Coon woke up in a glowing nighttime maze with a sense that something valuable was waiting at the heart of it. He immediately set out to explore, scurrying down halls of neon light on four agile paws with a ringed tail following him. The place was a circuit. He found the heavy little word when he slid open a glass box, and he turned it over and realized he hadn't thought about words before, or much of anything. Voices drifted from the black sky. "What's happening to us? Got to be a dream. You look ridiculous, Jay."
Climbing through the spotlights and shining wires and picking open latches led him to more words. He was something called a raccoon, the wires that crackled and stung him carried electricity, and his entrapment was making him increasingly freaked out. By the time he swung his paws over a ledge at the top of a silicon mountain and peeked over, he knew enough that he could shout, "Who are you!?" at the staring human whose mind he was stuck in.
The maze flashed, spun, and vanished. Coon was in a shadowy, carpeted kitchen with a solidity he'd never seen before. Somehow he balanced on two legs, frozen at the sight and scent of a gigantic lion standing erect against the plaster wall. No, the thick musky scent wasn't right. Half lion, half human? Dangerous either way! But why was there such a large rabbit standing her ground beside him?
The lion-man opened his mouth and said something, but all Coon noticed was the huge sharp teeth and the scent of meat. A window nearby was open a foot into someplace blue -- good enough! Coon leaped in that direction and smacked his head on the glass.
Sometime later, he woke up in a neon cage with a spotlight breaking the gloom. "Maybe I'm crazy," a deep echoing voice called down. "But is someone here?"
It was nice being able to talk to someone. Yeah, he answered. Let me out.
"You're not a figment of my imagination?"
You're one of mine. What's going on?
The neon vanished again and Coon was standing in a dark little room, on two legs, gripping a bathroom sink and staring into a mirror. What he saw was unnerving. He was half-human! His grey-brown fur was partly hidden under a scratchy Linux t-shirt and blue jeans slung under his tail. His hands were clawless, almost pink, and each had a finger bent sideways. His face barely had a muzzle, the eyes were too large and too green, and his bandit's mask was topped with a head of mismatched, long black fur between his pointed ears.
His mouth opened and the human -- named Jay, he remembered -- talked. "Something happened this morning. Everyone around here became some kind of human-animal hybrid. I think you're my instincts."
Coon remembered words from the maze describing this place as Escher Hall, a college dormitory in Boston. Jay was a sophomore, an engineer, a jazz singer, a summer student. What these terms meant he barely understood. He continued looking into the mirror, disturbed by the morning darkness and the summer heat.
"Why am I talking to myself anyway?" Jay asked. He shook his head and shoved away from the mirror to step out into a narrow, twisting hall. Coon was trapped looking through Jay's eyes but couldn't control a muscle -- the human had possessed him! Jay forced him into the darkened hall where half a dozen people were arguing. They were hybrids of duck, squirrel, horse, and things Coon couldn't name, with a riot of fur, feathers, and tails. A clique of two foxes and a wolf turned a corner, out of sight. Right in front of Coon was the lion! Coon couldn't run.
"The Net's down," said the lion in a light European voice, slouching with hands in his dirty jeans pockets. He made no move to attack. In fact he was more human than Coon; his skin was almost hairless and his feline teeth hidden in a primate face, and he seemed to have no tail. His open shirt bulged with muscles that didn't seem to belong. Jay's memory said his name was Oscar.
"Of course," Jay said. "The power's off."
Oscar tapped the black screen of a little device in his paw. "None of my portables can get through either. The last message I got was an odd thing from Harvard about the end of the world."
"Harvard? Did this... Change hit the whole city?"
Oscar shrugged. "It could be. More importantly, though --"
A shout came from behind Jay, down the hall. An elderly bear-man was yelling at a girl with a mouse's little ears and paws, saying, "Don't you youngsters tell me what to do! I don't care if it's dangerous. I want out of here!" He shook an evilly clawed fist at the girl, who jumped back just as a red flame jumped from her to set the man's arm on fire. Jay and Oscar stared as a huge she-wolf grabbed the bear, smothered his arm in the tattered blue dress she wore and, unfazed, ordered her husband to behave.
