As You Were
She flew. Over the bushes, toward the treetops and through the night sky. She flew until the roof of her home looked like a distant speck, until her town dissolved into a glittering mass of lamplight and stone in the distance.
She flew because she could. There was a part of her, not quite a memory, that knew what it was like not to have wings. Like an instinct, or a lack of one. The part that knew falling. The part that knew treetops should be above and not below.
She flew to remember, though she knew that she wouldn't. And as always, her thoughts turned to the accident. A flash, an explosion, metal and sparks falling all around her. A voice calling to her, coughing through the smoke, and then ...nothing. When she awoke, chunks of her memory were gone. She knew some things, where she was born, her favorite food, she knew who that voice belonged to. But not her name, and not who she used to be.
She was a Uni, but had she always been? Deep in the pit of her stomach that question nibbled away at her. Flying, running on all fours, the way her mane felt when the wind was whipping through it, all of these things felt natural. But what if she was something else before? And if she wasn't, if she had always been what she was now, how did she ever come to know that barmy old scientist with his blasted machine?
He called her Conjury now. The half-mad, ever brilliant and sometimes insufferable Scorchio who was with her when the world went dark, the only one who could have known what had gone wrong. But he didn't, because parts of his memory were gone too.
It was a joke between them, her name, something to laugh at when nothing seemed like it would ever be funny again. He tried to fix the machine, for he was brilliant and he built it after all, even though he couldn't remember why. And at first she was terrified, she wouldn't go near it. But as the weeks went by and her memory did not return, she was coaxed back in, because nothing else was going to work and because maybe, just maybe, another flash and spark would be the remedy.
The first time she almost fled mid-zap. She knew better, she knew it was a rule; never leave the platform until the machine died down. But the sound... it brought back half-memories that wouldn't come into focus, and she felt a terror grow inside her that was older than reason and rules.
But she stayed, and when the noise died down and the smoke cleared, she looked down at herself and nearly fainted there on the platform. She was a Uni, but this was not the form of a Uni. This was...
She looked up at him with horror in her eyes. He stared back, struggling to keep the panic from displaying on his face. "It's just a ...well it happens sometimes. The machine conjures these manifestations from inside you, you know. At least, I think it does."
Just a conjury of the machine, he would call it. And it stuck.
So she looked at her new tail, and flicked her impossibly long ears and stretched her now too-slender neck. But when she looked over her shoulder and saw nothing there, a darkness filled her heart that no words would ever describe. Her freedom, her wings, now gone with her memories.
She begged him to let her go back in, try one more time, anything but this. And he reasoned with her, that there were precautions to consider and safety regulations to follow. Two zaps in one night, the machine couldn't handle it, it needs to cool down. Tomorrow, he said, we'll try again tomorrow.
And they did, and it was some small mercy that the machine chose the form of a Uni, though now her skin was some other color that she knew couldn't possibly exist in nature. But she didn't care because there were her wings, her wonderful wings, and she could be green with blue dots for all it mattered so long as she could fly.
So it became a ritual, night after night, taking turns to see if they could zap back some of what they had lost. They bought potions to use, for the times when the machine chose another form for her. She would rush down from the platform, slam the cabinet open and drink down the first one she could grab; blue, yellow, whatever. One night she turned into a Pteri, and she was half tempted to stay that way, at least for the night. But although she could fly she kept tripping over her tiny feet, only two of them, and she went racing back to the cabinet once again.
He always stayed a Scorchio, though, and she was never sure why. The machine could alter many things, not just appearance. There were days she woke up stronger, and days where she felt winded just getting out of bed. There were times where she flew like lightning, and times when even lifting her wings felt like a chore. He changed too, though never visibly. It never seemed to affect him the way it did her, but every now and then she would catch him drinking from his own collection of potions, scribbling down notes in his log.
Every change, every increase, every weakness was recorded, and he studied them every night, comparing and deducting what they had gained and lost in strength and stamina. But their memories remained fragmented, and the one question that they could not answer, the one question that meant everything remained: why did he build the machine in the first place, and what was it really for?
Her thoughts were interrupted as she noticed a beam of light flash down below, and she folded in her wings as she began her slow descent. He was gearing up the machine, giving it time to warm up. Slow hope bubbled up inside her, as it did every time it was her turn. The accident had been three months ago. She had no reason to think that tonight would be different than any other, but that crazy mad scientist of a Scorchio had told her something last night, something that stuck in her mind and glimmered through the haze of hopelessness.
There were patterns, he said. He showed her in his log, carefully penned and dated, the flow and ebb of strength and speed that coursed through her, zap after zap. It wasn't random, he was sure of that now. But it had nothing to do with statistics and everything to do with perception. She didn't understand him, and he told her he would explain it all when she came back tomorrow. He needed to sleep, it had been his turn for the zap and the machine had robbed instead of given.
