Perils of the Lab Ray: Part One
Terry was a Korbat who prided himself on his ability to be a pleasant person. He rarely lost his temper, was an expert in diffusing tense situations, and had never punched someone who didn't really, really deserve it (and he had been five at the time, so it probably hadn't hurt very much).
There were many words he thought described him; affable, friendly, agreeable. Never in his life had he considered himself an unforgiving or spiteful person.
Never, that is, until she came.
Was Amaletta originally a she? He couldn't even remember. Such is the life of a lab rat.
The trials of the lab ray were all too familiar to the mutant. He'd been one for several months (years? It was hard to recall) until his owner had finally transmogrified him. He'd been through the embarrassment of being generally uncoordinated due to the constant changes in the length of his limbs. He'd awkwardly explained to confused merchants that, yes, he was the girl that had placed that order yesterday. He'd even survived suddenly becoming a Koi, and rolling around with a fish bowl full of water stuck to his head for almost a week until they managed to install a pond in their yard.
Indeed, Terry did not remember his labbing days with any fondness. The consumption of that transmogrification potion had been one of the most strange but wonderful moments of his life simply because it heralded the end of the torment.
As a result of this experience, Terry had always felt a certain kinship with the assortment of strangely-named pets their household had played host to. Each had been picked up from the pound (that dreaded place!) to be used as lab ray fodder.
They had all introduced themselves by handing over a piece of paper covered in a seemingly random bunch of letters, numbers and symbols (how does one pronounce an underscore?). In the back of his mind, Terry was aware that his own official name was listed somewhere... And it was probably just as unpronounceable. However, he had become so accustomed to being referred to as "Terry" that it simply didn't bother him.
But that wasn't what connected him to them. It was their bonds of shared suffering. It was the fact that no one knew what it felt like to be a lab rat, except another lab rat.
Occasionally, one of these "temporary pets" would ask him questions. About what the lab ray might do, what it couldn't do, what they should be aware of. In the case of any major changes, these pets wanted advice on how to cope. Terry was all too happy to give it. Truth be told, he rather enjoyed being regarded as the "expert" on the subject. When these pets left to be placed back in the pound, he would cheerfully wave them off, knowing that he had made their experience a little easier.
But this one was different. The moment Amaletta introduced herself be saying her name, rather than writing it down, he knew something was amiss.
"Are you sure that's your name?" he had said, realising in retrospect what a stupid question it was.
"...Yes. Of course," Amaletta had replied. "I would hope that I knew my own name. On that note, might I ask who you are?" She had offered a cheery smile and extended her hand, perhaps expecting him to shake it. Unfortunately, Terry's mind had been on more weighty matters.
"You're sure it's not a nickname?" he had continued, having ignored the offered greeting. "I can get some paper for you, if your real name is too hard to say?"
He still remembered the look of concern on Amaletta's face, as well as the burning shame of realising he had become a blithering idiot.
He had been right, of course. This pet was different.
This pet was not temporary.
That was not what had bothered him, however. There were other pets to which his owner referred to as "permanent". The addition of Amaletta to the family did not have any great effect.
Not at first.
As he recalled, the transition started on a day in the month of gathering, only a few months before...
It was cold.
That was all Terry could think about, was the merciless onslaught of snow and sleet and ice. The cold had penetrated everything. Touching the walls sent a chill through your fingertips that travelled the entire length of your arm. Your breath clung visibly to the air. Even curled up under his three blankets and small pillow fortress on the couch, even cradling his hot cup of borovan, the chill seemed to seep into his very bones. This was apparently due to Godric's tampering with the heating system, although the household refused to confront him about it for fear that he might wreak some terrible retribution upon them for daring to speak to him.
As such, Terry's only concern was keeping warm and not doing anything. The last thing he wanted to hear was his owner screeching about how they had to make it to the Snowager's lair before it woke up.
"If we leave now," Elly chirruped, "we'll catch him in the deepest part of his sleep!"
"You want to go on an expedition to the one place that's colder than this one? Really?" Terry asked incredulously, hoping that his voice was not too muffled by his pillow fortress.
"Terry?" Elly spun on her foot and glanced around the living room. "Oh, there you are," she said, approaching the teetering pile of cushions that was clutching a steaming mug of borovan. "Sorry, I didn't even realise that you were there."
For a few moments, Terry was uncertain as to how he should respond. "But... Weren't you just telling me that we were leaving? To go to the Ice Caves?" He finally asked, pushing some of the pillows off to get a clearer view of Elly so as to better gauge what was wrong with her.
The first thing to greet him was the unpleasant sting of the cold air, barely reduced at all by his thin fur. The second thing to greet him was the sight of Amaletta, shifting nervously on her feet in the doorway.
"I wasn't going with you," Elly chided him. "Silly boy, you hate the cold! Why would I take you?"
Elly made some condescending "tsk" noises as she moved towards the door, with Amaletta in tow. Amaletta threw Terry an apologetic look which he ignored. Leaping up from his ruined fortress, he caught Elly's arm at the door.
"But I always go with you," he said, uncertain if he was making a statement or asking a question. In the latter case, he wasn't sure what sort of an answer he was expecting.
"But you hate it," Elly replied, patting him gently but condescendingly on the shoulder. "I thought you'd prefer to stay."
Terry found that he was incapable of forming a reasonable response to that. He simply watched the pair leave, though he was determined to avoid looking at Amaletta, who was doing her best to catch his eye.
Terry was baffled. This had never happened before. No one else had ever gone with Elly on her silly errands. When had he stopped being an important fixture in his owner's life?
As he returned to his miserable pile of cushions, Terry's mind cruelly replayed Elly's careless remark, over and over.
"Why would I take you?"
And so began a pattern of Elly, who had once dragged him everywhere whenever she felt the need to go on some stupid quest, taking this other pet in his place.