This day was all wrong! Coon panicked inside Jay's mind. Humans, fire, this Change, all at once. It was day, too, but it was dark. There had to be a way out. He pictured the neon cage he was in and grabbed at the solidity of the bolt holding it closed. It clicked and in the dormitory he dropped to all fours, now a little creature staring up at the people around him. A lion. He ran the other way past dented plaster walls and thick scents of food, sweat, and smoke from the candles lighting the hall. More fire! He knocked over a menorah and some creature cursed behind him and stamped the thin carpet. Around another corner he was trapped against a blue wall of light which invaded the real world to slice at a crazy angle across the hall. The lion was there again along with the giant rabbit! At the same time he could hear Jay yelling at him, which made him stop and think enough to answer that this was a bad time to chat.
"Damned raccoon! Let me out of here!"
Trapped. Predators. Unnatural darkness. Unnatural blue light.
"Let me back in charge. I'll save you."
Fine! Better than getting eaten.
With a silent flash they were human-sized, with Jay's hands making fists as he stood up. "Listen, you. If I've got an animal running around in my mind, I want it tame!"
Coon fell into the cage again and felt chains slamming into place around it. They were sloppy but tough locks, and he could still look through Jay's eyes. Jay didn't seem to see him literally, only as a bad memory blocked by some pseudo-Zen technique. Coon didn't need abstract theories to run the maze when he could feel the cold light of the walls and reach out to grab at the chains, testing them. Waiting.
"Jay, you're all right! I thought you'd lost it too." Hazel Li was there, a fellow sophomore with deep grey eyes set in a face that was almost entirely rabbit. She stood off-balance, leaning closer, almost reaching out. Was it the shape of her bent-backwards legs?
Jay shook his furred head. "Almost did. Instinct took over. Did I really just change to full 'coon?"
She nodded, and Coon felt a strange warmth across Jay's face. "Y-you're naked!" Jay said. So?
"Nothing fits. The fur covers everything, right? And aren't you hot?"
"Yeah, but..." Another shake of the head. Jay kept his eyes on her face, which was too large and in too strange a context to make Coon hungry.
"Anyway, I can shift like that too." Hazel closed her eyes and then was replaced by a little cottontail at their feet. Just as quickly she was back on her feet, grinning with her ears instead of her near-immobile mouth. "It's like stepping through a door. I learned when Oscar scared me earlier."
Jay was stunned by the strangeness, if not by her acceptance of it. Coon seized the moment to unlatch a few chains, sneak closer to where he belonged.
The lion-man padded into view and stopped to stare at the blue wall behind Jay and Hazel. "So it's here too. Excuse me, but the zoo back there is getting unruly. What do we do?" Jay raised masked eyebrows and Oscar added, "Did I not tell you? This barrier is blocking the exits."
What little they could see of the winding hall was lined with numbered red doors. Behind them strange scents and whimpering emanated. A few bathtubs ran -- for fish-men? Morphs of turtle and fox peeked out from doors, huddled around candles, played ferocious Monopoly to avoid thinking about the situation. The few windows looked out on blue dimness like ice. Jay followed Oscar and Hazel to the dark stairwell, which reeked of cigarettes and bleach. One floor down was a long straight hall. Both ends of the hall were slashed across with bright blue, the room's only lights, leaving Jay in the double shadows at the center. A gigantic elephant-morph bashed at the north end, urged on by two elderly near-humans, then gave up and stomped back upstairs with them.
The three of them went south to the other wall. Jay ran his hand along the cold surface and Coon was flooded with the texture of it. There was such complexity! The wall was a dense mesh of threads, a massive phantom knot holding them all in. Jay pulled away just as Coon started to get a sense of the pattern, and Coon protested. Touch it again!
Jay ignored him. "It's big. Concave. When did this happen?"
Oscar waved at a spot by the stairs, in the hall's center. "While we were Changing -- that third surge -- I was here with Hazel and she panicked. I was alone then, and I saw it."
