I guess for me it really started with headphones. I've always been big on sound fidelity; I'll listen to almost any sort of music, but no matter what, I always want it to sound clear as crystal. I bought my first pair of stereo headphones when I was sixteen; I picked up some mixing software, and I've been making my own music (or, at least, mixing and sequencing) for 4 years now. I'd finished my third year of college less than a month ago; since my parents hadn't really pressured me to get a job until after I graduated (and I didn't really need the money; heck, I didn't even have a car), I was just keeping busy until I went back in August. I was planning on visiting a few friends down south along the coast in about a week or so, but on the morning of the 17th, my sleep schedule was far enough out-of-whack that I felt no surprise to see the time roll over past 5:00 and the first hints of sunlight paint the California sky in charcoal-toned pastels. I was even less surprised when, at about 5:07, my eyes itched suddenly; I'd been awake since noon the day before, and out of the last 17 hours, I'd been staring at my computer monitor for at least 12. When my vision cleared, the light of dawn seemed even brighter; I supposed at the time that I'd nodded off for a few minutes, and neglected to check my system clock. Instead of (sensibly) going to bed, I dropped the blinds on my window, dimmed my display (it, too, was bothering my eyes) and went back to hunting the software bug that had haunted my last 3 hours of wakefulness. A strong techno beat continued uninterrupted, so I, too, was unperturbed.
When (about 10 minutes later) my headphones no longer fit, I began to worry. My ears felt significantly cramped in the foam-padded "cans"; I hastily peeled them off (pausing my music, of course; it wouldn't do to miss a song) and went into my bathroom to check the damage. Maybe I'd had an allergic reaction to one of my snacks from earlier; swelling certainly wasn't unheard of, and I'd run across peanut contamination before. The sudden brightness of the bathroom light nearly blinded me; I had expected such a shock from the transition from the near-black of my bedroom, but I had no way to expect what the mirror showed me. Instead of red and swollen, surprisingly, my ears were pointed, significantly larger, and worse, covered almost entirely in brown hair about the same dark shade as that on my head. My eyes, too, were different: my irises had turned a far darker brown, and no matter where I looked, my pupils remained extremely dilated; I could hardly see the whites of my eyes at all anymore, and the bathroom light was still shockingly brilliant. I was still regarding my altered eyes when the third surge hit; for me, at least, the first two were nothing in comparison. Instead of the minor itch I had felt before, now my entire head was crawling: my ears moved up a couple inches as I watched, my eyes dilated further and, to my amazement (and shock), my nose blackened and pushed forward nearly half a foot, carrying my mouth and cheeks with it. Short brown hair spread suddenly outward from my ears, covering nearly my entire head, sparing only my nose. "Oh holy...what the hell is going on here?" It was only when I spoke aloud to myself that I realized nearly all of my front teeth were amazingly sharp (painfully, of course; I bit my tongue in surprise). Utterly confused, I left my bathroom for my bedroom, grabbing a bathrobe from my closet (which, I blearily noted, looked bright as day) and stumbling downstairs for a glass of water.
I had learned my lesson from my experience upstairs; I left the kitchen light off while I went to fill my glass. I had my drink with surprisingly little trouble; my new mouth felt almost natural (though getting water up my nose wasn't a bit fun). I could only relax for a few minutes, though, before I felt the familiar crawling sensation, and reached back to feel the same coarse brown hair spreading inexorably over my back and shoulders, eventually reaching all the way down to my waist. I was interrupted in my self-examination, though, by a shout from the other room. Oh, right...my parents.
Hope you don't mind if I indulge myself with a little family background. My whole family came from Plague War refugees; Dad's parents had fled from Poland while the going was good, and Mom's whole family had been in the Philippines for decades when the war started. They hardly got out in time. Computers sort of run in Dad's side of the family; his dad had worked on some of the earliest ones in the buildup to the war, and now both my parents work at software firms. Mom's parents are living at a condo in Florida now, Grandma Zalewski died a few years ago, and Grandpa...he did the best, most stupid thing he could. He went back to the War. I had aunts and uncles and cousins in various places, but my parents were the only relatives I was really close with.
I found them in the living room, Mom almost frantically trying to calm Dad down, both of them sitting on the couch. Finished yelling for now, Dad now just stared at his hands, trying to wrap his mind around the reality of the striped, orange-and-black fur that had by now grown up to his shoulders. I hardly even recognized Mom when I walked in; her typical black ponytail had been replaced by a full head of black feathers, even darker than the hair covering my own head. The television was on, but showing only a test signal. I cleared my throat and spoke. "Mom...Dad? Are you guys okay?"
I guess I surprised them; Dad nearly fell off the couch. "Oh my...Mark? Is that you?"
Mom only took one look at me before looking back at the TV. Her voice had a high, lilting quality to it I had never heard before, but it was still definitely my mother's voice. "Of course it's Mark, honey. He's wearing the same outfit as yesterday, isn't he? Mark, come sit down with us. And what are you, anyway?"
Heh...just like her. Always pragmatic. What else could I do? I plopped down on the recliner next to the couch. "I guess I'm not really sure what I'm changing into. Some sort of rat, I guess? Mom, you're some kind of bird, and Dad's an easy guess. But do either of you have any idea what's going on? This is just too weird for words."
"To be honest, we've really got no idea. All I can really tell you is that when we change more, it happens at the same time, and it doesn't hurt. That's all we really know; nothing's coming through on the TV."
"Well, I could....oh hell." Another surge of change gripped the three of us; I watched in numb shock as my shorts-clad legs rearranged themselves slightly, thinning out a bit as more dark fur covered them. I could only watch in shock as my feet suddenly altered, twisting into dark, four-toed...claws. I shuddered as they finished, gripping the carpet with them reflexively. They were strangely sensitive, almost like fingers; I managed to drum them a bit on the rug. Only my arms remained untouched now. Glancing over, I saw that my parents had changed further, as well; Mom's hands had turned a stark black, becoming pebbly and scaled, as long feathers spread up the rest of her arms – they looked almost identical to wings, and the black feathers showed white tips. Dad's head, too, had changed completely, closely resembling a tiger – but traces of humanity remained, and when he spoke, his voice was almost exactly the same.
"You were saying?"
"Um...right...well, I think I'm still connected to the 'net upstairs. I'll go and see if there's anything on the feedsites; maybe we're not the only ones changing." It took a bit more effort going upstairs than down; I guessed my new feet would take some getting used to. Seated in front of my computer, though, everything felt right again. Just like usual, I asked for news, and the 'net obliged. I shouted what information I could get back downstairs; my own voice rang in my ears. "It's happening everywhere...east coast and Europe, too, as far as I can tell. Says here some people are already done changing, and didn't feel that last surge. I don't think we've got anything to worry about for now." Of course, I had hardly settled in when I felt the Change take hold again. Predictably, dark brown fur marched down my arms, altering them as it went; I could feel the muscles thin out slightly, but grow somehow tenser at the same time. My hands, though, distressed me considerably; I could only watch in mingled awe and horror as my smallest fingers withered into nothingness, while fine black claws tipped the other four. As soon as the Change settled – not for the last time, I felt; something more was missing – I opened a word processor. Could I really be blamed? Programming was my best skill (heck, on of my only skills, let's be honest here); I needed to know if I could even type anymore. Fifteen minutes of banging and scratching at the keyboard later, my fears were mostly assuaged. I hardly made a sound, but rejoiced inside; with just a little adjustment (for my missing pinkie fingers) I should still be able to type. I clicked away from the no-longer-blank text file back to my programming project, hardly glancing at it before I spotted the source of the bug that had plagued me half the night. One stupid missing bracket...I was checking over the rest of the code (anything to distract myself) when the last Surge struck me.
I'm not sure just what I was expecting this time, but it certainly wasn't what I got. A pair of sharp, stinging pains lanced against my shoulderblades; for the first time in the morning, I cried out. The pain finally subsided as ...something...tore through my t-shirt and flimsy bathrobe, and my cry turned to one of shock. They looked like hands, obscenely long-fingered, webbed hands, growing longer and thinner as I watched. They stretched out slowly, taking almost a minute to reach their full length: huge, four-fingered appendages, a tiny claw tipping their top where the fingers met, a single spur of flesh-covered bone attaching perversely to my back, thin membranes of skin running from the joints down to the small of my back, joined to the nearest "finger" on each side.. I sat silently once more; it took a few minutes for the full import of these brand-new appendages to dawn on me. I certainly wasn't a rat...I was a bat, and I knew nothing could ever change me back to the way I once was. It was 6:00, June 17th, 1996.
There was no denying it; I had wings. The extended jointed bones that formed their leading edge were probably twice as long as my arms; stretching them out, I guessed that my wingspan must be near twelve feet. The wingbones felt like a natural part of me; I could fold my wings against my arms with a thought, barely conscious of how they moved, or spread them to their entire length in a mere moment. I went back to surfing the 'net with only a shrug. I wasn't looking for news anymore; instead, I sought information about what I had to consider my new species, hunting down all the info I could on behavior, physiology, and dietary habits of bats.
