As always with me, consciousness returned abruptly. As always, there was no question of it being a dream. It was standard procedure for my head to clear fast on waking...though the sensation of my tail didn't exactly slow it down. I should be dead. Maybe I was. This must be paradise -- or was it torment? Probably the former, since I felt no pain. But there was no way I could have survived the experience I must have just gone through. I tried not to picture the ruin that must be left of my body, back on Earth.
When I opened my eyes, though, I realized I must have underestimated my body's ability to take punishment. I was on a bed in a hospital recovery room. The orderlies had been careful; my tail was free instead of stuck under me the way I'd have expected. How could I have survived? I remembered reading that opossums didn't die easily, that they took falls and suffered fractures that would kill a human instantly, but I didn't really think I could have survived what must have happened to my spine. The only thing I could think of was that someone must have called an ambulance and surgeons had been able to get the metal out of me before it screwed things up beyond repair. The flaw in that theory, though, was that I was neither feeling nor acting drugged, so far as I could tell, and I would certainly have been on major painkillers after an operation like that.
A nurse moved into my left eye's field of vision. Only the left part; the two seemed to have nearly separated while I was out of it. This guy was the least changed person I had seen since about ten-thirty. How many days ago? I must have been unconscious for days, surely. He had thick fingers, and was walking on his toes. If not for the mane, I'd never have guessed he was a horse-type.
"Awake already?" Already? I looked for my watch. Didn't see it. I did notice that I had developed small claws on my fingertips, though.
"How many days have I been out?"
"Days? You've been asleep about two hours and a half. Either someone screwed up the dosage or the sedative didn't work right. I don't know how many people we've already had in here that the drugs worked funny on 'em."
"But...I had surgery, didn't I?"
"I think you're a little disoriented, sir. You didn't come in here for surgery."
"Yeah, I know!" What was with this guy? "What about my back? I must have had surgery on it!"
"Uh-uh. None. No reason for it." A look of comprehension seemed to have come into his eyes, though.
"That can't be right. Why am I not dead, if I didn't have any surgery?"
"Nobody knows. Get dressed," he pointed to my clothes on a chair, "and I'll take you to hear what we do know. Sorry, no wheels. You don't need them, and what with all the people who've lost their legs, we're in short supply."
As I started to sit up, I suddenly realized where I was bending. "My back... it shouldn't..."
"Get up. I told you, we'll explain."
Flexing joints I had thought would never move again, I climbed out of bed. They must be short of gowns, too; at least, I had nothing on but the same briefs I'd worn all day. I remedied that as quickly as I could manage. My watch confirmed what he'd told me: 3:15 PM, Monday the 17th. A fragment of country music wandered through my head: "Well, it sure is Monday, isn't it now? I gotta work my way through the week somehow..." At this rate, I'd never make Friday.
For the first time in my life, I had hair on my chest. Not to mention a fair amount of muscle. I thought my face had changed a little more, but without a mirror I couldn't be sure.
Brandon (so his tag read) led me down the hall into one of the waiting rooms of the White County Medical Center. I wasn't the only one. A crowd of patients--in chairs, in wheelchairs, standing or sitting on the floor -- had been gathered here. The only scent I could make out among them all was confusion. Noticing the scar one man bore on his still unfurred forehead, I realized that the thought that occupied them all must be "Why am I still alive?" Each of these people must have had some kind of implant or artificial organ.
As I started to take a place near the back, a rather moist hand grabbed my shoulder and maneuvered me in front of everyone else. "Doctor Wright?" His face was still the same, but smooth, moist skin mottled in yellow and black had replaced his normal color up to the chin.
"I had your sedative dose cut. You didn't need it, and you seem to be the most dramatic case of what I'm about to show. You don't mind too much, do you?" Brow furrowed, he sat down on a table. His thick salamander tail wouldn't have fit any of the chairs.
"I guess not. Say what you're planning to say. I want to know, too."
"All right. I'll have you sign a few forms later. Procedure, you know." He turned to the crowd in front of us. "I could say you're all lucky to be alive," he started, "but considering that all of you are, I suspect that might be a rather peculiar statement. Each one of you is a variation on the same case -- you all had some kind of metal or plastic implants in your bodies in inconvenient positions. Since inanimate objects were generally unaffected by this transformation, I would have expected you all to be dead by now. Obviously, some other factor is at work.
"What might have caused the effect is beyond me, but each and every one of your implants has simply vanished, to be replaced by normal...well, perhaps I should just say organic... tissue as appropriate. In some cases, while we were trying to save your lives by removing it."
"So where did it go?" someone shouted from the back.