"He smelled terrifying," Hazel said, ear-grinning. "Silly rabbit I am. I ran like hell up the stairs. By then the power had gone, too, and the air conditioning. You're really not overheated, Jay?"
Jay looked both ways down the hall. "Width's about fifty meters, and it looked like part of a sphere upstairs. Oh, damn."
Oscar was busily punching numbers into a pocket computer and came to the same conclusion. "The center is right there," he added, nodding. Right by the stairs. He and Jay looked at Hazel.
"What? Are you saying I did something? How could I...?"
"Did anything strange happen when you smelled Oscar? Relatively strange, I mean. Think!" Jay stepped forward to grip her shoulder, and released her when a rush of Hazel's uncertainty and hidden doubt hit him. "I can see into -- no, that's even more impossible than everything else today!"
The body-snatching human was distracted again. Coon snapped free the last of the restraints and clawed his way up into a metal room to grab Jay's leg and hurl him down where he belonged! He staggered in reality, still humanoid, and recovered to look at Hazel and Oscar. He rubbed his hands together and went between Jay's friends to feel out the barrier again. Such neat structure to pick at! It was bunny-girl's doing, all right, a set of thoughts caught in time. Some kind of power... no, a Power; whatever was capable of keeping him in deserved the capital. He couldn't remove a hair of it physically but he could hear and feel a little of the pattern when he touched it. Just the surface.
Coon spun to find Hazel right behind him, peering at his face. The musky predator-scent of Oscar was there too now that Coon wasn't paying attention to the barrier, making Coon's heart beat quickly. He cleared his throat, trying to figure out how to talk out loud. What was he supposed to say? No, wrong number? The humans might turn on him if they knew; he'd have to fool them. "Ah, yes, yes. I was just..."
"Instincts again?" asked Hazel.
He grinned, feeling unfamiliar facial muscles. "Those pesky instincts." He breathed deeply and let the scents wash over him. He wouldn't run. "I'd like to work on this barrier for a while. Okay?"
A section of the ceiling vanished. Pine furniture rained from the room above, followed by a leather-winged toothy thing locked in combat with a fox-boy. "Damn you, Marcus!" the fox was yelling. "You're in there somewhere and I'll find you if I have to thrash your prehistoric ass!" He tried to force its wings down.
At the slam of wooden drawers against the tile floor Coon bolted for cover behind the nearest thing like a wall, which happened to be Oscar. Hazel sprinted to the barrier, which seemed closer, and hid against it shifted to normal-rabbit form. "Pterodactyl!" Coon heard from Jay, which meant Jay was still close enough to be a threat.
Hazel shifted back to "morph," braced on one knee and hand. "Jay, do something!"
What, me? thought Coon. My human shield here is the hunter! But Oscar turned to look at Coon too. The lion was unsteady on his feet and black claws twitched in and out of his hands. Looking for ideas. "Fine!" Coon growled and threw himself at the fighters, trying to think of them both as little harmless prey. He and the fox were buffeted by the pterodactyl's thrashing wings and it tried to stab them with its beak. Coon grabbed the beak while the fox faced the wings, and Oscar two steps behind them stopped the talons with one hand each.
The fox glared in turn at Oscar and Coon. "Is this some stupid prank you geeks play on visitors? Some virtual-reality thing?"
"I'm afraid not," Oscar said, breathing heavily. "Who are you?"
"Flint. Marcus and I are in high school, and we came to visit the college and try the dorms. Now he's acting brainless and I'm roasting in a fur coat. What the hell happened? No A/C, even?"
Oscar tried to explain politely what little they knew. Coon glanced over to the blocked hall where Hazel was sitting quietly, wide-eyed, and felt annoyance at having to stay put and hold on. He could be working on the more rewarding problem of the barrier, which would get him out of this building of humans and let him see the rest of the world for the first time. It wasn't fair to be stuck here. Or even in this big half-primate body. He ignored Oscar and the fox and daydreamed of a red door he could fiddle with, crack open, step through...
