the beginning of a local birding guide squirreled away in dark cupboards where I won't come upon them accidentally, but I'm not a language sort of person.
So it's hard to come up with something to say that describes the sheer, overwhelming panic of facing a Decepticon—or any Transformer, I suppose, although I wouldn't know for sure what it would be like, having an Autobot be your first introduction into the whole mess, seeing as it didn't happen to me.
No, I got one who wanted to kill me. And all my friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers and ex-classmates. Not because it—he—had anything against me in particular. He just felt that way about all human life. He was a Decepticon, to start with, and that's their general line when it comes to things like that. More to the point, and more personally, we—humans—had destroyed the Allspark and killed Megatron and, along with that, doomed the future of the Cybertronian species. It was like genocide through forced sterilization, to him. We didn't actually do much killing, but we insured that a new member of their kind would never come into being ever again.
I didn't know this at the time. Hell, I didn't even know about the 'wanting-to-kill-me' bit. Just the part where my car suddenly turned out to not be my car after all, and then turned out to be, and turned into, a giant robot. Who promptly grabbed me and squeezed, holding me probably twenty, thirty feet off the ground.
I've never been so terrified in my life. It's a hyperbolic statement ordinarily, but for me it's completely true, no exaggeration.
Again, in retrospect, he probably wasn't actually squeezing me all that hard. He didn't want me to die, you see, and that's remarkably easy to do accidentally when you're that much bigger than somebody. Like a human holding a mouse: don't squeeze. Or more like, a human in plate armor holding a mouse.
(Well, I suppose he did want me dead, he wanted the whole human race dead. He just wanted this particular specimen of it to serve his purposes first.)
I don't know why he chose me in particular. I suppose because I was somewhat respectable looking, even in my hiking clothes—my oldest sister has told me that I was born middle-aged. I suppose it all evens out: after my three sisters, my mother needed an easy child. It was simply coincidence, to some point, too: I suppose in an alternate reality out there somewhere, assuming that parallel universe theory is correct, someone else got picked and things turned out differently.
I've told you about how I think most parallel universes would be numbingly familiar, right? This is one time when I think it wouldn't be the same, at all.
Not because I'm particularly stuck-up, and think that I, personally, made such a huge difference just by virtue of being who I am. Actually, I suppose that that is what I think, in a way, but not in the way you're probably thinking. I think it was sheer luck and coincidence that I happened to be the right person for this situation. That I had the right combination of factors that made me enough like who I needed to be to actually make a difference.
That came later, though. At first, I just freaked out. Things went fuzzy. Shock set in, of course. Even the calm, nonreactive bit of me that's usually analyzing a situation, the perfectly removed scientist inside me, had disappeared. I was a bundle of raw nerve and instinct held together with spit and the fact that if I did drop out of the hand that was holding me (and how could it be so big?) I would probably die. I didn't struggle much.
The sky was very blue that day, like it sometimes is in late spring or early fall, one of the times when the weather's mild and the sky's something you can fall into. I remember: it was spring, because the birds were nesting. They'd been loud and obvious, defending nests and chicks, as I'd been walking.
I wondered, vaguely, if I was hallucinating. Or dead.
The world made no sense, which was startlingly frightening for someone who'd dedicated their life to making things make sense—although I didn't really realize that until later, when the more immediate, more obvious, less insidious fears started to wear themselves down, like a toddler having a temper tantrum.
Logic and order. Science. Figuring out why something is the way it is, why something works. I believed in it. I believe in it, but I'm a bit more—open-minded, now.
I screamed, and the thing holding me spoke.
"Shut up," he hissed, voice ugly. I didn't. I suppose I was beyond listening, beyond reason. That and I've never been good at following orders, although I'm almost always more subtle about things when I disobey. A subtle rebel, rather than an overt one. I made a horrible teenager.
So he shook me, and it—it was indescribable. I wasn't afraid of heights, before that, although I'd never been truly comfortable around them, but since then—I've had trouble going up certain bridges, or being in airplanes. It's too similar to that world-shattering fear.
I stopped screaming. I think I started crying, but I'm not sure, even now.
When I woke up I was, remarkably, fairly calm. True, I did have that shaky post-panic, loose-limbed feeling, but I've always half-liked it. It feels tired and sleepy and slow, syrupy.
I didn't know where I was, but it was warm and dark and I didn't really care.
…At first, at least.
But, of course, that changed. Especially with the shattered, bloody-edged panic-vivid fragments of memory lodged in my mind. I clearly remember thinking, the thought cutting through my mind, 'Jesus Christ, my car.'
And then I decided that I had been hallucinating, for whatever reason—and at that point, I was ready to consider some pretty improbable ones. Hallucinogenic mold growing in my irregularly-cleaned water bottle; really, really late-onset schizophrenia (not possible, and not the right symptoms: maybe I would be the first documented case of a rare psychological disorder? I might even have it named after me…)
Or maybe the hippies you tend to see in trailhead parking lots (second-most commonly sighted species after health freaks) had slipped something into the packed lunch I'd left in my car while I visited the foul pit toilet the parks service had had installed.
Scary stuff, let me tell you. The good-natured too-tired-to-move, too-content-to-feel-like-moving feeling had passed, to be replaced with too-scared-to-move.
At some point my head hit the door handle, and I realized that it was dark because it was a) night and b) a long ways away from the city—a city, any city—and that it was warm because c) the car heater was running although d) the car did not appear to be on and e) 'the car' was in fact my own (apparently) despite the disappearance of my emergency hairbrush and notebooks, and the embarrassingly ever-present stacks of papers, from the backseat and despite the fact that my car had f) turned into a giant robot.
If life was a movie, that moment of realization would be followed, after a suitable moment of building tension, by the car somehow ejecting me and then standing up as a giant robot, or doing something equally mysterious. It didn't. The moment of realization flashed by, and then the tension rose and rose and rose until I thought I would burst, and then slowly dropped as my body obeyed biology, and the adrenaline faded, and my tension dropped.
And then the car rumbled to life and I screamed.
"Shut up," said the car's speakers briskly in that deep baritone voice, with the rumbling overtones and the strange mechanical flavor to it that was, in the weirdest way imaginable, somewhat appropriate for a talking car.
"Okay," I said, struck dumb (dumb as in stupid but not, disappointingly, unable to speak) by the circumstances and the demand and the mess that was my life at the moment.
"I told you to stop talking, organic," said the car, and this time I actually didn't respond, although some hysterical, suicidal and highly-amused part of me wanted to say 'Yes.' Or possibly even 'Yes, sir.'
"Good," said the car slowly, after a while. "Good. I am a Decepticon: an autonomous robotic organism. I am from the planet Cybertron, and I've come to earth to extinguish the human race. Also on earth are the Autobots: they're more like me, if lesser beings. We're all mixed in with you, hiding in plain sight. Almost none of you know of us.
"The slagging Autobots, for whatever stupid reasons they have, want to save humanity. I want to kill you all, after what one of you squishy little things did to Megatron, our glorious leader, and the Allspark. You should all die for your sins." There was a brief pause and, again, I had enough of a survival instinct to not say anything.
"Our leader Starscream has ordered us to prepare to launch a second attack. You are our bargaining chip, now. Prime will hesitate before he'll cause the death of an innocent human, and the choice will be out of his hands entirely when it's aired on international television."
I sat back, reeling, stunned.
I'd been kidnapped by my giant alien robot car to be used as a hostage in his bid to destroy humanity.
I went numb and then we drove for a while. At first I vaguely recognized the area we drove through, and then I didn't. And I continued not to for a long time.
We stopped again, in the middle of nowhere. The sky was as spectacular as I can remember it: I can count the number of times I've seen the milky way on my two hands, and none of the others can hold a candle up to the stars that were out that night, wheeling above us. It was dizzying.
"Get out," the car said as we pulled to a gradual halt, stopping just short of a little rustic cabin. I could see an outhouse and a pump. The whole thing look unused since the time when that hand-pump had been new and innovative.
I did as I was told.
And then I stood there for probably fifteen minutes. It's why I remember those stars so well. They're burned into my mind: those countless millions (and millions more I couldn't see, I know) and the black spots where fir trees blocked out the light. I thought I heard a stream running, far off in the distance, and it made me thirsty. It was a clear, cold night, and I started to shiver not long after I got out of the car. The robot.
"Oh," the car said at last, disgust and condescension clear in its voice. "You may sleep now. Don't die—yet."
The cabin smelled unpleasantly of mold and old food. There was a layer of dust over everything, and an oily sheen covered most of the kitchen. I didn't see any cockroaches, and was grateful.
In the morning I stumbled gracelessly back outside. I wasn't even really thinking of the car, although it was on my mind—I peed, forgoing the foul outhouse in favor of the woods, and then drank and drank mouthfuls of water out of the rusty pump, waiting just until it started to run clean.
When I looked back up from drinking, water running down my face, my car was gone and the robot was there.
"You will tell me who you are," he said, and it wasn't even a demand, let alone a question. It was merely a statement, no more true or false than saying 'the sky is blue.'
The sky was blue that day, stretching on overhead into eternity, as deep as the sky had been flat last night.
It was beautiful. The woods were full of life. I was going to be dead in a matter of days or weeks, whenever my usefulness ran its course. I believed the thing that was holding me captive. I had no reason not to.
I gave him my name. "Lauren Smithing," I said simply. I didn't know he wanted anything more.
"Twenty-five years old. Two parking tickets and one speeding violation. Graduate of York High School and Rice University."
"…You're a scientist."