"Apparently, the same place a good bit of my body mass, and some of yours, went. Which is to say we don't know. But the best guess we have is that it's a variation on the same process.
"This young man up here is the most dramatic example we have at this hospital, although I've heard of a few more so elsewhere. He's given me permission to show you his before and after pictures, so you have an image to put in your minds."
A nurse rolled a set of mobile panels into place next to me and turned on the projector light used for displaying x-rays. "This is prior to the change." The pictures were familiar -- my spine twisted into an odd curve, with rods holding it together in a couple of places. The next set were absolutely not familiar. There were several minor differences in the shape of the bones, but the big thing was...no curves (aside from the normal ones), no rods. It was as though I'd never had scoliosis at all. Which perfectly matched how my back felt now, or I'd never have believed it. "After. You can see that there are no illness-related abnormalities here at all. Unfortunately, that only seems to apply to implant-related problems. If you had anything else wrong with you, I'm afraid there's probably no change."
It was true. I could tell my air intake hadn't increased any, and my voice was still as deep and gravelly as ever. I sighed. Improvement there would have been really nice.
A cow-woman commented, "So we have more than biology involved here, don't we?"
"You mean religiously?" The doctor shook his head. "I don't have a clue. Clearly, though, this whole event transcends any kind of biological effect I've seen before. So you can put out of your head any notions that this is caused by a chemical spill or radioactivity or anything like that. It's just, well... impossible."
"Are we going to be ok?" someone else asked.
"In the long run, the simple answer is that no one knows. I'm sure you've heard the reports, or maybe seen for yourself, how some people have changed completely into animals, and it may not be over yet. But it looks as though most of the transformations have stabilized now, though not all, and I can say definitely that all of you except one or two are through changing. There's a metabolic component to it, and that's gone in you. Certainly all of you are stable in regard to whatever conditions you had, and I really think you had all best go home. We're overloaded with patients as it is, due to all the accidents. If anything else comes up regarding the transformations, I'm sure you'll hear it on the news."
Not everyone was happy with the situation, but people began to disperse. I was the only Harding student, though, so there was no chance of getting a ride. Reluctantly, I walked home.
I made it back to the dorm, somehow, without running into any more wrecks or distraught transformees or anything worse. Probably it was because by now the roads were mostly clear. No one wanted any more disruptions in their already topsy-turvy lives, I suppose. Social chaos had turned what might have been a fascinating experience into a series of disasters. Aw, shucks... maybe it was just Monday. I sat down on the bed and laughted until my throat was raw. After that, I felt much better.
The recorded message from Harding Telephone Service said that all Arkansas lines were overloaded. No phones, no internet. I got up and walked out to look around on campus.
The Lily Pool fountain was filled, which was out of the ordinary when there were no visitors, but then everything was out of the ordinary today. A couple of fish-morphs were sitting around in it while a turtle-morph poured in a giant bag of salt. I waved. They all waved back. One of the fish, I suddenly realized, was a Bible professor named McManus. The other was an attractive young woman. They were at opposite ends of the pool, and he still looked incredibly embarrassed. I couldn't really relate, but I felt genuinely sorry for him.
In the new plaza I found a similar sight. The water in the fountain here was fresh, and all the occupants were students, but otherwise conditions were pretty much the same. Fortunately, it seemed none of the people here actually had to breathe water, though all the fish morphs I saw could. They were just more comfortable wet.
Most of the other students, I finally realized, were in the Student Center watching the news. The local stations were out, but a reporter with an elk's head was keeping up-to-the-minute coverage of the national situation. Nothing new was going on, and I soon tuned him out. I was just about to leave, since no one seemed to want to talk, when I felt someone grab my arm.
The hand was greenish with webbed fingers. Its owner seemed to be a relatively human-looking young frog woman. Her skin was moist and her eyes bulgy, but in the "right" places still. She still had most of her scalp hair, though no eyebrows or lashes, and her bustline certainly appeared intact. All in all, she looked quite pretty and exotic, but the effect was spoiled by the other three guys hanging around her.
After a moment, I managed to stammer out a weak, "Hello."
She smiled winningly. "Doctor Miere said I should stay around guys as much as possible until he finishes some tests. Did you see Jurassic Park?"
Just for a moment the connection eluded me. Then... "The professor thinks you're a ranid frog. Is that it?" The bit in Jurassic Park about the female dinosaurs becoming male because the geneticists had used ranid DNA to fill in the gaps had been pretty amusing. I suspected, though, that the process took at least a few days and didn't require a male within three feet not to occur. Maybe, though, it was best not to point that out.