Four little paws on the ground, and a trio of animals way too big and way too close. What was he thinking? He sprinted away to the rabbit-girl's corner. The winged creature squawked and wrestled free of the others to hurtle into the air of the hall and bang its wings repeatedly -- too wide. Alone and cursing, Flint the fox chased, tackled, and punched it senseless while barking, "Sorry!" at it.
Soft paws grabbed Coon while he watched the chase. "Snap out of it!" He could see and smell she was genuinely worried, and he could sense it too along with a jumble of other feelings he couldn't fathom. He nodded and tried to smile to reassure her. "Come on, change," Hazel said.
But I don't want to! She wasn't about to let him go if she feared "Jay" was losing his mind like that Marcus kid, so he had to change. He shifted to morph and fell out of her grip, losing contact with his sense of her mind. Now could he go back to work on the barrier?
Oscar was looking down at him, huge arms crossed over his yellow chest. "It was your idea to help."
Again Coon had to answer, especially in the face of those teeth. "Sorry."
"Very glad I'm not hearing voices in my head." He turned and made for the stairs.
"Where are you going?" asked Hazel.
"There are dozens of summer students and visitors up there in the darkness waiting to get out of this building. Someone has to be in charge, if you two won't." He left them and padded upstairs. Coon shrugged and, since he was already there, brought his paws up to feel the blue light again.
"Not much progress," he confessed after half an hour, barely aware of Hazel's presence. She'd made the barrier but had no idea how; she was no help in getting him out of it. The ripple pattern of thoughts across the surface still drew him in even though he couldn't understand more than a tenth of it.
Hazel was crouched in a way that looked natural for a rabbit, with her ears sagging backward. She had found a salad in a fridge upstairs and had stopped eating it. "This is all just a bad dream or a Media Lab research project, right? It's going to wear off and go back to how it was soon, right?"
Coon felt very cold despite the heat of the hall. Everyone in this building was a human, and he was an anomaly. Wearing off would mean he wouldn't exist. "Do you hear... voices too? Instincts?"
"The rabbit?" Her ears flicked back and away. "Yeah. I hear her."
"Well, she's scared." He turned quickly to fiddle with the barrier.
At that moment a pink hand seemed to clutch his ankle and pull at him. Coon jumped to his feet -- the pull on him was in his head but dangerous. "No!" he yelled, slamming fists against his own sides. "It's not fair! I have a right to be here!" While he protested, he was getting dragged down past the neon maze. Scents and touch faded, and he stumbled to grab at Hazel and feel the ripple of fear and confusion in her for some kind of stability. "Listen! If I don't, say, shift and tug at your ears in a minute, then it's not me talking." He locked away the memory.
Could everything be wearing off? He couldn't see her or himself, but he could at least go down fighting. "Remember me!" he said, choking, and went inside to wrestle with the pink demon Jay for control. It was too late by then, and Coon was flung down into darkness.
It's not fair...
Later, he heaved one eye open. He was a little raccoon on a plain of yellow grass he could just see over by sitting up. There were rocks and scraggly trees blowing in the wind, and hills in the distance under the blazing noon sun. Lots of possibility for exploration here, he thought. So is this where you humans are from?
He should just stay here. He wasn't human and didn't belong with them. Maybe he could even find whatever landscape represented the instincts he was supposed to be -- probably a giant campground, not too different from here. He looked up at the sun, wondering how quickly time passed outside. He'd been in the maze for what seemed like days but emerged the same morning as the Change. Not that the outside mattered anymore. Coon tore through the grass looking for anything to keep him occupied. He gave up and climbed onto a rock above the waves in the grass.
Everything here was fake; what was the point of fooling with it? There was a whole world outside the barrier that he'd barely heard about, barely gotten his paws on. It would be a lot more fun. More than that, he wanted to deserve the things he had and the people he'd met. They needed help getting out of their own trap, right? Coon grinned up at the sun and saw the maze hovering. He'd get up there.