I didn't even notice how he paused over that. I've only realized it's there at all in retrospect, and that means that it's probably imagined. I was paying rapt attention to his words, of course.
"My mother and father, three older sisters.: Eliza, Sophie and Beth." I said the words and then my throat froze with panic, as I realized what I could have just done. I started to shake. I hadn't thought—
"It's not worth my time to track down your genetic donors and their other offspring," sneered the Decepticon in that deep voice of his. It cut into my stomach and vibrated, pulling out the fear in me, making it bleed out of me, or into me. "You're unimportant except as negotiation material. Will they notice you're gone?"
I thought frantically. How should I answer the question…?
"Don't lie," he rumbled quietly, and I didn't dare to. I didn't even know why he was asking, anyways, so I wouldn't know which lie to make, or even if I needed to.
"Little Lizzie, Beth's first child, turns four next Friday. She'll know something's wrong if I don't call. If Mom calls, or Dad—they'd be worried if I didn't call back within a few days."
I had been hiking on Saturday. Today was Sunday, then. "If I'm not at work tomorrow they'll call," I said blankly. We were in the middle of a big push, and it wasn't like me to just not show up—I'd come in once with a fever of 102 degrees and stayed until they'd pushed me back home mid-morning, when I started throwing up.
"Where do you work?"
I named the research institute I worked at. There was a slight shift of the metallic plates that made up his face that seemed to suggest a cold, calculating smile.
"Good. You're telling me the truth—at least sometimes. And friends?"
"No," I said, painfully honest. I had friends, of course, but work kept me to busy to keep in touch with anyone regularly; the only person I saw outside of the lab more than once a month, on average, was my dog.
"Gracie," I said, voice small and weak.
Metallic not-really-flesh narrowed around not-really-eyes. "Explain yourself."
"My dog," I said, feeling truly lost for the first time. I missed her terribly, of course, but it was also the straw that broke the camel's back—or more, it was the straw that made the camel realize that her back was already broken.
"That thing you let inside me? By the side of the road somewhere. It's lucky I didn't step on it." There was a cold tilt to his voice that implied that he had tried to—I don't know if he actually had, or if he just wanted another way to keep me in line.
It didn't have the effect he'd expected, either way. I fell apart.
He gave up and drove somewhere else, after a while—he needed information out of me, and gibbered panic-driven babble wouldn't help him cobble together a picture of the person he was going to either kill or use to kill others.
It helped to have people be attached to the victim, right? A faceless threat of murder was one thing, but to threaten the life of someone the—the audience knew a little about, someone sympathetic, someone they could connect to… That would be something else entirely.
The day passed in a blur. I was still shocky. Even though I was alone, I didn't think about escaping: what would I do? Call the police? —That would go over well. Start a militia? Run as far as I could as fast as I could? Like that would work—even if I thought I had the money, I had no doubt that he could track withdrawals from my bank account: he'd known the place I worked (I couldn't lie to him, and it didn't occur to me to think that he was lying to me) and that was supposed to be secure. Some of what we got assigned was 'sensitive,' and they wanted things to be better safe than sorry.
There was a little food in the cabin, but not much. I took some of the worst cans, rusted and dented and one that was bulging, and tossed them into the pit toilet, holding my breath even before I opened the door. I didn't know how long I'd be in the cabin, and I didn't want to assume that an inorganic alien would even remember that I needed to eat, let alone decide that he wanted to indulge my human frailties. I didn't want to be tempted by something only potentially toxic—which could happen, if I got hungry enough.
I could see movement in the jar of flour even through the clinging film of grease-soaked dust covering the glass container, and I left it outside the front door, a judicial distance away from the porch, along with a jumble of slimy potatoes half rotted through.
I attempted to clean, but I didn't do much. I didn't want to shake the rugs, because I didn't want to know what would come out; I didn't want to sweep out the dark corners because of what might be hiding in them, and I didn't want to stick my hands anywhere that I couldn't see clearly.
Finally, I just stopped, because it was worse knowing the state of the cabin than it was not-knowing. The last thing I did was to haul the (mercifully mostly clean) blankets out to air.
Then I sat in the lengthening shadows at the edge of the woods and watched the birds. Somehow, my backpack had stayed with me: I flipped listlessly through my bird guide, but didn't see anything I didn't already know. I cried for Gracie, and then I cried a little for myself.
I woke up with a start, but I was still alone. I wondered why the car-robot had disappeared, if there had been a change of plans, and if I would ever see anyone—anyone human—again. Before I'd finished my breakfast he pulled back into the driveway.
We both didn't mention that he'd been gone. I didn't say anything, except when I ended up talking softly aloud to myself, by accident, and except when there was a question directed at me by the still-commanding Decepticon.
It was very quiet. I'd gotten used to the city, even though I'd grown up almost in the woods. I was used to people talking, too, and to responding to them.
Mostly, I was left alone.
That was the first day I wondered what I would do about laundry. I had no other clothes to wear.
In the next three days I learned how to fight against the woodstove and win, how to scrape food up for myself (I wasn't useless in a kitchen, but it was different when you had electricity and clean pots and ingredients, and possibly a cookbook and a real stove and oven) and how to heat enough water for dishes or a sponge-bath.
The morning of the fourth day my clothes were tacky with dirt and filth, so I stripped to my underwear and washed them as well as I could in a pan of quickly-cooling water with a sliver of rough soap, then hung them outside to dry, in the thin late-autumn sun and the day's light wind.
I'd been ignored all the days before, not a word spoken to me. This day started out the same, looked to be just like it.
It wasn't. Sometime around noon I slunk out, buck-naked, to check on my drying clothes. They were still damp, and I shifted them back into the sun, trying to ignore the apparently-normal car sitting in the rough driveway and wishing desperately that there was a back door, so I at least would have a house between us. I didn't want to walk far on my city-tender bare feet.
It's funny how being naked almost bothered me more than being the captive of a giant alien robot—albeit one who mostly left me alone. These things ingrain themselves into our being. He didn't care, of course. Nudity meant nothing to him. I could guess at that, at the very least—non-clothes-wearing apparently non-gendered species with no reason to have our same cultural taboos, right?—but it still bothered me, and deeply.
I was attempting to slink back into the house while keeping as much of me covered as I could when he spoke to me again. I jumped and screamed shortly and swiveled around quickly.
"Human," he said, using the same tone I would if I'd just called someone 'filth.' "We're leaving."
I froze. Was this the end?
"You will dress yourself. We will return to your dwelling—" I didn't own a cell phone to call from "—you will call in sick to your workplace and you will cancel your other engagements. You will do this in as non-suspicious a way as possible. After that, we will return here."
"Yes," I muttered dully, after a minute.
There wasn't any other response, so after waiting a while longer I went back to the bush and pulled on my still-damp clothes.
I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror as I sat down, and winced. My eyes were puffy from sleeping badly, there were infected insect bites over my face and disappearing down my shirt, over my arms (hopefully from mosquitoes) my hair was tangled and knotted, snarled (fingers could only do so much) and the clothes were still wrinkled, damp in places and dirty, despite my best attempts.
The driver's door was open when I walked back out of the cabin with my hiking boots on, the only shoes I had. Still, I hesitated before I sat down.
I was smart enough not to actually try to take the wheel.
I stumbled into the house and thought longingly of clean clothes, of calamine lotion for the bug bites, of real food, of a shower, but I ignored the urges and fumbled straight to my phone.
There were seven messages: one from my sister reminding me about Lizzie's birthday, one from a neighbor inviting me to the neighborhood potluck, and the remaining five from people at the lab, three of them jokingly asking whether I was dead or just on the brink of it. My working-while-sick story had earned me a reputation.
I wanted to call them all back and say that no, I wasn't dead, but I would be soon. I didn't, though.
There was a knock on the door, and I cut short the stilted conversation I was trying to force with the woman a floor below me and to the right to answer it. It was another woman in the apartment building: it seemed to draw lonely widows, bachelors and maiden aunts like flies to honey.
"I have your dog, honey," she said, and I burst into tears.
She looked a little stunned by my reaction—how could she understand? She didn't know about my car—and I muttered some half-sensical qualifiers about how worried I'd been and how much Gracie meant to me.
After that, though, I couldn't ask her to watch the dog for me, to come in twice a day to feed her and give her fresh water and let her out. I didn't know what to do.
So I called my mother. It was the only thing I did for myself in my apartment. I was so afraid to do otherwise—I don't know why—that to disobey his orders just didn't cross my mind. It was inconceivable.
I asked her to pick Grace up the next day, since it was so late, and watch her for a while—I told her that I was so busy with work I didn't have time to give her the attention she needed. It wasn't a bad lie, as lies go. It was more than I'd expected under the circumstances.
I was careful to leave my dog locked inside the apartment as I made my way back down to my kidnapper.
I fell into a sort of numb daze—it's always been an easy state for me to reach on car trips. It passes the time. It means I don't have to think, not deeply, about anything. And it was a long, long drive: we'd left a little noon, and it was almost ten o'clock when we started the trip back. I don't know if I would have been able to actually fall asleep (probably, though; car rides are incredibly soporific, for me) and it helped to pass the time.
So I was startled when we pulled into a supermarket parking lot, not even half an hour from my apartment. I just wasn't expecting it: I'd been waiting for the landmarks we would pass: things I drove past every day, and then things I drove past regularly, and then things that were vaguely familiar, and then nothing I recognized, as we moved towards the cabin.
"Get whatever you need," the car growled, and so I did.
Food, mostly, and instant coffee. Stuff that was filling and easy to prepare and would last without refrigeration. I got enough for a good long while: I didn't know how long I'd be waiting, and whether or not this trip would be repeated. It seemed unlikely.
