I have a lousy time sense. As if it weren't bad enough that I can mistake an hour for fifteen minutes and fifteen minutes for an hour, I consistently wake up at the crack of dawn. Or five to twenty-five minutes before the alarm goes off, whichever comes first. Either way, long before I'm ready to get up. But what did I expect on Monday, let alone the first full week of Summer Session I?
Now, if I had a computer of my own, I might have gotten up anyway and logged on. DormNet's not the best of connections, but it's entirely adequate. But even in these enlightened times a working-class family can't afford a computer for every member. As a result, the family computer was sitting on a desk at home, no doubt gathering dust. Dad just ignores it whenever he can, the way he does with any machine he can't fix. Mom uses it to keep the books balanced and to keep track of the news. My sisters and stepbrother log on occasionally, and use it for e-mail, but not all that often.
I wished it wasn't too early for the one lab on campus that would be open to unlock its doors. During the summer sessions, a lot of the conveniences are shut down, since there aren't enough people to run them. One lab. Short hours for the food area of the Student Center. No movies (censored as they are here).
I wished I could go back to sleep.
I wished, better yet, that it was the weekend again.
None of these wishes came true, so I lay back in bed, promising myself that I would get up shortly and go take a shower. It was really still too early, but if I waited long, I'd have to contend with everyone else in the dorm to get in. I was, of course, lying to myself; I would probably lie there for another half hour before persuading myself to get up. So I was still in bed when the wave of dizziness hit me.
I don't take well to dizziness. If I was going to be sick, I figured I might as well do it in the trashcan or the sink instead of on my pillow. So I struggled out of bed and to my feet--just as the waistband of my underwear tore loose. -Lovely. I didn't realize they were worn thin just yet.- The dizziness had passed, and I didn't think I was going to be sick after all, so I turned and started looking to see what I might have ripped my briefs on.
No sharp edges on the chair. No sharp edges on the bad, either. For a moment I was at a loss. Then I noticed the pink ropy thing lying on the bed. Nothing I recognized. I turned to get a better look... and it followed my movement, sliding off onto the floor.
Let's face it. At seven in the morning, the best of us are still not too quick. I concluded that the pink thing, whatever it was, had gotten caught on my briefs somehow and torn them. Iguessed that someone might have left it on my bed by accident, or as some kind of prank. So I bent over, picked the rope up, and started running my hands up it to detach it from me. It tickled, and I dropped it.
It tickled? How's it do that when it's not part of me? It doesn't... which means... I picked it up again. This time I ignored the tickling and followed the thing all the way to where it attached to... my rear. I had a tail. A pink, hairless tail. I felt queasy again, and this time it wasn't because I was dizzy.
I suppose at that point a lot of people would have panicked. In fact, from what I found out shortly afterwards, I know they did. As for me, I concluded that a tail was no big deal. If everyone else had it, things would be peculiar for a while, but I had no objection to that. If not, I might have some difficulties with public attention, but that, too, would die down. The simple fact was, the strange held little fear for me -- just curiosity.
The next step was figuring out which of those two situations was reality. I pulled the blinds open a little. No one was outside, which was really no surprise. It didn't tell me, however, what I needed to know. I rummaged through my clothes until I found one of the shirts I usually wore to the shower (being kind of scrawny, I was a bit embarrased to be seen in full). I put it on and went to the door. For a moment I stood and listened. Nothing. It sounded like no one was up yet. So I started to turn the knob...
There was a crash from the hall. Someone began yelling (I couldn't tell what) and pounding on doors. Including mine. There were two possibilities, each about equally likely. Either someone wasn't taking well to his tail, or someone thought it would be funny to wake everyone up early. Either way, I decided, I wouldn't find out without opening the door, so I did that.
And came face to... well, neck with one of the jocks from the other end of the hall. (I had no idea why he would stay for the summer.) He was bent over in a rather peculiar fashion, and his neck was incredibly long. There was a ring of feathers around the base of it. He looked remarkably like an ostrich, actually. I stepped back, unconsciously twitching my tail. When he saw it, he screamed something incoherent and ran away down the hall.
I had been prepared for another tail. I had not been prepared for this. Obviously something more was happening than just growing tails. We might actually be changing into animals. I smiled. And immediately scowled again. Transformation as a process fascinated me. The end result of transformation into an animal wasn't so interesting. And I certainly didn't want to lose my intelligence, or my ability to speak. There was another difficulty, too, that I didn't think would be easily surmounted by any biological process.
