Maui International Airport; Maui, Hawaii
The voice came clearly over the intercom. "We're sorry to announce a slight delay in the boarding of Koala Airlines, flight 1012. We expect to begin boarding in the next 30 minutes."
Captain Harlan Nelson cursed under his breath and broke into a light jog across the airport. His flight from Los Angles had only just landed, taking him from his home to Maui. A delay on the ground there had delayed him almost an hour. Now the plane that he was supposed to be in command of was sitting on the ground without its captain.
"Hey! Harlan! Hold up!" came the shout from off to the side. Barely slowing, he saw another man in uniform jogging to catch up. "Dennis! What are you doing here?" Dennis Potemkin was an old friend and fellow captain with Koala. "I thought that you were on the LA / New York run."
Dennis slowed as he caught up. "Just got a transfer to the Sydney / Hong Kong run. In fact, I'm deadheading with you. I'm supposed to pick up my flight only a little while after you land. If we ever take off, of course." he said with a grin.
Harlan smiled and sped up his pace, "Well, then you'd better hurry. I'm already late."
It took only moments to reach the gate. Harlan tried to avoid looking at the passengers waiting in the uncomfortable vinyl seats as he passed. He could feel them all glaring at him for being late. It was getting on into the evening, and as it was the flight would land at eight in the morning, local Sydney time. With Dennis in tow, he jogged up the jetway to the waiting Boeing 747-400.
"Evening Captain, nice of you to join us."
Harlan rolled his eyes as he hung his garment bag in the small closet at the rear of the cockpit. Then he looked at the source of the voice, his co-pilot, Clint Sands. "No cracks, Clint. I got stuck in LA. Are you at least nearly ready for takeoff?"
The younger man nodded, "Ayup. We'll be only delayed a little. I've got the weather reports for the South Pacific here, and it all looks good. There is a storm off the coast of Japan, but that shouldn't bother us any. The plane seems to be checked out, and the passenger baggage is nearly loaded."
Harlan nodded absently as he sat down in his seat. He took a glance at the empty engineers seat. "Where's Chen?"
"He's checking on something down in the equipment bay. We were having an intermittent warning light up here a little while ago. He thought it was just a loose fuse or something."
A woman's voice came from behind them, "Hi boys, new in town?"
Harlan smiled and looked back, "Chipper as ever, are we Beth?"
She smiled broader, "You know the rules for a flight attendant. The bigger the trouble the happier we're supposed to look. Right now, the passengers in the terminal look like they're ready to revolt. Mind if we start boarding?"
"No, go ahead." He said with a smile, "Just keep them from storming the cockpit."
The two pilots continued their preflight. A few minutes later, Ding Chen returned from the equipment bay, having declared the warning light fixed.
Forty five minutes later, Beth returned with a clipboard. "The passengers are loaded and the doors are closed and locked."
"What's the tally?"
She glanced at the clipboard reflexively, "357 passengers and 18 crew, including Dennis Potemkin, who is soaking up a seat in our first class cabin."
Harlan nodded and took the roster. "Any notables?"
She shook her head, "Not really. A couple of big executives down in business class, but no one you're likely to have heard of. The only reason that I know about them is they've both made sure we all know that they made more money waiting in the terminal than we made last year."
Chen laughed at that, "Nice. This will be a fun flight for you."
Beth rolled her eyes, "Tell me about it. There's also a group of American high school students going on to Australia. Forty of them. They're taking up a pretty big chunk of the second coach section. We're going to be running interference to keep them out of Business Class."
Harlan shrugged, "Do what you have too, but keep them out of our hair. I guess that all we need now is clearance from the tower, and we can be off."
Like nearly every flight that has ever taken off or landed in the history of aviation, Koala Airlines flight 1012 started completely normal. The plane took off and attained cruising altitude just fine. The first meal service, a choice of chicken or fish, went without a hitch. Most of the passengers settled into sleep for the remainder of the 16 hour flight to Australia. A few stayed awake to watch the first of two in-flight movies.
In fact, if this plane had taken off on almost any other day, it would have landed without incident and the passengers and crew would have gone about their business and their lives, never thinking much about it.
But it wasn't just any other day...
Harlan looked over the instrument panel again. "Let's see... we're about an hour outside the Solomon's, wouldn't you say Clint?"
The co-pilot looked up from the early breakfast the stewardess has brought him. "Uh, yeah, I think so. We should be in Sydney in, oh, a little under five hours, I guess." He said as he popped the last bite of egg into his mouth.
Harlan nodded. "I'll go and let Dennis know. I guess he'll be on time his flight after all. Can you watch things up here?" At his co-pilots nod, he stood and started to step around his seat. For a split second, he felt dizzy and started to stubble, but caught himself.
Chen looked up from his manual, "Trip, Captain?"
Harlan nodded as he automatically started to loosen his collar. He was suddenly feeling warm. "I guess. Chen, would you mind checking the A/C up here while I'm gone, it's feeling awfully warm." He looked at his engineer closely in the dim light. He hadn't noticed that Chen was growing a beard before.
A shout of surprise from the first class cabin caught his attention, and without another thought, Harlan opened the door. Most of the passengers were still asleep, or just stirring, but his eyes fell on a well dress older woman in the first row of seats. She was sitting right next to Dennis Potemkin, and was intently staring at her hands. Even in the dim light of the passenger cabin, Harlan could see the heavy fur growing on them.
