[I live with 4 rat children, 2 boys and two girls- and that’s not a cute euphemism for my human children. No. I share my home with 4 actual rats, and I talk to them sometimes and I imagine in great detail their responses. It isn’t difficult- they have clear and distinct personalities. Last night I read a recent article on my phone about prison reform in light of the current pandemic while the girls were cuddled up in the hood of my sweatshirt and the boys were sitting next to me on the couch. Just another Saturday night at the Shepard house…and it occurred to me…what would it be like to switch my brain with theirs? Which is just the sort of tumbleweed that starts something like the following… Brian Shepard May, 2020]
Let’s get started.
Mr. Edwards, you were found guilty of your crimes by a jury of your peers and sentenced to species reassignment with a temporal displacement of -500 years. Your consiousness was transferred at 3:05 pm, 2 days ago- Friday, December the 12th, 2092 at which time your human body was incinerated in accordance with sentencing. Your brother has received your remains and personal effects per your written consent. You are now, and will remain, a rat. Specifically– a Brown Rat of the Lineanus genus Rattus norvegicus. Your remaining life expectancy is 12 months which, in light of the severity of your crimes, is considered both merciful and justified. Species transference cannot be reversed even upon appeal.
Mr Edwards, please do not chew on the speaker. Thank you.
The final phase of sentencing will commence at 7:00 pm this evening- Sunday, December the 14th, 2092 at the Raliegh/Apex Center for Criminal Temporal Displacement. At that time your connection to the present will be severed and your temporal thread will be re-directed to the 14th of December, 1592. In light of your species reassignment you will be initially placed in London England which presents a .00001% chance of timeline disruption.
It’s a plague year Mr. Edwards and just in time for the Christmas season. Won’t that be nice?
Finally it is my responsibility to inform you that while you currently retain your complete human memory and level of awareness, this is a temporary condition and will diminish by degrees as your sentence progresses. In laymen’s terms Mr. Edwards: you were born a man but you will die a rat.
By order of the governor of the state of North Carolina I have informed you of the details concerning your sentence on this date, Sunday, December the 14th, 2092.
Now Mr. Edwards if you will excuse my gripping your tail, it’s time to go back in your box. There you go. An officer will transport you to the displacement window at the scheduled time. Oh look, I still have some raisins in my pocket. Here you go. There’s a good rat…
Darien looked up from the smart pad and raised one eyebrow at Church.
“So it’s a death sentence.”
“No. That would be barbaric- the public wouldn’t stand for it.”
Darien handed the pad back and stood up- rubbed his hands together to get blood flowing again. His office was freezing, and the new mandates chilled him inside. Church didn’t even seem to breathe. Bastard just stood there grinning like the cat who fucked your wife waiting for Darien to sign the order. Fucking prick.
“Ed, this is bullshit and you know it. First of all Max Edwards is…was… a political prisoner.”
Church’s grin deepend.
“Fuck that noise, and fuck the Beurea. It’s not the fucking dark ages. We process murders here- terrorists, baby rapers, scum. This kid… He’s just popular. He doesn’t deserve this.”
Church sits down across Darien’s desk and links fingers.
“Osama was popular, so was Hitler…and he’s not a kid, he’s nearly 30 so…” He shrugs, “What are you gonna do eh? Just sign the order Frank, it’s a done deal. They burned his body 2 days ago. He’s cat food now. Move on.”
Move on Frank. Sure. Sign the order.
Church dropped his grin.
“What do you mean no? Frank, this isn’t your call.”
Darien didn’t respond, he had surprised himself, and Church was a prick but he was right. Darien wasn’t above the Bereau- just a part of it- a finger on an arm…and yet…” A light fired.
“The Worm tech is under my authority. I can declare a temporal incursion non viable.”
Church rolled his eyes.
“No, you can’t. My department already cleared the date. You just read the report- .00001% disruption. Potential disruption.”
Darian threw his hands up.
“Ahhhk! Why? Why 500 years? It’s unprecedented. Why that date?”
Church shrugged again.
“1592, height of the last great English plague. He’s a rat, rats carry plague- it’s poetic. Makes a statement. Why do you care?”
Daren fumed: “Because I do damnit!”
Church picked up the tablet and stood up.
“Sign the order Frank.”
“Change the numbers. Tweak the data.”
“I won’t do that.”
“I outrank you Major.”
“I don’t answer to you, Colonel, sir.”
Darian crossed the room and Church jerked a step backwards.
“I’m not asking Ed. Change the data. Incursion non viable.”
Church sneered, but dropped his head and sighed. He tugged at his hair.
“Fine. Sure. Then what? Another date will be mined. He’s going back. What’s the point?”
Darien realized his heart was racing and forced himself to breathe.