I slipped a change of clothes—sweatpants and a loose shirt, something warm that would be close enough to the right size to work—into the cart, and halfway down the next aisle went back and added a second set, almost identical. I bought soap, for myself and dishes, and a bottle of bleach (to be mixed with a little bit of water) for the rest of the house.
It's funny, what you decide is essential. My two extravagances were a packet of plain MnMs (easy to make last a long time) and toilet paper.
I wished, desperately and for the first time, ever, that I had a cell phone. I was starting to get lonely. I've never been all that sociable, but then again, I'd never been isolated the way I was in that cabin.
I bought a long novel instead—some cheap romance I knew I'd hate, the only thing you ever find in a supermarket like the one I was in.
Good. That meant it would take me longer to read it.
I did fall asleep. When I didn't think about how I was the one supposedly 'driving,' that I was the one sitting in the driver's seat, it was remarkably like being driven around by anyone else.
My position was awkward and my neck hurt. My body had had that slight, subtle all-over ache that comes from sleeping on a bad mattress for too many nights in a row already, and I felt stiff whenever I woke up enough to be really conscious about the matter.
There weren't any stars out that night: clouds had pulled in, blocking out the sky.
I woke up around midnight and couldn't fall back asleep. After a while, in the dark and with the road unlit—even the car's, the Decepticon's, headlights were off; some sort of infrared filter, I guessed, or something more high-tech—and with the silence only magnified by the constant rumble of a moving car, I began to feel, eerily, as if I was being watched.
I probably was, I realized, and felt the back of my neck prickle.
Scary stuff, let me tell you. They say that the undefined nightmares, the times when you're not sure quite what is out there, are the worst, but I'm not so sure.
Of course, there were a lot of undefineds in my own fear equations. Like when, exactly, I was going to be paraded on national television in an attempt to get the good guys to do something or other.
And then I would probably die.
The fear shook off the last vestiges of my sleepiness, and I pulled myself fully upright, wincing at the stiffness in my neck and the still-tired still-alert feeling of too little sleep mixed with adrenaline.
I wondered where we were, vaguely, but mostly I… Drifted. You know when you're there, but not really thinking? Time just slips through your fingers, nothing really matters too much, and it's just... All a blur.
I jumped, badly, when the Decepticon spoke to me, jerking me out of the peaceful, numbly meditative state I'd been in.
"What was the last project you were assigned to within your work place?" he demanded.
I wanted to ask him 'Don't you already know this? You broke into the system database, you shouldn't need to ask me,' but I didn't. One of the first things I'd decided, way back on the first day—it felt like an eternity by now—was to never question my captor.
I don't know why I was fighting to stay alive, because I knew I was going to die when it came time for me to be a captor, or shortly afterwards. I knew my number had been up since I opened his door and slid, willingly and unknowingly, inside. I suppose hope springs eternal—and it's probably a good sign that I'm not suicidal. Or heroic, either, but those tend to be the same, I've decided. Only I'm not sure heroics are a bad thing.
"There's a species of frog that freezes solid and then revives in the spring, when it defrosts. We're working through a series of experiments investigating the mechanics of the process, and then we'll be investigating how that can be applied to humans, if it can," I said mechanically. It was unessential, unimportant information—we were hardly the only group that had worked with them, or the most high-profile. It was hardly ground-breaking, let alone something that would interest a giant robotic killing machine—or I thought so, at least.
"Why did you decide to train as a scientist?"
Looking back, after all this had finished, I would realize that this question stood out from the others—it was different. That wasn't something he'd use in the biography of my life as a sympathy-winning device—I mean, unless I had said 'As part of my devotion to God and Christian values, and my service to our great democratic nation,' or something like that.
I didn't realize it back then: I was too numb. I just answered the question, like I'd answered every other question I'd been given.
"I don't know," I said, and that was true. "Because it's interesting. Eight years ago I would have said… I don't know, something idealistic. That was before I graduated. How I wanted to make a difference, improve the quality of life in third-world countries, discover something new and innovative. I like nature, like the outdoors, and biology's my only real gift…"
Why had I—well, not become a scientist, everyone needed a job, but why had I devoted my life to it so completely? I didn't know.
I wanted nothing more to be outside of this car—it was suddenly stiflingly hot and I could still feel eyes watching me, prickling against the back of my neck—no, outside of this monster and just outdoors. There would be trees, and birds. Some sort of fir. I'd always loved fir trees, after the first time—age nine years old—when I'd gotten to correct my mother that what she was calling the tree we'd bought for Christmas—she kept on calling it a pine—was, in fact, a fir.
The world seemed incredibly, overwhelmingly beautiful. It was a revelation of sorts—like rediscovering yourself as a child, when the world's still magic. I started crying, silently.
"The world's beautiful," I said, out loud, still trying to answer the question. The car was silent; my voice was choked with tears. "It's—all incredible. Knowing a tree grows out of the carbon in carbon dioxide doesn't make it any less of a miracle. Knowing the biological adaptations of each bird, and the ones common to all birds—or most all birds—makes them more awe-inspiring, even the fifty little identical brown upright-perching birds that live out in these woods you need to identify by call because they look so similar—"
I didn't have the words. I still don't. The—The love that swept through me, the sheer fierce love of everything around me, still defies understanding, let alone speech.
The Decepticon didn't respond and I fell silent, pitifully grateful that he hadn't voiced his contempt.
I still couldn't bring myself to commit suicide.
That sounds harsh, doesn't it? But I was being used as a tool, and I couldn't see anything else to do. Of course, if I died, they'd just find someone else—but there was the chance that something would go wrong, or right, and it would fall through: it increased the odds of it, if nothing else. Maybe the Autobots would finally make an appearance, after they found out about this new plan, for whatever reason—
But I couldn't convince myself that my death a few days or weeks earlier would make a difference. I couldn't kill myself.
Instead, I threw myself into day-to-day life, trying to cling to the joy and the new sense of belief I'd made. I did a lot of bird watching, venturing a little further into the woods when I wasn't reprimanded for wandering—although I never dared to go far. He wouldn't kill me, yet, but I knew he was capable of hurting me…
He never did, but the threat was always there. There was nothing I could do to stop him: an unarmed human female, weak even by our standards? I was less than defenseless.
I investigated the shrubby plants growing in the woods even though botany has never been my primary love, taking some back to the cabin for rough dissection with a paring knife, the names of the parts—sepal, stamen, pistil, anther—and the names of their variations slowly coming back to me. I spent all of my days outside, avoiding the cabin. If the nights had been just a few degrees warmer, I would have slept outside, too. I started bathing in the stream—freezing cold but faster and easier than heating water—whenever I felt too foul to stand living with myself. Washing clothes was much easier with three sets. I saw a bear once, and deer several times, and each incident felt like a gift. Once I saw a lizard. I learned to ignore the bug bites, and not scratch—calamine lotion helped. So did the bug spray.
I wasn't asked any more questions. Several times, the Decepticon disappeared—the longest time was for over a full day, maybe a day and a half. Those times were best.
I stopped filling in my life list once I realized how close the end I was. I still marked the date and place (Some Cabin in the Woods, day two or five or ten of my 'stay') next to the entries in my bird guide, though. And I cried at night, for my family and my friends and my dog, and because of what I was going to be used for.
I wondered what death would be like.
It was the most—intense period of my life. Emotions were stronger, both positive and negative. I threw myself into every experience, felt it with every inch of my body, because I knew that it might be the last time I would feel anything at all.
My grandfather had had Alzheimer's. He'd been… Gone, by the end. Before the end. I'd always wanted to die with grace: those had been my mother's words. "I want to die with grace; I don't want it—I don't want my last days to be like that. Your grandfather was a great man, and he deserved a better death. A little respect—"
It lasted for a week and a half. Then the Decepticon started talking to me—at me—again. Interrogating me.
This time, I noticed things were a little different. I assumed he'd started refining my biography-obituary.
And then he asked me about the birds.
"I like to bird-watch," I said. "A while ago—a year, now—I started a life list. I'd hoped to at least get all the common birds in the region." I didn't say I won't now, because it was obvious. "They—oh, they're interesting. It's a challenge, it's something to do, it's—It's nice to see all the different species, even the little drab brown ones." LBBs—Little Brown Birds—have always been some of my favorites, even if they're hell to tell apart; I've always felt a certain kinship. Not everybody can be an eagle, or even a minor hawk, or at least a crow. Crows at least are easily recognizable, and there's something sleek about their coloring. Nobody thinks that of sparrows, or wrens. "I had my list and my birding guide with me when I was—"
Abruptly, I changed subjects. I'd been heading onto unstable ground. "—I've never seen a pileated woodpecker before. Or a barn owl. And lots of little finches—Even though I had a feeder up. It was the city, though. I got starlings." I bit down an utterly inappropriate laugh. Who didn't get starlings? Even I had trouble appreciating them, especially before I'd fallen in love with the world again. The best you could say about them was that they had character.
He was silent a moment longer. I sat where I was, obediently. I always waited until he dismissed me. It was—safer.
"What birds have you seen?"
The question surprised me—I flinched a little, not because I was suddenly afraid (if anything, a question about birdwatching was a relief) but because it was unexpected. It was harder to deal with something if you didn't know it was coming before it happened. If I'd had a hint that it wasn't my car, before it had—transformed…
"A lot," I said, softly and carefully this time. "I go out hiking pretty regularly. And there's—I've seen a lot this past week. I'm glad I have my guide. I wish… I wish I'd had one for wildflowers or plants with me." Like I said, they'd never interested me much outside of the ordinary before now, but I was learning to appreciate them.