Dennis was awake and turned toward Harlan, opening his mouth as if to speak. At that moment, another wave of disorientation rolled over Captain Nelson. Steadying himself on the bulkhead, Harlan's eyes locked with his old friend as he seemed to fold in on himself. A huge yellow beak erupted from his face, and the words that he tried to speak turned into the plaintive cry of a seagull. A gull that was now tangled in the uniform of it's formerly human owner.
That turned out to be more than the woman sitting next to him could stand. She screamed at the top of her lungs, waking anyone who was still asleep in the forward half of the plane. She was so scared that she didn't seem to notice that her face had pushed out into a small snout, and her ears had started to move upward on her head.
Harlan felt suddenly warmer himself, and in shock pulled up his shirt. His stomach was covered in coarse tan fur of some sort. "What the hell?" he whispered under the cries of the gull and the screams of the woman.
He heard pounding on the stairs leading to the upper deck, and two stewardesses appeared, each one not exactly what they had looked like when the plane took off. He knew that one was Beth, since as the head flight attendant she wore a red vest over her uniform. He needed that little bit of help, because her face was completely different. In fact, she looked more like a dolphin above the neck than human. The other woman was still mostly human, but as she got closer, it was apparent that she was partly covered in emerald green scales.
Beth ran straight for Harlan. "Captain! What's happening?"
It took a moment for him to find his voice. "I... I.. don't know. Is it happening all over the plane?"
Frantically, Beth nodded, "I think so. Most of the passengers are waking up now! What do we do?!"
Harlan clicked back into his Captain mode. He didn't have time to dwell on things, he had a plane load of passengers to take care of. "First of all, let's not panic." He thought a second. "Do we have any medical people aboard? Doctors, nurses, someone?"
Beth looked frantic, "I don't know! I'll check."
"Good, I want to see anyone that you can find right away. I need to contact the ground..." He barely had the words out when he felt another surge hit. For a moment, he felt pain at the base of his spine until he heard the fabric of his uniform pants tear. He felt his body seem to tilt over slightly, as it balanced itself with a new tail. He looked at it in awe a moment as he realized where he'd seen that tail before. "Oh my God, I'm turning into a kangaroo."
He barely had the words out when he heard Chen behind him. "Captain! Something strange is going on!"
He turned to see his flight engineer... at least he thought it was his flight engineer. The creature was still wearing the uniform, still had the two loops on his shoulder bars, but the thing that he saw looked vaguely like a panda. Looking more carefully, Harlan realized that the engineers face was still very much the same, but he had grown black and white fur over it. "Chen?"
His round head nodded nervously as he seemed to be staring at Harlan's oversized tail. "I guess it's happening all over the plane. Uh, we need to help Clint, he's having problems."
Harlan and the other stewardess raced in behind Chen and found Clint struggling a bit in the chair. The once fair haired young main was suddenly covered in dark red scales. He head had narrowed and projected outward a great deal and his mouth turned upward at the edges. Harlan suddenly realized that the man was turning into a fish. A vision of the poor man flopping helplessly on the deck flashed though his mind.
He reached over and started to unbuckle him. "Clint, are you okay?"
His wide eyes looked at Harlan in terror. "What's happening?" he gasped.
Harlan realized that the man was trying to breath out of gills on the side of his neck. "I don't know, Clint. We'll try and help you. We're going to get you out of the cockpit, though." He looked at his panda engineer, "Help me with him."
They gingerly lifted the man out of the seat. He seemed to stunned to move much on his own. At one point, his hand jerked and hit the radio panel, knocking over a cup of hot coffee in the process. Harlan couldn't be sure, but he thought that he say a brief flash before the smell of burned insulation reached his nostrils.
Chen let got of the co-pilot and rushed the check the damage. "Captain, it looks like we have a short circuit."
Harlan nodded. "Okay, let me get Clint out of the cockpit. Run a damage check, and make sure that the auto pilot is running."
They moved into the first class cabin, which by now was alive with activity. By now, the woman who had been screaming earlier looked a bit more like a badger than before. She had apparently helped the gull out of his former uniform and was holding it still so it wouldn't flap about the cabin. She seemed to have calmed down a great deal, but her eyes seemed to indicate that it was shock that did it.
Harlan eased Clint into an attendants jump seat and looked him over briefly. There was no question that the man was somewhat a fish, and more than just superficially. The fact that he had apparently working gills was enough to indicate that. The man seemed stunned, though, and not able to function well, even if he seemed to be able to survive on land for now.
Harlan hoped that wouldn't change. They couldn't put this plane down in less than a couple of hours without going into the ocean, and he didn't know if kangaroos could swim.
He hurried back into the cockpit, where Chen was just tossing a soggy clipboard to one side. He sighed as Harlan walked in. "It's not good, Captain. We've lost the main communication system and the cabin PA from the cockpit from a short circuit, and the back up isn't working. I'm not sure why. It's more than a fuse, though. Some of this wiring is burned away."
Harlan nodded, "Okay, that might be fixable. What about the other systems?"