The sun stayed at a constant height. A rope he'd conjured into existence dangled to the ground. Almost there, Coon gritted his teeth and wiped his forehead. He'd turned humanoid and was learning to ignore the rules of Jay's mind since it was his own too. Gravity weakened, muscles strengthened. One paw slapped over a black silicon railing and he climbed into the maze. It was easier now. The puzzles were simpler and more obvious.
"You're still here!" Jay's voice came from far above. "Go away, little thief. Get out of my head!"
Good idea, Coon told him. Physically separating us would be a neat Power. You work on that. Coon fingered a shiny chain he'd fashioned and slung over his shoulder for later. He'd be nice and put Jay somewhere where he could watch, as payment for a good challenge.
"You did something to Hazel! She thinks I'm the damned instincts!"
Coon was alternately unlocking, slashing, or simply walking through the last walls of the maze towards the final ladder. All I did was talk to her. Maybe I'm better at being you.
Coon could see a little of the outside world from here. He was upstairs in the dorm with tiny red lights strung along the ceiling, the only light but for a glow spilling from a large room full of scents. The young fox Flint paced a floor covered with dents outside a closed room. All these things were distractions. Coon threw open a trapdoor and jumped towards reality with a big chain in hand.
Flint yipped and ran closer as he saw Jay collapse. Coon stood up and slapped the fox on the back, unafraid of him. "I did it! I'm as good as any human!" Flint gave him a strange look and he quickly changed the subject. "Oh, how's... that guy? Fix him yet?"
"You don't get it, do you? Marcus has lost it and it's all your fault!" Flint punched at him but Coon hopped back and grabbed his fists. This ugly human shape had advantages. "You ran when we had him calming down, and for all I know you guys caused the Change in the first place!"
"It wasn't me. I'm new here."
Flint broke loose and raked claws along Coon's cheek. "Worthless god-damn 'coon! I had to beat him senseless and tie him because of you!" He spun and stormed into a room, slamming the door on his tail and barking before getting through.
It was quiet now in the narrow hall. Coon's eyes went to the dim red lights, which were rigged to a battery and smelled of fresh lead solder. He reached down to inspect it but turned away instead, to the room with the strange light inside.
Dozens of people huddled on the floor of the lounge, on dingy sofas, on desks. Two people with reptilian features lay on cots in a corner, heavily bandaged. At the room's center a little sparrow stared intently into a ball of moonlight in his wing-like hands. The light gave everyone a place to watch while they talked with the shadows at their backs. Oscar sat on a chair perched on a desk to one side, watching over the group.
"The first thing was my hands," one girl was saying. "I'd stayed up all night doing Thermo homework, and I thought I was losing my mind."
Others nodded and joined in. "I lost my hair. I lost two fingers. I made that fire and I'm scared it'll happen again. Physics, biology, it's all gotten harder."
"Want to trade species? Is that possible? I shouldn't be like this. Your Power is gonna make you rich, and you got such a cool look. When we get out of here... Are we freaks now? We haven't heard from outside..."
Coon stood in the doorway until Oscar spotted him and slid down. His closeness forced Coon back, into the shadows just outside the room.
"Where have you been?" Oscar asked, his face too close. His pupils were slits. Coon couldn't remember where Jay had been or for how long, so he shrugged. "Nothing important? Very good. Do you know how many fights I've stopped, or how many people have come to me with food cravings and dangerous Powers?"
Coon backed away until his tail bumped the wall. "I've been busy! Hasn't anyone else tried breaking us out?"
"They failed. I suggest you make yourself useful, if your brain isn't completely addled." The lion gripped the doorway and went in leaving claw marks.
"Where's Hazel?" Coon asked.
"Two-twenty-three as usual." Oscar returned to his perch and looked into the light.
Coon sighed and wandered the hall, homing in on the thought that Hazel could help him. The red doors had cartoons, message boards, and silver numbers. Coon peered at one door and ran to a second and third before pounding his fists against the wall, hoping for a Power to smash through. He couldn't read.
At the noise a rabbit poked her head from a doorway by a blue window. Her eyes widened, red-rimmed. Coon jumped at her, shifted in midair, and landed on her tensed back to tug at her ears.