She landed gently and entered his home, tapping the door with a hoof as she passed through. "Back here," said the Scorchio, and butterflies rose in her belly as she made her way to the room that housed the machine. Even now, after months of zaps and changing and disappointment, her nerves danced at the slight sliver of hope the machine had come to represent.
He stood, head bent over his records, chewing on the end of his pencil. As she came near, his head popped up and he smiled, that crazy lopsided leer that she had come to recognize as his Evil Genius smile, the one that made her wonder who he really was, before the accident.
She called him Doc, because his name was lost too. And he seemed like a doctor, or professor even, and it was nicer than calling him You Mad Old Bat, which was what she sometimes called him in her head. She stood patiently, waiting for him to speak, and he tapped his open log with his pencil and gestured for her to come see.
"See here, in the beginning," he flipped back to the first few pages in the log. "Your changes were sporadic, all over the place, with no defining pattern behind them." She nodded, and he flipped ahead a few more pages. "But here, look at this. The third time you changed form, that's when the pattern starts. See? In the days after, you were made weaker."
She scanned the entries and saw that it was true, the machine seemed to enjoy kicking her when she was down. The third time, she was transformed into a Gelert, and in the days that followed her strength declined. A week later she was a Nimmo, and there went her sense of balance, she remembered that. She stumbled, knocked things over, and discovered that it was indeed possible to trip up the stairs. And even though she changed immediately back with the help of her potions, the machine seemed to remember. The machine kept its own record, or so it appeared.
On the days she remained a Uni or merely changed color, the zaps that followed brought her increased speed and endurance. And then the machine would transform her again and begin the cycle anew.
"But what does this all mean, Doc?" The patterns were there but what did that matter? It didn't restore her memory. Her previous butterflies turned to stone and they sank, along with her spirits.
"I think..." he paused and chewed a bit more on his pencil. "I think the machine is trying to tell you... you are a Uni. That's what you are. And the farther away you get from that form, the less you become."
"But then why did I ever come here in the first place? If I had always been a Uni..." she trailed off, a new, disturbing thought creeping into her mind. Had she wanted to become something else?
"I don't know what brought you here, or how we came to know each other. I remember about as much as you do. But it seems clear to me, the purpose of this machine is to cause change."
A few moments of silence passed, and he looked as though he was searching for his next words carefully.
"I can't imagine what glitch caused the damage to our memories, and I suspect I may never find out. But whatever it was, I don't think it was a natural function of this machine. It changes, but it doesn't erase. You're a Uni now, and that makes you happy. And overall, you've grown stronger." He paused. "Do you think... maybe we should just... let it be."
An icy chill gripped her gut, and she shook her head in foggy disbelief. If he was giving up...
"You... you Mad Old Bat! How can you say that! You built this machine, you designed it! And you're saying that you don't care if you never find out why?" She was livid, shaking. Maybe he was mad, maybe he was devious even, for all she knew. But he was a genius, she was certain of that, and she would not believe that this machine, for all the power it contained, was meant to be nothing more than a failed experiment, a forgotten masterpiece left to collect cobwebs and rust. And more than that, she would not believe that he was giving up on her. Without his help, all that she ever had been would be lost, for good.
She stormed out of the room, through the door and she all but flung herself into the air, wings pulsing and pushing into the night sky. Up, up she climbed until the air grew light and thin, until her head swam and the tears that were building in her eyes were dried by the gusts of wind that blew around her.
It was easier to think up here. It was comforting, being carried along on the night breeze, and what she needed right now was comfort. She regretted her words to the Scorchio, regretted them even as she was charging out the front door. Hadn't he lost just as much as she had? More, surely, because she was no great scientist, that was for sure. This wasn't his fault, she knew it and she knew it was childish for her to be angry with him. And he was right. They had done all they can, there was nothing left but to accept what could not be fixed.
She could be happy, she had her wings, and so what if she couldn't remember what had happened before? It couldn't have been all that great, anyway, if she had come to him wanting to change. For perhaps the hundredth time since the thought first occurred to her, she wondered what could have been so awful that she would seek out someone like him.
Enough. It didn't matter now. In a few more minutes she would turn back, fly right down to his front door and apologize. It was the least she could do, and he deserved it.
She crept in, the door had not been locked, and she saw that the lights had been turned low. He must have gone to bed. Well, she would leave him a note, and she would come back tomorrow and hopefully they could make peace.
She tiptoed to the back room, past the machine and over to his desk. There were sheets of paper and several pencils, and that would do just fine. She spared one last glance toward the machine, and she tried not to think as she picked up a pencil. A thought blossomed in her mind, one she knew she should push aside at once.
One more time. Just once, it couldn't do any harm. She still had potions left, and she had seen him do this so many times. That switch, those buttons and the lever on the right. She could do it herself, it was supposed to be her turn tonight anyway. No sense in wasting it.