"You seem to have total control of the plane." He paused for a second and looked at his black furred hands, "That is, assuming we don't just become animals."
Harlan started to move to sit in the Captains chair, but with horror realized that he wasn't going to be able to sit normally. His tail was long and very stiff. He tried to fold it under him, but couldn't. "Damn, we're going to have to do something about this chair. Can we remove the back?"
Chen looked at it briefly. "I don't think so, it's all one piece. But I'll see what I can do."
The Captain shook his head. "I'll work on this. You see about getting us ground communication." The flight engineer nodded and pulled out a toolkit to start pulling the panel off.
Harlan tapped his hand a couple of times on the seat when a sudden thought occurred to him. He turned and grabbed the cargo manifest off the peg it was hanging on. He skimmed the rows of shipped cargo aboard. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, though he secretly hoped it was something explainable. He would have loved to see some entry like "Top Secret CIA Device" somewhere on the manifest but nothing even remotely interesting, much less unusual, was listed.
There was a knock on the door jamb, "Captain? I've found someone."
He looked up to see the dolphin headed flight attendant standing in the doorway. Right behind her was a man with the head of a horse. "I'm sorry? What?"
"A doctor? I found one."
Harlan's eyes lit up. "Oh, great! Please tell me you know what's going on."
The man stuck out his hand, but didn't have a chance to speak before they all felt another surge come on. Harlan felt an incredible pain in his shoes, and hurriedly kicked them off as his feet elongated. He also felt his body tilt a few more degrees forward, but with the tail, he wasn't off balance at all. He looked up at the sound of tearing fabric as a dorsal fin popped out of the back of Beth's uniform. Chen was staring at his reflection in a shorted out video screen. His head was more completely that of a panda, but there were still vestiges of humanity there.
When it was all over, the doctor stuck his hand out again, and Harlan took it before he realized that it looked more like a hoof now than the hand that he had seen a moment before. "I'm Dr. Tony Rial. I'm not actually a medical doctor, I'm a zoologist with UCLA."
Harlan laughed a mirthless laugh. "Dr. Rial, a zoologist sounds like just what we need. Now can you tell me what the hell is going on?"
He shook his equine head a bit. "I don't have the faintest idea. This goes against all the laws of biology that I've ever known, and I've seen a couple of laws of physics go out the window, too."
Harlan frowned at that. Biology wasn't something he knew, but his life revolved around physics. "What do you mean?"
"Some of these people are getting larger by the second. I saw a person in the down in coach that's beginning to look like an American Bison, and I think he must already weigh about 400 pounds. He's not pulling that mass in from anywhere that I can tell."
Another flight attendant, this one male, rushed forward to the cockpit. His body seemed largely unchanged, but his head was the perfect replica of a barn owl. "Captain, I think you need to make some sort of announcement. It's getting ugly down there. Everyone is scared to death. Worse than that, some of the people think that you're keeping them in the dark."
The steward shrugged, "The air-phones are out. People think that you turned them off."
Harlan frowned and looked at Chen, who shrugged. "That system is working, Captain. It's totally separate from the radio."
Harlan cursed under his breath. He started skimming the aircraft diagnostic systems for an obvious fault. All systems, save for the flight deck communications system, were reporting fully operational. "This doesn't make any sense. That system is working. We can send out a signal fine. The only reason it wouldn't work is if..." His voice trailed off as realization hit. He looked at the partial transformed figures around him. "I can only think of a few reasons why that system would be out, and none of them are good. Either the satellite system is out..."
"Not likely, sir." interrupted Chen from his crouched position on the floor, "We should be in range of at least a couple of satellites and possibly a few ground stations at this point. All of them would have to be out."
Harlan nodded, "I know. I think something big is happening. Either that system is out, or it's overloaded. If this is happening globally, I imagine that it's overloaded."
Harlan looked at Dr. Rial. "Can you give me any explanation to give the passengers? Assuming it's not global, could we be carrying something aboard that's doing this? Could it be a virus of some type? A mass hallucination?"
Rial snorted at the last one. "I doubt any of those is true. I've never heard of a chemical or a virus that can do anything remotely like this outside of fiction. A virus wouldn't work this fast and with such different results, and I'm particularly sure that we aren't all just hallucinating."
"What makes you so sure?"
Rial pointed to his head. "When you look at me, what do you see?"
Harlan frowned, expecting a trick question. "A horse?"
He looked at the owl headed steward, "How about you?"
He tilted his head curiously. "Uh, a horse."
Finally, he looked down at Chen, "And you?"
Chen looked up from the equipment panel that he was examining, "An Icelandic pony." All three looked at him oddly, and he shrugged, "My parents owned a couple when I was a kid. Sure looks like an icelandic to me."
Rial smiled and nodded. "Whatever, the point is that all three of you are seeing the same thing, and it's the same thing that I'm feeling. Just like you, captain, looked like a kangaroo below the waist, your flight engineer looks like a panda and this steward is looking like some type of owl. I have doubts that a mass hallucination could be so consistent."
Harlan tapped his hand a couple of times on the top of the seat in frustration. Then he nodded, "Okay, I guess we'll just assume that this is really happening. I'd better make some kind of announcement to the passengers. Doctor, you're the closest thing we have to an expert. Anything that I should tell them?"