But I wasn't given time to think about it. It seemed that most of the hall had already been awakened by the ostrich-jock's pounding and yelling. Doors were opening up and down the hall, and several of the figures that came out of them didn't look particularly human. Some I noticed immediately. One of the people in the room across from me had the head of a cat, the other thick, three-toed hooves. There were a number of other animal heads, feet, and hands in view, not all of them mammalian, or even avian. The guy in the room to my left, Larry, had a face covered in shiny black scales and slitted pupils in yellow eyes.
Maybe this was a dream. I had pretty surreal dreams a lot, and that was probably where I had gotten my taste for the unusual. But I dismissed that idea as soon as it came up. For one thing, the quality of the scene (I suppose I could call it the resolution) was too great for any dream I'd ever had. And while my dreams were awfully bizarre at times, this wasn't the usual pattern for transformations in them. Things would change when I looked away, and not in any particular pattern.
Larry tried to scowl at me; not having a very flexible face, he didn't succeed very well. Those big platelike scales were in the way. "Anything in all those books explain this?"
"Nothing, Larry." We'd met only the day before. Perhaps we could learn to get along, but the two of us had absolutely nothing in common. "I've read about things a little like this, but it was all magic fantasy stuff. No logical explanations."
"You mean it's not a chemical spill? Or nuclear waste?"
"Here? Hah! Only if there's a top-secret military base here, and you know the crash was in Roswell, not Searcy." White County was the next thing to the environment capital of the world. Ultra-low emission standards on all vehicles and factories, recycling plants everywhere, the works. Even Larry ought to know a spill was impossible here.
"Roswell! You mean it's the aliens?" He went on, overriding my attempts to explain he'd misunderstood. "Freaky! I bet you called the bug-eyes, right? Told 'em it was time to come turn us all into animals so they could take over?"
"Larry, I didn't say aliens had anything to do with it! I don't know what's going on any more than you do!"
He shouted right back at me, exposing a forked tongue. "Stupid geek! What's the use of you science-guys if you can't tell us what's going on?" People were starting to stare at us. If we were attracting attention in the middle of all this, things were really getting out of hand.
"What's going on? I'll tell you what's going on! You'd be turning into a snake if you weren't already a no-brained maggot! Get out of my face!" He tried to swing at me then, except that Andy had ahold of his fist before he could try it. I'd met Andy before; the guy was about the size of a Mack truck, even if most of it was fat. He'd gone out with a friend of mine last semester.
"I'd be a bit more careful where you put that thing, Larry. You might hurt yourself." Andy gave Larry's arm a twist, then shoved him back into his room. "You all right, Lance? I came over from the other hall to see if it was going on here too." Shaking a massive snouted head, he added, "Obviously, it is."
"I'm all right. I think Larry's a bit on edge. He wasn't like this yesterday."
"Who wouldn't be? Well, Troy, maybe. He reads a lot of furry stuff on the net. I bet he's enjoying this wherever he is this summer."
"Maybe he'll turn into a cat. At least then he'd stay cleaner." I couldn't say more than that to Andy; Troy was sloppy mainly because he was about Andy's size. "I guess I just ruined any chance I had of Larry and I being friends."
"Hey, man. Larry's a hot-headed punk anyway. If he can't keep his temper better than that, you don't want him for a friend anyway. Never seen you shout like that before."
"I guess." I looked around to see if we were still getting stared at.
Some people were talking excitedly; others seemed to have been stunned into silence. By their transformation, not by us. A few people still glanced at us uneasily, though, and who could blame them?
Some of the doors were still closed. Surely those people hadn't slept through all this noise? More likely they were staring at themselves in the mirror. Or maybe they didn't have hands that would turn the doorknob anymore. That wasn't a comforting thought, and I tried to forget I had had it. David, the RA, came running down the hall. I wasn't sure how much more running he was going to do, though; his legs were intact, but I knew what a seahorse tail looked like, and he definitely had one. He was wearing an oversized shirt, like me, which I suspected was all he had managed to get on. It looked as though I wasn't the only one puzzled about the people who hadn't come out yet, because he began to unlock the doors that were still shut.
The first couple of doors confirmed my suspicions. Behind door number one, a guy with thick, hooved fingers had been fumbling with the knob. Likewise for the next door, except that this fellow had unwieldy-looking fins, or at least webbed fingers. The third door proved to be something of a problem. As David was trying to get it unlocked. it suddenly swung open into the hall (the wrong way), knocking him aside as if he were nothing. Before anyone could move to help him, something charged into the hall. It was bipedal, but I doubt that it had anything else to recommend it as a student. Pebbly skin, a long tail, and a dome-shaped, knobby skull identified the creature as a medium-sized pachycephalosaur. Bellowing, it charged down the hall as if looking for an exit, nearly slamming into a minotaur-lookalike I suspected was an acquaintance named Brian.