“Time. That’s what we play with here isn’t it? It gives him time.”
Church slumped back into the chair.
“Time for what exactly? He’s not human anymore, he’s a fucking rat sir. A fuck-ing rat.”
Darian made his way behind his desk and sat down. Breathe Frank…
“And what are you Ed? What the fuck are you?
…They did it. The motherfuckers actually did it. I can’t believe I’m…fuck. At least it didn’t hurt. Why are my whiskers sticky? Fuck, must clean…Damnit! What the hell? Ok, be cool Max, you can do this. Just keep it cool. Why is it so bright in here? Things could be worse. Worse how?! I don’t know! What’s that? Oh, it’s corn. That smells fucking delicious. Nom nom nom nom...ok. Water. I want water. I smell water, in that…bottle…of course it’s in a bottle Max you’re a…I’m a rat. Godamnit now I have to scratch and what’s that?! Whatever it is it’s big, gotta hide…
Good morning Mr. Edwards, Max… do you mind if I sit down? I won’t pick you up if that’s ok, I just thought we could talk like m… Like this if that’s ok. You can come out. I’m Colonel Darian, I’m the director here. I just want to talk, I won’t hurt you.
I wanted to make sure you had everything you, uh, need. Water, food, uh…clean cage and all that. I am sorry about the, um…cage. Its necessary, I’m afraid, considering your…well, you being a rat now.
Listen, Max, you need to understand that none of this was my doing. I have nothing to do with the Beurea courts and their policies or their politics. I’m just a soldier. You understand that. You were a solider once- I read that in your file.
My job isn’t to pass judgement is what I’m trying to say- my authority is limited to managing this facility. My job is to process um.. individuals, like yourself- whom the Beurea has prescribed temporal reassignment. Apex/Raliegh is the largest North American wormhole. We handle permanent relocation.
Which is what I want to talk to you about.
There are people who are uncomfortable with the nature of your sentence. I am uncomfortable with it. Political agendas aside, a 500 year relocation is perverse. Sending a rat into the middle of plague… it’s offensive. It’s also a unprecedented stretch of the worm tech. So I’ve delayed the event. I have ordered the senior schrodinger here to re-evaluate the disruption index and find 1592 an unusable date for the splice.
The Bureau isn’t omnipotent, yet. Technically I have the authority to override a displacement order if I can provide reasonable concern for potential continuity damage to the timeline. There will be an official inquiry eventually, but for now I have been able to put your case into limbo. You’ll be staying with us a bit longer Max. Again, I’m sorry about the cage.
Of course, eventually I’ll have to authorize an alternate date for your displacement. I can’t overturn the sentence, but- what I can do is select a more pleasant, reasonable destination.
Listen, Max… we knew this tech had the potential to be abused 60 years ago when it was first theorized. That’s why the protocols are so protected. Some of the first displacements were so… well they just weren’t well thought out. Before 2042 we were still sending human criminals back. We’re not even 100% sure how much damage we actually did before tighter regulations were established, and that’s why the Bureau can’t override me on this one. Displacement is supposed to be null impact. Take a dangerous criminal, turn him into a dog, send him back to 1960 so he can play fetch with some kid in Kansas and justice is served. Its humane and harmless. It’s not supposed to make a statement.
I’m sorry. It just upsets me.
Dr. Church will be proposing alternative splices for me to review. In the meantime just, uh… sit tight. I promise you’ll be comfortable as possible here until we sort out a solution. I will be in touch.
For what it’s worth, I’m sorry things ended up this way. It’s a mess. And I’m sorry. It’s hard, seeing you like this. I can’t even imagine.
Well, thank you for being patient with me. I’ll see if the custodians can find a wheel or something. Would you like a wheel? I’ve also ordered the mess to fix you up some more vegetables and cheese- I see you enjoyed the corn. I can’t imagine those pellets are very appetizing.
Take care max. We’ll talk soon.
Church looked pissed. Darian hadn’t immediately acknowledged him when he entered and so he stood, red faced- looking ready to explode. Darian was too tired to care.
“Sit down Dr….At ease Major. For chrissakes Ed just come in and say what you what’s got you bent”
Church huffed and dropped into the seat in front of Darian’s desk.
“This is becoming ridiculous Frank.”
Darian raised an eyebrow.
“Finding a home for your pet rat is what. You do realize that rats aren’t the most popular of gods creatures right? They’re vermin Ed. They get stomped. Or eaten. Or get shot full of pharmaceuticals. Or fed to snakes. Or rounded up and gassed because that’s their purpose sir. You want me to find a convicted criminal somewhere cozy to live his days and oh, by the way, he’s a rat. It’s bullshit sir.”
Darian sighed and sat down across from Church.
“No. It’s not. It’s decent.” He tapped his fingers on the screen in front of him.