The horse headed doctor thought a moment. "I'd recommend that we move anyone whose becoming an aquatic animal to the same place. Of everyone on board, they worry me the most. Not so much the sea mammals, but the fish. I saw at least a dozen when I walked up here. They are going to need special care."
Harlan nodded and looked at the steward. "Phil? You are Phil, right? Tell Beth to clear out business class of everyone but aquatics. Move anyone whose becoming a fish or something in there."
The steward nodded, "What about Beth? She's turning into some kind of dolphin." Asked the steward nervously.
Harlan shook his head. "We need her. Unless she's starting to have problems, we need her." He looked down at Chen, "Can you mind the store? I think I'd better go down and make this announcement. Show the flag, so to speak."
The flight engineer nodded nervously. "Captain, I can keep an eye on things, but I can't fly this plane. What if something goes wrong?"
The Captain smiled, "What else could possibly go wrong? I'll only be a minute. Just keep an eye on the autopilot."
He left Chen to fixing the radio and started walking through first class. Well, he more hobbled. His legs were a hybrid of kangaroo and human, and they seemed to want to leap rather than walk. In fact, he almost gave into the urge to try it before he realized the ceiling was a little too low to try games like that. He paused a moment in the first class cabin. There were about thirty people in here, and all were eyeing him nervously, seemingly hopeful that he'd help them somehow. Even among these passengers, he saw a huge variety of animal.
He paused at the seat occupied by the badger like woman. The gull that had been his old friend Dennis was pecking at her arms, trying to get free. Harlan grabbed the mans shirt and wrapped his head. The bird calmed down a little. He looked at the woman. "Can you hold on to him until we land? Are you going to be okay with that?" She nodded weakly, but said nothing. Harlan didn't have time to make sure of that, he had to move on.
In the last row of seats, he spotted a man staring at his arms. All of this passengers exposed skin had turned black with a white patch near each eye and another that started at his chin and disappeared under his shirt. He seemed to be straining against the seams of his clothes, like he'd suddenly gained a great deal of weight in the last few hours. He was definitely turning into a killer whale.
Harlan stopped next to the man, "Sir? Are you okay?"
He looked up from his hands. "I guess. I mean, I'm not in pain if that's what you mean. I'm just feeling really dry." He smiled humorlessly, as if just realizing what he was saying.
The Captain sighed, "We're moving everyone whose becoming aquatic down into business class. We're hoping that we can make you all more comfortable down there." The whale nodded and stood up and followed Harlan.
As he came to the end of the small cabin, Harlan realized that he was about to have a learning experience. He looked at the narrow spiraled staircase and then at his elongated feet and tried to figure out how he was going to manage this. He looked over his shoulder at the passenger behind him and grinned sheepishly. "Here goes nothing."
At first, it wasn't so hard. Gripping with his largely unchanged hand, he tried to step with his heels on the steps. He got down three before his tail started getting in the way, threatening to push him forward and unbalance him. A few more steps, and he even started getting the hang of it. He glanced about the cabin and noted the stares of passengers and crew. Then he felt a now familiar feeling.
He stopped moving as shouts of surprise and panic filled the cabin as 375 people suddenly started to realize that they were becoming more and more animal. Harlan felt his hand start to shift position on the railing and instinctively held the palms of his hands before his eyes so he could see then shift.
Unfortunately, he had forgotten that his hands were all that there was keeping him balanced.
He tumbled down the last few steps to the further shock of the passengers. As soon as he hit the cabin floor, he pulled himself into an approximation of a crouch and shook his head to clear it. At the same instant, like a twisted science demonstration, the lower half of his face started to project outward. He stopped and crossed his eyes to see it, reaching up a hand to touch it a second. His brief shock was broken by a cry from the coach cabin.
Harlan jumped to his feet, and a few feet into the air on top of that, and hobbled down the aisle. A woman in the third row had actually grown horns, a pair of long, dark, spiral horns that projected backwards from her head. They had also managed to stick themselves through the fabric of the seat and penetrate several inches.
He started to move forward to help her when an overhead baggage bin several rows back suddenly popped open, spilling coats and carry on luggage all over the aisle. At first, Harlan noted absently that someone had banged there head into it as they stood. Then he squinted a bit at what he saw. The man was still sitting in his seat, but his neck had grown to almost three feet. The giraffe morph was slowly running his hands along the sides of his neck in wonder.
He reached the stuck woman a second later. "Stay calm, Miss. You're not really that stuck." She was still breathing hard, but allowed him to gently push her head forward, freeing her horns. She smile her thanks and then slowly leaned back, making sure that her horns went over the top of the seat, much to the annoyance of the slightly reptilian woman sitting behind her.
The Captain was about to go to the galley phone to make the general PA announcement, but Dr. Rial and the owl headed steward reappeared. Though, now he was more than just owl-headed. Save for his legs, he practically was an owl. He'd taken off his shirt, revealing a pair of very wing-like arms. In fact, if it wasn't for the talons that replaced his hands, the illusion would be almost perfect.
Dr. Rial waved his hand at the Captain. "I think that you need to take a look at this."