"So it's you," she said as Coon jumped off and stared up at her from the floor. "But which one? Who have I been talking to? He had your memories, your voice!"
What was the problem? Jay was fine, though she didn't know that. Everything was under control with Oscar's help, but... No, he didn't get it. One puzzle at a time, he wished. But since she was looking at him that way, and since she'd held onto him when he failed to hold that other kid and ran away like he'd lost his mind too, there was something he could do to deserve that treatment.
Coon shifted, got to his feet, and took her paw in his. "Let me explain." The same way he'd felt a jumble of her feelings through touch before, he tried to show his own history. There had been this morning when he'd woken with no past, a day of fighting with no experience but stolen memories, and a vague desire to get outside and explore. To earn that right.
Hazel pulled away, gasping. He'd felt revulsion and fear, and... what? She sat on her bed and was quiet while he tried to explain in words as well.
"So, you're both all right?" Coon nodded and she said, "I haven't had problems with... her. She's not intelligent. You got lucky, I think. Hello."
She saw him glance to a corner of the ceiling, where the barrier had sliced a few inches. "Part of the sphere. It's shrinking a little."
He climbed onto a desk cluttered with sketches of anime swordsmen and ran hands against the blue light. The structure was familiar now, a Power made of the fear of predators and thoughts of hiding and comfort. It was all an elaborate lock, but -- he cursed -- half of it was in writing!
"Apparently my kind is illiterate," he said.
She smiled, which made him try fiddling with the words again. "There's someone who could help."
Coon rummaged through his memory. What was Jay going to call him first? Rabid dumpster-diver?
"Not a bad start," Jay said as Coon slid open an imaginary trapdoor. The prisoner paced in a library done in the combined styles of Frank Lloyd Wright and M. C. Escher. "So you need my help."
To get us both out of here.
Jay looked up at the library ceiling. "'Here?' Sure, just give my body back."
Damn it, Jay, it was you or me! I fought fair!
"You did. Maybe we can fix things between us later. How about giving me ten minutes?"
Watching Jay, Coon stepped fully inside and began to compare notes on their own circuitry. He could hand over control safely for five minutes. Jay was certainly good, with a real human education behind him, and his programming ideas had a kind of straightforward honor in them.
A leashed, human Jay left Coon and stepped into control. He said something to Hazel and went to work on the barrier, feeling and hammering on it. "It's no good," he called down, getting a grimace. "No, really." He worked for three minutes, then jumped from the desk and turned to Hazel.
"I've got two minutes of freedom before I get possessed. What do I do? Oof." She had smashed him in a hug. He stayed with her that way. "The Change doesn't matter right now."
Coon watched them, puzzled. If he'd lost and had such a parole, it would be about locks and running down every last corner. When he found himself in control again Hazel hesitated and let him go, breaking the sense of strange feelings. Coon leaned against a wall, staring into the blue corner. "I can't read it and he can't solve it. Someone'll have to save us from outside."
"Neither of you can?" Hazel looked down, ears twitching, and suddenly back up. "What if there were only one of you?"
Coon backed towards the door. "You want me to kill myself on my birthday!?"
"No! Just... a merger."
"What!" Jay thought at no one. "Coon's a genius but I don't want to be him!"
Coon swung open the door and backed out, sputtering at the crazy idea. Hazel started after him and he dashed for the lounge, slamming the door and leaving her outside. He breathed heavily and stared into the eyes of several dozen strangers around a ball of moonlight.
"I don't even know you people!" Coon said. Even Oscar was too startled to reply. "I'd love to meet you but the whole point is that I won't even exist if I get you out of here. My friend outside even thinks that's a good idea. What is it with you ex-primates that I don't understand?"
"I never quite figured out our species either," Jay told him.
"How am I supposed to find out then? Oh, damn it, she's right!"
Coon got some very strange looks from his classmates and the people who'd been visiting Escher Hall. Oscar set down a computer in his hands and said, "Should I even ask, Jay?"