"Show me," he said, and something about his tone made me look up: it sounded like a request, not a demand or an order. That had never happened before.
I didn't want to risk it, though. How did I know that I was interpreting giant alien robot tonal subtleties correctly? "I don't have my guide," I said, tone as blank as I could make it, and waited.
Even back then, I thought that he honestly didn't realize what I was waiting for. That certainty's only grown with time and distance. For the first time, my reaction, my reacting as what I was—a hostage—wasn't expected.
He looked somehow—surprised, maybe even regretful, when he realized what it was. "Go," he said, tone fierce and dark once more, when he realized I was waiting for permission.
He was as impassive as he'd ever been, since the day we'd 'met,' when I returned, my guides in hand. I had two: my old Audubon guide, marked and stained and beat-up with years of use, and a much newer copy of the Sibley field guide. Nervelessly, trying not to think, I opened the more familiar Audubon guide to a random page—dabbling ducks. Not something you find in the middle of the woods. I flipped again: woodpeckers. I had just seen a red-shafted flicker, and been disappointed I hadn't been able to find a shed feather—
It's easier to talk when you don't think about what or who or why you're talking. You just focus on the words, and whatever's in front of you—the page, the lectern, the audience, your feet, some patch of empty air—and try not to think. Otherwise, you start to get panicky. Sometimes it's better to just talk, and know that whatever happens, it's out of your hands, now.
He'd started asking me questions almost regularly. I didn't know how to react to that.
I didn't have answers to some, or I only had partial answers, and that always made me edgy and nervous, almost panicky.
Now, I've realized that he didn't like it when that happened.
I was always somewhat afraid, around him. And I was always afraid that that day would end up being the day it all ended—the day that I would die. It was… A lot of pressure. I tried not to think about it—not so much denial (well, it was, I suppose, but not in the ordinary sense) as a wish to live the rest of the time I had as happily as possible. There was nothing about it I could change, and so I didn't want to dwell on it. There was a lot of that, during those weeks.
One day, I found a frog.
He was a cute little fellow, and I brought him home in a cleaned-out bottle (I think it was a peanut butter jar) to watch some more. We'd been working with frogs before I left—not this type, of course, although I didn't know enough about local frogs to give a positive species identification—and they'd been nice to work with. I've always liked frogs, although my mother tells me that I tried to eat one once, when I was much younger. Raw, out of the garden—which works for vegetables, but not much else.
It was nice to just sit in the sunshine and observe him. (He was in the shade, of course, because glass bottles—even ones without lids—and live animals in full sun is always a bad idea.) Frogs are very interesting: they just have four toes on their back legs, you know, but they have five each on the front ones. You can find their ears, if you know what you're looking for, and they have very expressive eyes.
I was trying to get him to eat by dangling a stick with a spider hanging from the end on a piece of silk, but neither the frog nor the spider was cooperating. Did you know that frogs have to blink when they swallow?
It took me a long time to realize that the Decepticon—I still didn't know his name—was leaning over my shoulder, watching me—and the frog, I suppose. I don't know how long he'd been there before I noticed—I screamed once I did. That was almost unusual, now. I—I hadn't gotten used to his presence, but I was—I suppose resigned, in a way, or accepting. The edge had been blunted off my fear. Your body can only hold on to adrenaline and panic so long, you know.
"What is it?" he said, and his voice—it still made me shiver. It was inhuman, and so low that you could almost feel it in your bones, vibrating.
"A frog," I said. It was. "An amphibian." I paused there—he'd had me talk about the five kingdoms already. I didn't know why he hadn't just looked it up online. It would have been easier, I guessed, and definitely more accurate and more thorough. Well, assuming he found a good reference site.
He kneeled, stooping so he could look more closely at the animal, but I'd stopped watching it—or her: I'd decided it was a girl frog, and privately named her Louise—in favor of watching him. I didn't like being this close to him. I didn't like being near him at all. I knew that knowing what he was doing, regardless of what it was, would have absolutely no bearing on what he did or didn't do to me, but instinct made it hard to look away. I didn't bother trying to. So what if it was a useless gesture? At least I'd have some warning.
After a while I looked partly away, although I kept him in the corner of my eye, to release the spider—still dangling from a piece of silk—onto the trunk of a tree, then dropped the stick. When I looked back, he was staring directly at me.
Subconsciously, I cowered, tucking myself in to look small, insignificant—not that that was hard. It was easy by virtue of my species.
He stood fully, towering above me, face inscrutable.
I've never figured out what happened there. But I think it was something.
I brought the frog back to the section of stream I'd found it in and released it. I wondered what it would do in the winter. Some species—I didn't know how many—burrowed into the mud and slept, or hibernated. The little guy—gal—I'd just released couldn't freeze solid. She couldn't and survive, anyways.
I'd never liked the winter, but I'd probably be dead by then anyways.
I went to bed early that night.
If anybody had seen me then—
I was a filthy mess. It's hard to live but to modern twentieth—or twenty-first, I suppose—century standards of hygiene without indoor plumbing, let alone hot water. I tried to make due.
But nobody did see me. There was nobody else out there. Just me, and the Decepticon. I wondered who the cabin had belonged to. Maybe it had just been abandoned, or it belonged to some couple happily living in suburbia, inherited from a crazy hermit uncle. Maybe they'd come out here one year, and find—who knew what.
Maybe they—the Decepticons, the Decepticon who'd captured me or another—had killed whoever it was.
I didn't ask questions, but I had them. I have a sharp mind. I still remembered what he—the Decepticon—had said to me: "I want to kill you all, after what one of you squishy little things did to Megatron, our glorious leader, and the Allspark."
Who was Megatron? (The name made me want to laugh, but I was too afraid of what he might be—the leader of the Decepticons?—to take it, and him, so lightly.) And the Allspark? What had a human done to them? What could a human do to them?
Maybe I'd find out in the eventual 'broadcast' I would feature in. Maybe I'd just die without knowing. That seemed pathetic: to have my life turned into a cog in some alien's machine-cold plan and not even know why.
I hadn't heard anything about either of them past the first few days. Well, until the second-to-last week of my stay in the cabin.
I'd been outside, feeding a camp robber—also called a gray jay, cousin to the Steller's jay and blue jay and the most shameless bird to exist—bits of stale cracker when he approached. I tossed the last of what I had in my hands to the bird, hoping it would fly off—it didn't, of course, camp robbers learned a long time ago that if they wait long enough, they can usually steal something on top of what they're freely given—although it did back off a little, retreating to a small sapling nearby.
I looked down, meek, as he came up, then slowly sat down, facing me, as impassive and unreadable as the clouds, or stone. I waited, then. I always waited: it was safer. And I didn't know his name, didn't even know if this type of alien came with names at all. I didn't want to say 'hello' to him, but I could have greeted him with his name, if I'd known it back then. A recognition. It felt—not disrespectful, but strange not to. But I didn't want to risk anything.
I really didn't want to die.
At last, he spoke. "When our plan has been fully realized, a short… documentary about your life will be played on all television and radio stations, on all frequencies, across the world. It will also be posted online. There will be a short explanation that will clearly show the Autobots will be to blame if you die. Megatron's death and the destruction of the Allspark will not be included in this explanation."
He stopped, almost as if waiting for me to respond. He did that, sometimes, and sometimes I was tempted to ask for clarifications, or just to ask a question at all. I never did, and I didn't know what he meant by those pauses.
This time, his voice was almost frustrated when he finally replied, and that was enough to make me stiffen, make my heart race.
"…Megatron was once leader of the Decepticon cause. He was noble and a proud fighter, the Decepticon we all strive to emulate. His death was an… Unfortunate mistake. Humanity will pay for their coincidental murder of him."
My head whipped up to stare at him, disbelieving. I was being given an explanation: it was incredible. I had given up hope—I had never really expected to be shown such mercy, such respect, at all. That much recognition. I was carbon, to them, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, and then trace elements and nothing more.
"The Decepticons and Autobots once lived in harmony, but the pathetic Autobots and their foolish leader, the nauseating pacifist Optimus Prime, were weighing down our true glory. We parted ways, and the Great War began: Decepticons against Autobots. Both our causes needed the Allspark.
"The Allspark creates our life." I was amazed by his tone, then, and I never heard anything like it from him again. It was faith, pure and simple: positive faith, like listening to a true believer talk about a loving God. His voice was still dark and hard and low enough that I felt it resonate through my bones, but it sounded joyful, just then. "Or it did." And there—it was gone again. "It was lost to space, and presumed irretrievable by both sides. The birth of new Decepticons—and of new Autobots—was stopped. Our sparks, our souls, spring from the Allspark. Without it, we were—barren.
"Megatron found it, but was trapped in this planet's ice. Your scientists—"
I flinched at the way he pronounced that word. I was a scientist. His voice had been hateful in a way it hadn't been for weeks—in a way it hadn't been since the very beginning. He paused at that, I think, but it's very easy to imagine things, now that it happened so long ago. Well, six years is nothing, but it feels like an eternity. That time when I was a captive was an eternity away from my life a week after it finished: it is separate. It's like I wasn't living in reality.
"—some human scientists—" I wondered what that revision meant "Some human scientists found him and took him with them to the dam they'd built over the Allspark. The humans had no idea what they held… They would have defiled it, too, if they'd been able to.