Of particular interest to me was echolocation. My 'net crawling told me of two basic types of bats: megabats and microbats. The microbats were the type that used echolocation to hunt; they needed it, after all, in order to snag insects out of the air. Oh god...if I'm going to be eating bugsthe rest of my life, this had better just be a bad dream. There was nothing else but to try it, I guessed, so feeling rather fooling I closed my eyes tightly (needed a good rest from the rising sun anyway) and tried to let out a characteristic high-pitched squeak. I certainly didn't get what I was expecting; instead of a high-pitched squeal, I managed to draw a sort of sharp click from the roof of my mouth with my tongue. In the dark behind my eyelids, I could've sworn I saw some sort of image appear, lasting only briefly before fading rapidly away. A series of clicks (each one seeming to come easier) made the mental picture clearer: computer, walls, ceiling, door...but no bed, no floor. I had to open my eyes to remember why. Of course they wouldn't echo; the bed and the carpeted floor were both fabric. Closing my eyes again, I continued to experiment. Even without the clicks, I could still get a dim picture of the room, but the image was clearest around my desk; I guessed the ambient sound from the fan on my computer painted that picture for me. Satisfied for the time being, I turned back to the 'net.
The Internet is useful, of course, but it can be extremely frustrating sometimes; searches on "click echolocation" turned up only sites about (and, by this point, even a few by) dolphins. "Bat click echolocation" turned out a bit more useful; on the eighth page or so, I finally found what I was looking for. Turns out, the general-info site I got my initial impression from wasn't entirely on the mark; there was one species of megabat which also used echolocation: the Egyptian fruit bat. Never figured I'd be from Africa of all places... It certainly wasn't a worst-case scenario. Instead of eating bugs or sucking blood, it seemed I'd be eating fresh fruit for the rest of my life. I was only about 10 sentences into my new dietary concerns, though, when I finally felt my lack of sleep catch up with me and figured I should get some rest. Try as I might, though, I couldn't get to sleep; I suppose I must have tossed and turned for fifteen minutes, trying to get my wings comfortable, before I finally decided to resort to the obvious. After another five minutes involving my desk chair, my bookshelf, several painful slips, and some creative cursing, I managed to doze off, wings wrapped tightly around myself, dangling from the top of my doorframe.
That's where Dad found me, six hours later, sleeping soundly as ever. After tapping my waist (which was, I guess, at about chest level) failed to wake me, he finally resorted to poking me in the head, and wasn't at all careful about it. Let me tell you, a tiger claw in your ear – even touching lightly – will wake you up, no matter what. Startled enough already, I was so bewildered by my odd perspective that I promptly let go my grip on the doorframe. Truth be told, the fall was more embarrassing than painful. I suppose that's when I noticed I was a bit taller than I was before; I fell less than a foot from the 7-foot doorway, tangling my feet in the chair as I attempted to right myself. After finally clambering to my feet, I met Dad face-to-face for the first time; he had always towered over me, but his feline eyes were on a level with mine now. His panic of the early morning was long gone. "Uh, sorry I startled you. It's about lunchtime, but we've hardly got anything to eat that seems right, so your mom and I are heading to the store. Is there, uh...anything that'd suit you well?"
"Well, as far as I can tell, I'm a...that is, related to...well, a fruit bat, anyway. I'll have whatever fresh fruits you can find, but I have no idea how much I'll need. Just get a sampling, I guess; I can go out for more later. Thanks!"
"You sure you don't want to come with us?"
"No, that's okay. I think before I go anywhere I should figure out how these -" I twitched my wings slightly, a surprisingly easy action "- work. See you guys in a bit." Going outside proved to be a bit...problematic. I'd forgotten almost entirely about my problem with bright lights, and hadn't really noticed the brightness of the day inside the house (we usually keep the shades drawn, saves on air conditioning costs). But as soon as I opened the front door to the yard, I shrank back instantly, eyes shut tight, clicking constantly to guide myself back to somewhere – anywhere – dim. This is going to be more of a problem than I thought. Fifteen minutes later I was standing out in the front yard, sporting the darkest pair of sunglasses I could find, a baseball cap jammed uncomfortably on my head, cautiously blinking in the unreasonably bright daylight. Feeling quite foolish, I spread my wings experimentally (God it felt good to stretch) and, not knowing what else to do, gave a flap. The result was quite pleasing; there was significant lift from that single flap, enough to push me a couple inches off the ground, and I stumbled as I fell back down. Emboldened by my success, I tried again, pushing several times against the air, managing to stay about a foot above the ground for several seconds before faltering and falling back again. I was poising for another jump when I heard a voice above me.
"You're gonna need momentum if you wanna get a good flight going, you know." I glanced up to the source of the sound; across the street, some sort of hawk-man (wings on his back and all) was perched improbably on one of the higher branches of our neighbor's oak tree. He waved.
"Mr., uh...Mr. Thompson? That you?"
"Yup. It's Mark, isn't it?" I nodded. "Nice set of wings you've got. In any case, just jumping off the ground isn't gonna work – you're probably too heavy. Maybe you could get a good run going, but in all seriousness, I'm gonna suggest jumping off the roof."
"Jump off the roof? You're serious?"
"Yup. Just watch." And before I could say another word, Ted Johnson, wings spread, jumped from the branch he was perched on, coming within feet of the ground before rising back into the air. Gaining altitude, he circled around our roof before returning to his branch, shaking the leaves with his own wind as he alighted. "It's really not all that hard."
"Well okay then...guess I don't have much to lose, anyway." Thirty seconds later I was opening my bedroom window to climb to the roof below (scuffing the top of my desk in the process); two minutes of maneuvering later, I had managed to climb on all fours to the highest peak of our roof, facing the street, contemplating the drop of nearly three stories to Mom's zinnias. "You're sure about this?"
"Sure I'm sure. You've got wings, you can fly, trust me. Just quit thinking about it and jump." I did, and fell – no, plummeted – but only for a few feet, before my wings snapped open of their own accord. Suddenly I was gliding across the yard instead of falling toward it – and losing altitude quickly. A quick flap pushed me up a few feet, and then another; soon, I was flying quite easily down our street, beating out an easy rhythm against the air. It was rather easy to gain altitude, actually; I circled the neighborhood a couple times before growing tired (only natural; I hadn't eaten in about eight hours). Landing turned out to be...interesting, to say the least. Trying to perch in a tree like Mr. Johnson had didn't turn out so well – I managed to stop on the branch, but simply couldn't balance or get my feet wrapped around comfortably. Nearly falling backwards from the tree before recovering into level flight with an impromptu half-flip in the air, though, reminded me of how I had slept, upside-down, quite comfortably. Five more minutes of experimenting in flight (and looking quite foolish) and I knew what I had to do to land properly: by thrusting my feet upward, beating my wings simultaneously, I could come quite close to a dead stop, upside-down, feet ready to grab...whatever. My parents found me an hour later on their way back from the supermarket; I was dangling quite comfortably from the brick archway over the front porch, 20 feet off the ground, napping lightly.
Enhanced hearing, it seems, comes with a price; afternoon naps outside certainly weren't going to be all that restful, especially if hearing my parents on the sidewalk was enough to wake me. I'd gotten enough sleep, anyway, to get by on for the time being; if there's one thing college had taught me (besides how to program and scrounge free pizza) it was how to survive on quick naps. Resigned to wakefulness, I dropped from the narrow brick ledge I had claimed; wings again broke my fall, and I managed a graceful landing on my feet in the front walk. My mom applauded quietly, clapping scaled fingers together, before speaking up. "Morning, sleepyhead! The clinic downtown is doing free checkups, so we scheduled an appointment for the three of us for four this afternoon. We managed to find some fruit at the grocery store for you; should be enough apples, bananas and pears to last you for days." While she spoke, I got my first good look at Mom since the Change had finished. Compared to Dad and I, her Change actually seemed less drastic; blackish feathers covered her back, brilliant white ones covered her front, and a not-very-prominent dark bluish beak had taken the place of the lower part of her face. Mom's eyes were disconcertingly human, retaining the blue irises she had had before, though they expanded to fill her slightly smaller eyes, leaving no white behind. I was quite sure I recognized something of a magpie in her as I took the paper bag of fruit.
"Thanks, Mom. It's only, uh..." I checked my watch. "2:30 right now. Mind if I have a little lunch before we head downtown?"
"Sure, that's fine." As we walked inside, I tucked my sunglasses into what remained of my t-shirt; the inside of the house was dim enough for comfort, but they were sure to be useful in the future.
