SRU: A Higher Power -1- Spare Key

The wizard knew just what Aaron was seeking--and there's more than one kind of key.

SRU: Spare Key

by Lainie Lee


I do not own the SRU universe, I am just borrowing it. The Spell-R-Us store and wizard were created by Bill Hart.

SRU: The Spare Key

by Lainie Lee

Originally posted 2005/02/03

Aaron felt beat, he'd just made it to the mall before closing. What a day at work! One errand to run and he could go home. He needed to get a new key made for his front door, his wife had lost hers again; he had given her the spare and now he wanted to replace it.

Frazzled by his responsibilities as lead engineer on the new Seek Missile team, Aaron turned into the curious little shop without even noticing that it wasn't the vacuum cleaner store where he usually got keys made.

The little bell on the door rang but the shop seemed deserted. Aaron looked around blindly for the rather fat shop owner or his equally fat wife or even fatter daughter. "Hello," he called. They certainly have been adding some odd stock for a vacuum cleaner and locksmith shop, he thought.

A little music box caught his eye. On the top of a lacquered white oval casket, stood a little porcelain ballerina, a child ballerina by the proportions of the figurine. One arm on top of her head, the other on her hip; one leg lifted and angled against the other calf; toes pointed; a look of pre-adolescent concentration on her painted bisque face; the ballerina seemed suddenly to Aaron to represent all that was fine and good about trying to do something well, even if you are doomed to failure.

He sniffed. Something in his eye, he told himself. Reluctantly, he turned from the lovely little music box and looked around again for the proprietor or one of his corpulent clan. This place is positively filled with -- junk, he thought, unable to think of another word for the clutter. Is that a wooden Indian by the back wall? A violet painted velocipede, half an harmonium, a full set of phylacteries, a sarcophagus in the shape of a suppliant Saluki? More than half of the stuff he could neither name nor discern a purpose for.

"Hello?" he tried again.

"May I help you?"

He turned to find the source of the voice, an old man who was certainly dressed appropriately for the new decor and stock. The wizard's robe, for that is what it must be, might even be part of the stock; it certainly looked old enough to be an antique. The wizard, if he could be called that since he dressed the part, reached out and lifted the little music box that Aaron had been admiring.

"I need, I need a key made," Aaron stumbled over the words. He watched fascinated as the old man wound the little clockwork on the back of the music box. Aaron saw now that the box was also a jewelry case, a small one to be sure, perhaps for a child. The little lid lifted just on one end of the oval, for the ballerina stood on the other end.

"A key?" The old man lifted a gray brow as he put the music box back on the shelf then lifted the lid and propped it open with a tiny hinged rod inside the compartment, provided, surely, for just such a purpose. With the lid open, the box began to play a tune and the ballerina began to practice her twirls.

The tune seemed familiar and Aaron frowned, trying to remember where he had

heard it before.

"It's 'The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies' you know," said the old man.

Aaron smiled, yes, it was. The movement of the little ballerina even had a jig to it, a pause to fit the syncopated spin of the delightful little holiday tune. "How, how much is the box?" he asked, suddenly, impulsively. He didn't even have a daughter and his wife was, well, she wasn't into fond sentiment.

"Two dollars," said the old man as if it were just the right price, no more no less.

"Two, two dollars?" Aaron couldn't believe it. "I expected to pay more than that for the spare key I came in here for you to make."

"You'll find the key you're looking for inside the music box," said the old man.

Startled, Aaron stepped closer to look. There were indeed, two keys inside the little compartment for jewelry. One was the key for winding the music box of course. He had seen the old man insert it into the square little hole on the back side of the lacquered oval container and wind the works with quick movements of those aged hands. But the other key, the other key was identical to the one he had been holding in his own hand since he entered the shop.

He held the two keys up, comparing. Absolutely identical. He shook his head, smiling. "You must be a magician."

"No," said the old man sternly. "I'm a wizard."

"There, um, there's a difference?"

"Oh, yes."

"Um, I do want the -- music box." Aaron reached back over a shelf strewn with gewgaws and doodads to retrieve his treasure. The music stopped when he lowered the rod and closed the half-oval lid.

"Two dollars."

"For the box? You can't be serious?"

The wizard shrugged. "When necessary. That box has wanted to go home with you ever since you came into the mall."

Aaron smiled at the whimsy, still convinced he would have to pay the old man well for such a beautiful little toy. He touched a finger to the ballerina head, such a porcelain figurine alone might go for hundreds of dollars in some of the shops in this mall. She was so perfect, so lifelike, so utterly convinced that she can do it right this time. He sighed. "I can write you a check..." he began.

