by Locutus


Part 3
The Pragmatics of the Situation

The person standing over me made two-legged salamanders and humanoid moose look ordinary. Short (but not quite stubby), flattened and webbed limbs attached to a long tube of a body. The pale yellow skin was devoid of any natural covering of hair, feathers, or even scales, seeming even barer than a frog's and more moist. A long dorsal fin beginning on the lower back raised the person's shirt as much as five inches, but folded over bonelessly as the short tail passed under a strap that held the back of the jeans (really shorts) together. The neck, barely discernable and bearing gill opening after gill opening, seemed more to sag forward than to hold a tilted head or even bend deliberately forward. Small lidless eyes sat to either side of a face that seemed all upper jaw, with only a flap of a mandible to inadequately cover the palate.

In order to absorb all that, I must have been staring. "I'll take that as an invitation," the being lisped. Even "lisped" was an understatement. The cause was evident as it spoke: a rod-like, barely flexible tongue in a mouth full of scraping teeth scattered over the palate.

"All right already. You look strange too, you know. I came over here because you seemed really miserable, but if you won't talk to me I'll just leave."

"S-sorry," I stammered as the being started to stand back up. It was pretty evident that a sitting posture was difficult for it. "That was rude of me, but I haven't seen anyone who looks even remotely like you. I'm Lance Harmon."

"Marisa Lemmons. I guess you're right. On both counts, that is. I'm a business major, and I haven't got the faintest idea what I'm supposed to be. Other than some weird kind of fish, that is." She ran her hand self-consciously over the gill openings.

I skimmed through the taxonomic lists in my head (the ones I'd had to memorize in zoology), but there was really only one thing she could be. "Lamprey, I'd say. Closest thing to an invertebrate, um, morph I've spotted yet. You're incredibly lucky you can move on land, and I don't just mean walking." From her general sagginess and her species-type, I suspected her skeleton was as decalcified as it could be and still let her survive out of water. "How did I miss you yesterday?"

"If you know all that, you've got to be in bio." She grinned as best she could, and a musty oder I suspected was meant to be waterborne rolled off her in waves. No doubt it meant the same as the grin. "I was in my room all day trying to make some pants I could wear," (she flopped her tail and pointed to the strap), "and watching the news. Some guy in India's claiming he has a cure. I definitely hope so."

A cure? "I doubt it. Maybe in a decade or two... after we've all adjusted anyway." The prospect of being out of sync with everybody else tantalized me, but, I realized, it wouldn't last if the stuff worked. I'd just be ordinary again. "I mean, look. Everyone's different. What single cure could undo this?"

She breathed a put-upon sigh. "So I'm stuck this way. I have a reason to be bummed. What's your excuse?"

I felt pretty lame after that, but it didn't stop the ennui gnawing at my guts. I explained about the powers.

"Yeah, I heard on tv. But you couldn't before, either, so what's the big deal here?"

"Because this is what I've been wishing for all my life. Not this specifically," I added as she started to interrupt. "I thrive on the bizarre, the surreal. It's just some quirk of mine. 'Til this, I had to nurse myself along with books and weird dreams and tv shows. And it was still never enough. And now that it's finally hapened, I'm still just an ordinary guy. Less than ordinary, even. The big revolution came... and passed me by. Sort of, anyway." There was no way she would understand. And if I was going to be honest with myself, she was in the right. "I guess I'm being selfish, right?"

"Absolutely." Even though I had known she would say it, my heart still sank lower. "But that doesn't mean I can't even catch a glimpse of where you're coming from."

She was just trying to make me feel better. I said so.

"Now you're being even more egotistical. You think you're so important I'd waste time on you just to make you feel better. I'm telling you I can sympathize. Someone ought to benefit from this, and it ought to be someone who can appreciate it. That means we're all in this together. So cheer up! Before I smack you silly and walk away, feeling sorry for myself just like you."

The convoluted logic was a little more than I could follow immediately. "Um. I-I'll take your advice." I was back to stammering, it seemed. "If I can figure out how."

"First step: come walk with me. I bet I won't have the use of these legs long if I don't keep 'em worked out. We'll chat, misfit to misfit." She was probably right about the legs. I stood up and followed. "Since we've got to get used to this," she muttered, "let's learn to enjoy it." Before we had gotten far, she halted at the still-full Lily Pool and dabbled a finger in it. "Still nice'n'salty." Without warning, she ducked her head and neck under and inhaled through her gills and mouth. I was a little surprised at the time, since fish usually inhale only via the mouth; but lampreys are different because they're usually attached to a food source with theirs. I had just forgotten. She stood up, making a gargling sound, and the water sprayed back out of them. I jumped back just in time to keep from being soaked. "Air is so dry anymore. Murder on the throat."

"So. What do we talk about?"

She turned and headed toward the front of campus. "Where're you from, Lance? Let's see if we can work out a pattern for this."