“Try telling that to our benevolent overlords- do you even read your mail? They’re pissed Frank. They want Edwards dealt with. They want him gone. This hold up is embarrassing them and it’s giving way too much fuel to the whack jobs.”
Darian just blinked.
“There have been protests.”
“Yeah. Oh. Just the usual fuck the government, men not mice shit but one rally got out of control- riot squad called in- and that was a mess. The net is full of set Max free assholes calling for an end to the barbaric police state yadda yadda, end facism in North America blah blah blah, fuck the Bureau, stand up, fight back…and the ears thing. That’s really driving the brass insane.”
“Yeah. Ears. Everyone’s wearing these cutesy rat ear headbands. Solidarity. It’s bizzare.”
Darian actually giggled.
“Yep. Fuzzy fucking ears. My kid has one- Christ, everyone’s kid has a pair. It’s like those fucking Che Guevara t-shirts our grandparents used to wear. And you know who doesn’t like Max Edwards becoming a fashionable martyr? The people who put him away. Our government- the guys who sign our checks. You know…those guys.”
“Huh…” Darian drifted off.
“Are you even listening Frank?”
Darian wasn’t. He was thinking.
“The kids.” He whispered.
“What about the kids?”
“Its perfect Ed. Problem solved.”
Church stared blankly at Darian.
“What is? How?”
But Darian was laughing now because it was so damned simple…
Max was in the wheel again.
…No way out no way out now way out there’s no fucking way out of this Max you’re a rat now and godamnit this is fun! I fucking love this weeeeeeee!!! Ok ok slow it down gotta drink something. Gotta think. STOP! What the hell happened? What the bloody fuck went wrong we were so close to BACK IN THE WHEEL! Fuck fuck fuck it’s hard to focus come on Max focus you can do this you can think. Remember. What were we doing? The Bureau…the Bureau was…BAD…doing BAD things wrong things… papers papers papers wrong papers- an order. Yes! Selling orders and IFUCKINGLOVETHISWHEEL!!! O my God it spit me out. No one saw. Good. Gotta drink. THINK! What did we do? We planned plans the plan my plan the company the Senate secret secret secret weapon WEAPONS! Whiskers…cucumber in the corner by the wheel and the light and the plan was to stop the papers and and and…EXPOSE weapons secret orders yes…Who am I? What is this place? I gave the orders OH GOD I KILLED HIM no no no not me I can’t I won’t I did and…someone is here. Loud. Big. Why? Why can’t I think? Fuck. I’m so dirty…
Hey there Max. Hey. Hey little guy, come on out. It’s just me, Frank. Hi Max. There you go. Here, I brought you sliced up apple. That’s it buddy. I know you like apples.
Look, Max, I have some big news. I know you’ve been wondering what comes next for you and you’re not the only one. There are a lot of people on the outside who have really rallied together to support you, I’m sure that means something to you. I’ve… we’ve been exploring timelines- options for your…relocation for a month now, and I think we have an answer- a solution.
Come back Max, come on. I’m not done talking. Come on. There. Have another slice. Good.
Max, the problem with time displacement is we can’t go forward, and going back always involves the risk of altering current events in some significant way. We can’t rewrite history. That’s why we don’t send humans back any more. There were…mistakes– at least, that’s what we were told by the ones who came back. Even splicing animals is potentially dangerous. Introduce the wrong species to the wrong time and you can upset a whole ecosystem. So we’re careful. Very careful.
The judges who sentenced you were well informed long before you even came to trial. Your punishment was meant to be symbolic. It was planned and they knew it wasn’t going to pose any threat to the timeline. But it was cruel. A mockery. Justice isn’t about propaganda. At least it shouldn’t be. That’s why I stopped the splice. It was just…wrong. Oh I’m sorry. Go ahead if you like. I’m glad you enjoy the wheel. I thought you might.
Max I’m not sure how much of you is left really. We don’t normally hold on to a prisoner this long before displacing them and we’ve never processed a rat before. Usually it’s cats or pigeons. So I don’t know if you even understand what I’m saying. I hope you do.
I want you to know that we tried. I tried….to find something less inhumane. I don’t know if what you did warrants this kind of extreme judgement. Maybe it does. I really don’t know. But I do know that no man, even a guilty man, should be a pawn of the state. If you’re a criminal you’re a criminal. You aren’t a statement. And what was the point of abolishing life in jail and the death penalty if it wasn’t to show some grace, to be more human?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m a fool.
Max, the techs are going to move you to the aperture in an hour. I signed the order before I came in to see you. You’ll be sedated- you won’t feel a thing. When you wake up you’ll be somewhere else entirely…. God willing you’ll forget everything about what you’ve gone through soon, if you haven’t already.