Harlan frowned. He didn't like the fact that the man had just announced that something else was going on. The passengers seemed nervous enough. He followed Dr. Rial down the aisle and they entered the second section of coach seats. Rial stopped. "I think you may want to see this. I noticed it when I was brought to the cockpit, but I didn't think all that much of it at the time. Now there has been another surge of change, and it's the same."
Harlan frowned, "What are you talking about?"
Rial pointed to three seats on the window side of the plane. It was apparent that it was a family traveling together. The two parents were obvious: the mother was fairly far along toward a Bengal Tiger and the father was covered in dark blue feathers with yellow rings around his eyes.
But Harlan's attention was far more drawn to the small child, perhaps six years old, huddled in the seat between them. He was completely human. The mother also was holding an infant in her lap. As they got closer, they realized that she was human as well. Harlan looked wide eyed at the equine zoologist. "How can this be happening to us and not them?"
The doctor shook his head. "I don't know, but the same thing is happening with those high school students on board, though not to the same degree. Some of them seem to have changed a small amount, but not much. Others haven't had the smallest alteration of their form. The steward here did a quick survey for me. The oldest one that is unchanged on board is 16."
Harlan almost didn't hear the last part of what Rial said. His eyes were transfixed on the mother and her infant. She'd been cradling the child while the three of them watched from a distance, but she suddenly started licking it, much like a cat does a kitten. How much are we becoming animals? thought Harlan.
He shook himself of the thought and started toward the intercom system in the forward galley. He didn't pick this spot haphazardly. From this position, with only a slight turn of his head, he could see into the business class section, into the first partitioned coach section and up the stairs into a small part of first class. More than that, he'd be visible to a high percentage of the passengers. Time to show the flag.
"Attention ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Nelson. I'm sorry that it has taken me so long to make a general announcement to all of you, but I'm sure that you can understand that we are having the same problems that all of you are." There were a few murmurs, and even a small amount of laughter, at that. "I'm afraid that there is little that I can tell you at this time that you don't already know. Obviously, we're all transforming somehow. We don't know how, we don't know why."
A shout came from business class, "What about on the ground?"
Harlan looked at the source of the voice before he spoke, and then couldn't decide whether to laugh or stand open-mouthed in shock. The guy was *hideously* ugly. He had apparently removed his shirt at some point, perhaps to check the extent of the changes, and not put it back on. Apparently hairless, he looked vaguely like a mole that had been shaved. Harlan found his voice, and managed to look at the man seriously. "I'm afraid that we do not currently know the current situation on the ground."
There were a chorus of shouts at that, and Harlan held up a pawed hand. "Look, I'm as anxious as all of you are! The radio is slightly damaged, and it will take a moment to repair..."
The mole shouted, "What about the damn phones! I can't get an outside line! Why won't you let me call out?"
Harlan held his breath a moment, "The air phone system is fully operational. I have absolutely no idea why we can't call out. Look, for the time being, I ask that you all be calm. Barring any other situations, we'll be landing in Sydney in just a few hours." There were a few murmurs at that as well, but there seemed to be a tense calm.
Harlan turned toward the business class section. "I'd like to ask anyone who is currently in business class to please move to new seats elsewhere on the aircraft. We are going to move all people who are apparently fish and other sea creatures to this section to keep a better..."
For some reason, that seemed to be the final straw for the naked mole. "What!? I paid good money for this seat and you're going to force me out now?! I'm not leaving this seat! You're going to find other people to push around!"
Harlan clicked off the PA. No point in bothering everyone with this. "Sir, I'm within my rights as Captain..."
"Captain!? You're a fucking kangaroo! I don't take orders from anyone! I'm staying right here!"
Harlan turned and signaled the barn owl steward to assist. "Sir, please don't make us forcibly eject you. This has been a rough enough flight without having to deal with you."
The mole stood his ground, "Just try it! I'm not leaving!"
Harlan started up the narrow aisle toward the man. Over the years, he'd had to deal with difficult passengers like this before, but each one was different. None more so that now, though... he thought.
As he got close enough, the defiant man took up a weak fighting stance and held his small hands up in a fighting posture. Harlan almost laughed when he remembered one of the things that kangaroos were known for: fighting. As he moved in, the mole threw a weak punch. Harlan easily ducked past the fist, and the mole hit the overhead bin, and went right though the heavy plastic.
Now everyone was staring at the mole, who himself was looking at the bin door in astonishment. The color, what little there was anyway, seemed to drain from his bare skin. Harlan felt his jaw drop open. Not only had the punch not been nearly hard enough to do what it just did, but the plastic on these bins was thick, high impact material. A heavyweight boxer couldn't put his fist through all the way up to the wrist without at least screaming in pain.
Now, what a few moments before had been a brewing struggle turned into a mini rescue operation as Harlan, the steward and a slightly altered angle fish morph struggled to pull the mans hand out of the bin door. After a few moments, and with his meek protests of pain, the hand popped out. Dr. Rial, who had been watching the whole exchange from a few feet away, examined the moles hand and looked at the bin.
Harlan went back to finish his announcement and helped guide a few more fish and sea mammals, including a young woman from coach who looked like a whale of some sort. The attendants wheeled in all the water that they could and started attempting to make some of these people comfortable in the dry air of the cabin.
Dr. Rial led the now stunned naked mold rat morph to a seat in coach walked over to Captain Nelson. "It isn't possible." He breathed. "His hand should be broken or cut or something, but it's not. The only injuries seem to be from when we pulled his hand out."