My type of thinking. "Western Kentucky. Plenty of possum there. I've eaten more than one."

"So far, so good. I'm from Nevada. What about the lampreys?"

"Way off. No salt water there. Lampreys live in the Great Lakes, I think, and the ocean to the northeast." To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that was all, but I was pretty sure they weren't in the southwest.

"They can't be just salt water if they're in the Lakes. Can they?"

"I'm not sure. I'll have to look it up." We were walking into town now, past the women's dorms. "You want breakfast?"

"Guess I'd better. I got no idea what I can eat." We turned back toward the cafeteria.

"What did you have yesterday?"

"Juice. I was so freaked out, I could hardly keep even that down."

We got ourselves sausage and pancakes. Before, the cafeteria's breakfast food had disagreed with me something awful, but maybe now it wouldn't be so bad.

Marisa sat there, trying to figure out how to eat something she couldn't chew in the normal way and certainly couldn't swallow whole. "Real lampreys bite off food with their tongues, then use them to scrape it against their teeth. Just put the sausage to your mouth and try that." It seemed to work, though I had no idea how well she could digest it. She ate the pancakes the same way, except she put her mouth to the plate so as not to drip syrup everywhere. Her lower jaw wasn't good for much but talking, and not great for that.

"See, you've got it easy, Lance," she grumbled as I forked bits of food and ate it like I always had.

"You're not the one who nearly scarfed up roadkill last night."

"Gross. Why would you do that?"

"Instinct said it was perfectly good food and shouldn't go to waste. Maybe it is, for a possum, but I forced myself to leave it." That I had had to force myself was bad enough.

She glared at a piece of sausage. "I want fish. My instincts don't say much besides, 'Hungry. Find food now.'" She scowled again, making me wonder if she knew anything else about lamprey feeding habits at all. I'd already decided not to tell her till I was sure she wouldn't vomit when I did.

"In words, just like that?"

"Not exactly, but close. More like a feeling, but it comes sort of from outside me."

Odd. I had assumed everyone felt it like me. Part of their own feelings, part of them. Had Jack talked about a voice in chapel yesterday? "It's more like I personally feel, to me. Nothing like a voice. And... I think it's stronger at night."

"You mean like Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde? Or do I mean like a werewolf? I get the movies all confused."

"Actually, I think it's because opossums are awake at night. Maybe... maybe I go to sleep at night and the possum wakes up. Then the other way around during the day. And my body just catnaps whenever."

"But it's not all the way like that, or you'd have eaten the roadkill."

"I guess. I don't know."

"Good to hear you're not omniscient. Well, sort of. If you were you'd know how to fix this." We finished breakfast in silence. I didn't have to make a break for the restroom -- a good sign.

Finally she stood. "It's only fifteen till eight. We have another hour or so till chapel if it's at the usual time." The notice on the door as we left told us it was.

She wandered down past the girls' dorms again, and I followed. "This is all crazy. I'm a down-to-earth sort of person."

"Then it doesn't matter," I advised. "Things are settling down, and you can just live the way you would have if nothing had happened. My family will do that, I know, or go crazy one." I still didn't know how they were. After chapel, I'd have to call again.

"They'll go crazy, then. That's nice talk you're spouting, but for most of us it's not so easy." We were moving past the half-built new dorm. I wondered if they might alter the plans to adjust it for, say, aquatic types. Then dragged myself back to the conversation. "...have lives that we meant to go a certain way. What if we can't get them back on track?"

"I don't know, Marisa. But I think most people are less rigid than you believe. We'll pull through somehow." I gestured at the beginnings of early morning traffic. A horse-morph with a bright idea was adjusting his mirrors to show him what was ahead, since he could see clearly what was to his sides anyway. "You see? Even down-to-earth people are adjusting. By being their practical selves and living life as it comes."

"He's just a horse! I'm a da-... a dratted fish! I'm not even supposed to have legs or arms! Breathing air burns my throat! What is there for me to adjust?" She stopped to draw a raspy breath, not because she was done talking, but I cut in anyway, using my best rational tone.

"Go ahead and let it out, Marisa, but if after that you just keep raving, aren't you letting it win? I'm afraid too. Not for me, but for my family. I'm afraid they'll refuse to deal with what's happened, just stay mad at the world, and let it eat them up even if they stay sane."

She looked at me with that one-eyed stare she was developing. "Do you realize how transparent you are?"

I forced a smile. "Perfectly clear, I hope."

"Ha! That's about right, I guess." She gave me a ghastly sort of smile in return. Her whole lower jaw wanted to roll back under the tension. Suddenly, it started to. "Oops!" She let up before it could go far and laughed instead, air rattling through her gill pouches.

We had gotten a little way into town. Houses of the less-well-to-do surrounded us, but the near-empty Harding apartments were just a block over. "It's only eight. Want to keep going?"

