Rule 1: Save your own skin.
Rule 2: Take what you can.
Rule 3: Survive at all costs.
"What do you mean he wants another one?" Dr. Jerome's teeth ground together. "Because he hasn't caught Buggar, he wants something still genetically engineered, but slightly dumber?"
"Don't shoot the messenger." Lock raised his hands. "He's given us a gigantic grant, just like before, as long as we release the best subject into his game preserve so he can go hunting. He says he wants a duck this time."
Dr. Jerome spluttered. "A duck? Is he kidding? It was hard enough to combine human DNA with a rabbit, and both are mammals. He wants me to combine human DNA with a fowl? Lock!" He roared, "What am I wasting my time here for? I'm making major advances in cloning, unlocking the genetic codes, and making combinations Mendel could only dream about, and it's all being thrown to the end of a gun!"
"Take it easy Doc," Lock pleaded. "Don't blow this. Look, with the proceeds, with the money we have leftover, we'll be able to start our own labs and show our work to the world, but until then, we have to keep our heads down and do what the funder tells us."
"The funder, the funder, the funder," Doc snarled. "The funder can take his funds and shove them right up his—"
"Doc, knock it off! We need this job, and you know it!"
"I know!" Doc's eyes narrowed. "The funder didn't specify the duck had to be unprepared though… just a little dumber than Buggar. I'll be blasted if I don't train this duck every which way of saving his skin."
Warm and roomy long time. Cramped now. Too cramped. Need room. Need to move. Stretch… but can't. Prison all around… stretch more. Something gives. Push harder. Harder…
Cold wind. Bright light. Shiver, retreat. Too much light, it's cold. Retreat. Prison cracking. No, come back, bring warm…
All gone. Cold wind blowing. Shiver. Something warm around me. Nuzzle close. Smell like safe. Smell like home. Smell like…
Anger. I am afraid.
Doc surveyed the shivering hatchlings. Four of them. Four, and chances were none of them would be smart enough to survive what he was going to put them through, but he was supposed it would be kinder than what he had done to Bugs. He would make sure not a single one of them trusted him from the start.
Teaching them speech had been a little easier than with Bugs. He'd mixed in a dash of parrot's DNA to aid in that respect. The hatchlings were already two weeks old and speaking like five year olds. He'd hesitated to name them, knowing it would only start an attachment, but he had to have a way of telling them apart.
Stella was the forward, bossy little duck who very quickly established a pecking order. She had been the first to break the shell. Jove had been the second, exploding out of his shell and running around as soon as he could get his webbed feet under him, looking around, tasting, touching and—as soon as he could speak—asking about everything. Daffy had been third, having been named for his insane thrashing whenever Doc came anywhere near him—"Gone daft, that one has," Lock commented. And then there was Nell, the runt of the bunch, barely able to crack her shell. Daffy had peered over from his own crumbling shell and awkwardly flailed over, using his beak to widen the crack.
Nell was only two thirds the size of the others, all wet feathers and tiny bones. She'd huddled up to Daffy, who'd tucked her head under his beak.
The sight broke Dr. Jerome's heart, because he knew what he would have to teach these hatchlings in order to survive.
"Where did we come from?" Jove asks, tilting his head up toward Doc during one of our speech lessons.
"From eggs." Doc replies roughly.
"Where did the eggs come from?"
"From another duck. Your mother."
"What's a mother?"
"Someone who's supposed to take care of you."
"Where's our mother?"
Doc pauses, then seems to stiffen. "She's about to die."
"What is die?"
Doc turns to a cage behind him and pulls out a female duck. My heart leaps. Jet black feathers, just like me, she must be our mother! I reached out my wings to her, the tips already starting to divide into feathery fingers.
With a quick motion, Doc grabs the duck's head and twists it. There isn't even a cry, just a sickening snap.
Stella gasps. Jove falls silent. I begin to shake. Nell burrows under my wing.
"This is dead, children." He tosses the dead duck's body at us and it lands, wings sprawled, neck crooked. "This is what you will be if you do not learn very quickly what I am going to teach you. Is that understood?"
Something cold coils in my stomach as I nod, mutely staring into the wide open eye of the dead mother I never knew.
"Don't you think you're being a little harsh, Doc?" Lock asked, worriedly.