Some of the others began to help David up. Meanwhile, I peeked through the ruined door. No one inside. I shivered. I could be next, and I didn't even know what I was turning into. Worse. Some years ago, I had developed scoliosis. When a back brace failed to help, the doctors had fused my spine.
"Andy, give me a minute. I've got a problem here."
"What? Oh, sure. You need a hand?"
"Not really. I'm gonna step into my room a moment, that's all. It's just this metal in my back. If I keep changing, my back's liable to give me serious trouble."
"Uh-oh. I hadn't thought about that. You gonna call a doctor?"
"What would they do? It'd take hours and lots of blood transfusions to get them out. By the time they could get started, it'd be too late. They're going to be swamped for the next couple of days at least, I'll bet. I'm just trying not to visualize the rods sticking out of my back, along with whatever part of my spine they were attached to."
"You sure, Lance? I mean, I can take you to the hospital."
"I'm telling you, Andy, it wouldn't do any good. Either it's not going to happen, or it's too lare to do anything about it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try and get my mind off it with a nice hot shower. If I'm going to die, I might as well die relaxed instead of scared out of my mind." I slipped quietly back into my own room. Andy furrowed his brow in worries of his own. Nice of him, but either there was no need, or it was already hopeless.
Sooner or later, if we didn't all turn completely into animals, we were still going to need showers. I scooped up towel, soap, washcloth and shampoo. Staring at the last, I realized I might need a lot more of the stuff before long. Don't think about it. The shower should help.
Some of the guys stared at me when they saw where I was going. They'd figure it out sooner or later, especially with those muzzles a good many of them had. David had already opened the fourth door, I saw, revealing some poor guy lying on the floor with a manatee's tail and a frog-headed student staring at himself in the mirror. Before the RA could reach the last room, the door opened. I stopped to take a look as one of them shrugged. "We were still trying to figure out what we were turning into." To me, it was pretty obvious what he was; the size and shape of his beak indicated a diatryma, an extinct flightless bird of prey. The other had a muzzle somewhat but not entirely like a dog's. I guessed from the furry stripes he had on his back that he becoming a thylacine. Alias Tasmanian wolf. Also extinct. Interesting, and no wonder they were at a loss.
I was still in the shower when another wave of dizziness hit me. I looked down to see that dark-grey fur had sprouted on my hands and was spreading up my arms. Oddly, it didn't touch my fingers at all, nor did anything else noticeable happen to my hands. Well, maybe they got a little broader in the palm. My face was undergoing more drastic changes, however. I could feel it stretching out into a muzzle or snout of some kind. Something touched my lower lip, and reaching up I found that a pair of my teeth had grown long and rather sharp. My canines, most likely. I realized that I could really feel my tail now, whereas before it had been somewhat numb. I bent it around in front of me to see it, and realized that it was nearly as long as my upper body. Less obviously, but more importantly to me, I found that I had real muscular control over the thing. With only the tiniest effort, I twisted it into a sort of helix, then into loops. I wasn't a rat, then. A monkey, perhaps, but I couldn't think of any monkeys with furless pink tails.
The thylacine-morph and someone with a cat's head were coming into the shower when I finished. They smiled sheepishly (sort of) and shrugged. "Might as well," the cat quipped. "I guess we'll be using a lot of deodorant from now on." He wrinkled his nose, then broke into laughter. Obviously he was taking this pretty well. My image in the mirror revealed that the "fangs" I had were indeed canines. As a matter of fact, I had grown several more teeth without even noticing, so it was no surprise that my mouth had needed to make room by growing. My hair had turned grey, too, to match the fur on my arms. Putting in my contacts wasn't easy, but it was a necessity. My left eye was almost as bad as my right, now. I had to sub for the regular lefties with a rightie, which meant I was going to need new ones a lot sooner than expected.
Some of the guys had gone back into their rooms, or someone else's, and were tearing holes in jeans with a knife, or their claws, to make room for tails. It didn't look easy. Fortunately, I discovered, I could bend my tail around so that it stuck out the top without too much discomfort. Eventually, I'd have to get holes put in my pants, too, but for now I didn't need to take the trouble. I slipped on shorts and a light t-shirt. My feet felt tingly, and after thinking about the matter a moment I didn't put on any shoes. I might not be able to keep them on after this. I hoped the shirt was thin enough that I wouldn't get overly hot if I started sprouting more fur.