"I'm doing fine," she responded. "Might as well, just be sure we don't get too far." We moved on, watching people trying to get into their cars. Some gave up and walked or flew. Some, with a look and smell of resignation, switched to full animal and then walked or flew. And some managed to stuff themselves in. "What are your family like, exactly?"

"Unimaginative. Dull. And they fight a lot. I love 'em, but I'm glad to be away."

"But individually?" I wondered why she wanted to know.

"Well, Mom turned down an offer from Freed-Hardeman College to marry my dad. I don't know how she'd have done, but the only interest she ever showed in the unusual was that she hoped they'd invent the transporter beam soon."

"Lots of luck. Why that?"

"She hates to drive. She's nice, but she's a bit over-protective of me. Dad -- my stepfather, really -- is different. He loves cars -- races some -- and machines in general. But he only likes what he can understand. He also thinks his way is the only way, especially for his family."

"Tough. What about your real dad?"

"Haven't seen much of him in years. Mom claims he beat me, but I was too little to remember for sure. I visited for a long time, but the families fought until we were old enough to stop going. He's got more imagination than my stepfather, but other than that they're a lot alike, though I'd never say that to either one's face."

"And you've got brothers and sisters?"

"Three married stepsisters I don't know too well. After them I'm the oldest. Doug, my stepbrother, is mechanical like his father. My full sister, Shauna, is quiet like me, but that's all we have in common. She thinks she wants to go to college now, as if she could pass anything but music. She's never learned to let Dad have his way like I have, and they're always butting heads. She and Doug both fight with me, too. Then there's Tamara, my half-sister. She's the best of us all, smart and athletic too. So long as she turns into a cat, she'll do fine and love it... but she's only ten now, so I don't know yet if she'll change at all."

"Do you always run on like that about your family?"

"Only when prompted. Your turn, and time we turned around."

She sighed. "Sure you want to hear it? My parents are incredibly cool. Both managers at Wal-Mart, which isn't great, but they treat me like a person and a friend, and we always have plenty of money. I'm the younger of two. Kelley's in med school in New York. We fight sometimes, but nothing big."

"So perfect it makes me sick. I'd say it was no fair you're done already, but then I'd have to listen to more."

She didn't recognize my traditional sarcastic humor. "Hey, lay off. Just because your family doesn't get along doesn't mean we've all got to be that way."

"I'm sorry! Sheesh! I didn't mean it like that."

"I certainly hope not." She was trying not to look at me, but kept forgetting where her eyes were now.

This time the silence was a tense one. We were almost back to campus when I saw Cindy.

She waved. "Hi! Who's that being grumpy?"

At this point, she was clearly referring to Marisa, but I replied, "That's me, Cindy!", hoping to prevent another fight. "The pleasant one is Marisa. Marisa, meet Cindy." To my surprise, Marisa scowled at me again.

"How do you put up with this selfish jerk, Cindy? He insults me every other ten minutes, then brags about himself on the other ten."

Cindy looked puzzled. "Are you sure you heard him right? That doesn't sound at all like Lance." Upon which, she frowned at me as if to say it had better not be so. Yeesh! Like it was my fault!

"I didn't mean it that way, Marisa. I meant... well, I was kidding around. Sometimes I touch a nerve by mistake."

She tried to snort. Failed, because she lacked the proper equipment. "You make a lot of mistakes, possum-boy."

"Yes, I do. I know about animals. About feelings, you'd better find someone else when you want advice. Most of mine are prosthetic anyway. Designed, built, and installed them myself."

Cindy had no touble snorting, but for her it was laughter. "How many times have you said that, Lance? You really should find another catch-phrase."

"He should have contracted out the work," Marisa stuck in. "Anyone could have done a better job."

This was turning against me. I consulted my watch for advice. "It's almost nine. We ought to get to chapel."

"Nobody will check today," Marisa insisted.

"How long have you been here?" Cindy stared at the other girl. "If they bend the rules a centimeter it's a miracle."

"And everybody knows the churches of Christ don't believe in modern miracles," I added. "Let's move."

They did, after exchanging looks that said they knew I was changing the subject and had decided to humor me. Since there were no extra visitors today, chapel was in the Administration Auditorium as usual for summer. They seemed to have returned to the regularly scheduled speakers, although the topic again focused on the Change. You could hear the capital C now; I figured that was how the news was reporting it. There was a mention of the powers some people had, urging the students to use theirs to help others, as Christ would.

I wondered idly: Christ still had a sort of human body, so was He affected in heaven? Given the attitudes I had seen between some predator and prey species, though, maybe it was best we wouldn't know in this life.

Chapel was dismissed at the usual time. I meant to talk to Cindy and/or Marisa, but they managed to slip out without me. I tried to call home again from a courtesy phone in the lobby. Something must have damaged the lines between here and there, I reasoned; service was still out. Hardly unusual under the circumstances, I supposed. Everybody better be all right out there.

Tired again. I went back to the dorm and napped for a while. Then I read until lunchtime. Things were slowing down considerably already.

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