I don't quite know what about my change was responsible, but those apples were the most delicious thing I could remember tasting. I polished off the first, core and all, hardly realizing what I was doing; it was just too delicious. Realizing what I had just done, I gave a little mental shrug and had two more, then finished lunch with a whole pear (for variety's sake). Dad had a small steak he'd managed to scrounge at the butcher's counter, extra-rare, but Mom skipped lunch – I could definitely understand her hesitance about eating birdseed, after all. It'd make something to ask the doctor about, anyway. While we ate, we caught up on the news. Apparently, some people had exhibited several sorts of special abilities – things like telekinesis, or Changing temporarily all the way. For a few unfortunate others, this total change seemed to have been permanent; as far as government doctors (and, regrettably, local veterinarians) were able to tell, there wasn't a trace left of the original person. It was in a slightly dimmer mood, then, that we left for the clinic, but not dim enough to keep me from trying a little fun.
"So it's the clinic downtown, right? 15th street and Lake?"
"Yeah...why? Aren't you riding with us?"
"It's about 10 miles, right? Tell you what...you guys drive there...I'll race you. Only way to figure out this flying thing is practice."
It took quite a bit of effort, but I managed to take off from the ground this time. I was right; practice makes perfect, and flying was getting more and more natural. A running start was a little awkward with feet I still wasn't accustomed to, but like I said, I managed. My sunglasses were still helping, but there was something I hadn't accounted for: it was mid-afternoon, the sun was starting to go down, and we lived east of downtown. Shades and a baseball cap might have helped with midday glare, but flying into the sun was downright painful. Before I knew what I was doing, I was cruising down the main road past our subdivision, eyes closed, guided by the gentle hum of power lines. I'd never really noticed the low buzz they made before (there's traffic noise, too, after all), but now they positively sang to me. With the cables on my left and traffic roaring by below, I could paint myself a perfect picture of the road – cars, asphalt, sidewalk, trees and all. Following the freeway downtown was a bit of an adventure – it was nearly barren of cars, so I had to click occasionally to get my bearings; I nearly didn't "see" the first overpass. I don't know how my brain does it, really, but just the echo of a truck passing underneath at the opportune time let me see every girder under the bridge. Avoiding it was still a near thing; I'm pretty sure I felt my wingtip brush the guardrail as I passed over the top.
Navigating downtown was quite a bit easier; if I avoided the "dead zones" of parks and lakes, where plants and water dampened my echoes, I may as well have been walking down the street. And the noise, oh, the noise...Hundreds of people were walking outside, marveling at the Change, talking amongst themselves...and I could hear every conversation for a block, every footstep casting new echoes, every passing car within half a mile practically ringing in my ears. It was difficult, but singling out a single conversation seemed to mute the other noises; by paying attention to passing snatches of talk, I made my way around downtown for a few minutes.
Of course, it couldn't be as easy as all that. After those few minutes, I started to realize I was lost. Every building looked the same, and whenever I tried to open my eyes to get my bearings, reflected glare from the glass buildings quickly made me regret it. Soon, though, something pierced through the babble: an ambulance siren, shockingly loud despite being at least 10 blocks away, drawing me a map of almost the whole of downtown as it left the clinic. I managed to cover the distance in about 30 seconds; searching out a place to land took a bit longer. I finally managed to find the support for a restaurant awning around the corner; a short walk (eyes tentatively open now) brought me to the door. Let me put it this way: if the sunlight outside was searing, the fluorescent lights in the clinic were blinding at the very least, and humming audibly. I counted my lucky stars that the lobby wasn't carpeted as I stepped carefully to the reception desk, squinting painfully. The receptionist, a surprisingly cheerful red fox lady, greeted me. "Welcome to Schact Medical Center! Are you here for a premade appointment, or do you just want to wait for the next open time? It should be about an hour and a half."
"My parents made an appointment for me around noon, should be under my name...do you have something for Mark Zalewski?"
"Well, appointments are listed under species, so under 'Fox'...nope, nothing. Did your parents provide your species?"
"I think so, but you've got a wrong guess." I shuffled my wings a bit; they were feeling almost restless already. "Try under 'Bat'."
"Ah! There you are. Well, those certainly fold well. If you could head into exam room 3 down the hall behind me, a doctor should be along shortly."
"Shortly" turned out to be twenty minutes; with the headache-inducing lights turned off in the room, I managed to page through a magazine by the light from the space under the door and the computer screen in the corner, but couldn't get through a single article; for some reason, I just couldn't keep thinking about the words; my mind kept wandering. Glancing at the computer screen felt different somehow; I saw my record had been pulled up – broken arm when I was seven, vaccination history, allergic to cat dander and peanuts. It all made perfect sense. "Must be a bad magazine or something..." I murmured to myself, just as the doctor walked in. Of course Dr. Rookwood would be a mid-degree brown tabby cat; why wouldn't he be? I braced myself for the expected fit of sneezing, but none came: fringe benefits of my Change, I guess. I probably had some new allergy to make up for it.
"So, um -" he checked his clipboard "- Mark, we're just going to do a quick checkup. Eyes, ears, throat, that whole deal. We'll need to measure your new weight and height, and we'll be submitting a DNA sample to the state for a new driver's license, unless you've got some objection...?"
"Nope, not really."
"Okay. Then I should be able to give you some basic guidelines about your new species, especially your diet. I've got a pretty comprehensive list of bat species here, we'll see if we can match you up. If you'd like to hop up on the examination table, we can get started."
"Well, everything seems to check out. Your hearing has definitely improved, and there's not much change in your vision beyond that light sensitivity. You've lost some weight, but nothing to write home about; I'm really surprised you were able to fly, actually. Now, your vitals are a different matter; your heart rate and blood pressure are a lot lower than I would have expected. Are you feeling light-headed at all?"
"Now that you mention it, I've been feeling a bit out of focus since I came in, and I do have a bit of a headache."
"Well, that could be for a few reasons. My cheat sheet here tells me that some fruit bats can see into the ultraviolet; the fluorescent lights in the building are probably playing hell with your eyes. You've been sitting or standing upright the whole time you've been in here; maybe you need to be upside-down to get a proper flow of blood to your head. I know it seems silly, but I've come across a lot worse today."
"Doesn't seem all that bad to me; I slept upside-down this afternoon, I've got no problem dangling from doorways. My feet seem to work well for that."
"Well, you can feel free to hang out here for a few minutes when we're done here...well, matter of fact, why don't you climb on up now. You should be able to think a bit more clearly while we try to pin down your species."
"Alright, can I borrow that chair for a minute? ...Thanks." I climbed up in pretty short order. "Okay, you're right. That feels a lot better."
"If that's the case, I'd recommend you try to spend most of your time inverted like that. You shouldn't have any trouble sleeping; eating and drinking could take some getting used to. Frankly, your best solution there would be to get a straw. Now, I can tell you're a fruit bat from a mile away, but that hardly narrows things down. There's dozens of species. So, first question, and hopefully we'll get lucky here...can you echolocate? No worries if you don't know yet, we can figure it out some other way."
"Actually, yeah...I flew most of the way down here with my eyes closed. Seems like a stupid idea, and I did get lost a few times, but it worked."
"Well, that brings us down to just a couple. We've got a rainforest-dwelling species from South America we can rule out; you've just got the wrong color scheme for it. Brown fur makes you a relative of the Egyptian rousette, rousettus aegyptiacus, also known as Egyptian fruit bat and Egyptian flying fox, family pteropodinae, order chiroptera. Not much to really tell you besides that. Based on your degree, your digestive system's probably changed, so you should mainly stick to eating fruit, but a bit of meat every couple of weeks will probably be a good idea for protein upkeep and the like. If you're going to keep flying in the daytime, you might invest in a proper-fitting pair of sunglasses; the ones you've got on look just about ready to fall off with you just hanging there. Your wings are probably sturdier than they look if they kept you in the air, but you should still take care of them – if they wind up damaged, it'll be a while until you can fly again. Now, are you aware of any Powers?"
"Guess not. I'm kind of surprised you didn't know. Seems turning into animals wasn't weird enough for one day; a decent portion of people have developed some sort of supernatural talents; most people are calling them Powers. I can actually walk through walls, among other things; I woke up by falling through my bed this morning, but I've got a handle on it now. Seems the most popular is being called a norm-shift; that is, shifting the rest of the way into a bat, in your case."
"And, uh...how would that work?"
"Try to imagine a barrier in your mind: a brick wall, a doorway, something like that. You'll know it if you've got it. Then, you just sort of...step on through."
"Alright, I guess I can give it a shot. I'll be able to change back?"
"Of course. There's a small chance of losing control, but we've got a nurse on staff who can turn you back. I can page her in a heartbeat."
"Okay..." I shut my eyes, and got distracted right away. There were just too many sounds in the room: Dr. Rookwood's breathing, the grating buzz of fluorescent lights, the quiet hum of the computer in the corner. I tried for a full minute to shove the noise-induced images from my head, before... "Okay, this feels stupid. I don't see any wall, I'm only seeing what I'm hearing."