Some people, especially David and the manatee-fellow, looked downright miserable when I came back out into the hall. The rest, though, were loudly discussing what had happened. "What's God think He's doing today?" "I dunno, but I don't mind too much myself." "You like getting turned into a horse? You a sicko or something?" "I wonder if I can fly with these." "Waaay too much mass. Don't you know your physics?" "In case you hadn't noticed, Mister Rhinoceros, you've put on several pounds there without eating a bite. I think the laws of physics just went out the window." "I think Harding has a new mascot now," a bison-morph grumbled. "Hey, watch this!" (Another cat-guy extended claws and scraped them down a door. Everyone glared at him, especially those who had developed oversized ears.) The ostrich/jock had come back from around the corner and was staring at the pachycephalosaur, which in turn seemed to be searching for a way outside.
It was so noisy that we almost didn't hear the crash from the road that ran by the dorm. "Pile-up!" someone yelled, and everyone started heading for the stairs. I briefly considered jumping out the window into a tree outside, then climbing down. Before I could take action on that, I forced the thought away. It really didn't seem like a good idea., once I thought rationally about it. Besides, it'd scare everybody half to death.
When I finally got ouside, I could see how the traffic jam had started. A couple of panicky folks who looked like horses were standing in the road surrounded by cars that had obviously had to jam on their brakes at the last minute. No one had actually crashed into anyone else until just now, when someone's brakes seemed to have failed. Or maybe it was their feet that had failed. The person in that car had a green-scaled, protruding face, and might well be turning into a snake.
A lot of people were already moving to flag down incoming vehicles, so I headed over to that car and looked in. I had guessed right about the woman inside, it seemed. Strangely enough, the children in the backseat were completely unchanged, unless you counted the terrified expressions on their faces.
"Are you all right?"
"They're afraid of me. I'm their own mother and they're afraid of me. I just... just started growing scales, and they screamed, and then I saw the cars ahead, and... and..."
"Try to stay calm." Yeah, right. I couldn't manage that myself. "I don't think anyone is hurt. You might as well shut off the engine, cause nobody's going anywhere for a while, I suspect. Did you lose the brakes.?"
"Yes. I mean, no... not really," she moaned. "All of a sudden my legs were just too short, and I didn't have time to scoot down or anything." I almost asked if she could have used her rather large and obvious tail before I stopped myself. It wasn't long enough yet. Besides, my tail was potentially a lot more useful and I hadn't really thought of using it for much yet. We'd all have to adjust to our new appendages, and that would take time. At least, if we didn't all turn into animals it would. If that happened, instinct would likely take over.
"Kids, maybe you should get out of the car." They didn't move, just huddled back against each other. "Come on, kiddos, no one's gonna hurt you." No response. "Look, you. If you don't get out, and someone hits the car from behind, what'll happen to you then?" That got a reaction, if not the one I wanted. They scrambled out the door on the other side... and into the arms of Daniel and Li, who had gone around to catch them, just in case. Dan and Li grinned back at me. They were changing from the feet up, and I had no idea what they were turning into. At least the kids hadn't noticed their legs yet; they were clinging to the guys as if to their parents. I hoped they wouldn't need therapy.
"Ma'am." I started. She scooted over to the passenger side.
"Help me out. I'm not sure I can walk." So I opened the door and assisted her out of the car. It looked like she could walk after all, but she was clearly weak in the knees, and not merely from fright. The teenage girl in the car ahead seemed to be ok, too, although a bear-woman and the ostrich-guy had had to pry open her jammed door. The extent of her change so far was a tuft of green feathers in place of her hair. I wondered about that. Would children stay human, and teens only change part of the way? Or was it just taking them longer?
The police finally arrived and took over. None of them looked happy about being on duty, and I didn't really blame them under the circumstances. The raccoon-faced guy closest to me looked like he had been up all night anyway. I looked at my watch. It was already 8:30. I had really lost track of time. Which meant that part of me was still normal, at least.
While the cops were blocking off the road, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I didn't recognize the pig morph behind me until Doctor Miere said, "We're trying to get everybody together for chapel. I know everything's all screwed up, but if anything needs praying over this does. Tell the people here they're welcome to join us."
As it happened, everyone came along except the police, who didn't look happy about having to guard the cars. We all gathered in the Benson Auditorium. The students barely filled the front few rows, leaving plenty of room for the faculty and the "visitors"; not many people took summer classes, of course. I couldn't stifle a small laugh when Doctor Barnes stepped onto the stage. He was the kind of person who looked incredibly stiff and humorless, but he wasn't really, and could use his appearance to good advantage when he wanted to be funny. Well, sometimes, anyway. Only now he had a penguin's beak, and "wings" (flippers, really) protruding from his back. The slashes in his suit coar were obviously very recent; I wondered who he had gotten to do them.
