The end of the rod dipped toward the water as something tugged on the line. Jumping to his feet an snatching the rod from its mount on the boat's edge, the bearmorph tugged back; he met with strong resistance. "I hooked something!" he shouted excitedly, beginning the struggle to reel it in.
The female cougar lounging in norm form on the deck chair next to his shifted to morph and sat up to watch. "Looks big," she said, "need any help?"
"No problem, I'm bigger," the bear replied with a grin. The battle continued fiercely, whatever it was down there was strong. "I think it's... a swordfish," the bear grunted between bursts of reeling.
The cougar peered out over the ocean in the direction the line led, and after a short while saw the struggling creature leap from the water. It was huge all right, as big as a man, torpedo-shaped and sparkling silver-blue in color, but its face was blunt rather than pointed. "Nope. It's still pretty big, though."
The bear just grunted in response and continued pulling in more line. At last the fish was brought to the boat's edge, netted with the cougar's assistance, and hauled inside. All three lay gasping and wet on the deck of the small yacht, momentarily exhausted from the fight. The fish was huge all right, at least six feet long, and after only a moment's pause it began twisting back and forth in an attempt to make it back over the edge into the water. "What do we do now?" The cougar asked frantically as she and the bear fought to keep the thrashing fish contained.
"I don't know, find something and bash it on the head!"
Excuse me," the fish gasped in a hoarse, slurred, but clearly irritated tone of voice. "But bash me on the head!? Shit!"
The bear and cougar both released their slippery holds and jumped back in surprise, and the fish took that opportunity to roll onto its belly and back clumsily away. They saw that its pectoral fins were rapidly thickening and extending into arms and its cross-section was becoming somewhat wider and shallower; it was morph-shifting, at least slightly. It looked up at them with intelligent but unblinking eyes, and the two fishers stared back in embarrassed silence. "I don't see either of you brandishing a club. Glad to see you aren't the head-bashing sort after all," the fish grumbled peevishly. "Now, would someone help me get this damn hook out of my jaw?"
Wordlessly, the bear turned and fumbled in the tackle box for the wire cutters. The fish sighed, and the cougar grimaced. It was an awkward situation, all around.
Once the hook had been extracted, the two fishers recovered from their shock enough to begin apologizing to the fish. He waved his crude webbed hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it," he brushed them off, "I shouldn't have let my mind wander like that while hunting, especially in an area like this. Smart fish don't fall for lures like that..." he sighed, a wet, unpleasant hiss. "Ah, well. It was actually the most excitement I've had in a while, and my mouth will heal quickly enough. We'll call it even. My name's Jeremy." He stuck out his hand, and after glancing helplessly at his feline companion for some sort of assistance the bear reached down and gingerly shook it.
"Uh, my name's Aaron," he introduced himself, then nodded to his feline companion. "And she's Karen. We're on vacation," he added, feeling a little foolish.
Jeremy nodded slightly in acknowledgment. "How do you do? I live out here."
There was an uncomfortable silence, neither Aaron or Karen able to think of something to say in response.
"Well, I hope you don't mind me dropping by," Jeremy resumed, making an effort to sound less pissed-off now. "I don't meet many people, I'm afraid, so my social skills are a bit rusty. Do you mind if I stay on board for a little while? Assuming that bash on the head has been indefinitely postponed, of course?"
"Sure!" Karen piped up cheerfully. "Actually, I'd love that!" Aaron looked at her with an unhappy expression, but she returned a defiant one and he didn't have any polite way out except to agree.
Jeremy, of course, betrayed no expression at all on his immobile piscine face. Instead, he took a deep breath and began shifting his form further; his forefins lengthened and developed more, becoming more like actual arms, and his body took on a less streamlined profile that configured his shoulders better for using them. His tail remained pretty much as it was, though, and he didn't sprout a pair of legs. When he was finished he looked like a cross between a merman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
"There," Jeremy gasped as he pulled himself up onto a bench, tail curved under him to hold him upright, obviously exhausted by the shift; "That's as close as I can get to human form."
"Oh. I'm sorry." Karen grimaced slightly, realizing how demeaning her awkward sympathy must sound.
Jeremy waved a webbed hand dismissively. "Such is life," he sighed. "Not everyone gets a glamorous Change, you know..." Before either of them could think of anything else to say, Jeremy had launched into his story.