"The great Megatron was first found by a human, an Archibald Witwicky, and he was partially activated: he marked the location of the Allspark on the flesh-creature's glasses. It was his great-grandson who came into possession of these glasses, which then came to be possessed by the Autobots. A battle took place, and in the end a human—a human—plunged the Allspark into Megatron's chest, destroying them both—"
I tried to pull back, discreetly, but there was a tree in my way. I felt like a cornered rabbit. I probably looked like one, too. I almost wished I still didn't know what had happened, but not quite.
The Decepticon grunted angrily, then stomped off. I relaxed by slow, steady increments, the adrenalin slowly fading.
Eventually I noticed the gray jay had flown off. I wished I could, too.
Then I found a bird.
Well, I'd found lots of birds, really, but this one, an undersized raven, had been injured: it was dying, I thought, although I wasn't an expert. It broke my heart, even knowing that it was natural, and that there was nothing I could do. I've always been a softy for downed birds—I still am—but this was so much more intense than what I was used to. It wasn't normal. I think it was a sympathetic reaction: I was also going to die, even though just one of the two of us—the bird and I—was visibly on the edge of death.
I took it home.
That sounds stupid: I took home the dying bird, even knowing there was nothing I could do for it. Nothing I could do to heal it, at least, but I could at least make it comfortable. I could make sure there was somebody sympathetic there while it died.
—I told you I was being influenced by my own situation. It was a bird. Ravens are smart, yes, but they are smart for birds. And while it was just dazed for most of the way there, it panicked about two thirds of the way back—just for a few minutes, but long enough for me to get several buffets around the head by those powerful wings. My nose started bleeding, and didn't stop all the way back. I have no doubt I looked horrible, absolutely horrible: I barely bathed and when I did it was in a small creek, I had three sets of clothes, I lacked all modern hygiene items, such as hot water, an indoor bathroom and deodorant, and there were still all those mystery bug bites, some of which were getting infected. And my hair was not done any favors by the lack of conditioner it was facing. And then I was bleeding all over myself, on top of everything else…
I couldn't pinch my nose to try and stop the flow of blood, because I still had a raven in my hands, although it stopped struggling after just a few minutes, thank God. Forget trying to block the flow with tissues—which I didn't have—or cloth or something. (I did have cloth, from various things. My sheets wouldn't have been ruined by a spot or two of blood: they were already so stained I wasn't sure of the original color. That's a slight exaggeration—they were light blue—but not too much of one.)
I'd gotten used to the Decepticon's presence, to a certain extent, or at least I'd gotten used to him ignoring me, so I passed by him without a word—although still from a fair distance away. The edge had been blunted off my fear by virtue of forced contact, but it was still there, still heavy in my mind.
I was unprepared for the sudden sound of transformation—I don't think I'll ever forget that noise—behind me as I did so. I froze, hands tightening convulsively around the raven as I did so, out of simple fear. It panicked again, of course, starting to struggle once more, and I fought to hold on, while still remaining largely still—
The raven needed help I couldn't give it. That wasn't a surprise. It wasn't like I could even help myself. I was fighting to give it the little comfort I could, in my own small, scared-spitless way.
"You are—leaking," the Decepticon said, voice impassive. I flinched.
"Please don't kill him," I squeaked. I could sympathize with the bird. I'd figured I'd call him Edgar, because everything needs a name—
"Explain yourself." I could hear the 'pathetic human' innate to that sentence: it was something in the tone.
"Uh—This is Edg—a raven. I found him. I think he's going to die—I wanted to make him comfortable. At least make it so he's not starving to death, and dehydrated…" It sounded incredibly stupid, when I said it out loud to a creature who could care less whether or not I lived or died, let alone a non-sentient avian. The Decepticon didn't reply, and I eventually realized he wanted me to explain more fully. "—I'm bleeding because he got me in the nose with a wing and I get bloody noses easily, I used to get them at least once a week when I was kid, it's nothing, it's just something that happens—you bleed and then it stops, it doesn't even hurt, really, the worst part is feeling the blood going down the back of your throat, which is nothing, really—"
I forced myself to shut up. I looked at the raven instead, preoccupied. It was panting, and it had what looked like little dark hairs around the base of its beak. It eyed me suspiciously back, but I'm not sure that ravens are capable of looking anything other than suspicious—mysteriously superior, maybe. And hungry.
I've always liked ravens, liked the shape of them and the deep beats of their wings, but I've loved them more, loved them fiercely, since that day. I suppose I fell in love with that bird, God-awfully stupid and inconvenient and wretched though he was—and oh, I'm sure this all sounds terribly deviant, but it's nothing like that. It was the feel of his life in my hands, cupped between them, so very much like I was by the Decepticon, only less figuratively. And I could comfort him. I could be—benevolent, loving even. I could care for him, for both meanings of the word. I would be seeing him to death, like my nursemaid was to me, but for him, for Edgar, it was unchangeable, and for me it was because—
I suppose I'm getting all confused and mixed-up. I said I wasn't good with words, didn't I? I'm not. I used to want to be, but I've learned to just accept it. Anyways, the point is that I loved that bird, because we were so alike, even while our situations were total opposites—
"You are positive?"
I thought, dully, that it was odd how the Decepticon could sound almost worried about me. It would probably be an inconvenience to him to find a new subject for their plan at this point, but it couldn't be anything more. He'd certainly had no trouble getting me, and keeping me. He'd have to redo the documentary.
It would be my epitaph. That felt—inappropriate, revealing. I didn't want to die just for my life to be used to extort, to bring about the destruction of humanity.
I was just some puppet.
"Yes," I said obediently. "I'm sure. It's just a bloody nose. It'll stop. I'd pinch it, but—" Of course he could tell that. Of course I couldn't pinch it, because I had the bird in my hands. I wondered whether there were Decepticons—or Autobots?—who would help a dying bird, or help anyone at all. I suppose they had to help each other…
It would be hard for them, with their hands. It would be like a human trying to help an ant.
He found me again later that day, after I'd gone outside and sat in the shade, coaxing water down the bird and tempting him with bits of food. I wasn't sure what he'd eat—I had the vague idea ravens were more carnivorous than their omnivorous cousins the crows but still not too picky—and I wished I had had eggs, so I could hard boil them and try little balls of the yolk. It's good protein, and everything a bird needs. Clearly.
The Decepticon stared inscrutably at the bird. I tried not to flinch.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
I squeaked my reply. "Trying to get him to eat, that is, uhm—"
"Give it to me."
I flinched, I'm pretty sure. Regardless, I ended up squeezing the bird, or startling him somehow: it was enough that he pecked me—and have you seen the beak on a raven?
"Please don't kill him," I pleaded, eyes welling up with tears: it was a combination of pain and irrational emotional connections to a sickly, dying, ungrateful mop of feathers.
"Give it to me," the Decepticon demanded again, and my breath caught in my throat—his tone had changed, the threat no longer a simple undertone to the words. I didn't dare disobey. I handed the bird over, lifting it up in my outstretched hands.
It was an undersized thing, and even a regular raven, a healthy adult—and ravens are not small birds—would have been dwarfed in the Decepticon's hands. Edgar (the name I'd chosen, had stuck; he was named after Edgar Allen Poe—obvious, I know, but there is a reason why I'm a biologist, not an English major) was tiny, miniscule. My captor's hands were surprisingly deft, but they were still far out of scale. It made me wince, to see the raven in such obvious danger.
Ridiculous, I know. I think being under severe emotional distress gives me at least part of an excuse, though.
"It is dying," the Decepticon said flatly.
"I know." I wondered if he'd meant to say 'it's going to die'—I could see no reason for him to take the thing, except to kill it, for whatever reason he had. Because he hated earth and everything else on it.
He just sat there, looking at the wretched creature awkwardly perched on his hand. I wanted to yell at him: Just do it! You don't need to torture me like this— Stop drawing it out! Oh, I hated him just then, with a passion. It was a far cry from the quiet, resigned hate that had become usual and familiar to me, something that verged on both disgust and sorrow while being neither. No, this was pure and strong, the sort of thing that presses against your skin and seeps into your eyes and mouth, uncontrollable and savage.
Edgar tried to escape as the mech brought a fingertip up to touch him, scrambling for the far edge of the palm he was being held in. His wings beat frantically at the air—one of them had broken a while ago, and healed wrong. Edgar wasn't going to fly again.
He fluttered to the ground. I closed my eyes and waited for the sounds of his death.
"Are you going to… Continue your pointless efforts?"
My eyes popped open and I snapped around to look at the Decepticon. The bird, still alive, was sitting on the ground, as calm as you please.
"Am… Am I allowed to?"
"Yes," he said, voice cool and remote, disinterested and unattached. I still wonder if he was faking it…
"Then yes." I didn't move.
The Decepticon made a noise, not a human one. It sounded frustrated and I huddled in on myself, afraid.
"You may tend to it now."
I waited thirty seconds, to see if the Transformer was planning on leaving. I hoped so. I wanted nothing more, just that second, because I'd stopped planning for, thinking off, allowing me to have any hope for the future at all.
Then, unable to put it off any longer, I scrambled to my feet and stumbled over to Edgar, acutely—almost painfully so—aware of who was watching me.
It took some coaxing, but I calmed the bird down: he was strangely comfortable with me, I guess because he was almost dead already. Maybe he'd been someone's pet, once upon a time.
The featherball firmly in hand, I walked slowly back to the tree I'd been sitting against. It was far closer than I wanted to be to the Decepticon, but it was also where I had the bits of food I'd been feeding the bird.
He refused beef jerky soaked in water twice; it wasn't a surprise. I didn't have any raw meat, which I also didn't know if he'd eat, and I drew the line at trying to find carrion. Crackers were similarly refused. He pecked at a bit of cheese, but nothing more.