Without any announcements, we plunged into a sort of devotional. After the faculty had taken up prayer requests, we prayed for people who had been injured because of the change, and people like Jack (the name, it turned out, of the pachycephalosaur in my dorm) who had been turned completely into animals already. When Doctor Barnes started praying that everything regarding the transformation we were undergoing would turn out all right, I heard some people begin to gripe that he should have asked for us all to change back to normal. I didn't say anything, but I really suspected the Lord knew what He was doing. Somehow, now that I thought about that, it didn't seem all that likely that we would all turn completely into animals. Except, there was the example of Jack and several other people to consider. I stopped thinking about that.
From there, we went on to sing some "This Is My Father's World," and some other songs emphasizing God's care and protection of the world. We were going to need a lot of that, I figured, and I sang with as much gusto as I could manage. My raspy voice didn't give me much help, though. Then we prayed some more, and sang again. For once, nobody seemed to be noticing how long we stayed there. Except me, and I didn't mind.
My watch said it was nine-thirty about the time the commotion started in the row behind me. Looking back, I saw someone with pebbly scales and a very large head starting to sit down on the end seat. Some people started shouting, "Jack!" It was him, too; now that I saw him like this it was pretty clear I'd met him before. Doctor Barnes called him up to the front to talk about what had happened.
Jack didn't really want to talk. He fumbled around for a few minutes; finally, he started, "Well, I don't have any idea what's going on today, but when I woke up I was feeling kinda peculiar. It was like, all of a sudden I had a voice in my head, and it was saying I needed more room, my room was too small," I could see some people nodding, but I had no idea what he meant. "So , the next thing I know, I'm a dinosaur! And when I charged the door, it just burst open. But the voice, or whatever it was, didn't recognize the elevator or the stairs as a way out, so I just wandered around for a while. Finally it just got really bored, or something, and let me back in control. I felt like I was stumbling into a wall in my head -- yeah, I know that sounds silly, but that's what it felt like. And suddenly I was me again. Well, partly me, anyway. If there's a way to get the rest of the way back, I can't figure it out."
A few of the people started shouting things like, "Praise God!" I was kind of embarrassed, because we don't do that where I come from, but to tell the truth I felt the same way they did. Some of the others were trying to follow his description, I think, from the look of concentration on their faces, but no one changed back any further than they were.
Jack came back and sat down again, and we prayed a little more, thanking God for helping him. Finally, Doctor Barnes went back on stage and made a few announcements. Classes were cancelled for all of three days, including today. Not much, but he pointed out that if we took more than that we'd never cover all the class material. The dress code was temporarily suspended while the administration worked out something more suitable. We just had to stay reasonably covered. I was surprised we were getting that much of a concession. In fact, I had half suspected we would have to stuff tails and the like down our pants. Finally, the College Church of Christ was gathering people in the parking lot. No one was surprised, after the traffic pileup, that some people were hurt and others badly distraught. So any help we could give would be greatly appreciated.
If anyone had any remaining doubts about the seriousness of what was going on, we had a demonstration right then, before anyone could get up and leave. I heard some people groan just before another wave of dizziness swept over me. More of that grey fur began to spread over my feet, and as I watched, my toes grew longer and my foor shorter. My big toes, still stretching, dislocated and bent suddenly over to the inside. If anything, they looked a lot like thumbs. In fact, my feet had essentially become a pair of hands, if a little strangely shaped. The fur spread on up my legs, which changed a little. Mainly they just grew a little shorter and thicker, the way my arms had done earlier. I had been sort of distracted then by all the fur.
Whatever was causing the changes wasn't satisfied just yet. I could feel my face stretching forward again. This time, if I concentrated, I could feel the new teeth emerging from my gums. At least it didn't feel like I was teething. I don't know how I would've reacted to that. My lower jaw caught up to my upper one so that I didn't look like I had fangs anymore. Everything suddenly got much louder, and I clapped my hands... well, my forehands to my ears. They were suddenly paper-thin, not to mention smaller and longer (but not pointed, though).
Finally the sensations stopped. I almost missed them. The fact was, I enjoyed them. I had imagined things like this before, though always under conscious control. It was frightening, especially now that it was reality and I had to worry about the consequences, but it was still fun. Maybe it was more fun for the fear.