Harlan tapped his foot and leaned back on his tail, "How do you explain this?"
Dr Rial shrugged, "I can't. I won't even begin to try. I think some of my colleagues are going to have to re-write a few physical laws, though."
There was a sudden shriek from further back in the plane, followed by a very loud bellow. Harlan and Rial looked at each other a moment with wide eyes and then started running for the back of the plane.
They raced into the most aft coach section to find it degenerating into total chaos. Passengers were jamming the aisle to get forward and Harlan had to practically climb over seats to get to the back. As he got closer, he could hear the sobbing cries of what sounded like a young woman, but he couldn't make out the words that were being yelled. What chilled Harlan was that the sobs seemed to be punctuated by an animal bellow that had no humanity in it.
He fought his way through knot of passengers and stopped abruptly in the opening of the section. He found himself looking almost face to face with the largest, most frightened buffalo that he ever had the pleasure of meeting. The huge animal was trying to move in the aisle, pushing seats off their brackets. He bellowed again and jammed his head into the back of another seat, snapping off the tray table and sending it hurling across the cabin into the bulkhead.
Harlan stared for a moment. This isn't something that they covered in flight school... A female voice sobbed from the opposite side of the plane. A robin was holding her taloned hands to her beak and sobbing something unintelligible. Harlan made his way across the row of now empty seats, painfully whapping his tail against the armrests, and to her side. "What happened?" he asked, not able to think of anything better.
The robin sobbed, "My husband changed all of a sudden." She sobbed again. "He started talking about turning all the way into an animal and then he suddenly did!"
The Captain looked at the frightened buffalo concerned. Had this man willed himself into an animal? All the other changes had happened to everyone at the same time. This one didn't. "What's his name?"
Harlan nodded, "Okay. Now stay calm. We don't want to get him more upset than he already is." The robin nodded. Harlan looked again at the bison. He wasn't sure what to do about this. He wasn't concerned about the beast causing structural damage to the plane. After all, it had barely any room to maneuver much less get up enough momentum to punch through a bulkhead or window. But it was large enough to do a lot of damage to the passenger cabin in a hurry. More so than that, the floor wasn't designed for this kind of weight in one spot. While it would probably hold, Harlan could hear the floor straining.
Harlan tried to slide between the rows of seats to get closer, but his differently shaped legs and his tail prevented that. Cursing under his breath, he hopped up onto the row of seats and started to get closer. "Steven? Can you understand me?"
The bison looked at him with wild eyes and snorted loudly. Harlan wasn't sure how to take that, but he was hopeful.
"Steven. Everything will be all right. We just need you to calm down. Take a few deep breaths and calm down." The bison, at first, looked at him dumbly, then the look in his eyes started to get less wild. Stevens massive body expanded a bit as he drew in a breath and then shrank as he let it out. Then it repeated. Then, with a small flash of light, there was a more humanoid version of the animal sitting on his hands and knees in the aisle. He was still very obviously part animal, but he had actually changed back a little.
Harlan reached a paw-like hand down to him, which Steve gratefully took and pulled himself to his feet. "Woah." He breathed. "That was weird."
Steven looked at him a little blankly. "I'm not sure. It just happened." He looked over Harlens shoulder at the still crying robin and then started to make his way across the plane to her. "Maggie! I'm back. Don't cry." He reached her and they hugged.
Harlan looked at the scene for a moment before the thought popped into his head, Oh my God! If this is happening everywhere, what does my wife look like?
Suddenly getting the air to ground communications system working again seemed all the more important.
He moved smoothly though the cabin, trying to look calm and collected. He noted that some people seemed to be taking this whole thing well, but everyone was on edge. Nobody wanted to be on board an airplane now. Including their captain.
A dully colored duck morph nervously flagged him down as he passed. "Captain?" came the feminine voice.
Harlan blinked a couple of times. He hadn't expected a female duck to be so dull, really just shades of brown and white. He wouldn't learn until days later that it was common among birds for the female to be drab and the male to be bright. He tried to manage a smile, "Yes?"
"Captain, I need to talk to my family. I need to find out how my kids are doing. Please let me call them." she said on the verge of tears as she pointed at the air phone.
Harlan took her webbed hand, "Miss, I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with those. Hopefully they'll be working soon. As soon as I hear anything," he said in a voice loud enough to be overheard, "I'll make an announcement. I promise."
The young woman nodded absently at that. Harlan released her hand and went forward, poking his head into a galley as he passed. He spotted a person in an attendants uniform who looked ever so slightly like a lynx. The change was small enough that he still recognized the woman underneath. "Tia? Can you keep an eye on that woman who looks like a duck? She's in seat 54-E, I believe. She's very upset." She looked at him a moment and nodded absently. Tia seemed more than a little upset herself.
The familiar feeling came one last time for them. Harlan was already largely changed, but he still felt his head alter a bit more and his shoulders narrowed. When it was over, he looked at his reflection in the side of a coffee pot. He saw something that looked more like a kangaroo than a man looking back at him, even if some vestiges of his humanity were left.
But oddly, he felt complete. There was no earthly way for him to know it, but somehow he knew he was not going to change further.