I trickled more water down his throat, slowly starting to relax. I wondered if maybe some kind of bug or worm would work—and they were a kind of protein, right?
I tried cracker again. This time, it worked—Edgar snapped hungrily at small pieces I tossed to him, wary of that murderous beak, after he dubiously accepted the first morsel. I was very careful; I'd already been given an idea of what sort of damage a raven could inflict.
I jerked with surprise when my captor spoke, and then stared up at him with dumb shock as his words began to resister. He'd asked me for permission to do something. He had asked me for permission. It was—mind-boggling.
And what he had asked me to do. That was almost even more incredible: it could almost seem like he was taking an interesting in the carbon-based life he so detested. But I knew better, of course. I couldn't guess his motives (he was a dangerous, unpredictable, impossible-to-understand enigma, to me) but I knew it couldn't be that.
"Yes," I said, unnecessarily. What else was I going to say? No?
He waited until I held up one shaking hand, picking up a bit of cracker with some little tool that came out of the tip of one finger. He was surprisingly delicate, but I still had to force myself to hold still. I was trembling with fear.
He tossed a few pieces to the raven, who took them, indiscriminate. He nodded, sharply, to me when he finished, then stood and strode away, returning to the other side of the house and the driveway before transforming.
I quickly gathered up everything I'd brought outside, and then retreated to the hut for the rest of the day. It was something I never did.
Edgar died, of course.
I think the Decepticon watched me while I buried him, but I'm not sure.
Three days after that, another Decepticon appeared. I had been outside, doing laundry, when he flew in overhead, circling lower and lower until he transformed and fell—although it was almost more like jumping—the rest of the way to the ground. I could feel the vibrations, hear my windows ratting in their panes, and every bird for what looked like a mile rose up into the air, startled, wheeling frantically overhead in huge muddled flocks. I had frozen when I'd realized what had to be happening, and I remained motionless, cowering.
He ignored me. I was grateful for that.
My captor transformed, rising up to meet him, and it was a startling moment, for me. Fear made the Decepticon, the one I was used to, even bigger than he was in reality, and a constant threat. He didn't even come up to the new Decepticon's elbows, and he stood deferentially. It was horrifying because, while my captor filled me with terror, it and he were familiar by then. This stranger was unexpected, a complete unknown—
They started talking. I didn't understand a word of it, so I could only guess, but I couldn't think of many reasons another Decepticon, after all this time, would suddenly show up to play messenger. The best reason, of course, was that it had finally come time, that I was going to die soon, even sooner than I'd already known. Hours, days, I didn't know, but why else had the new Decepticon arrived?
The matter was finished quickly. My captor returned to his alt form, not so much as looking at me, as the other flew off again. I couldn't sleep at all that night.
It turned out that I was right. That that visit had been the order to finally finish through with their plan.
Three days later, we left that cabin for good. I haven't been back since. I don't know if it's still there, but I'd guess not. I don't see the Decepticons being so sloppy with their loose ends. I imagine everything I left—clothes, the remains of the food I'd bought, the half-finished romance novel I hadn't been able to stomach my way through—was burnt, to cover our tracks. I don't know, though.
Either way, the waiting was over. I finally knew, then, that I was facing the end of it all.
I didn't want to die.
That sounds like such a silly thing to say: almost nobody wants to die, and the people who do need counseling. You don't realize the immensity of the sensation, the pure driving force behind it, until you've felt it.
I was feeling it.
I didn't want to die. I didn't want to leave behind my friends and family, my dog, my overworked life as a socially isolated scientist, none of it. I didn't want to leave behind my body, didn't want to leave behind just living: the sensation of blood in my veins, air in my lungs, food in my stomach, myself just being inside my own skin, it all became—incredibly precious. Each moment a gift. We are incredible creatures.
I didn't want to leave behind the world we live in, either. I loved it, then, even more than I love it now, with a fierce, burning, painful sort of love, so strong that sometimes I felt I couldn't breathe around it. I thought I had so little time on earth, you see. It—strengthens everything.
I loved every bit of our planet. The pretty and the ordinary, the strange and the painfully everyday and the downright ugly. I even loved the blocks-of-apartments neighborhood my house was in; I loved the cat who lived next door to me and left half-eaten mice on my doorstep; I found it within myself to love the silverfish who lived in the counters of the hut's kitchen, and that is something indeed.
It's because the fact that anything, that everything, is there, exists at all, is a miracle. I'd found faith before, and this—reaffirmed it. I loved it all. I still do: of everything that happened, I am so grateful that I kept that. Grateful to whom, I don't know, but it's there. God, I suppose, although I'm not sure if I believe in God. I do know I believe in miracles, and in science.
It was the odds that made me love everything, even silverfish, because that the treacherous roads of evolution had produced them was a miracle, as it was with any of us. Even silverfish, disgusting, revolting, hateful crawly things they are—or were; I kept my faith, but my tolerance for certain insects faded quickly, especially insects that live in my kitchen—are life-affirming to me.
I've never felt so alive, before, or at peace, almost tranquil. I'm no Buddhist master, of course, able and willing to let go of the world and sink into an understanding of the universe, and on some level I was a seethe of frantic emotions. But I'd known my death was coming, and I could—I could live with it. It helped that I knew my killer wouldn't be human: I couldn't bring myself to feel that they shouldn't kill me because that was expecting moral behavior from them. They were monsters in my eyes, so it made sense that they'd commit monstrous acts.
I didn't want to die, but I would do so anyways. At least I could go out peacefully, or as peacefully as I could. That's something I've always wanted to do: die with grace. I've said that though, haven't I?
Half the time, I wanted to kick and scream and throw a fit, the way I did for the first two weeks of kindergarten every morning when my mother tried to drop me off, and the again when she tried to pick me up. That was it: I wasn't ready to be dragged home, that is, to be killed. I didn't, though, partly because, yes, I wanted to have the best death I could, and partly because I was in denial, and partly because I didn't want to give him the satisfaction. Or no—nothing I did would affect him in any way, I was so far below him, in his mind. I didn't want to prove him right.
I cried a lot. It left me feeling tired and blotchy and thirsty. That's what being close to death feels like: it's crying yourself out and not feeling any better, because the problem hasn't gone away, and it's not going to, and things really won't look any better in the morning.
I still wasn't ready when it happened.
It was just a few words, said to me one morning as I walked out to door to splash cold water from the pump on my face, to wake me up. I wasn't sleeping well, even when I exhausted myself during the day.
"Prepare yourself," was all the Decepticon said. I didn't know what he meant by that. "We leave in half of an hour."
And then I knew that that was it. This time, he wouldn't be stopping by my house so I could disappear without setting off a search for my body. This time, there would be no grocery store where I could buy necessities, and maybe a few little frills, like a truly awful romance novel and toilet paper and a long-gone bar of chocolate.
It's like being at your own funeral, or the hour leading up to it. I panicked, but it was an icy-cold panic, something that was almost calm. I moved in a blur, washing up and getting dressed and numbly eating a little (after all, I didn't know when I would eat again, and if it took long enough for my actual death to occur, I would be hungry) even though I felt like throwing up.
I brought my birding guide, and a pen. I still don't know why: it was the actions of a panicked woman knowing she's going to her death. It wasn't logical.
"Get in," he said when I reappeared, clutching the book. "It's time." I did.
We drove for an hour in silence.
I started talking, eventually. It wasn't like it would make a difference, now. I had been obsessively deferential when I hadn't known when my actual death was going to occur, but now it was imminent, a few hours or a day or two either way made no difference.
"I don't want to die," I said. "I—I love living. I love being alive. I love the world, and every little thing on it. It's all a miracle. I am a miracle. That's a revelation for me. So I don't want to die. –That doesn't make sense, but it's true."
He didn't say anything, so I continued. I needed to talk out loud, anyways. The sound of my own voice helped to convince me that I wasn't already dead. That seems like such a stupid thing to feel, doesn't it? But facing your own mortality changes you. I was a different person for those last few days, someone I'm not anymore. It changed me, though. I've never been who I was before it all happened, either.
"Would you tell my parents I loved them? And Eliza, Sophie and Beth?" My family: father, mother, and the two older sisters. "And Lizzie, Stephen, Drew and Mackenzie." My nieces and nephews. Oh, there were too many things I wanted to say—to friends, to old friends, to childhood playmates, to the woman I bought my coffee from every morning. We never talked, but she always smiled at me, and I always smiled back. My coworkers, even the annoying ones; even Luca, the handsome jerk I might have dated, if we hadn't had to be coworkers. My mother's friends, who all fussed over me just as much as they had when I was twelve and dressed up for Easter Sunday, two years before I started refusing to go to church at all; that had changed, later on. I was going to miss my nosey widowed neighbors. I was going to miss Gracie, but I wasn't going to ask anyone, let alone the Decepticon—any Decepticon, but this Decepticon in particular—to give my dying words to my dog.
It was easier, in a way, that I didn't have any children or a spouse, or even a serious boyfriend. I didn't even have someone I'd dated more than twice within the past two, three years. I regretted that, suddenly, for the first time in a while. I was sorry I hadn't gotten more filled in on my life-list, that I would never get up at six AM on a Sunday to drive out to the woods and hike, birding guide and binoculars close at hand.
It was painfully, horribly sad. I started crying, silently. It was almost like being driven out to the hut again, only this time it was the middle of the day.