The world hadn't stopped, though, and a lot of other people didn't like what was happening at all. Some people were screaming or crying, like the lizard-woman in front of me whose chest had suddenly gone flat. Others were trying to comfort them, but some of those looked rather distraught themselves. Those people who were still in control of themselves and not saddled with someone frightened were moving toward the doors, and I was about to join them when I spotted Cindy.
I had gone out with Cindy for a while. She wasn't all that attractive, to be honest, but she was intelligent and we had a lot of common interests. Not enough to stop us from breaking up after a few weeks, but we were still friends. She was, in point of fact, the only good friend I had on campus for that session.
"Cindy!" Well, I tried to shout, but that isn't easy for me. She did see me, but I guess I didn't exactly look like myself at the moment. She was heading for the door, so I hurried after her and finally caught her near the stage. She looked me over, still not recognizing me, then noticed my shirt. The bear lounging in his front yard on it was saying, "I love work--I can watch it all day." I don't think anyone else on campus wore a shirt like that, and it apparently clued her in.
"Lance!" Good. Now she knew what I looked like for the moment, anyway. She was changing from the feet up, herself, so she still had her glasses and stringy black hair. Now, though, she also had furry paws with some pretty impressive claws in place of her feet. I couldn't tell how far up the change had gone, but it was clearly up to her waist, because a very long and furry tail stuck out through an improvised hole in her slacks. It looked like I was only one of a few people on campus who was changing in patches all over. Fine. Made me more different, and that was to the better.
"Having a good day?"
"A biology major might think so." She was a physics/mathematics/computer science triple major, and insisted that biology was just a subset of the physics of electrons. We were both Honors Scholars, but she made me look stupid. Then again, she had been to a lot of private schools I hadn't.
The building was clearing out. "Of course. None of our scientific laws have been violated yet, that I know of. You, on the other hand, have a little problem regarding conservation of mass."
"So it's converting to energy, or vice versa."
"So where is it, then? I haven't seen any flashes of light. Or dark, either."
"So?" We had made a game of sparring like this. Today it wasn't just fun. It made things feel a bit more normal.
"So reality just got a little less boring." That was one of my trademark statements: "Reality is boring." I did believe it, though.
"What?" she exclaimed in mock horror. "You're responsible for this, aren't you!"
"Of course. Biologists do this sort of thing all the time. Much more fun than trying to stare at quarks."
"Quark! Quark!" She grinned. "How fur d'ya think this'll go?" A mock-hillbilly accent. Not bad, either.
"I dunno. Hopefully not too fur. I like little things like talking and thinking clearly and walking on my hind legs."
"Since when do you think clearly? Let alone talk clearly."
"Oh, that. I just like those things. I didn't say I could do them."
Laughter. "So what are you going to do with the extra three days?"
"What extra three days? This'll all blow over by tomorrow, and we'll be back in class before we can get our jeans mended."
"Yeah, and they'll kick us out for violating dress code, too."
"No doubt about it. Or else we'll all be running around on all fours by then and no one will care."
"What about it? They'll still enforce the dress code. It's the founding principle of Harding. Even turning into animals can't make us stop enforcing the same rules year after year."
Well... until now, the rules had mostly made sense. Still... "And we'll throw out the nocturnal types for violating curfew, and the aquatic types for mixed swimming, and..."
"Stop! You could go on for days, and there wouldn't be anyone left by then anyway."
"I guess so. And we can't have that, can we?" I looked at my watch. It was something of a habit. With my time sense, or lack thereof, it was one I had to have. It was ten o'clock by now.
"Aw, come on. You don't have to be anywhere today!"
"Actually, I have an appointment with breakfast. I haven't eaten anything yet today."
"Neither have I. Cafeteria's closed. Guess why?"
"No problem. There's plenty of fruit and grubs and carrion and the like lying about." Actually, I had eaten Pop-tarts and milk in my room for the last year and a half. The cafeteria's breakfast food seriously disagreed with me.
"Enjoy." She grinned evilly.
I had already figured out that I was an omnivore of some kind. It was no real surprise that cherry Pop-tarts still tasted good, if a little different somehow. Drinking milk felt peculiar, though. I felt all comfy and snuggly. It was almost like... going back to the womb. And then again it wasn't. I stretched, feeling incredibly relaxed. The only bad aspect was that I kept sticking my nose into the milk. I needed a straw, really, but I didn't have any.
I was beginning to guess a few things regarding instincts. The "voice in the head" some people heard was probably a manifestation of them; as for me, it was more a matter of altered feelings about things. I did very little on instinct or hunches anyway, so it was no surprise that I should be a little different. But when I met carnivore-morphs, I had to take care or I would bare my teeth and start hissing at them. They made me nervous, and that was what it seemed natural to do when I was nervous.