I wish you the best Max Edwards. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Take care.
“Richard, tell her to put that…thing down and wash up.”
Lillian Winter did not like anything dirty or anything that reminded her of dirty- even the existence of dirt offended her on a emotional level beyond her husband’s conception. Mark Winter was a farmer and he sweat in the dirt every day of his life. Of course he scrubbed every inch of himself before he would dare enter her dining room.
“Lilly, she’s washed the critter 3 times today already- and brushed it and tied a silk ribbon around it’s tail- it’s probably the cleanest thing in this house as we speak.”
He knew it was the wrong thing to say and he swore at himself. Lillian’s eyes doubled in size.
“How dare you Mark Winter? If I wanted to live with beasts of the field I would have…”
In for a penny in for a pound.
“Married a farmer? Well damn Lil, it seems you signed the wrong dance card then mm?”
Lillian wrung her hands together and scowled. Mark sighed, put his freshly washed hands on her shoulders and softened his voice.
“Wife of mine there’s no harm in a little girl having a pet to care for. It’s nothing but practice for when she’s got a litter of her own. And I know it’s not a kitten or a bunny or some other kind of cute fluff- but it’s clean, it’s not taking up room we ain’t got and Jilly loves it. To be honest it impresses the hell outta me that she had the nerve to catch and tame the damn thing. Rats aren’t tame critters Lil, but that ribbon tailed pest just sits on her shoulder or on her lap like she’s a princess and he’s her little prince. All I’m saying is that she’s happy and she deserves it for putting in the effort. And Lil, the little beast is cleaner than me.”
He kissed her forehead. “Promise.”
Lillian sighed and slapped him off. She even smiled.
“Fine. But I don’t want it in the kitchen or the dining room, I swear if…”
“Don’t swear momma. Not in front of Max, I’m teachin’ him manners.”
Jillian Winter, 6 years old and made of freckles, stood on the threshold behind her parents. There was a large brown rat on her shoulder. Mark laughed hard enough that even Lillian forgot to be angry.
Max wasn’t allowed at the table that night, but Lillian didn’t say anything when Jilly snuck him into the kitchen later for a snack. Mark was right, if her daughter loves the little beast then Lillian could tolerate it eating leftover bread pudding.
“Its 1970 Lillian,” she told herself as she put the last of the dishes in their cabinet. “it’s a different world for little girls.”
Mark was in bed, half asleep by the time she’d finished putting the house in it’s proper order. She put on her nightgown and brushed out her hair remembering to count to one hundred. Mark slurred something into his pillow and rolled over. He’s a handsome man, she thought, handsome and kind. She turned off the lights and slid next to his warmth.
“What did you read to her tonight?”
Mark groaned and rolled over.
Lillian traced the lines on his face gently.
“What did you two read about tonight? I know you were up late, I heard your footsteps coming down the stairs.”
Mark closed his eyes again and sighed.
“Oh, just one of those pulp paperbacks the neighbor boy gave her. You know I think we should keep an eye on Tommy, I’m not sure his intentions are pure.”
“He’s eight Mark, I think we’re safe for a little while.”
“I suppose, but it’s a good thing I have that shotgun in the barn just in case. Jilly’s as pretty as her mother.”
She leaned over him and kissed his cheek.”
“You’re a sweet man Mark Winter.” She settled into the covers. “What was it about?”
“The book? What was it about?”
Mark smiled, eyes closed.
“A time machine.” He was snoring almost immediately.
A time machine, she thought, why not? She’d watched a man walk on the moon last July and had almost believed it was real. The world was growing up so fast.
“Time machines and little girls with pet rats.” She whispered to the shadows.
“What a world indeed.”
Red. Girl. Hair. Soft. Warm. Trust. Safe. I remember girl. I remember when Shelly came back from the lake and she smelled like tree sap and wood smoke. Sweet. Wet. Food. Good. Hand. Safe. I am safe now. Singing. Song. Music. I remember music. Like birds in the park outside Stavro’s and the coffee shop with heavy iron chairs where we had such big plans. Pet. Petting. Ears. Soft hands. Safe. Tail. Ribbon. Shelly wore a red ribbon on her blouse and we held hands when I was (a man) young. Sitting. Rest. Songs about birds. Singing. Kisses. Nose. Whiskers. Safe. We were young and it was never sleep. It was never (safe) here. Sitting. Red. Girl. Hair. Soft. Warm. Trust. Safe. Max. I am max. I am (rat) safe. Kisses for Max. I am Max. I am Max…
[I think that’s how I want it to end. I’m not sure if there isn’t more to develop internally bit I’ll sit on it for a week or so and re-think it then. Until then… I think I’ll give the boys and girls some apple. Cheers.]
Brian Shepard, May 2020