"He knows I'm a ranid. He's just running hormone tests to see if I'd be affected by boy deprivation." Boy deprivation? Give me a break! But it would be a pity if it actually happened. This girl was a real stunning sight. I came within a nanometer or so of accepting her offer. Then I took a second look at her current hangers-on. A moose. A beaded lizard (in other words, the poisonous kind). And some sort of shark.
If by some chance it came to blows (and it might, depending on how mating season turned out to work and when it happened), a wimpish 'possum-guy like me would be toast. I couldn't imagine what this babe saw in me anyway. Even if she was irrationally terrified, there were plenty of better catches around. "No," I forced out.
"Are you sure?" She tried to bat her eyes at me, but without eyelashes, the maneuver wasn't much use. When I said nothing, she snapped out, "Fine!" and flounced away. Her retinue followed. Before I turned away, she was already working on a muskrat morph. Funny. His eyes looked glazed over.
I shook my head. Now that she was gone, I felt as though I had been tensing all the muscles in my face or something, like the beginnings of a headache. I couldn't have been more bored, though. First chaos, now... nothing. There were a few people still transforming as I headed back toward the dorm, but they all seemed to have made the necessary alterations to their clothes ahead of time. I was pretty sure I wouldn't change any more. What else was there to alter?
Back in my room, I looked myself over, wondering why a hot chick (one more metaphor that would probably bite the dust shortly) like ranid-girl might be interested in me. I was surprised to find a good bit more meat on my bones. Hardly the body-builder look, but I had acquired a considerable amount of lean tissue. Still, that didn't seem enough to attract female interest when the woman in question already had a three-guy harem. Shrug. Maybe I'd find out eventually.
I checked the time. Four-thirty. If the cafeteria were going to open today, it would do so now. Since I had never finished lunch, I was hungry enough to go ahead and eat.
To my surprise, the cafeteria really was open. Only the front, but that was fair enough. I ordered "steak fingers" and some other stuff, determined to find out just how much my palate had changed and what tasted good now.
One person had beaten me here. The food on her tray was interesting, to say the least. Besides refried beans and applesauce, her snout was stuck directly into spicy ground beef in a taco shell. No silverware. She raised her head, looking at me down that long nose. "Come on. Sit." Nasal wasn't even the word for that voice. Which, nonetheless, unmistakeably belonged to Cindy.
"Wow. I thought I was having a bad day."
"Being an anteater isn't so bad." An incredibly long tongue slurped up some refried beans.
"You sure about that?" There was an edge to her voice. And to her scent. I was surprised to notice that, after a lifetime with a stuffy nose, I was able to recognize anything of the sort.
"Actually, being an anteater is the pits. It's the fringe benefits I'm enjoying."
"What fringe benefits? Being able to stomach cafeteria food?" The green peas tasted wonderful, albeit mushy. I was no doubt being poisoned, but for once it was a pleasant way to go.
"The food is horrible, as always. I mean this." She snapped her fingers. And vanished.
No flash of light. No puff of smoke. No special effects of any kind. Just... there one moment and gone the next. I jumped, then looked around. Cindy was sitting at another table across the room. She waved, and before I could get up, was across from me again.
"Wow." I didn't sound sufficiently impressed, I suppose, because she raised an eyebrow at me. Teleportation was cool, to be sure, but I had already seen the world reshuffled today, so this was nothing big. "How far can you go? How much can you pack?"
"Across campus seems to be about my limit." She let out what I first thought was a snort; then I realized it was a sigh. Across campus was far enough to be useful, but nothing that would open new worlds or shatter nations. With an imagination primed by years of comics, I would have been disappointed too.
"Hmph. And the weight limit?"
"Not weight, I think. Volume. I can teleport a loaded backpack, but not a chair. I'm not sure how small something has to be. And I have to go along."
"Wow," I said again, with a bit more enthusiasm. I was becoming interested, though not quite fascinated. "I guess it has to do with this... Change. Have you heard about anyone else like this?"
"Unconfirmed reports. Most of it's just enough to be useful, and not everybody can do something. They say more than half can change all the way and back, though."
That explained Jack, I guessed. "Can you?"
"I haven't checked. Why would I want to be completely an anteater?"
"Oh." That was a good point. Still... the experience might be fun.
"Eat your food. It'll get cold." I tended to neglect my food if I started talking. I ate some more.
"How do you do it?"
"Teleport? Or change?"
"Either. Both. I'm intrigued."
"You mean you want to try it." She tried to smirk at me. "When I travel, I just imagine falling through a hole to where I'm going. That's what I wanted to do when I started attracting jokes an hour or so ago. And, poof, I was back in my room."
I tried to form that image. It was just to the next chair over, but nothing happened. I couldn't even really make the image of it in my mind.
"No use. What about the other?"