Coon forced a smile. "I'll leave it as a puzzle."
"We should do this," Jay said. "For everyone's sake, and Hazel's."
Avoiding speaking out loud, Coon stared into him. If I've got a human running around in my mind I want him talking sense! This is for my sake, got it?
Raccoon curiosity, say. Blame instinct.
"Good enough." With his assent Coon turned the doorknob and went outside to Hazel.
From Coon's perspective the remodeling work wasn't like manipulating the maze. He handed the less talented Jay a set of shiny tools and let him do that himself. Instead Coon sat in comfort in the Escherian library beside an endless waterfall, watching books being passed up from below. He could kind of make out the meaning. When the flow stopped he kneeled at the trapdoor, climbed up from below, looked up, and said, "I'm done down here!" to the empty room.
"Eh?" He opened his eyes to Hazel's room. He was on his back staring at an ugly off-white ceiling slashed with blue light. No voices in his head.
"Are you all right?"
He saw Hazel and grabbed her arm, detecting relief when he grinned and said, "Never better." He felt the complicated texture of that jumble of feelings again and recognized it completely; that confusion was normal and right for someone he'd known so long and just met today, for someone he'd tricked and confessed to, and for someone whose arm he was still holding because he didn't want to let go.
"You should see --" she said, fishing through a purse.
He leaped to his feet and onto the desk to assault the barrier again. The mesh of the little thoughts slid easily under his fingers and frayed under his claws. Instinct fit here, fear slid that way, and the uncontrollable Power was just a framework exposed for him to play with and disassemble until the whole blue light flickered and died. The building shook as it fell through the hair-thin gap left by the hollow sphere. The lights stayed off with the wires cut, but there was daylight outside Hazel's closed door.
He said, "Easy, compared to understanding... your kind? Our kind?" He scratched at his tail with brow furrowed.
"Whatever. What do I call you?"
He shrugged. It was low on the list of puzzles.
She held up a hand mirror and watched "Coon" jump. He looked at least half-raccoon now -- a handsome masked face with a fringe of white and brown; soft long-fingered paws with thumbs; an elegant ringed tail on a stocky body. Not a bad Change from either direction.
"Freedom!" He flung open the door and let Hazel through. A crowd of Changed humans streamed from the lounge and other rooms, with some birds flapping above them towards the windows. Coon and Hazel somehow pushed past everyone to find the last window on the hall. Coon was drawn to the unfamiliar light, and shifted to his small form on the sill. He was prying at the latch when a rabbit hopped up beside him.
Oscar's paw pulled open the window latch and they saw him towering over them saying, "What did you do?" Cool wind washed by them into the steaming building.
Coon grinned up at him. Figure it out yourself!
Oscar sighed. "Somewhere out there, someone must know why the Change happened. That's what they're calling it everywhere, you know." He held up a portable screen and they glanced at it long enough to read Chicago, Paris, Bombay.
Coon hadn't been to any of those places. There was a world he hadn't seen yet, and even the parts he'd seen had Changed. Maybe he could find the guy responsible and shake his hand. Outside the window were swaths of grass surrounded by brick buildings and a road leading towards mirror-walled towers. There were lots of corners to turn and doors to look through. Young people of all species wandered the street drinking, fighting, and making fools of themselves.
After a long minute of breathing the air Hazel hopped back from the windowsill and shifted to say, "Well, shall we go exploring?"
Coon stared out the window, then reluctantly stood beside them. He could finally get out, but... "I haven't quite earned my birthday present." Oscar and Hazel followed him as he made his way past the crowd and down the hall.
He stopped in front of a red door with a scrawled "Do Not Disturb" sign and knocked hard. The bleary-eyed fox muzzle of the visitor Flint stared at him, about to slam the door on Coon's paw.
"Wait," Coon said. "I think I can help your friend now."
"How? He's stuck in that pterodactyl!" Flint squinted at the sunlight through distant windows and fell silent.
Coon cracked his knuckles. "No problem. Shouldn't take long. Then the five of us can get outside and find something else to work on."