I'd never been more nervous in my life than I was as I sat in the waiting room, waiting. I fidgeted and shifted uncomfortably in the chair, the lump of my tail bud just large enough to be squeezed by my pants but not large enough to justify cutting a hole to let it out. Yet. I didn't want to think about it, but the constant pressure against it made it hard to ignore.
Also hard to ignore at this point were the annoying itches on my chest and cheeks. It wasn't too bad, but they constantly drew my fingers to scratch it whenever I let my guard down. I'd spent the last week fighting that itch, struggling to keep from showing any outward signs. I had been so scared when my first hint of Change had begun that I had kept it secret from everyone. I didn't want my life to change too.
It had been only two years since the Change had hit all the adults in the world. I remembered that day very well; my english teacher, Mrs. Pammel, had changed into a humanoid badger in front of the entire class. It had been pretty scary, though fortunately she and most of the other teachers at the school had kept their heads well enough to control the panic and send us home in an orderly fashion. It had been very weird trying to accept that my mom and dad had changed too, but I eventually found I could handle even that. By the time school had restarted, I had come to thank the Change for the vacation it had given me and was more upset about having to go back to school than anything else.
When I later found out that I and all my friends would probably change in a few years too, and there was nothing anyone knew that could do to stop it, that had been hard to handle. But I had managed to ignore it most of the time, continuing as normally as was possible considering all the humanoid animals and superpowers in the world around me. Even when kids that I actually knew began showing their first signs of Change, I managed to ignore it. It wouldn't happen to me, I somehow convinced myself. It couldn't.
So when I had awakened one morning to discover a small patch of smooth, translucent white scales beginning to sprout on my chest, I had fought hard to ignore that too. I managed to keep the slowly spreading scales secret for a whole week, until the beginning of a tail stump and the new patches of scales on my cheeks had appeared. I couldn't discretely cover my face, after all, and when I'd refused to come out of the bathroom that morning my parents had immediately figured out the cause. For a while there, I suspect they were more panicked than I was. I was still mostly numb, in denial.
Of course, I was taken to the doctor's office immediately. Tests were taken, samples and pictures to be sent off to experts. It was told it would only take an hour or so to pin down the general sort of animal my scales were from, and so I'd returned to the waiting room with my anxious parents to await the verdict.
My scales. Yeesh, that was a weird concept to attempt to grasp, even after two years of it happening to other people around me; I had scales. After it finally began to sink in that this was really happening to me, I began wondering and worrying what I might turn out to be. Wondering what it would be like being a cold-blooded lizard, shedding my skin as I grew, needing special clothing in winter... It was too uncomfortable to contemplate. I tried to assure myself that I might be headed for dinosaurhood instead; the odds were against it, reptiles were far more common, but it was a hope to hold on to.
As you can see now, of course, even my worst fears turned out to be a little too optimistic. The doctor had immediately recognized them as fish scales when he saw them, but had spent an hour doing his best to come up with an alternative explanation; fish were somewhat rare, almost as rare as dinosaurs in fact, but common enough that everyone knew what most of them went through in life. My parents and I all went back into shock for a little while when he finally told us, uncertain exactly how to take the news. He gave us a pamphlet, a handful of web addresses, and a phone number to call for piscine support services, and then we silently headed home.
I continued going to school, trying to maintain the illusion of normalcy but remaining withdrawn from all my friends there and refusing to discuss what I was becoming despite all their pressure and curiosity. Within a week the scales had spread over half my body, though I kept most of it concealed with long-sleeved shirts and trousers. But despite the near-agony of having dry scales and the obvious spiny fins that had begun to sprout on my back and hips I still refused to accept that I was becoming a fishmorph. Some sort of exotic lizard, I told myself when I thought about it at all, which wasn't all that often. I eventually wound up hospitalized because of it, stuck in a therapeutic bath to help my skin recover. In hindsight I'm glad my gills didn't come in sooner than they did, or I might have suffocated myself in denial.
I didn't go back to school after that trip to the hospital, even after I'd fully recovered my health. I couldn't face my classmates as I was now. I looked awful, I smelled worse, and I was slimy to the touch. Maybe I could have tried harder to overcome it, but it's hard when you physically repel your best friends and need to be sprayed down with water every hour to keep moist. My parents had almost as much trouble as I did with my Change, and although they tried their best there wasn't much they could do to make things easier for me.