The old man shook his head. "Did you ever make a thing, a thing with a purpose? A device designed to seek its own destiny? That box was made with just such an owner as yourself in mind."

Aaron started. The old man seemed for a moment to be describing the Seek Missiles that Aaron had been working on for fourteen months now. There weren't that many defense contracts being given out these days; his company had been lucky to get part of the programming contract for the top secret Seek Missile Project. Seek Missile technology was so highly classified that the Pentagon had only told the president about the project just last week, or so the rumor went.

Seek Missiles were like cruise missiles but they found their own targets. Just tell them what you wanted, an air base destroyed, or a chemical factory demolished or whatever and point them in the right general direction. They would find the nearest target meeting their parameters and deliver a payload. Maybe even an atomic one.

At least, in theory. The programming of an AI powerful enough to manage such a task had been keeping him up nights, keeping him away from home weekends, leaving him mentally and physically exhausted. He had begun to believe that a functional Seek Missile was actually beyond the capability of the current state of engineering art. But he couldn't tell anyone that; his bosses didn't want to hear it, the Pentagon didn't want to hear it and he sure couldn't talk about it with this old man. The classification of Seek Missiles being two levels higher than just top secret, he and the old man would both go to jail if he even mentioned the name of the project out loud.

The oddly dressed old man wrapped the music box in brown paper and twine and refused to take more than two dollars. Aaron left the little shop, still mystified, never to return. He didn't look back. He wouldn't have seen the store vanish in a flash of light to be replaced by the original vacuum cleaner store cum locksmith with its complement of corpulent clerks, even if he had looked. The wizard waited until Aaron was actually in the parking lot.

Aaron's wife, Roberta didn't think much of the music box. It didn't look that expensive and when he said he had paid only two dollars for it she almost dumped it into the trash can right then and there. Aaron wouldn't let her.

"I don't like it," she told him. "It is actually ugly." The expression on the face of the porcelain figurine particularly perturbed her. The child looked to be in pain, or anticipating some sort of pain.

"I, well, I didn't buy it for you, dear."

"Then who did you buy it for? We don't have a little girl, we don't have any children at all." She was using her lecturing voice, the one she had honed on six years of third graders before they were married.

"I bought it because I wanted it," was all Aaron could think to say. He opened the little half-oval lid and the box began to play "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" again.

"I bought it because I wanted it. I think it's, uh, cute." He blushed.

"Well, if it is going to make that out of tune racket every time someone touches it, you can keep it on your nightstand. I don't want to see it, or hear it. Did you get the spare key?"

"Uh, yes." He handed her the piece of shiny brass.

"I'll put it where it belongs," she said. Roberta always wanted things just so, neat almost to a fault. She kept an immaculate house and his dinner was always ready for him whenever he got home, no matter how late. He knew he was lucky to have married her for she was also a stunning woman, almost as tall as he with braided blond hair and a figure she prided herself on keeping trim and youthful.

She dressed well on his generous salary and he admired the way she looked in her periwinkle print dress as she stooped in the little pool of light spilling out the kitchen door to lift the fake rock and hide the spare key inside. He wanted to want her, but he was just so tired, so drained by the impossible project at work.

It was so unlike her to have lost her own key. He didn't question her about it because he was half afraid that she hadn't lost it but instead had given it to her lover. A lover she had been forced into the arms of by his failure to fulfill her needs. He didn't know she had taken a lover, but he feared that if he could not recover his ability to function as a husband ought, she surely would. And who could blame her?

She smiled at him as she came back inside and relocked the back door. "You look bushed, honey. Why don't you go on to bed? I'll finish cleaning up the dishes and join you soon." She pushed at his shoulder until he struggled to his feet.

He smiled tiredly, picked up his junk store treasure, paused for a brief, long-married kiss and trudged off to their bedroom. Maybe things would have been different if they had ever had children. But either he couldn't or she couldn't and they had never asked the doctors whose fault was it anyway.

He never told Roberta but sometimes, he envied her. She didn't have his worries or job stress. She had quit work when they got married, quit teaching school in anticipation of raising children. But all she had to do was housework and her little charity projects, like helping out with the orphans who stayed as foster children with the family of their Episcopalian minister.

She was good with children, if sterner than he would have had the heart to be. Sometimes they talked about taking in an orphan, too, but they had never done it. Perhaps because they were both orphans and had spent time in foster homes themselves, not always pleasant ones, either.

He dressed for bed, gray and blue striped pajamas for the nights of late fall. He sat his treasure on the nightstand, on his side of the bed. The works had run down and he fished the little key out of the compartment and turned the lacquered box around so he could insert the key into the square hole. Carefully, he wound the music box, half afraid that the mainspring on the little antique would break and deprive him of half his pleasure in his unexpected acquisition.