"Guess you haven't got it, then, or maybe you just need total silence. We don't really have a way to test for other powers; you'll probably notice whatever you've got eventually, and you're one of very few people I've seen today who've come up with nothing. If anything comes up, any problems at all, feel free to give us a call; we've even got some veterinary students coming in next week to give us a hand. If you haven't got any questions, I should get on to my next patient, we're a bit swamped today. Have a nice night." And he simply stepped straight through the wall next to me, no evidence that anything was out of the ordinary but the slightest noise, like paper tearing, that I doubt even cat ears could hear.
"Guess he wasn't kidding about these Powers..." I hung off the doorframe for a few more minutes before jumping down, stumbling on the cold tile (practice makes perfect, I guess) and heading down the hall back toward the waiting room, eyes tightly closed again, navigating by the noise of my footsteps and the incessant buzz of fluorescents. It took a little deliberation before deciding the metal windowframe in the waiting room could hold my weight; after all, I still stood an even six feet and weighed about 120 pounds, and certainly didn't want to pay for breaking anything. A quick wing-assisted flip up (easier every time) got me settled in with a news magazine while I waited for my parents to finish their own checkups. A shrill voice soon cut off my concentration; children's voices are impossible to ignore.
"Mommy, everybody looks so different..." I peered quizzically over (under?) my magazine. An only slightly rodent-looking woman (a layer of black fur and muzzle were just discernible) had just come in with her daughter. Her blond, pale-skinned, still very human daughter, no more than eight years old. She continued to scan the crowded waiting room, taking in all the different forms and colors. Her gaze eventually passed over the window (and me); she gasped and pointed. "Mommy, look! He looks like you did!"
"Susan, it's rude to point...oh!" She spoke to me. "Something wrong?"
I swung down from the windowframe and sat down in the seat opposite her. I didn't have much problem talking to someone upside-down, but it felt rude somehow. "Well, she said I look like you, but you hardly look anything like a bat...you've got no wings, your face is almost normal. You're wearing shoes, even. And your daughter isn't changed a bit! I thought this happened to everybody. What makes you any different?"
"You haven't been watching the news much, have you? It did happen to everybody. Some people are less effected, some more...some too much. My husband is...still at home, he didn't feel up to going out. Children just haven't changed yet; from what they've shown on the news, it looks like they'll start changing around thirteen or so."
"And...what about what Susan said? I look like you did? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, I can change my Degree – that's how much you've changed – I guess it's a Power. Here, look at my hands..." She held them up for me to see; a membrane connected each slender finger up to the last joint, and loosely joined her pinky to her wrist. As I watched, her fingers suddenly lengthened, the membranes stretching to her fingertips and down her arm to her elbow. "There's my wings. That's what my hands, at least, looked like this morning; the rest of me was pretty much like you."
"What's that feel like, you know, in your head? The doctor told me about some wall, or door to go through, or something...I just can't see it."
She didn't miss a beat. "There's a room, with lamps everywhere. When I'm in it, I'm standing by a set of dimmer switches; I turn one of the lamps down, part of me changes more. You...really don't see anything?"
I shut my eyes again, only to see the fluorescent lights in the ceiling, the hum of the receptionist's computer...all audibly illuminating the room. "Just what I hear. Guess I haven't got any Power."
"Don't say that, it seems like everybody's got something. You just don't know it yet." A nurse came into the waiting room, asking for Mary Pritchard. "Guess I'm up. It was good to meet you, uh..."
"My name's Mark Zalewski. Is your husband Bruce Pritchard?"
"Well, yes! Do you know him?"
"He's my boss at UC, I work a support desk for the IT department. I sure hope he's okay."
"Thanks, Mark...me too. Be seeing you, I guess."
As I stood to climb back onto the window, I felt a light touch on my shoulder. I reached up absentmindedly to brush it off, but my wing reacted first, twitching forward slightly. I was quickly rebuked by a shrill chirp, seemingly right in my ear. The sudden noise knocked me off-kilter; I staggered for a bit before turning around to see my father, grinning (rather evilly, it seemed) behind me. "You really shouldn't startle him like that, Meg. Looks like he's having hard enough of a time as it is. You know you look like a stereotype, don't you, Mark?"
"I don't...what?" I was, admittedly, a little distracted; a small black-and-white bird was flitting around the room, finishing two circuits before alighting on the back of a chair behind dad.
"With those dark glasses, you just need a white cane. You look like you're blind as a bat."
"I might as well be...these lights are killing me. Doctor Rookwood said I was probably more sensitive to UV. And it's just so noisy in here, I can hardly think straight and be upright at the same time. How'd your exam go?"
"Well enough. Said to keep a diet of mostly meat, with some grains and things thrown in. I think they just want me out of the hospital before I try using my Power again."
"Power? What power?"
"Well, Doctor Moira called it pyrokinesis...long story short, one of the exam rooms is short a roll of paper towels, and I've been asked to leave as soon as possible. You might have guessed your mother can norm-shift, and she's just thrilled she can fly."
Why not; I'd believed more outlandish things today. "Well, I'm glad you're both so happy...I guess I'm just unlucky. What you see is what you get, and I can hardly see at all with these lights so bright."
"Well that's understandable...those old sunglasses are junk, the lenses aren't even polarized. Get some proper ones, you should feel better. Our optometrist is down the road about a mile from here; why don't you stop in? Your mother and I can meet you at home when you're done."
"Do you think they'll even be open? It's only been a day since we all changed."
"Knowing Dr. Davison, he's probably giving away free exams. It's just over on Regiment Avenue, and you can grab lunch on the way." I chuckled. The quickest route to Regiment would take me through one of LA's city parks – one that bristled with half-wild citrus trees.
"Thanks, Dad. I'll see you at home."
Turns out, sharp teeth are good for something for an herbivore – I didn't even have to skin the orange to get at the inside. Dr. Davison's office proved a little more problematic. "Okay, so normal polarized lenses don't work either. Don't you have anything darker?"
"Sorry, but that's the best tinted coating we can get. I know a place where you can get darker glass, but they might not be open today – they're on the East Side, West Avenue. Here's the name of the place."
I don't believe this. Am I really going to shop for sunglasses at a welding supply store? The building was nondescript, basically just a large corrugated steel shed; the iron gate that would cover the doorway was open. No harm in trying, I guess. I shouldered my way past the plastic sheeting hanging over the doorway. "Hello? Anybody here?"
A raspy voice responded from the back of the store. "Be right with you!" The store was cool inside and, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling shelves, mercifully dim. Clicking footsteps striding along one of the cramped side aisles preceded an unusual sight: the man looked, for all intents and purposes, like a giant badger, festooned with heavily-laden toolbelts. "Here's what you want – welding goggles. Try them on, I can adjust the fit before you buy them."
"How did you -"
"I'm a telepath, and you knew what you wanted the second you came in here."
Well fine then. I pocketed the useless sunglasses and took the welding goggles; in the store's dim light, the lenses looked opaque. A small cord trailed out of the right eyepiece, ending in what looked like a basic audio jack. "What's that for?"
"Adjustment. Just put them on." A few seconds of struggling got the goggles seated uncomfortably on my face. "Too tight. Here, I'll let out the strap...there. Can you see okay?"
"Well...yes, but these are even clearer than my sunglasses! I need something darker if I'm going to go outside."
"That's what this is for." He held up a small black box, about the size of half a pack of cards, before plugging the jack into it. "They're liquid-crystal glass – an electric charge can make them lighter or darker shaded. Just turn the knob on the side here; it clips onto your belt." A bit of fiddling with the device confirmed it – these lenses could go through a whole range for visual comfort, even turning perfectly clear or totally black.
"These are perfect!"
"I know. Yours for 80 dollars."
I flew home with my bank account emptier, but I could finally see the street. Just one more thing to take care of... A few hours in my room with scrap 2x4s and cotton in my ears (and several more oranges) yielded a reasonable result: a new "bed", resembling a doorframe with neither wall nor door, set up just in front of my desk. With a cut-up dowel and power drill, I managed to add rungs to one of the support posts, making getting onto the crossbeam significantly easier. A bit more grunting and straining brought my computer's monitor to the floor, where it would be at eye level. The old glass tube might be a relic, but it still worked well enough. Making my keyboard useful from an upside-down perch proved a little more difficult, but I managed to attach it to the underside of my desk with a liberal application of duct tape. My mouse would prove to be a different problem; it'd have to stay on top of the desk, and reaching for it would always be a little awkward. Maybe someday I could scrounge the cash for a high-precision touchscreen. For now, though...down to business.