Not only was I becoming a fishmorph, it turned out, but I was becoming a high degree fishmorph. Few Changes are more debilitating, at least as far as regular human society is concerned. I discovered that I was destined to spend my time on dry land stuck in a tank or a wheelchair, my legs completely replaced by a tail, and as a saltwater species I wouldn't even be able to use public swimming pools or the city's river to stretch my fins.
I saw the writing on the wall. I couldn't live like that, and I didn't want to put my parents through any more hard decisions, so I stole a car and headed for the coast while I still had some modicum of land mobility left to me. I knew there were concentrations of other high-D fishmorphs and cetaceans out there in the sea, living in loose communities near some of the coastal cities. It wasn't where I had wanted to end up, and I had no idea what I would do after I got there, but at least I would be in my element with others like me who had also been exiled from the land by their Changes.
At the time, only two years after the Change, those coastal communities were more like refugee camps than anything else. The open ocean was dangerous; it was untamed territory, replete with predators and with very little chance of finding help if one got into trouble out there. At least in the waters near the port cities where we congregated we had some degree of access to the amenities of civilization, and those that wanted to could stake claims to small patches of seafloor and build small "houses" to call their own. There were even jobs available for some of us, though most were pretty menial. Due to the random nature of the Change we had plenty of accountants, salesmen, airline pilots, and other professions that were useless underwater, but few plumbers or welders or other professions that were actually in demand down here.
Mom and Dad tried to get me to come home, of course, but I refused. I had realized that I had to make a new life for myself, and I figured at least I should do it where I was comfortable. I tried taking informal lessons on the skills that seemed most in demand out here, and my parents tried to help out by sending me my college fund. I grew up quite quickly, fending for myself. But there was too much competition for too few jobs at the time, the minor recession that the Change had caused had still not entirely receded. Eventually I realized that I was still going nowhere, and headed out "on the road" to look for something better. It wasn't as easy as it had been the first time, I had made a few new friends and it was lonely out between camps, but I had nothing better to do with my time.
"I guess it's kind of a standard story from that point on. I've been on the road ever since, eventually wandering out here to live in the open ocean for a while now. There aren't many of us out here, and it's a big ocean, but we do sometimes meet and socialize. The ocean isn't as homogeneous as it looks from the surface, there's lots of variation underneath. Places to gather, to form temporary or semi-permanent camps. Shipwrecks are popular. We're the squatters and vagrants of the sea, I suppose. But it's not so bad. Life is sometimes hard and lonely out here, but it's free."
Jeremy's rasping voice finally fell silent, and there was a lengthy pause. "So, what's your story?" He asked at last, perhaps with a slight grin on his expressionless face.
Aaron and Karen were jolted from their reverie. "Wow," Karen mumbled with awe. "Sounds very frontiersy. Do you ever visit coastal cities any more? I've seen underwater buildings by some of them..."
Jeremy shook his head. "Nope. No real use for them. I suppose if I got sick or something, but since I have no possessions or need for possessions I can't think of any other reason. I know many fish who do, though."
"What about your parents?" Aaron asked.
"They know I'm okay," Jeremy replied vaguely. "I let them know that every once and a while." Another short silence ensued, and then finally Jeremy sighed. "Well, I'm getting pretty parched up here, I think I'll be heading back out again. It was nice meeting you, threats of head-bashing aside. Try heading about 20 miles south, there's lots of big trout in the area."
"Wait!" But before Karen could say more, Jeremy gave his tail a powerful flick and did a smooth backward leap over the side of the boat. He vanished back into the water without a trace. The two fishers looked at each other, and then Aaron shrugged uncertainly.
"Well, at least he was understanding of the mistake... and he was a good guest."
Karen sighed. "I just wish there was more we could have done for him than just listen to his life's story like that..."
"Like what? Give him our spare change?"
Karen shook her head unhappily, sighing again. "Oh well. Still feel like hitting those trout he mentioned?"
Aaron grimaced. "Not today. I think we should hit the nearest restaurant to the marina instead. Guaranteed gene-tested seafood... and lots of other people around, too." Karen nodded sadly, shifted back to norm, and resumed her perch on the deck chair looking out over the calm, empty ocean.
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