Bad idea, she thought. Not good at all, but it didn't matter because she was already on her way to the platform.
She flipped the switch, and the machine hummed. One button, two, then three, and the power lights flared on. With a swift movement she pulled the lever and she bolted to her place on the platform. She closed her eyes as she felt the buzz of the electrical current rise up through her. She closed her eyes, and did not see the smoke that was curling up from the control panel.
Sparks flew. Her eyes snapped open, and through the growing haze she heard a voice, still thick from sleep, call out:
"Conjury! NO! I already-"
The control panel shattered, buttons landing here and there. He pulled at the lever and it broke off in his hand. There was no way to stop it now, and his last attempt was to throw himself at her, to push her from the platform before any permanent damage could be done. He leapt, and as he made contact with her, they froze in place. Suspended on the platform and unable to move, the last thing he remembered was the smell of burnt hair.
She was falling. Down through the trees, tumbling through the morning sky with the clouds careening around her. Branches tore at her wings, shredding them, and she dropped to the ground, breathless, leaves caught up in her hair.
She had dragged herself to the hospital and collapsed at the front gate. When she woke, there were doctors standing over her, and she could not feel her wings.
There's nothing we can do, they said, the damage was too great. We've patched you up, but you can't fly. We're so sorry, they said, but there's nothing else.
Then began the search. Every specialist, every healer, from Faerieland to Moltara. The mystic from the Islands, the witch doctors who lived in the swamps, all gave her tinctures and medicines and even old fashioned spells, but nothing ever worked. Then there was one, the shady Krawk who waited for her as she left the Healing Springs, who slipped her a piece of paper. Try this he said, I've been there, it works. He was gone before she even read it. It was an address, and a map.
When she awoke, the smoke had cleared, and she blinked until her vision came into focus. Her thoughts tumbled and shifted in her head, and slowly, surely, they came together to form a solid picture.
She stood slowly, adjusted her mane and looked around for the Scorchio. He was there on the platform still, sprawled out, unmoving. She nudged him and one eye popped open, then both, and there was a look on his face she could not read. But he was awake, and she sighed with relief and helped him to his feet.
He stood staring at her, his jaw hanging open, his eyes wide. Her throat tightened as she recalled her final zap, and Fyora only knew what she had done to herself now.
"I know you," he whispered. Still a bit dazed, he made his way to his desk and found his lab coat draped over the chair. He fished around in the pocket and pulled out a folded up piece of paper. She had handed it to him, many months ago, when she showed up on his doorstep. He looked up at her, and it all came spiraling back.
'What does it do,' she had asked. 'Will it fix me?'
'It will do more than that, my dear. It will improve you! Run faster, fly swifter, restore whatever you've lost! It's my invention.'
'And you're sure it will work?'
'Look here. I'm not sure who gave you that map, but don't you listen to anything they might have said. This thing works, and I don't care what those faeries say! Unnatural, hmmpf! There's only so much those Springs can do! And who has time to wait? This, my dear, is the future of restoratives!'
So she stepped up to the platform, and he flipped his switches and pressed his buttons, practically dancing from one to the next. 'They'll see, I'll show them! Just jealous is what they are! I tell you, one day they'll recognize my genius, or my name isn't-'
It was the noise that scared her. The deep electrical hum that started building up from the platform. As he went on with his rant, he hadn't noticed, hadn't warned her, and as the air crackled around her she panicked and tried to bolt, fear flashing in her eyes as she was caught in the beam. Half in, half out, she was helpless as the currents coursed through her. She heard a voice, it seemed far in the distance, shouting about the platform, she must never step off the platform until the machine died down.
Then the explosion came, and then blackness.
She stood in front of the full length mirror, turning this way and that. She flexed her wings and unfurled them to their full span, admiring their strength and grace. Her skin was the shade of a forest, and her mane fell down in cascading shadows around her neck and shoulders. Her hooves glowed the color of flame. He watched her and smiled. "Just as I remember you." She chuckled at that, and he joined in, and soon they could not stop laughing.
Later, they flew together to the mountains beyond her home town, and he tore up the map and threw the pieces to the wind. She watched them flutter and swirl out of sight.
"Won't you regret it?" she asked.
"Nah. The world just isn't ready for it yet. Besides, it's broken now." He had decided not to fix the machine, something they both agreed was for the best. Yet she saw the sad look in his eyes as he collected the scattered wires and scrap metal from the floor, and she had no doubt he'd start tinkering with it again, after a time.
He's a mad old Scorchio after all, she thought with a smile. And one day that machine will be rebuilt, and others will travel to see it, and the world will come to appreciate his marvelous invention. But until then, she'd keep that cabinet stocked with potions, just in case.