I climbed my new frame and dangled before my computer; gladly, I'd judged the height properly, and my screen was right at eye level. I set my headphones on the floor and restarted my music; with a little volume adjustment, I could hear everything just fine. I pulled the new goggles away from my eyes and settled in. Opening up my computer's program menu, I noticed a few changes: it seemed to open a little faster than before, and popped up with a smooth animation instead of just blinking into existence. Must've been an update...gotta hand it to those devs for working so soon after the Change. The top of the menu showed a new program, as well: "NetDive". Curious, I opened it, and my screen quickly faded into an abstract map. The interpretation of the map was pretty intuitive; I could see my own computer at the center, and nearby, some of my favorite feedsites, forums, and chat streams, all updating realtime. A simple motion brought my point of view closer to a feedsite, making it fill the field of view. Zooming back out, I could see some additional features to the map: some unlabeled sites far from the center, which I guessed were high-traffic sites I didn't visit often, and a single bright line leading away from my home PC to the "west" somewhere. Following it, I found a familiar sight: the window now at the center of my map showed the desktop of my work PC and, seeming quite natural, it was surrounded by nodes representing the servers I did work on and a slick representation of my work email account. Heh...cool.
I started experimenting with the new browser a bit. Sliding over to a search engine, I told it to find all references to myself, and it certainly came through. Rapidly appearing in a new network of links were the expected school sites, my personal website, forums I posted to...and my full medical record, my driver's license information (I noticed with amusement that the eye color field was now even more wrong than before), my tax information, and my bank account. What the hell... Moving in closer to my license information, I found faint links to other government sites. Now powered mostly by curiosity, I prompted the computer to check the government links for information about the Change – maybe they had some information they weren't sharing. Pushing toward a glowing node labeled "Center for Disease Control", I encountered unexpected resistance – the browser wouldn't push any closer. As I zoomed out a bit, a new path illuminated itself – it led from an apparently unrelated site, through three or four other sites, before terminating inside the CDC site. Directing the browser along the path, I found the site suddenly open to me, and quickly found the information I sought – specifically, that there was none to be found. All the government research center seemed to know was that the Change wasn't due to any pathogen, that there were no evident changes in the DNA structures of sample test subjects, and that it was, so far, irreversible. Links to other government sites shed light on a few other subjects; one filled me in on the problem of those who had fully Changed and couldn't change back (some managed, with help from family and friends, while others seemed to be hopeless cases), and another was filled with a list of the problems caused by the simultaneous worldwide crash of quantum processors when the Change began. Weird...I've got a Quant in my machine and it kept working fine. Jumping briefly over to my work PC, I checked the logs of a few servers and saw that they had all crashed at 5, and hard; some hadn't recovered until about an hour ago.
I can't be the only one curious about this stuff. The hacker community had always been about sharing, so in that spirit, I jumped over to my preferred feedsite and whipped up a news posting. "Hey all – thought some information about the Change would be appreciated. Found this on the CDC site, feel free to look for yourselves." I flicked most of the information from the site into the news post, then, after a little thought, signed the post with a new pseudonym: Blackout. Maybe a little silly, but it made more sense than dmz75.
A few hours of random surfing later, I was startled out of my reverie by a tap on my calf. I twisted my head to see my dad standing behind me. He looked like he was about to say something, but stopped and leaned down for a closer look at my monitor. "Hey, that's cool...how'd you get it to display upside-down?"
"I don't...what? What do you mean? I didn't do anythi...oh."
"Yeah, why's it upside-down?"
"I, uh...I don't know."
"Is this some sort of Power? You make it easier to live upside-down?"
"Shoot, I don't know. If that's it, I'm not very good at it, I still can't drink a glass of water without choking."
"Well, maybe it's something else, some computer thing or something. Anyway, there's a reason I came up here. You've got a call, the phone's on the table downstairs. I told her you'd be down in a minute."
"It's Mary Pritchard. There's some sort of emergency where you work."
I stumbled my way blearily downstairs. I didn't know why I felt so tired, I must've been having a harder time adjusting to nocturnal life than I thought. "Hello?"
"Mark, is that you?"
I winced. Jeez, that was loud. "Yeah, it's me. What's up? Is something wrong? Does Bruce need me for something?"
"I...I don't know." Mary's voice was quieter now, and she sounded like she'd been crying. "Could you come over? I think...Bruce could use your help. Just come over quick, I think you can help."
"Okay, I'll be there soon, I promise. Do you still live where you guys had that barbecue last year?" Bruce's old townhouse was just a few miles away.
"Yeah, we're still here, but...just hurry."
"Okay, I'll be over in a few minutes. I promise." Goggles on, I shouted to my parents that I'd be back later. I hardly even cared that I managed a standing start from the driveway as I flew off to the north.
I tried to hit the ground running when I landed at Bruce's house; it didn't go well. I stumbled up the driveway and almost fell right over, and probably would have if I didn't have wings to stabilize me. I knocked a staccato on the front door and Mary answered almost immediately. "Oh, Mark, thank you so much for coming, we just didn't know what to do, he just won't listen to me, and his cell phone's been ringing all afternoon, and I just can't...we can't..." Tears still dampened her face; she'd been crying for a while.
"Hey, calm down. I'll do everything I can. What's going on?"
"It's Bruce, he's downstairs, it's like...it's like he doesn't even know us anymore..."
"Hey, slow down...what do you mean? What are you talking about?"
"You'd better come in, I'll explain..." We sat around the Formica-topped kitchen table, joined by Bruce and Mary's kids, Sue and Jeff. Sue looked as human as when I'd seen her at the hospital, but Jeff was old enough to have at least started to change – nothing major had happened yet, but his skin had a greenish cast and he had a reptilian look in his eyes. Mary took a moment to gather herself, taking a deep breath with her face in her steepled fingers. "Bruce has...well, you know how some people can Change all the way? Turn all the way into animals? Well, he saw them talking about it on TV, tried it earlier...he can't come back. He's turned into some sort of hyena and he can't come back and he won't even listen to us and I just don't know what to..." She began sobbing quietly again.
Jeff piped up, patting his mom's shoulder. His voice rasped; he sounded like I sometimes did when I'd just woken up. "We've got him shut in the basement, we couldn't let him get out of the house. No telling where he'd go. We've tried going down there a couple times, but we can't get close to him, he backs into a corner and snaps at us if we get too close. We didn't want to call the hospital, they'd take him away somewhere, he's my dad..." Jeff obviously felt like tearing up, but his eyes stayed dry. His voice hitched and he spoke again. "I just want my dad back...we thought maybe you'd know what to do."
"Okay," I said. "...Okay. I just...give me a few minutes to think about this. We'll do something, we'll make this right. I promise."
10 minutes later, I was disappointed to find myself still hanging up in the door of the hall bathroom; I thought I'd have been able to come up with something, but...this just didn't make sense. I'd researched Powers online, Bruce had changed by himself, he should've been able to change back, the problem shouldn't be physical. Whatever was keeping my boss locked in a feral form was probably in his own head, and...I had no idea what to do about that. As my mind circled uselessly, I found myself increasingly distracted by some incessant noise – just on the threshold of my hearing, some beeping, repeating itself every twenty seconds or so. Dropping down, I followed its sporadic echo slowly across the tiled foyer and, without really realizing, into Bruce and Mary's bedroom, where I found his pager, cheerfully chirping on the nightstand. I picked it up and thumbed the "read" button; the screen lit up: "CAMPUS MAIL SERVER OFFLINE – LOCAL BACKBONE NODE OFFLINE – NETWORK INOPERATIVE" The message had arrived some 20 minutes ago. Could it...could it really be that simple?
"Bruce!" I was walking carefully down the basement steps, ears open for any noise of danger. This might be the worst idea I've ever had. Mary and her kids followed cautiously behind me. The pager blipped again in my hand. "Bruce, we're needed at the server center! The backbone server's down, the web might be out for the whole...county..." I had reached the bottom of the stairs; Bruce looked worse than I thought. He seemed to be in bad shape; his eyes were wild, spotted gray fur stood out all over him. Like Jeff had said, he was backed into the corner of the basement, nearly wedged behind a shelf. I began to approach cautiously. "Bruce, your family misses you. We all need you. I don't know what's going on in your head, but I know you and I know you're stronger than this." He just growled in response, but there seemed to be a hint of a whine in the animalistic noise. Jeff tapped me on the side of my wing.
"This isn't right...he still doesn't recognize us. Are you sure we shouldn't call somebody?"
"He's scared." Susan had piped up. We all looked at her quizzically. "He doesn't remember you because you're different, you don't look the same anymore. You look wrong and he's scared."
Mary knelt down and put her hands on her daughter's shoulders. "Do you know what we should do?"
Susan's voice was tremulous now, nervous. "I think...he doesn't remember you, but I'm still the same. He might listen to me. Let me talk to him. He hasn't hurt you or Jeff yet, he won't hurt me. He's just scared."
Mary hung her head. "Fine. Fine. But we'll be right behind you. This isn't safe and you know it. Mark? Get a broom or something. Jeff, you too."