"It's good Mom's got so many daughters. Having a close family will make it easier for them all. And Lizzie's the only one of the kids who'll really understand I'm dead. At the lab… They'll need to find someone new. I did a lot of work for them. Although I heard they're having budget troubles. Maybe they'll just leave the spot open. I guess I'll never find out our results in the frog lab. I knew that was going to happen—"
"Please—tell my mother to watch out for Gracie." It wasn't too far-fetched, I thought at the time: he was going to be at least somewhat involved in a broadcast, and what better way to build rapport with the public than to have me plead for my elderly mother to watch after my adorable pet? Then I realized who I was talking to. What he thought of humans. The contempt—
A human is always, first and foremost, human. You don't meet people with a burning hatred of the species as a whole. Unless you meet Decepticons.
"Alright, so you won't. That's—oh God, this hurts." I started crying in earnest, tears rolling down my face which was scrunched up with misery. I was starting to sob. "They won't know. I won't be able to tell them—not even my mother! Not my father, not my sisters—it's been too long since I've told them I love them, because I do, I love them all so, so much—" My hands were digging into my arms, nails cutting into the flesh. "I don't want to die like this. I wanted the chance to tell them—"
He never said a word, of course.
We drove so long I fell asleep, even with the way things were. It was uneasy, though, and I jerked awake as soon as the Decepticon pulled to a stop.
My heart froze. It looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, but what did that mean? I didn't know if it mattered or not.
I think I made an involuntary, whimpering sort of noise, but I'm not sure. My memories are hazy with adrenalin and pure, undiluted fear.
All I could think was that I was going to die. There were peripheral thoughts—memories, people I would miss, things I would miss, I wondered what difference my life had made, and what difference it would make—but the one big thought, the thing that kept repeating, was that I was going to die. It's probably evolutionary: you can't ignore it when it's that immediate.
We humans are preoccupied with death, aren't we?
And over it all, I was numb. It's not something that's easy to understand, accept. I am going to die. Here and now. You just can't—grasp it.
Did you know that you never stop wishing for that last-second miracle to save your life? No matter how unlikely, how absolutely absurd, it is.
"Get out," he said, and he did. Either his voice was odd, the tone just—off, or my ears were, or my brain, or something like that. To this day, I'm not sure which.
I obeyed out of habit. I moved jerkily, slowly, but I moved. I couldn't stop myself. I didn't want to. I was—and this is ridiculous—afraid to disobey because I was afraid to die. He was going to kill me anyway! I knew that! It was those last few seconds. When you're down to the wire, you cling to whatever you have left. Those last few breaths. Your blood still pumping through your veins. Neurons firing and your body reacting. Nothing more—but nothing less—than that.
I couldn't stand up. I lay on the ground instead.
The Decepticon transformed and knelt, drawing in closer to me. I know because I peeked, even though I'd had my eyes hidden—I didn't want to see my actual end.
Having him that close to me was… Indescribable. That level of fear. It was like with the raven, although I knew that I wasn't getting off that easy. Again, I wanted to yell at him. Just do it! I know I'm going to die, because of who you are and what some other human, some nobody I've never met, did to your old leader! And he had a stupid name!
I didn't, though. Instead, I started shaking, almost hyperventilating. I think I was crying again—yes, I had to be, the tears were turning the dust beneath me to mud, it was smearing onto the cheek I had against the ground—but it isn't very clear. All I could think about was death and the monster, still looming over me.
"I'm not going to kill you," he said, voice quiet. He had to repeat it: the words didn't sink in, the first time. I just didn't understand the phrase. It's like those nonsense sentences, the ones that are grammatically correct but just don't make sense.
"—Don't do this to me," I said at last, turning roughly away. "Just kill me! You hate humanity, but—you don't have to be cruel when you're going to kill me anyways. Please. Just kill me—"
"I'm going to take you home," he said, insistent. His hands hovered in the air, almost as if he was going to reach out and touch me. He didn't, though. I wouldn't have been able to take it if he'd tried to. "I am—I have reevaluated my loyalty to the Decepticon cause and my stand on humanity, and I will not kill you. You are—I hadn't realized how very much like a Decepti—like a Cybertronian you are. I am, or I once was, a scientist as well. It would be…
"This isn't your war. I won't drag you into it. I'll bring you home, and then I will contact the Autobots and inform them of the situation. I will be forced to avoid both them and the Decepticons, but… I am morally unable to continue with this plan. For what it's worth, I am sorry."
I think I started laughing, out of sheer disbelief and hysteria, although maybe it was something more like sobbing. If it was laughter, it wasn't very happy. Everything hurt, physically hurt, I just couldn't take any more. It's like everything I'd been dealing with, everything I'd been holding back, burst through at once.
I just couldn't take it any longer.
He went away again. I don't know how far: this time, I didn't look. And after a while, he returned, but he just sat there. That didn't make things any better.
After a while, I quieted. As I lay there, panting slightly, trembling with fear and exhaustion and disbelief, he just sat and watched.
I hated him then, too.
"I need to bring you home," he said at last, and I was too tired to argue. I followed the order woodenly. (Order, although it had been phrased as a question, and the words themselves were simply an innocent statement.)
He brought me home. And he left. That was—unbelievable.
I took a shower, and let Gracie stand in the shower stall with me. Then I ate fried eggs, and fell into bed. I was so tired. It was emotional, beyond physical exhaustion. I was… Drained. Tired. Frantic, still, and half panicked.
I called my mother in the morning, when I woke up. She'd been frantic with worry. Later, she descended on the house with my sisters in tow. I was grateful when they left: I couldn't deal with the chatter and the questions and the worried, disturbed glances they gave me when they thought I wasn't looking.
One of them called the police. I was only lucky that one of my neighbors hadn't called them the night before. Again, I answered a string of questions: where was I, what happened, was anyone else there? Are you sure? Anything else? Yes, officer, there was something else. It—he—was a robot.
I was supposed to be dead. I remember thinking that, too.
I made something up, of course. I tried to be as truthful as I could: I'd been in a hut in the woods, I don't know how far, or where, what he'd made me do, how long I'd been there. I made up a captor, a human, and kept the details vague. I said I was in shock. That wasn't a lie.
It helped that I didn't know much at all about anything, whether I was being truthful or not. They gave me a list of recommended psychologists and left, looking blank or doubtful, depending.
I still looked awful. I took another shower, and put on another pair of clean clothes. I threw away the ones I'd had with me in the woods.
I'd lost the bird guide. That made me cry again, until Gracie came over, all worried, and that made me start laughing through the tears.
Work called: news had gotten out. My mother and my sisters, an unstoppable force. It was a Tuesday, and they all shouted at once through speaker-phone. I promised to be in as soon as I could.
I needed something to fill up time.
That first day I went to the grocery store and bought fresh things. I had fruit and fresh salad for dinner, just lettuce and tomato and cucumber, and absolutely nothing else. It was wonderful. That evening I put antibiotic ointment on a handful of infected bugbites, finally clean, and then cried myself to sleep. I let Gracie into the bed with me, too. I spoiled her rotten, those first two weeks back. Part of it was that I didn't want to face sleeping alone, which made no sense. But I needed that living, breathing body next to me. It reminded me of where I was, when I woke up in the middle of the night.
They found my car. My real car, I mean. It had been crushed and left in a ditch. It mystified the police. I didn't say a word.
It took six months, but I started to believe that the Decepticons weren't coming back. Life had normalized, at least on the surface.
I still twitched at strange cars that seemed to be following me. And a few other things haunted me.
I never lost the love of—well, of everything that had come over me. That was the one thing I was glad of. If I hadn't already been a biologist, I would have started classes. My job became a passion, not just something that consumed my life.
On some level, though, I never stopped believing that it was all a temporary reprieve. That, some day, it would all turn out to be some kind of sick joke. I know it sounds self-centered, but that paranoid fear paralyzed me, some days.
Three years later I could forget that it happened, throughout the day. It no longer weighed on my mind, wasn't something I thought of constantly.
My life was… Average, in many ways. I dated casually for a while, then stopped. I didn't have much free time. I still went for long walks with Gracie, weekends and whenever else I could spare the time, up in the mountains or at the very least in a big stretch of National Forest. I worked, and threw myself, body and soul, into that work: it was all—incredible.
It's much harder to take your own life for granted when you've almost died. I'd been very, very close to dying for weeks on end. It… Changed me. It may sound trite, but I tried to live life fully. Not by doing things like skydiving or going to exotic foreign countries on vacation, but by finding joy in the world. …I'm sure I sound like some sort of hippy new-age flake, but it's true. I didn't want an exciting life. I wanted one that was—lived. Fully, and well.
I'm sure I was a much nicer person to have as a coworker. I still am, for that matter. Like I said, some things don't leave you. And by then I could forget what had happened, sometimes, but it still touched me, in ways I didn't expect and, doubtlessly, didn't recognize. And still don't.
It's hard to see yourself clearly, because nearness dulls insight, in these sorts of matters. When you're too personally involved, you can't maintain neutrality. And what's closer than who you are?
I started to believe it was over.
It's never that simple, though.
I wish it was.
He came back.
I'd gone for a walk, or a hike, really. It was a Sunday morning. The morning had been ominously cloudy, but I walk year-round in the Pacific Northwest. If you let a little damp discourage you, you never go anywhere. It had started raining as I'd reached the trailhead parking lot. I'd decided it wasn't worth it (it wasn't like there were any birds stupid enough to fly in that much rain) and turned back early, and I arrived back at the end of the trail in absolutely pouring rain. It was hard to see all the way across the parking lot, so I didn't notice him at first. He was the only other car there, other than my own. A new one, of course.