I wiggled my new thumbs. The feeling was peculiar. Walking hadn't been easy for a little while. When I left Cindy, I had stumbled on my new feet (or should I call them hands? I was having trouble with that), tripped over my tail, and fallen on my rear. My tail was still unhappy about that little incident. At the moment, I wished I had a computer in here so I could practice typing with my feet and/or using a mouse with my tail. Some aspects of this, at least, were going to be highly convenient.
After a few minutes, I got up and tried to call home. The line was busy. Of course, all the phone lines would be overloaded. I wouldn't be logging on either, I supposed. Dad probably wasn't taking this well, or Mom either. They had about as much tolerance for the weird as people did back in the forties or fifties. That was nothing unusual. The Plague had bypassed Kentucky almost entirely, since there were virtually no big cities. For the same reason, nothing much changed there, and not fast when it did. Although what was happening now was undoubtedly an exception. I had no idea how my stepbrother or sister were reacting. I didn't understand Doug very well; he thought like Dad, but was maybe a little more open-minded. Shauna was even more introverted than I was, and we had never gotten along well, so I'd never really known her much either. My half-sister Tamara stood the best chance of getting out with her sanity intact; her reading tastes indicated she was reasonably like me in liking the strange, and anyway her age group seemed to be unaffected so far. So I hung up and decided to make my way out to the College Church's building. It seemed that most of the others had gone already. The pavement was hard and gritty under my hind hands. When the summer really got started, I'd be lucky not to get burned soles. But ordinary shoes were clearly out of the question; even if I could squeeze those hand-feet in, it would be like trying to hold your thumbs next to your hands all day. Maybe I could work something out with gloves.
I don't know what I had expected to see in the parking lot, but there were maybe ten times as many people as I had been looking for. Not that I didn't feel for them, but the first thing I noticed was the species distribution. I could almost recognize Harding students and faculty by looking for the exotic types. The local Searcians seemed mostly familiar types like cats and ducks. The din was incredible, and I had to pause a few minutes to get used to it.
Not far from the edge, I saw Cindy. A man who seemed to be a pigeon from the head down was sobbing on her shoulder about his wife. It seemed her hands had turned into fins while she was trying to cook him breakfast, and she had dropped the muffins and a greasy potholder into the stove flame. Bad luck gave way to worse, and the house was in flames in minutes. She was in the hospital now in critical condition, if she hadn't died by now, and he couldn't go in to see her. At least, they had no children to be hurt. After a while he left with a group led by one of the church's elders to go speak with the hospital staff about some serious rule-bending.
Cindy looked at me. I looked at her. It just didn't seem characteristic of her to be doing this, somehow.
I tried to start a conversation again. "Figured out what you're changing into yet?"
"Nope. You? Those little black ears of yours are cute, especially with the white tips."
"Sorry. No." And I couldn't think of anything else to say. Maybe that was why we had broken up.
The awkward silence was broken by another one of those Waves. I felt the familiar dizziness (it still felt like motion sickness to me). Apparently I still wasn't used to these feet, because I landed on my tail again (literally). My face stretched even further out. This is getting to be a habit. I could see the tip of my pink nose now. The rest of my face, that I could see anyway, was white, covered sparsely by very short fur. It felt as though I had even more teeth. I was beginning to feel ridiculous. What use did I have for this many teeth? The fur was spreading down my neck, but it stopped there. I felt the scar on my neck. The fur had passed it by, but it was covered anyway. At least I didn't have to worry about people asking if a hunter had shot me there.
When I looked up, Cindy was staring at her hands. The claws on her fingers put the ones on her toes to shame. I was amazed that I didn't feel the urge to hiss at her. Thick fur had spread up her arms, and she looked really hot, as in temperature, of course. Strangely, given that she was otherwise changing feet up, her face looked distorted, sort of elongated. I still couldn't tell what she was becoming, though.
Someone over to my left was shouting. One of the bird-men had grown a pair of wings, and was struggling to get them loose frrom his shirt. He looked incredibly uncomfortable, and the shirt kept getting caught on the wings so he couldn't get it off.
"What? What do you expect me to do?"
"You're the one with the claws. The closest one around, anyway."
"Oh." Like pretty much everybody, she still didn't seem to think in terms of using what she had just gained. The bird-guy flinched when he saw those claws, but held still when she explained how she wanted to help him. "These aren't as sharp as they look," she complained while she sliced through his shirt like it was butter.