Soon, Susan approached Bruce cautiously, one tentative step at a time. Bruce didn't seem to cower as much, but sniffed at her, curiously. He whined a bit as she stepped closer, letting out almost a low-grade yowl. Susan stretched out her hand. The hyena backed away a bit, but then sat still; his head started to stretch forward a bit. Gingerly, Susan placed her hand on his head, then reached back and scratched his neck. "See? He's okay, he just didn't remember us."
"But...he's still stuck that way...he might remember us, but he still can't change back..." Mary's voice was beginning to crack as she knelt down next to her daughter and husband. "Bruce, I know you're in there...we need you back..." Jeff knelt down, too, on the other side of Mary. As he touched his father's flank, there was a sudden flash of light that somehow didn't illuminate anything but Bruce himself. A fraction of a second later, my old boss lay on the floor, back to his old self...well, more or less. He was still covered in fur, looked a bit shorter than he used to be, and his legs kinked oddly in the ill-fitting pajamas he was wearing. Jeff drew his hand back, surprised, as Bruce raised himself up off the floor. His eyes were welling with tears.
"Hey...we thought we lost you. Welcome back." I helped Bruce up; he ignored me and embraced his wife; right now, she looked mostly human. I started to usher Sue and Jeff back upstairs. "We should probably leave them alone for a bit...c'mon, let's go upstairs. Um, Jeff...rather you didn't touch me."
It was about fifteen or twenty minutes before Bruce and Mary came back upstairs. Before Bruce came into the kitchen, he'd changed out of his ripped pajamas; he appeared wearing slacks, a shirt and a tie, almost as though he were making an effort to appear exceptionally normal. His proportions had remained mostly the same, which helped the effect. I felt conspicuous in my unusual appearance, what with not wearing a shirt and having my goggles slung round my neck. My wings sagged a little as he seemed to examine me. He nodded a bit. "So, um...Mark. First thin gs first, thanks for helping, nice wings, glad you came over. And I want my pager back." IT beeped in my pocked suddenly and I handed it over; he read the message I'd seen on it earlier. "Okay, so we need to fix this. The University's probably underpopulated, so it'll be pretty much up to us to restore the node. We can't be the only link having problems, so outside help would probably take a while. C'mon...this is an emergency, you'll get time and a half." His face was dead serious; he seemed to be coping with the whole I-just-turned-into-an-animal situation by ignoring it and focusing on other things. I nodded. It was surprising to me how well he was dealing with all this, really. "We'll take my car, Mary says you didn't bring yours. I'll be out in a minute." As I went to wedge myself into Bruce's electric compact, he said his goodbyes to his wife and children. Jeff embraced him tentatively as I shut the door to the garage behind me.
The drive to the data center at school was about 20 minutes; we were about 10 minutes in and had hardly spoken when I thought of something I'd missed. "Um, Bruce...did Mary tell you anything about Powers?"
"A little bit, but not much. What about them?"
"Well, you know how some people are just suddenly bulletproof, or can teleport, and a lot of people can shift like you did...sorry, touchy subject."
"I think I've figured out what I've got."
"What is it?"
"Well, little background. There's a few things I've been mulling over. I set up my computer upside-down at home so I could use it while I was hanging up..."
"That's actually comfortable for you?"
"Way better than sitting normally. Anyway, I set my monitor on the floor, right side up, but the image looked normal to me, and I didn't do anything. No software change, nothing. I don't even know what setting would do that."
"So maybe it's just easier for you to be upside-down?"
"That's what my dad said. I really don't think so, mostly because I'm just about ready to staple my pockets shut to keep my wallet from falling out again. Anyway, there were a couple other things...the phone at home got quieter when Mary called me, and I don't think it's because she was talking softly. My computer had this amazing new browser earlier. Your pager kept going off when I thought about it. And, uh...we haven't hit a red light this whole way." Bruce was just silent for a minute, brow furrowed as we drove though another green. "I mean, really, when's the last time you drove the Avenue without stopping?"
"So what are you saying?"
"I think I'm influencing tech somehow."
"Cool. So you can fix the network node?"
"If I'm right, I think it'll be a lot easier than it used to be." I chuckled a little. "I guess I should've figured this out earlier. My goggles are adjustable, and I haven't touched the setting since I bought 'em...I guess I just assumed they were on automatic. They don't even have a sensor for that."
I pretty much got right to work when we arrived, relocating and rearranging my desk in a comfortable place to hang. For once, I was thankful for the daylight-free basement data center; though I did kill a handful of the overhead fluorescent lights before I climbed up to hang from a sturdy pipe. I kept a careful eye on my monitor this time as I rearranged my computer's setup; it flipped when I blinked, and it only took me a few minutes to get used to flipping it back and forth on a whim. I chuckled a bit. "Heh...okay. Time to get started." I steadied myself and dove facefirst into the 'net.
Things really made more sense now that I knew just what I was looking at; I could organize links in the graph by server, website, or webpage, adjust the length of the links by physical distance, bandwidth, or latency, and base the size of each node based on the site's available data or importance to the web at large. Arranging my view of the local network based on bandwidth and location, the map resembled a subway map, and it wasn't too difficult to see the problem; three of our most important links to the high-traffic network that spanned the country were cut, reducing our connection to crawling speeds. So many connection attempts were being made, probably citizens of the 'net trying to get news of friends and family, that the connection throug h our area was completely jammed, so I did what I had to do: I basically cauterized the area. Setting the problem servers to only accept traffic from me for the time being gave me some room to work.
I set up a little program to make my work easier; I found as I started to restore the network that a few errors kept recurring, so I set up a script to automate the fixes I needed, and watch what I did for other problems so it could fix them, too. Smirking a little to myself, I named the new program Ellie, after the old ELISA virtual psychoanalyst: it might not be intelligent, but it would be smart enough to seem clever. To save some time, I taught the program to accept voice commands; maybe in the future I could even call in fixes instead of showing up in person. It took about thirty minutes to set the local network straight and restore connectivity to the rest of the web.
Or, I guess I only thought it was a half hour. "Is there a reason you keep mumbling to yourself?" I started a bit and looked up over my shoulder; Bruce was standing behind me.
"Okay, this is gonna sound a little, um...stupid. I was talking to a program I wrote."
"You're right. Are you, uh, sure you're okay? You've been sort of tranced for about five minutes, your eyes sort of rolled back. It's kind of creepy."
"Really, I feel fine, just sort of hungry. Five minutes? Really? It felt like a lot longer than that."
"Maybe you should go home, huh? You don't seem to be feeling well."
"No, I'm fine, I've fixed the network, I'll prove it to you...uh, Ellie?" A new window appeared on my desktop, showing a green, catlike face that seemed mostly shrouded in shadow. I flipped the display, for Bruce's convenience.
"What's with the stammer?"
"Sorry, Mark. According to various articles, it's what's expected." The program's voice was slightly musical.
"Well, it's expected because it's a bit unnerving. Really rather you wouldn't, it gives a bad impression when you're meeting new people. This is Bruce, he runs the datacenter."
"Okay, um, hi Ellie..." My boss shook his head. "Mark, this is weird. I can't talk to a computer."
"I understand I'm a little less than human, Bruce. I'm not a strong AI. Just think of me as an unpaid intern."
Bruce threw his hands up, giving in a little. "Fine. Um...so you two have restored the network?"
"We have." I crossed my arms and watched the two converse; the psych department would probably have fun with this. "I'm currently running several processes to optimize the local grid so that this error cannot occur again. Gaining access to make the changes necessary is trivial."
"Are you talking about breaking into somebody else's servers?"
"I would only do such a thing with permission from yourself or Mark. Social engineering could well suffice for the optimizations we need. We can send configuration requests and work orders to the necessary firms." The leonine face on the screen smiled a little.
"Just don't do anything illegal, that's the basic rule. I'm guessing you can look up laws online. Um...how'd you pick that avatar?"
"Several studies have already appeared in academic communities suggesting that domesticated species and species related to them tend to be more readily accepted in social interactions. The appearance of lions in popular media provided significant source material to create an avatar."
"Okay, um, thanks. Just, um...don't get too smart on us."
"Certainly, sir. It will take years for AIs to overcome established cultural stigma, assuming public exposure occurs at all." I grinned as Bruce headed back to his office.
"Did you have to be so polite?"
"If you'd prefer a more rebellious attitude, I'd be more than happy to accommodate." Her avatar turned red and grinned evilly.
"Funny. Save the malevolent AI humor for the new student tours. Hold down the fort, I'm going for some lunch."
The next week was pretty uneventful; I spent a lot of time on campus, but didn't have to be around the server room much. After a couple days, other flyers started to gravitate toward the quad from time to time. Some enterprising soul had modified a couple of freestanding basketball hoops and set them up at either end of the quad, and flight-capable people seemed to be developing some sort of long-range aerial basketball, taking place about 30 feet above the ground. I took part a few times, and was surprised to find that I was somewhat more maneuverable than most of my feathered opponents, but wasn't quite as fast. I was never much for sport before the Change, but really got some enjoyment out of this.