It had taken a long time, about a month, for Terry to work up the courage to ask her why. This was largely due to the fact that he wasn't entirely sure what he was so upset about.
"Mum?" he ventured, poking his head into the kitchen.
Elly had evidently been making biscuits, before she had become bored and started eating the dough instead. She sat at the kitchen table, spooning the mixture into her mouth.
"Hey," she replied, through a mouthful of sugary goo. Swallowing quickly, she added, "What's up?"
"Uh..." And at this point, Terry wished he had taken some time to plan what he wanted to say.
"Here, sit down. Eat some of this, it's great," Elly said, pushing out a chair and sliding the bowl towards him. "Just a warning, the amount of sugar in it is ridiculous."
Terry sat and looked at the bowl for a few moments. How to approach this? He should try and be delicate, as it was a sensitive issue (family dramas always were). Having said that, however, he should try to be reasonably forward, as Elly was hopeless at understanding subtlety. Moments dragged into minutes, and still Terry couldn't voice whatever problem it was he was having.
"Is something wrong?" Elly asked, apparently unable to sit in silence any longer.
"When is Amaletta leaving?" he said abruptly, internally kicking himself for forgetting to be the least bit delicate.
Elly took a moment to respond, evidently puzzled. "Leaving? I don't know, is she going somewhere? She didn't tell me. Did she mention something to you?"
Terry shook his head vigorously. "No, no... I mean, when is she going to live on a side? You know, in one of those stupid houses in the middle of nowhere."
He could see the cogs working in Elly's mind as she tried to make sense of what he was saying. "Terry," she began slowly. "Amaletta isn't leaving... She lives here now. She's like... A permanent lab rat, at least until I see her become something that I like. Just like you were, once."
"Just like I was?" Terry repeated, horrified. He wasn't sure how, but this somehow confirmed that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
"Yeah. You remember when you used to get zapped, right?" Elly beamed at him. Her smile faltered, however, as she continued, "You didn't like it very much."
"Just like I was?"
"We seem to at different points in this conversation, Terry," Elly said, motioning to the bowl. "Why don't you eat something? Or I can make you some tea?"
"I... Tea, please," Terry said, resigned to internalise this inexplicable angst.
"I was so confused by all this at first, Terry," Elly said as she filled the kettle. "The thought of Amaletta going off somewhere after she spent so long making this place liveable!"
"Didn't you notice that the heating system isn't broken anymore?" Elly asked cheerfully as she lit the stove and carefully placed the kettle over the flames. "Amaletta fixed it for us... Or kicked Godric until he did it, which seems fair considering that he was the one who broke it. I don't know, but the end result is the same..."
Terry did not hear the rest of his owner's inane babble, so consumed was he by the sudden bubble of rage that swelled inside of him.
"...And here's your tea." Elly placed the mug in front of him and took a seat, nursing a mug of her own.
"I don't feel like it," he murmured, pushing the mug across the table.
"Oh, Terry... I've told you since you were this high, not to ask for food if you're not going to eat it," Elly sighed, pausing to sip at her tea. "I'll give it to Amaletta when she gets back. Oop, when he gets back. It's always confusing with lab rats, isn't it? I – Oh..."
Terry swallowed the last of the tea before slamming the mug back down on the table. He was content to ignore the burning in his throat (he should have, perhaps, waited for it to cool down before he skulled it).
"I suppose that I won't be giving that to Amaletta after all."
He'd tried approaching his owner again about a week later, fuelled by a looming sense of dread whose source he was unable to identify. Again he found her seated in the kitchen, engrossed in a game of Kou-Jong.
"Mum?" he inquired timidly.
"Yee- esss?" Elly responded, not looking up from her Kou-Jong tiles.
"Can I ask you something?" He swallowed and shifted restlessly from foot to foot. This was ridiculous. This was his owner. Why was this so stressful?
"Of course... Yes..." She motioned to a chair with her hand, still not looking up.
Terry took a seat and glanced at the tiles.
"I think I've lost this game," Elly muttered, brow furrowed in equal parts concentration and frustration. "You win again, tiles."
She sat back and took a deep breath. At last, her eyes met Terry's. "Right. Problem?"
"Not... exactly," Terry began, twiddling his thumbs idly as he spoke. "I just wanted to ask you... How come we never go anywhere together now?"
Elly blinked at him.
"Uh..." She shrugged. "Reasons, I guess."
"What? That's really it? For... Reasons?" Well, that was a totally unsatisfying answer.
"Yeah, like... Boochi might zap you. Or... You might get... Turned blue with sadness, or something."
Terry felt his jaw drop. "I might turn blue with sadness?"
"Yeah, it's a real thing that happens," Elly said, her expression one of complete seriousness. "It's terrible. Your trans potion was only eighty-thousand when I bought it... They're, like, three-hundred thousand now! Can you imagine spending that just because you turned blue while you were out with me?"
"Mum, people don't just change colour out of the blue," Terry cried, willing his owner to understand. "That's insane."
"No dear, not out of the blue, they turn blue. Do you get it?"
"Get it? Is it... Is this some kind of joke?" Terry could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
"This is no joke, Terry! It's a real and ever present threat!"
"Mum, listen to yourself," Terry implored her. "Do you actually hear what you're saying?"
"Yes, dear," she said, sounding exasperated. "I'm saying that it's easier and better to take Amaletta with me places, because it doesn't matter if she turns blue."
Terry stood abruptly, causing his chair to topple over.
"If you don't want me around, you can just say so! You don't have to make up stupid lies!"
And with that, Terry left. He was not certain that he could look at Elly in the face any longer.
"It's not that I don't want you around!" Elly called after him. "It's just that I don't want you to be blue!"
To be continued...