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Ducks, Herrings, and Paper Hats
by Spencer Bagley


"There’s an incoming transmission on channel 1138, Captain!" I announced.

"Put it on the main screen," the Captain replied.

We were on the bridge of the starship Kedgeree, our mission to search out interesting life-forms, take pictures, bring them back home, and laugh at how silly they look. My name is Oaker, and I’m the ship’s chief computer manager. Basically, I keep the computers happy and the users of the computers from blowing the computers or the ship up. Not to mention taking pictures of silly-looking life-forms.

The one that came up on the main screen right then was rather interesting itself. It looked like a crossbreed between a duck and a herring. It was sitting in an aquarium -- no, wait, that’s not an aquarium, that’s a starship’s bridge full of water. The alien said:

"Bubble bubble glub quack gurgle blub blub. Bublublub glug?" It sounded a little like a duck trying to quack for help underwater.

After a pause, the ship’s translator said, "We come in peace and ask a favor. Will you listen?"

"We will listen, but promise nothing for the moment," replied the Captain.

Some more watery bubbling and quacking noises ensued. The translator translated, "We of the--" Some static indicating an untranslatable word -- "race are descended from the offspring of a duck and a herring on the planet Earth." I grinned smugly to myself. What do you know? "We seek the genetic material from a duck and a herring to see how the DNA interacted to form an intelligent species such as us."

"This sounds interesting. What’s the catch?" the Captain asked, leaning forward with an interested look on his face.

"The catch is that the herring and duck species are both extinct on present-day Earth. You will have to travel back in time to find the specimens. This happens to be the only reason we can’t do it ourselves; you see, we haven’t developed time-traveling technology yet."

"Allow me to consult with my advisors." The Captain beckoned us over. We went into a huddle, discussed the request, and soon reached a consensus. We would accept the assignment and I would get to travel back in time.

"Be careful of creating a paradox. It just might cause the universe to fold up like a paper hat," the Captain cautioned. I promised I would be careful.

The Captain announced our decision to the alien, who replied, "Quack blub. Bubble glub glug quack glubber."

This one seemed to be hard for the translator; it paused for a good five seconds. "Thank you. You will be rewarded handsomely," it finally output. The alien then proceeded to give us the coordinates of his home planet where we should take the specimens once they were collected.

I was too caught up in the excitement to pay any attention to where the world was located. I would be taking my first trip through time! And to the planet Earth no less! The birthplace of our noble race, the race to attain space travel before all the rest of the sentient races of the entire Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way! Earth! Thy blue-green beauty calls to me! Oh, how I shall rejoice when I am on thy blessed ground!

I was snapped out of my reverie by the ship’s science officer calling my name. We had already warped to within range of the Earth. "It’s time to go," he said.

"Lead me to the time transporter, please." He did and I climbed in. With nifty sparkly things floating in the air, I was on my way.

* * *

I materialize in an out-of-the-way corner of a park in 2004, about 500 years in the past. We had decided we had the best chance of finding a duck in a park with a duck pond. The herring would have to come later. I wander over towards the center of the park, looking for ducks.

I get all the way to the duck pond without seeing a single duck. But there are no ducks on the duck pond either. It must have something to do with the fact that it is winter in the particular part of the earth where this park is located. I call up the ship on the time-radio and ask them to send me to the same corner of the same park, just six months earlier, or later. The timetech calls back confirming the time shift. I confirm, and he reactivates the time machine. I rematerialize, still in a snowy landscape.

"You," I radio them, "are a load of foolish-type people. I said six months, not twelve!"

"Oops," they say, "we’ll try again." They re-reactivate the time machine. I dematerialize, and reappear in a nice summer landscape.

"Looks like you finally got it right," I say to them. "Now I’ll go look for ducks." I wander towards the center of the park again, still looking for ducks. I see the duck pond, swarming with the feathery quacking things. But wait! What’s that? A park bench to my left, where a duck and a herring are sitting together. Wing-in-fin. The herring is wearing a glass bowl over its head, full of water. I think to myself, Perfect! I can bag both of them at one time!

Before really thinking about the duck and herring together, I pull out my Zappo blaster and take careful aim at the herring. I fire. The world seems to go into slow motion. I watch the bolt fly across the landscape at the speed of molasses. I wonder what just happened to Time, and then suddenly realize which particular herring I’ve shot at.

"Noooooooooooooooooooo!" I shout in a slow-motion voice. But it is too late. The bolt is irrevocably on its way. I watch the bolt hit the herring. Just as the herring vaporizes, the world goes dark. The universe folds up like a paper hat.

Man, I hate it when the Captain is right.

* * *

"In other news, a chimpanzee by the name of Oaker managed to single-handedly paper-hat-ify a small unimportant universe near the Gargleplexis arm of the multiverse..."

Story © 2002 by Spencer Bagley

"The Kiss" artwork © 2002 by Romeo Esparrago

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