He lifted the little hinged rod and propped the half-oval lid open so the tinny music would continue to play. It wasn't out of tune, he told himself as he watched the little porcelain ballerina jig and spin. He fell asleep to the sound of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" played on miniature chimes. Maybe his last thought before the darkness swallowed him was that tomorrow he might possibly be able to do something else so wonderfully right as buying the music box.

The works had run down again when Roberta finally came to bed.

During the night, the magic that had sought out the Seek Missile engineer began to work. Aaron's limbs became thinner, the trunk of his body shrunk and his manhood withered completely away. The rest of his hair fell out and his beard and his body hair too. The hair disappeared in the transformation as Aaron's pajamas shrank and changed color to fit his new form. New hair sprouted, too, but only on his head; that fine, silken blond hair that only children have. Down between his legs, a groove formed and opened into a channel into the inside of his body where other changes were taking place.

The room changed also, Aaron's clothes in the closet shrank and changed to fit his new body. The ripples of transformation spread out, altering records here and there. Aaron's engineering career disappeared, his education, his marriage to Roberta. Some of these things changed to other documents that supported his new identity. Memories changed to match records.

Aaron's company had never taken the Seek Missile contract for lack of the right talented engineer to manage it. No other company could take the contract either and so the Pentagon had canceled the Seek Missile Project. The President never did hear about it.

Perhaps somewhere a wizard smiled, knowing that his music box had delivered its payload.

When the alarm went off, the little girl yawned and stretched and opened her clear blue eyes. She so loved sleeping with Mummy Roberta, even though she knew that her privileges would end someday when her foster mother found a husband. But then they could adopt her and she would have real parents again and maybe a little brother or sister.

Roberta reached across the bed and grabbed all of her foster daughter's little tummy in her hand. "How's my sleepy child this morning," she asked, squeezing a bit to tickle the little girl into protesting laughter.

"I'm wide awake!" Erin squealed, delighted to be the object of Roberta's casual affection. She pushed helplessly at the adult hand with her six year old muscles until finally her foster mother relented.

"Okay!" Roberta said, laughing. "Now quick, what day is today?"

"It's Tuesday, Mummy," said little Erin. Her face was flushed and she still couldn't stop grinning.

"That's right, and why do we get up early on Tuesdays and Thursdays?"

"Ballet practice!" Erin giggled, she loved this game of being asked questions she knew the answers to so well.

"Okay!" And Roberta loved the game, too. Roberta paid for the ballet lessons out of her own pocket; she spent a lot more on the little girl than the state gave her for taking in an orphan. She loved children, she loved Erin, she loved having a little girl to take care of, to be firm and loving with, to be an adult for. She promised herself she would never give up teaching; that way when Erin and any children of her own she might someday have were grown, she would still have children to lead and care for.

"So, you go make breakfast for us, Mummy," said Erin. "And I'll make the bed." One of Erin's chores was to make the bed. Sometimes Roberta had to make it again but Erin got better at it all the time. It made Erin feel proud to help Mummy around the house; cleaning and cooking, too.

"Alright, honey. Don't leave any crocodiles in the bed covers today."

Erin giggled again. Crocodiles were lengthwise folds in the sheets that made long skinny lumps under the bed spread. They were called alligators if they ran sideways across the bed. Erin hadn't left any giant aquatic lizards in the bed covers for months now.

Mother and daughter set to their tasks. Roberta got dressed quickly and eggs were frying in the kitchen while Erin struggled with the last of the bedclothes, doubly smoothing each sheet to prevent crocodiles.

Roberta's voice came down the hall. "Better get dressed, honey. Breakfast is almost ready. And I still have to braid your hair."

"Okay, Mummy." Quickly Erin stripped off her pink pajamas, all the way down to her Little Mermaid Underoos. Then she paused. The music box had caught her eye. She reached inside the little compartment and removed the key. The mainspring of the music works was almost too strong for her tiny hands but she managed to wind it enough to set the little painted bisque ballerina to twirling and jigging while "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" played out its starts and stops and syncopations.

Erin screwed up her face in unconscious imitation of the expression on the face of the porcelain figurine; the face Mummy Roberta made fun of, calling it "trying to pass a pumpkin."

In the chill fall morning, dressed only in her decorative panties, little Erin jumped and jigged and twirled. She felt happy and looked forward to ballet practice, because today was the day she knew she was going to do everything right.

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2002 by Elaine Blankenship. All rights reserved.

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