"They look sharp enough. I don't have a mirror. Can you tell now what I'm turning into?"
She took one look at me. "You're an opossum. What about me?" She had already finished with the bird-morph's shirt.
"Sorry. I still can't tell you." Something nagged at the back of my mind, but I couldn't tell what it was.
"It must be pretty strange if you can't tell what it is. That makes two of us, then."
"What's strange about an opossum?" I was feeling pretty silly for speculating about exotic monkeys.
"It's the only marsupial in North America. Isn't it?"
"Good point. At least, it was until today. I've seen at least one koala already." I pointed to a teenager behind her.
She stared at him. "How can you tell? He's hardly changed."
"Look at the hands. Do you know of anything else with double thumbs?"
"Um. No. OK." They hadn't called me Bio-man on the high school quiz bowl team for nothing. I had best remember that not everybody knew these things, or I'd be mobbed soon. Someone cleared his throat behind us.
"Excuse me." I turned around. "Are you biologists?"
"Not me," Cindy smirked. "Talk to him."
"Um, I still have to get my degree first. I guess you want me to tell you what you're becoming?"
"Not me. I'm pretty obvious." He lifted one hoof. "It's my son we're confused about."
Apparently the son was a college student too. He must have been living at home, because I hadn't seen him before. The trouble was, he hadn't changed all that much. He was covered in long hair from head to foot, and he had large claws on his hands and feet, but that could have fit any number of critters. I was studying the peculiar pattern on the fur looking for clues when I spotted the most peculiar thing about it. It wanted to lie up instead of down.
"Tree sloth. I think. You need to see an expert, really."
They walked away, chuckling about how that fit the son, all right. I was hoping to duck out, but it was too late. Within minutes , I was surrounded by people who wanted me to tell them what they were becoming. Most of them were either obvious, or so peculiar I had no idea, but they just kept coming. Cindy just laughed and walked away to help with something else. By the time the crowds finally dispersed, my watch said it was almost noon, and my stomach agreed. On the other hand, it just might think it was time for a midnight snack, for all I could tell.
The cafeteria was almost certainly still closed. I was making my weary way back to campus, hoping I could think of someone I knew who might have spare food, when I saw that some valiant souls had opened Subway. They were doing really good business, too, implying that they were about the only place available. I may not have been staggering toward an oasis, but I sure felt like it. Thank God for sandwiches and the people who make them.
The cat-morph waitress couldn't have recognized my face, so it must have been my voice that told her, or maybe my scent. "Six inch turkey on wheat, double meat, no toppings." Was I that familiar already? It must just be that she'd served me a lot recently. Only this time, for some reason, the stuff I usually dismissed as "rabbit food" made my mouth water just as much as the meat. Opossums were omnivorous. No. I was just really hungry. They were nocturnal, too, and I wasn't asleep. Then again, I was the one with the broken biological clock.
"Sort of. Turkey and all that, but give me the works with it." She frowned, but gave it to me anyway. And to my surprise, it tasted really good. Even the pickles.
While I ate, I pondered how she had known me. I couldn't really pick out people by smell, at least not yet. It could simply be that I wasn't familiar with anyone's scent. Maybe she could, but I did have a distinctive voice, and the changes had only made it more of what it was. Deep and sort of raspy or scratchy. I rubbed the scar on my throat again. Somewhere above it was the much older scar from my first tracheostomy. My vocal chords had been paralyzed when I was born, for no reason anyone could figure out. So when I was really young, I had needed a tube in my neck to breathe through. Later, I discovered that my airway hadn't grown with the rest of me, and I had needed another tracheostomy while my throat healed from having a lot of vocal chord burned away with a laser. Short of the chords growing back, that part of my life had left me nothing to worry about regarding this transformation.
Unless you counted the rods with that, too. The doctors suspected the abnormal curvature of my spine came partly from having to hunch over to breathe better. How my body was going to deal with all that metal was beyond me, and the most likely possibility I could think of was that it wouldn't. It would just change as if the rods weren't there, and kill me or at least paralyze me for good. I tried to lose my thoughts in the new tastes I was experiencing. It didn't work very well. After all, the pattern I thought I saw emerging from my changes implied that my torso might be one of the next things to change. Maybe even in the very next...
The familiar dizziness had appeared once more. The cat-waitress was looking down at some part of herself hidden from me behind the counter. My own chest and back began to itch. Looking under my shirt, I could see the fur growing and my muscles and ribs reshaping themselves. The twisting sensation spread around my body from front to back. Time's up. "Been great--" I started to say.
A line of pure white fire consumed my spine. The rest of me tumbled into blackness.
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