Feeling a weight oddly lifted off his shoulders, Captain Nelson hopped slowly down the aisle to the first class stairs and paused. He looked at his heavily altered feet and sat back a moment on his tail. Changing his mind, he walked to the forward galley and pushed the button that brought down the service elevator, for bringing the drink carts up to the upper deck. He discovered if he backed in and leaned on his tail a bit, he could fit in fairly easily.
He returned to the cockpit to find Chen still all over the floor, the floor covered in spools of wire he'd pulled from an emergency repair kit. "Any progress, Chen?"
The panda man looked up and smiled, "I think I can give you air to ground communication in about five minutes. But this wasn't because Clint spilled his coffee on the console." Chen reached over and picked up a small access panel. "Look at this."
Harlan took the panel from him and frowned. "A fingerprint? What's this supposed to mean?"
Chen shook his head and he started attaching more wire inside the console. "It's not a normal fingerprint, feel it."
Harlan did and was shocked to discover that it was etched into the metal. "How...?" he said, his voice trailing off.
Chen shrugged again. "I can't say. All I can tell you is that it looks like a burst of electricity went through that panel that was strong enough to leave a mark like that. It fried enough of the wiring in here to make the radio and PA systems fried all the way to the circuit breakers. Luckily, it didn't jump to any other systems."
Harlan leaned against the Captains chair and rubbed his new muzzle. "What the hell happened to this world?" he said quietly. "Dennis is a seagull, and it doesn't look like he even remembers being anything else. There's a man in coach who turned completely into a buffalo and back to something less than human, but more than he was. A guy in business class just put his fist through two inches of hardened plastic like it was Styrofoam and Clint is sending out bursts of electricity? What the hell is going on?"
Chen pulled himself to his feet. "I don't know, but I would rather wait on the ground to find out." he bowed slightly to the Captain, "The radio should be working now. If you don't mind, I'll get to work on adjusting your chair."
Harlan smiled, "You're a dynamo Chen. When we land, the bamboo shoots are on me."
"Aw hell, is that what pandas eat?"
Harlan shrugged as he struggled to adjust the headset over his altered head. "I think so." he clicked on the broadcast switch. "Sydney tower, Sydney tower. This is Koala ten-twelve. We have a medical emergency!"
There was a long pause.
A voice crackled in over the speaker. "You have an emergency? I have a beak!"
It didn't take long for the Captain to get the gist of what was going on, all the while relaying the information via Beth, the spotted dolphin-like flight attendant, to the passengers. As far as they could tell in Sydney, it was happening all over the world. They had received information from enough cities via short wave to make that guess.
They also revealed the massive overload to the telecommunications system, solving the mystery of the non-working air-phones.
It was also decided that they would continue on to Sydney via their pre-determined route. There was only one airfield that could accept them before then, anyway, and they were not really set up for a lot of large aircraft. It was only a difference of about fifteen minutes anyway.
But that wasn't going to matter much of the only person with the ability to fly the plane left on board was unable to even fit in his seat. Harlan thought that he might be able to land it scrunched into the seat as he was, but it would be tough. Chen was struggling with the seat, trying to figure out how to remove the seat back. He'd discovered two strong steel bars running vertically in the chair that held the back on. Try as he might, he could find no way to cut through them.
In frustration, he abruptly yelled "Dammit! Come off!!" as he gripped the two steel bars and pulled.
In the next moment, he was sitting on his butt on the cockpit floor, the seatback in his hand. Harlan stared at him open mouthed as he looked at the base of the seat. It looked like someone had pulled the steel apart like taffy. Tentatively reaching a finger out, he discovered that it was cool and smooth to the touch. "How did you do that?" he asked.
Chen nervously stood up, setting the seat back aside. "I don't know. I just imagined the steel coming apart as I tugged. Then, it did." he said with a shudder.
That Captain shrugged. "One more oddity for the night. " He sat down and discovered that it wasn't easy to sit comfotably, his tail was rubbing against the twisted, even if smooth, steel. But he could land the plane. He looked over at Chen. "Looks like smooth sailing from here."
Down in the forward coach cabin, Leonard Eastman stared at his reflection for a couple of hours in shock. He was a high powered executive, a man with everything that power could attain. He had always prided himself on his appearance, most people even called him narcissistic behind his back.
But it was all gone.
As he had helped remove his hand from that bin door, that doctor had barely disguised his laughter when he informed him what he was: A naked mole rat. One of the most disgusting mammals on the face of the Earth.
Leonard couldn't stand it. He looked around the plane and saw all sorts of people changed. People who looked like horses, bulls, dogs, lizards and birds. They all had a certain beauty or power about them. Even a skunk-like woman that he saw actually looked rather striking. But not him.
He looked asinine. He was a joke. A cosmic joke.
He jumped from his seat abruptly. He had to get out of here. Now. He couldn't stand to be in this place full of people who were suddenly better than him. He needed to get on the ground, get back to his home where he could hide. He raced over to the nearest door and started tugging at the release mechanism. It didn't matter if the plane was still flying, he needed to get out now!
He heard a shout from the front of the plane. "What do you think you're doing!" He looked up to see a giant owl, followed closely by the equine doctor, moving his way from the front of the plane. In frustration, he pounded hard on the door.