"Basically what Jack said in chapel. Imagine a wall and push your way through."
So I tried that, too. Making the wall was no problem, but I couldn't push through. More than that, trying to felt so incredibly wrong I didn't even try again. It was like using a hammer to rake leaves, sort of.
"Looks like I'm in the minority, Cindy."
She laughed. It was the most peculiar sound I'd ever heard. "You're always talking about how boring ordinary, everyday stuff is, Lance. So now you're not ordinary. You got what you wanted. Right?"
I wanted to choke her for that. Especially since, in a completely twisted, backwards way, it was the truth. In a world no doubt full of super-powers, I seemed to have ended up without any.
Cindy tried to change, just to satisfy my curiosity. She couldn't, which made me feel a little better. Still, for the first time since that morning the food all seemed pretty tasteless. I ate what I could stomach and left.
The computer lab was closed. I tried to get into Harbin Dorm to get at the lobby TV. It was locked up. Likewise Keller Dorm. There was no way I was going to watch the news in the Student Center, and I'd seen that the bookstore there was closed. Desperate for something to do, I walked out to Hastings. Closed.
I started to walk back, then changed my mind. Race Street had never been clearer. I crossed with no trouble and walked to the park a short distance up the road.
Finally I had found something at least mildly amusing. The paths were crowded with joggers trying to pretend nothing had happened. But every now and then, a tail would get stepped on, or someone would realize their feathers were ruffled and start preening, or a deer-morph would see a cat-morph (or just a cat) and panic. Then the people would realize what they were doing and go back to jogging (or talking, or playing tennis, or whatever.) The sight was hilarious, and I didn't have to try hard to ignore the bird-people flying overhead (how did they do that, though? and how did the wings attach?) and the people who had gotten the hang of shapeshifting or other powers and were trying them out.
But it seemed to take more and more stimulation just to keep me interested. Trying to stave off ennui, I climbed one of the tall pine trees as far as the branches would hold my weight and looked down at everyone. For a little while, that worked. The climb was so easy now as to be boring, though, and the ground didn't seem dangerously far away as it once would have. Finally, around six o'clock, I dozed off, still sitting high in the tree.
When I woke up, for the first time I could remember I didn't know how I had gotten there. For a few moments, I panicked at being in a tree, but the sensation didn't last. Finally I realized that the park was nearly empty, and that it was dark. I could see just fine, though. My watch told me it was 8:15 PM. I'd slept only about two hours.
Nonetheless, my whole outlook seemed different. Compared to the dull daylight world, the night felt, looked, sounded, and even smelled alive. Frogs and crickets chirped, and I seemed able to see each one. Or just as easily, to pinpoint them by sound or smell. A squirrel whose rest I disturbed as I slipped along the branches barked at me, and just for the fun of it I snarled back. With a smell of pure confusion, she scurried away. The rough bark scraped my tail and hands as I slipped down the tree, but I paid it no mind. Near the bottom branches, I dangled from my tail for a half-minute or so; it wasn't as easy as I'd thought because I was much too heavy. Swinging back to the trunk, I climbed the rest of the way down nursing sore tail muscles.
But by the time I reached the ground I felt wonderful again. I wasn't really very fast, but I scuttled down the path silently. Spotting a cricket, I popped it into my mouth. Plump and juicy, with a salty sort of flavor. So I grabbed some more, eating on the run. At the street's edge I crouched, scanning this way and that before scurrying across as fast as I could.
My clothes chafed. Dress code, I reminded myself before I could do anything drastic. In time, this side of me would no doubt get used to clothes too, so long as I held discipline now.
I kept the scurrying and stalking up for hours, snatching bugs and salamanders and even a few rodents as I went. Once, a salamander suddenly grew in my hand and slugged me, but I avoided interacting with anyone on purpose, though several people saw me and gave a start at the orange glow of my eyes. Twice I had to restrain myself from eating roadkill, which smelled just fine to me.
Finally I remembered to check the time. Ten forty-five. Curfew, I insisted to myself. At last I forced myself into the dorm and then into bed. I actually managed to sleep three whole hours before getting up at 3:15 and reading in the dark.
At five-thirty I showered hastily and was outside by six. But as dawn began, the exhilaration of the night before faded and boredom returned. I had been catapulted into a potentially-enjoyable world and then denied the experiences that would have made it fun. Loitering in one of the old-fashioned swings on campus, I fumbled through those first visualizations over and over. Nothing changed. I tried variations --doors in the wall, windows, simple gaping holes.
It was still only 6:45. Somehow I would have to struggle through another day. I might as well try to climb Mount Everest.
"Mind if I sit?" I glanced up. And couldn't look away.
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