The rain was starting to peter off—of course, because I'd decided to call it a day—and there were only scattered drops from the tree branches overhead by the time I pulled out. Downpours are funny like that.
He blocked my way out. I paused, peering through the fogged-up car windows, trying to figure out why someone had parked right smack-dab in the middle of the road. I didn't see it for what it was, someone (something) purposefully and actively blocking me in, because I assumed it was empty and parked. There was no driver, after all.
He'd switched his car form. He was something else unassuming and uninteresting, much like my own car but not the same make or model. I don't even know if it was the same company. I've never been very good at that sort of thing. I didn't recognize him, until he transformed.
I panicked. Of course. What else? I'd been right all along: it wasn't over. It was all going to come back to haunt me, again. …I had Gracie in the car with me. Would he actually kill her, this time, instead of just telling me he had? He certainly wouldn't put up with her if I was kidnapped again—Or maybe he was just going to kill off a loose end. If he wasn't, if this was the start of something new, maybe this time I could kill myself—
He didn't move. I got out of the car, moving in the slow-motion of horror: adrenalin made me clumsy, made my fingers thick and awkward. I almost fell.
I started crying. You couldn't mistake it for rain.
"Why can't you just leave me alone?" I remember saying. It didn't seem very fair. Why me? I wasn't even very interesting! I'm still not, really. I'm no hero, to go out and save the world. I'm not even a very important scientist—I don't work on ground-breaking life-saving cancer-curing research, or anything like that. We run redundant tests on frozen frogs, or, or—things like that. Nothing interesting. I like it that way. I personally think it's all fascinating, but that's just me. I know that, and I knew it then, too.
"…I'm sorry," he said, lowly. "Again. But I—"
I wasn't listening, not really. He seemed to realize that, and stopped talking. I was shaking, and kneeling in the mud and gravel that made up the road right now: my legs had given out.
"I won't hurt you," he murmured, and he sounded almost like he was trying to make his voice—so low, rough and growling—gentle, calming. That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But I think it's the truth.
That made me laugh, hysterical. I'd closed the car door behind me, and I could hear Gracie barking furiously, scrabbling at the window. That dog has all the sense of a bag of rocks. I love her for it.
"What will it take to make you trust me?" he said, and even though the words were out loud, I think he only meant them for himself. I replied anyways. I'd shaken my old habit of mindless, cowering obedience. I couldn't face—what had happened happening a second time.
That just made me laugh harder, almost choking on that, and my sobs. "Trust? Trust? You were going to kill me! You kept me captive! You ordered me to—I was so scared! You can't understand—you! You were my captor! Oh, just kill me now. I won't go through that again! I won't! I can't, can't—"
"I told you. I am a traitor to the Decepticon cause. They will kill me if they see me. Because I believe in your—your humanity. I won't kill you, or any other member of your species, because you are sentient beings, with your own individual worth."
"You expect me to believe that?" My tone was harsh, mocking.
He spoke very quietly, when he continued. It was hard to hear: his voice was so deep that it was swallowed up by the sounds of the near-by river. "It was you who changed my mind. I am also a scientist, and I had… I had forgotten why I had become one. You helped to remind me. And you… You did not act as a mindless drone acts. You have free will, even though you are carbon-based. You are capable of compassion, sorrow, joy. …Forgiveness."
"Just kill me now. Please," I said, again.
"I will not!" That made me jump, suddenly terrified. He never raised his voice—and he sounded so irrational then, so unbalanced—almost deranged. I cowered, there in the mud. It's appropriate: I'm a coward. We can't all be heroes.
"I won't. I… Again, I am sorry. For your incarceration, and for… Disturbing you in this way. Again. I wanted to thank you, but…
He drove away. I sat there, cold and damp and dirty, until it started raining again. Then I drove home. It's a miracle I didn't get in an accident. I was in no condition to drive.
I fell into bed without thinking when I got home. I showered, ate, changed clothes, all in a daze, and then fell asleep. I woke up five times with ambiguous screaming nightmares.
I didn't want to think. He had sounded too human, when we had talked. And he couldn't be. That couldn't have changed. And there was nothing but a monster in my memories of my incarceration. That was how he had put it. Such a good SAT-vocabulary word.
…Except for when he'd asked about the natural world, birds, other scientific questions. When he'd fed Edgar, the raven. I hadn't known what to think when they'd been asked, had given rote answers and pressed it aside as whims a human couldn't possibly understand, and I didn't know what to think then, either.
I didn't want to believe he was telling the truth. That sounds stupid, doesn't it? But it's true. It made things so much simpler. It…
He'd sounded lonely.
Even today, things would be easier if I'd just lived out the rest of my life, both scarred and inspired by my experiences, assuming he was some monster.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's—
This part of the story—my story—is the hardest part. Both for me, and for you, I assume, to understand. Because it's—
I don't know. But the Decepticon—in some ways, he became a part of my life. That sounds crazy. Doesn't it? But I didn't know what else to do but ignore him—again, it wasn't like I could call the authorities; I couldn't run—so I did ignore him. I just—pretended he wasn't there. It was at least partly for my own sanity.
A year. I did that for a year. And I never saw much of him: maybe once a week, once a month, a quick glance. Nothing more. We never spoke. If I saw him I'd pretend I hadn't, and sometimes I was even able to fool myself. I don't think I ever fooled him. It still set off a panic reaction, although less of one, all the time…
He really didn't do anything. It was starting to convince me. That, and familiarity breeds contempt, or at least changes your perceptions. It knocked the edges off my fear, like beach glass, dull and rounded from the sand and the waves.
I thought about his words—often. It seemed incredible, that he'd be changed by me. That he'd come to realize he'd been wrong. I couldn't imagine the Decepticon who'd held me captive, as cruel as an earthquake and as human as one—so the cruelty was simply something that was; you don't blame the earthquake for being what it is, even if you hate it for destroying your life, your home, your family, or for trying to—as a scientist: methodical, logical, devoted. I couldn't imagine him ever feeling the—the love I felt. The love I feel, really.
He'd thanked me. He'd said he was sorry. Manners. Human manners. He was following human social customs and he was offering me—me!—a gesture of respect. Of repentance.
I still also thought it was all a trick, to get me to lower my guard. That was—illogical, really. They could just kidnap me, really, unless they purposely wanted me to trust them. But then it would just be easier to find someone new, someone who didn't already hate them, distrust them, panic at the very thought…
For someone who's loved science and worked as a scientist and nothing else since I graduated college, I was being remarkably unscientific. I was allowing my emotions to influence me, and strongly. That's the way things should be, the way things have to be, in these kinds of situations. I wouldn't be human if I'd reacted otherwise. Sometimes, you just need to be irrational.
Irrationality faded. Or rather, my panic did. It… Dulled.
I started wondering more about what he'd said. I could almost—almost—believe him. I wanted to believe him, really. Although I also didn't. I wanted to believe I was safe, and that I'd made a difference. I didn't want to have to face him. I didn't want to have to believe he was telling the truth.
I stopped turning away when I saw him. Sometimes, I'd even watch him, almost, out of the corner of my eye, and more out of curiosity than out of fear. I stopped panicking at all.
That brings me to now. And now… Now, I'm writing this.
I'm going to talk to him tomorrow.
I guess I needed to tell someone the story, even if they never hear it, if it never gets read. It will be my autobiography if I die. Because I still can't help but doubt: my memories are still—
Like I said. At the beginning, he was clearly hateful, clearly loathed humanity, every scrap of organic matter on this planet—but later. Later, sometimes he was… Unclear, confusing, in his actions and reactions. But I've said: that could just be time and doubt changing the memory. Adding nuance to what was clear-cut. Adding depth to a mirrored image—you can't reach out and actually touch what's being reflected!
I think, though, I think I just needed to tell my story. It's been… A long time. Five years.
I haven't told anyone. Except for Gracie. And you, now, I guess. Even if 'you' are only ever going to be me. Some stories aren't meant to be told.
It's why I'm not a hero. Even though I think I did make a difference—that it was me who made all this happen. Do you understand, now, that I'm not being particularly egotistical when I say that?—my story's not meant to be told. It's just for me. And for the Decepticon, I suppose.
I'm no one special. I'm just who I am. I just—I resonated, I suppose, with the Decepticon. It was enough to change him. (Or so he says. I suppose I believe him, now. But I also might die tomorrow, or some day after that—although I can't see him dragging the charade out any longer than another day or two. Even if it's been years, now.)
It was luck, I guess, pure and simple. That it turned out that just being who I am was enough.
That I was enough at all.
I suppose you'll know. This might be the end. If I die, it just—
It's the end of the story. A lot of stories end with death.
I didn't die. I don't think I will. And I think that that's enough.
I waited outside my car when I pulled into the parking lot of my usual hike. He came, of course.
We talked. About birds, mostly. It was uncomfortable, awkward: I was still nervous, skittish, ready to panic. That's normal.
He'd remembered what I'd had on my life list, five years ago. It's changed now, of course. I've added a fair number of species.
So I suppose, even then, he was paying attention—
He has a name. I hadn't thought about that. He's not 'the Decepticon.' He's not my captor. Or not just my captor.
Variance. His name is Variance. That's… Kind of weird, really. It makes me think of somebody very wishy-washy, and then scientific variables. That, though, variables…
And I suppose 'Variable' wouldn't make a very good name, would it?
Variance. I think I'm going to talk to him again. I don't think he's going to kill me at all. I'm… I'm not sure why. Or why I shouldn't.
He says he saw a snowy owl once. I'm jealous.