Eastman never knew what hit him. His frantic pounding literally shattered the door and part of the structure of the plane. Standing practically against it, he was blown out the hole in an eyeblink.
Most of the passengers were strapped in, or the ones that were too large were strong enough to hang on. There were screams of terror, many of which sounded more animal than human, as the yellow oxygen masks fell from the ceiling.
Phil had been making his way toward the frantic man when the door shattered. He twisted in the air as he felt his talons leave the cabin floor and managed to grip the headrest of the seat of a woman who had taken on the slight appearance of a humpback whale.
Beth had been working the first class cabin when the breech occurred and she worked her way to the top of the stairs to investigate. She was more than a little surprised that she could see out into the dark sky through the sizable hole where the cabin door had been.
In the cockpit, they felt the shudder as the door broke free, and suddenly lights started turning on all over the cockpit.
Chen started reading them off mechanically, "Flame out in engine three! Rapid depressurization. It looks like we lost a part of the cabin wall!"
Harlan nodded, "Shut down three and keep an eye on four. If that's what happened, they may have both sucked in junk. How are one and two?"
"Both running smooth. Four looks good at the moment."
"Okay." he hit the radio again, "Sydney Tower! This is Koala Ten-Twelve! We are declaring a serious emergency! We have lost cabin pressure and an engine. We think that there is some structural damage to the plane! We are making an emergency decent to 10,000 feet."
There was almost no pause from the tower this time. "Got it Koala Ten-Twelve. We are clearing all traffic around you. We put you at twenty minutes out. You will be cleared for any runway that is convenient for you."
"Thank you, Sydney."
"How many souls on board, sir?"
"We're rolling all the emergency equipment we can."
Chen and Harlan launched into the emergency procedure and prepared for an emergency landing. They didn't need to dump fuel, the tanks were fairly close to it anyway from the long flight. They dropped the landing gear, and Harlan was pleased to see green lights across the board. He didn't want to attempt a wheels up landing if he could avoid it. As Chen double checked their procedure from the emergency manual, they prepared to end this incredibly surreal flight.
Down in the cabin, Phil was rapidly losing the feeling in his fingers. His taloned hands were great for gripping, but the pull of the air from the hole in the wall was incredible. He knew that now that the cabin had depressurized it was unlikely that he would be pulled out, but the turbulence of the air this close the breech was making it hard for him to move.
He felt a strong hand on his arm and looked up to see the face of Dr. Rial pulling on one arm. The zoologist was gripping another seat and trying to pull Phil further from the hole. Slowly, he managed to slip his serrated talons from the headrest and allowed himself to be pulled forward by the far heavier horse morph.
Beth poked her perpetually happy face into the cockpit and confirmed the damage that the pilot and engineer suspected. Harlan looked back at her. "We'll be landing in about ten minutes, try and communicate that to the rest of the attendants! The PA system isn't working from here."
Beth nodded and raced out.
Phil was now the only attendant in the forward Business Class section. The rest had, by coincidence, either been above or aft when the door blew out. He got to the front of the cabin and started shouting emergency instructions over the sound of the rushing wind. When he got to the part about donning life jackets in case the plane made a "water landing", there was a loud chuckle from the cabin.
Phil looked at them all in surprise before he remembered that they had moved all the aquatics up here.
"Koala Ten-Twelve, we have you cleared and on an approach vector for runway 22-Left. You should have it on visual now."
"Roger, Sydney, we have it. Any last minute advisories?"
"Negative, Ten-Twelve. The winds are calm. Touch down when ready."
Harlan didn't need to be told that twice. He eased the stick on the massive plane and lowered her gently to the runway. He felt a familiar bump and the landing gear contacted with the pavement below, followed a moment later by the nose gear. Gently, he brought the 747 to a standstill on the runway.
And so ended Koala Airlines Flight 1012.
Two hours later, the passengers and crew had cleared the aircraft. The plane had been towed to a hanger to see what had caused the blast, but some already suspected what had happened. Somehow, the man pounding on the door had hit it with enough force to break it right off it's hinges, and took part of the fuselage with it.
His body was never found.
Captain Dennis Potemkin, who had turned fully into a sea gull in those first few moments, was lost as the passengers evacuated. He was last seen headed for the sea shore.
Co-pilot Clint Sands had become what would later be termed a Hi Degree red snapper morph. Once he was immersed in cold salt water, he started behaving like his old self again. As it turned out, while he could breath air indefinitely, he was more comfortable in the water.
It was two days before Harlan could contact his wife. He heard the phone picked up quickly off the receiver. "Hello?"
"Sandra! It's Harlan. Are you okay?"
"Oh my God, Harlan! I'm fine, I guess. Are you okay? I heard on the news that a plane crash landed in Australia. I thought that it might have been you!"
Harlan sighed. "It was, but we didn't exactly crash land. Sandra, not to be indelicate, but what are you?"
There was a long pause, "I'm a seal, Harlan, a bearded seal. What... what are you?" she asked
She laughed into the phone, "I knew those flights to Australia would get to you at some point! Well, I want you to hop on home as fast as you can. I'll be waiting."
He sighed into the phone. It was amazing how fast people adapted. As they say, the more things Change, the more they remain the same...
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