"You just report what you have to to the funder. Tell him it's all going well," Jerome snapped, "Because it is. Not one of them has the brains Buggar had, but they're learning how to survive. You saw the last test."
"Yes," Lock said slowly, "I did."
The test had separated the four ducklings and placed them in separate compartments, all leading to one room. In the middle of that room he had set two portions of food, and only two, then opened the connecting tubes.
Stella had emerged first, closely followed by Jove. They had quickly claimed the food, but Daffy had surprised them all by attacking Jove, fiercely driving him away from the food and stuffing it all in his mouth. Jove had whined, crying about how unfair it was, while Daffy had turned to face Nell, who stood at the edge of the room, trembling. He had waddled over and carefully let a small portion of food spill from his beak in front of her.
"I saw," Lock repeated, "But I don't think that was what you were aiming for."
"No," Doc growled. "They have to save their own skins, Daffy can't help Nell, or he won't be able to survive." He drew a shaky breath. "I'm going to drill it out of him, so help me God."
Where now? We've been working on flying for days now, with all kinds of flight patterns and races, rewards for the winners and punishment for the losers. And Nell has been losing consistently. Food has been withheld from her for days now, and she can barely keep level in the air anymore. I sneak her food when I can, but whenever I'm caught, my legs are switched with sticks until they bleed.
I think about stopping. I think about leaving Nell to get her own food, but then I see her eyes. Her huge, scared eyes. I feel her press against my side, under my wing. She doesn't speak, but she doesn't need to. I'll protect her. Stella and Jove can take care of themselves, but she can't, and nobody else will.
There's a popping sound next to me. Heads jerk toward it. Jove angles toward the popping to investigate. Suddenly his wing explodes in a flurry of feathers and blood. He shrieks and plummets to the ground. Stella gives a cry and flaps her wings faster, away from the popping. I look down to see Doc with something in his hand. He walks over to where Jove has hit the ground and is flapping brokenly. He points the shiny thing in his hands at Jove, and the popping sound starts and stops. Jove jerks, then stops moving.
Stops moving. Like the duck before.
Nell lets out a frightened quack as Doc turns the silver thing toward her and makes it pop. She jerks and falls also.
Daffy screams and tucks his wings in, diving underneath her to cushion her fall. He hits the ground hard, scraping feathers off his stomach, but she is safe.
No, no she's not. Blood is pouring out of her. He quacks frantically. Somebody has to make the blood stop!
He turns to see Doc pointing the shiny thing at him.
His heart stops. He saw what Doc did to Jove. He's going to do the same thing to Nell.
"No! Doc! Don't!"
"Move, Daffy, or I'll make you dead too."
Dead… the broken neck, the twisted wings, the blood pouring out and out… he looked down at Nell. Her beak hung open as she gasped for air. Whatever popped at her had torn apart her lower body. He envisioned himself trying to help her eat like this… trying to help her fly from danger… but how could he keep them both out of danger if she couldn't move at all?
Slowly, he took a step away, then another. Nell twisted her head around, staring at him in confusion. Her beak strained, and out of her throat came a rasping, "Da…ff…"
The rest of her body flew apart. Daffy stared woodenly.
"Good choice, Daffy. You get to live. Never forget, Daffy, there's only one person you can protect, and it's yourself."
"I won't…" He whispered, staring at the gory remains. "But Doc?"
Daffy looks up, stares Doc squarely in the eye, and chokes, "You're dethpicable."
It was one more week before Doc released Daffy and Stella into the funder's game preserve. Soon after, he was invited to a dinner of roast duck at the funder's house, which he declined. Lock attended in his place, and reported there had only been a single duck on the table. He said the funder had told an interesting story, about cornering a duck that had mentioned a much fatter, better tasting duck flying directly overhead. It had then proceeded to point the funder's gun upward directly at said flying duck and helped him aim to bring it down. After the resulting bang, the duck had fled the scene, nowhere to be found. The flying one, however, had hit the ground closeby. In its dying words, it cursed its brother, Daffy, for being the only one to survive.
Doc listened to this, nodded gravely, and quietly wrote his resignation notice to the funder.
Rule 1: Save your own skin.
Rule 2: Take what you can.
Rule3: Survive at all costs.