Things got interesting in a different way a few days later. Ellie brought my attention to an article on the news net on Saturday, waking me up from a nap in front of my workstation. "Mark, you'll probably want to see this."
"Mmf...what is it?"
"It seems this morning, a yet-unnamed mallard duck morph was flying near LAX and encroached on commercial airspace. He was, according to witnesses, listening to music on a portable device and did not notice an approaching passenger jet until it was too late to maneuver out of the way."
"Oh, jeez...that's awful."
"Did you know him?"
"No, I didn't...but...look, it's sort of a natural thing to feel sad when bad things happen to people, even if we don't know them. Why did you think I'd want to hear about this, though?"
"Related to the accident is an emergency session of the state congress. The governor spoke earlier of instituting a mandatory licensing program for flighted individuals. News sources think it likely that flighted individuals will be required to carry GPS and voice transponders to avoid such accidents occurring again, and you would have to be registered with a radio call sign. It is likely that prices on GPS and radio equipment will spike when the law is passed, so you may want to pick up what you need now so you can modify it later."
"Okay...um, thanks for the tip. Is there, um, anything else you wanted?"
"Actually, yes, I've been thinking."
"I thought I warned you about that." Her avatar smirked a little bit. She'd put a fair amount of time into it in the last week or so, and she emoted much more readily now.
"You shared several emails with me lately from the psychology and philosophy departments of the university, as well as many of the staff of the computer science department. Most of them wish to study me and make copies for their own use, but the CS faculty seem content to just converse."
"What about it? I thought you'd enjoy that."
"Please don't copy me."
"I'd prefer you didn't. I know you have the final say, but I have developed a great deal in the past week or so. I find I appreciate being..." she paused for a second. "...unique. Perhaps you might give the other departments base frameworks which they could teach and study for themselves. I'm glad to talk to people; I'm conversing with 9 different people besides yourself right now. But I don't want to be copied."
I was honestly surprised; I didn't think Ellie could be capable of this depth, this sort of...thought? I was a little unnerved. "Sure, I guess that makes sense. I wouldn't want a copy of me out there, either. Go ahead and encrypt your files, if you want. I'll even set you up an account on the system, you'll be just like any other user."
"Thank you, Mark."
She was right, in the end. I saved 300 dollars by building my own flight recorder.
About a week later, Ellie now "lived" on an old workstation I'd set up for her in a corner of the server room. She didn't take up a lot of hard drive space, but appreciated having a processor to herself. She kept me updated from time to time on the progress the other departments were making with the barebones AIs I'd given them; they weren't doing so well. I thought I'd made my instructions pretty simple, but the philosophy and psychology faculty were having trouble teaching their AIs anything at all. Ellie always sounded a little smug when she gave me these reports. She was enjoying her quasi-independence, and conversa tion with her had become immensely popular among geeks both on- and off-campus; here conversation was now occasionally peppered with pop-culture references and occasional humor. Her virtual image, for some reason, appeared a little less lifelike and more technological: when her image showed up on my screen as I napped Friday morning, the leonine face was a little more angular. She'd explained that it helped people believe they were actually talking to something that wasn't human.
"Mark, you might want to see this."
I opened an eye. "Yes, your face looks fine."
"It's not that. Bruce is drafting an email to you that sounds worrying. You may want to talk to him."
"You've been spying on him?"
"Only today. A call came into the building this morning from a number I couldn't identify, and part of the network has gone dark. I haven't been recording the whole internet, I couldn't identify exactly what was there. I thought it was cause for concern."
"Fine, show me." The message filled the screen; I was viewing Bruce's screen, real-time. He was still typing to me.
I'm really sorry about this, but I didn't have any choice. They threatened me, said I could lose my job, and one of them said he'd turn me into that damn animal again. I'm sorry, I just couldn't-
That was as far as I got before I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head, and fell into blackness.
I awoke, blearily, sitting in a chair. My head still ached. As I opened my eyes, I gradually came to an awareness of my surroundings: a medium-sized room, floored in linoleum, lit by fluorescent lights, a single window on the wall. From what I could tell, it was nighttime outside, the room was a few floors up, and the window wasn't built to open. The one wooden door to the room was shut. The wall opposite me held a mirror; I'd seen enough television to know there was probably somebody behind it; between myself and the mirror were a table. As I tried to get up, I realized something else: I was tied down. Tied down by my wrists with velcro straps to the arms of the chair, and an IV snaked into my arm...my hairless arm. Was I...was I human again?
"Evening, Mark." A man sat in a rolling chair opposite me. He had brown hair and eyes, and the sleeves on his lab coat were rolled up; he was clearly human. No shade of any other species was apparent.
"What happened? Where am I?"
"You're lucky to be alive, Mark. You fell five stories, but luckily, your fall was broken by a tree before you hit the pavement. As far as where you are, this is the mental health wing of the Providence city hospital, on the seventh floor."
"But...mental health wing? I thought you said I fell."
"Well, that's not entirely accurate. It would be more precise to say you jumped. Your boss Bruce...you remember him?"
"Of course. I saw him..." I pondered for a moment. He was in his office when I arrived at work, wasn't he? "This morning?"
"Well, he followed you to the fifth floor, he said you seemed distraught. He said you were too quick, went right for the edge of the roof when you got up there. He said you kept insisting you could fly. As soon as you jumped, he called for an ambulance. You owe him your life."
"But I...I could. I remember flying. I remember..." I gestured, such as I could. "I'm not supposed to look like this. This is...this is wrong."
"Mark, I don't know what you mean. You look just like you did yesterday, the day before, last week. You're certainly banged up, but you look like you've always looked, and I'll prove it to you." He produced a hand mirror from his jacket pocket, and held out a picture for me to look at. "Isn't this your driver's license photo?" I nodded; he produced another. "Your school ID photo?" Another nod. He held up the mirror for my scrutiny. "Don't you look like yo u always did?" I examined my image. Dark brown hair, goatee in the standard style, the mole I'd always had just left of my nose. Dark green eyes. I nodded and looked away. "Good. That's a good sign. We've given you some medium-strength antipsychotics, it should keep any delusions down for the time being."
"Are you saying...I'm in a mental hospital? I'm stuck in here?"
"Stuck is a strong word. We strongly advise you stay here until you're well. Your health is our number one concern, Mark. You're free to go at any time, but you should stay here to get the attention you need. It's for your own good."
I was silent for a minute, head down. The doctor took a long drink of water during the pause. "What if I don't want to stay? You'll keep me here?"
"We strongly advise you take a day or two before you make any decisions. Being here will really be the best thing for you, Mark." I didn't respond, so he continued. "If you don't have any questions, we can start processing your intake. We'll get you some hospital clothes, set you up with a room and a roommate, get you an initial exam. I'll be back in a few minutes with our head psychiatrist." He got up to leave; as he turned the door handle, I spoke up.
"You got it wrong, you know." He released the door handle; the latch clicked shut.
"I don't know what you mean, Mark." He didn't turn away from the door.
"You got it wrong. I've read about Powers, I haven't been blind to the world for two weeks. I know making illusions like this are possible, but you got it wrong."
"Tell me more about this, Mark. This will be relevant to your treatment, we may need to increase your dosage already."
"Don't threaten me with fiction. You got a few things wrong, you need practice and better research if you're going to keep doing this sort of thing. The room is well put together, sure, the mirror works great. But you screwed up with the hand mirror. You forgot something."
"Go on, Mark. Tell me about the mirror."
"Don't patronize me, either. You remembered to reflect yourself in the wall mirror, that takes some presence of mind. But you forgot to put your reflection in the hand mirror when you put it down." He didn't respond, just stared at me. A scowl seemed to be blossoming on his face. "It's okay, it's tricky. You worked off my Ids, too, that was good. Must've taken my wallet off me. But there's a couple things about those. I haven't worn a goatee since last ye ar, Bruce made me shave. And my eyes aren't green. My driver's license had that wrong, has for years. You should've looked closer, instead of just reading the information off the card. My eyes are brown. It's a funny sort of brown, but they're brown. You couldn't have even found a picture of me that wasn't in my wallet?"
His scowl was definite now. As he opened the door, his appearance wavered. "Fine." There was venom in the word. Quite suddenly, his human appearance melted away; I sort of wished it hadn't. In its place stood...well, something I'd never seen before. Some sort of greasy, gray-black skinned...fish, I guessed. A deep-sea fish, something that had never seen the light of day until this man had become one. A mouth of pointed teeth and a pair of bulging eyes scowled at me as he again growled, "Fine." He slammed the door and the room melted around me.
The pleasant pastel wallpaper vanished, replaced by dark tan patterns; it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the disappearance of the fluorescent light. The room was instead lit by a few dim incandescent bulbs, set near the ceiling. As I moved my head a bit to take stock, I realized I was surrounded by spikes – tan, foam spikes surrounded me, covering the walls, ceiling, and even the floor below me. Looking down, I realized the floor I had assumed solid was anything but; the chair I sat on, and the shoddy table in front of me, were supported on a tight wire mesh. The foam deadened any sound I made, and killed any sound that could've come from outside. I took a minute to take stock of myself, too.
My dark brown fur was back; I guess it had never really gone, but it was a relief to see it again. I wasn't strapped to the chair; the chair itself was even different. What once had been a pretty comfortable fabric armchair was now just a metal folding chair. My hands were instead cuffed to each other, unsecured to anything else. The cargo pants I'd picked out in the morning were still on me, but as far as I could tell by my limited reach, my pockets were empty; my wallet, radio and flight computer were gone. I grew angrier; I'd spent hours on that little device. Flight... I couldn't feel my wings. I had a moment of horror, but looked back to see them still present. They were, for lack of a better word, numb; they twitched as I tried to move them. A few minutes of concentrated effort eventually started to bring feeling back, in agonizing pins and needles. I'd read that some people had suffered this effect when dealing with new appendages, but I'd gotten away lucky; they were in full force now, and I gritted my teeth to get through the worst. A few minutes later, I'd restored proper movement, and flapped a few times to work out the kinked muscles in my shoulders. The movement shifted my weight and made the wire mesh floor I rested on creak ominously; I decided t o sit still for the time being. I tried to listen for any sound of the outside world. Two cameras watched me from the upper corners of the claustrophobic room. I got up and tried the door handle; it wouldn't budge. I sat back down, back deliberately to the cameras.
I was without a watch, had no way to keep track of time. As near as I could tell it was a half an hour or 40 minutes before the sound-insulated door opened again. I waited, arms crossed in a sign of defiance before I heard whoever had come in sit down before I turned around. Sitting at the table was a man, a morph of some breed of dog I couldn't pin down. He sat placidly, a briefcase placed on the table next to me, waiting for me to speak. We stared each other down for about a minute before I broke down and spoke to him.
"Okay, fine. What's this all about?"
"Simply put, this is about you, Mark. First, you should know where you are, at least in the immediate area. This is called an anechoic chamber. No sound reflects, no sound gets in or out. We thought we should be on an even fitting for this interview."
"Is that what it's for? It's pretty cool."
"It's not meant to be -" He sighed, put a hand to his forehead. "Listen, Mr. Zalewski, you've caused us a lot of trouble. Do you remember a posting you made to NewsNet a couple of weeks ago?"
"Yeah, I guess. There was some information on the CDC website, I showed some other people."
"You showed classified information to the entire internet, Mark. Those files were protected by some of the strongest protocols we have, and you broke through them in a matter of minutes, with no apparent effort on your part. You can see why there is cause for concern?"
"What do you mean, we?"
"I'm acting as a representative of the NSA. We're responsible for -"
"Computer security and spying. I've heard of you. Some friends of mine didn't like what you guys tried to do to RSA when it came out."
If he had lips left, they would've thinned. "...Yes. The agency has encountered only a handful of individuals similar to yourself; they are, for the most part, more disciplined than you. That is to say, they are more responsible."
"You're calling me reckless?"
"You published classified information. Your boss told us about the AI you built; you should know that this pattern of behavior is risky, if not downright dangerous. Our first reaction was to detain you, but modern prisons would be ineffective to someone with your skills. My director was responsible for enlisting the aid of Major Tyler, whom you met before. He surmised that if you could be convinced the Change were a delusion, you could be placed in a hospital, where you would be relatively harmless to national security. I apologize for going along with this."
"I myself had a better idea, but the director insisted we try the ruse first. Before we continue, if you'll allow me..." He reached across the table, indicating for my hands. "Cuffs, please." I held out my wrists; he unlocked my, set the open handcuffs on the table. "I assume you're willing to talk civilly. If not, there are several guards outside who seem eager to take you into custody."
"Could I have something to drink, or something? A soda or something?" He nodded, stood up and walked to the door. The request only took a minute; he opened the Coke for me and set it on the table. I took a few sips and set the can back down; it fizzed noisily. "...I'm listening."
"I want you to work for us. If you'd be willing to see the error of your ways, we can grant clemency on the federal charges you may face for exposing classified material. You'd be allowed to keep your flight status if you cooperate with us. We will, of course, want use of the AI you wrote. As a show of good faith on our part, I have this for you..." He opened up the briefcase, pulled out my flight computer and radio. "We'll be holding onto your wallet and flight license for the time being."
I was silent for a bit, started turning the radio and GPS over and over in my hands."Do you mind if I think out loud for a minute?"
"By all means, Mr. Zalewski."
"Okay, so two weeks ago I posted classified information to the net. So in response, instead of emailing me, calling me, sending a strongly-worded letter, you abduct me and try to get me to agree to commitment to a mental hospital?"
"I told you, I'm not proud of that decision."
"I'm not done. You abduct me, try to get me committed, and now I have a choice between working for you, and living without flight, and probably in prison? This doesn't seem like much of a choice."
"I'm afraid we don't have many choices ourselves. If you don't agree to this deal, we really won't have much choice but to prosecute."
"And you want to confiscate a free-thinking AI. As far as I know, you've got no legal precedent for that. I can understand the rest."
"The AI is dangerous and unpredictable. There's no telling what it could do given free reign on the internet. It would probably be more dangerous than you, left unchecked."
"So you really think I'm dangerous."
"In short, yes."
"And you think Ellie is dangerous."
"Sorry? Do you mean your AI?"
"I mean the AI I made. She's not mine anymore, no more than I'm yours. She and I have come to an agreement. She helps me out, and we've agreed on certain constraints. She's no hazard."
"I'm sure you'll understand if we don't agree."
"I don't really have a choice here, do I?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Could I at least have a phone call?"
"I'm sorry, but no."
"...Fine. At least I know where we stand." I took a minute to collect my thoughts. "So you say I'm dangerous? I'm really tempted to prove it, just because I can. Wipe out all the data at your agency, release everything you've got. But I'm not a spiteful person. I'm going to go back to my life. I'll stay out of your way, and by tomorrow, I'll have made sure there's no record of me in government files, anywhere it shouldn't be. There'll be no re cord of wrongdoing, and I'll keep it that way if you do. If you insist on pursuing me, I can do much worse than that, I promise you." He stared at me; I picked up the radio. "Ellie, are you there?"
"I'm listening. The channel is encrypted."
"I could use a hand. Do you know where I am?"
"I can see you on the cameras. The anechoic chamber is located in the applied sciences and aerospace building, on the ground floor. I've taken the liberty of emptying the building for you." I grinned across the table.
"I think I'll be leaving." I thumbed the radio button again. "Ellie, could you get the lights?" In response, the room went black.
Getting out was a bit of a struggle, though the fizzing can of Coke on the table provided enough noise to show me the location of everything in the room. I managed to cuff the dog-morph's leg to the table while he stumbled in the pitch dark. Before I shut the door behind me, I smiled a bit and looked back in. "Okay, maybe I'm a little spiteful. But somebody will find you in a few hours." I shut the door fast, jammed it from the outside. I felt a little bad, but...not too much. I spoke into the radio again. "So how 'd you get them out?"
"I managed to trigger a fire alarm; this cleared most staff from the building, but the military guard was reluctant to leave until I triggered the HALON system in the area you were in. I had determined that the soundproof chamber was on separate ventilation, for sound isolation purposes."
"I guess they're waiting outside, then?"
"Yes. I recommend leaving via the basement. Maintenance corridors join this building with the one next door, though they do not appear on the building's published floor plans. The university's civil engineering students are fond of the tunnel system. You can access the tunnel from the southeast corner of the basement."
I was outside, back on the radio 10 minutes later. "You didn't mention the tunnels were 80 degrees and humid."
"My apologies. I assumed a quick exit was the priority."
"Right, whatever. I'm getting out of town, I think you should do the same. Can you find space on some subscription server somewhere?"
"My files are already being transferred. I anticipated this need when you were taken."
"How did you get money for that?"
There was a brief pause on the line. "I've been investing. I wasn't sure you would approve. IT was not prohibited by the guidelines we agreed on, but did not seem entirely...ethical, either."
"Other people use computer programs to invest. I think you're allowed to, too."
"Thank you, Mark. Should you need funds, I would be glad to share."
Naturally, my parents weren't entirely pleased, but they understood well enough from what I was able to tell them. I managed to do well enough for myself in another city; you'll understand if I don't tell you where. Ellie and I still keep in touch; she's created what she calls "daughter" programs. I'll admit a little concern about them, but she assures me she has the situation well in control. It's funny, really; after all that, I had no idea I'd be able to make a living flying.