by Locutus


Part 4

When I returned to the cafeteria at 11:30, the place was packed... at least, so far as it ever was in the summer. Neither Cindy nor Marisa was around, though. I ate baked chicken and tried some Chinese food as well.

I decided it was at last time to check the news. Perhaps today the initial uproar had ended and I could get some useful information on the state of the world. I wasn't disappointed. At least, not in one sense. The Balkan states were in complete disarray; one ethnic group could no longer be told from another, and instead of ending, the fighting had become every man for himself. South Africa, on the other hand, was dismantling its de facto apartheid much faster than it had done with the de jure version. Some bishop was shown there, proclaiming that "God has abolished racism by abolishing races." Well... I could see the possibility of worse problems arising, so I reserved judgement. It must be "social change hour" on CNN.

On a more local scale, I discovered reason for personal concern. In Western Tennessee and some surrounding counties, between me and my home town, the Change had badly disrupted commerce and communication. It seemed that, perhaps partly because of the large retired community, a larger than usual number of people had "gone under," transforming completely into animals. (Apparently one factor in losing control was senility.) Moreover, the low social tolerance for change among several groups of the population had led to widespread panic. Many roads were blocked off by wrecks, and most of the phone lines were down, cutting the area off from the majority of outside contact. There was talk of declaring the region a federal disaster area.

So I knew what was going on. Beyond that, I couldn't seem to care that much about the endless list of things that were going wrong (or, nearly as often, right). Several planes had gone down from various causes, though there were often more survivors than I would have expected. Some kind of disaster regarding the new quantum computers at Texas A&M was still not under control. Washington, D.C. and the federal government were stable and holding their own; the president had given an address last night while I was napping in the pine tree. And there were reports of a mass sheep-morph migration beginning out west. The last struck me as incredibly funny for some reason, producing glares at my laughter. Since some of those glares were coming from dangerous-looking carnivores, I thought I might as well leave now.

I made my way to the campus library, which turned out to be open. Unfortunately, I found very little about opossums that I didn't already know. Except for some recent opossum websites, all the sources agreed that the creatures were always slow-moving and abysmally stupid, which didn't fit my experience at all. It could be my human side, or maybe the studies had all been done with daytime level lighting. One book actually claimed summer sunlight would scorch an opossum's fur in minutes and kill the possum in hours. Must have been using vampire possums! Finally, I did locate a recent study that found no neurological reason for the supposed stupidity of opossums and urged that they be re-evaluated. Little else of interest was available, and at last I left in disgust and annoyance.

On the other hand, the bright, sunshiny day was beginning to get to me. I returned to my dorm room and covered the window blinds with blankets. With the room thus darkened, I kicked back and read a little Robert Jordan. How, I wondered, would fantasy and sci-fi writers who set their books in the future deal with the Change? They could ret-con, I supposed: "Kirk was actually a cougar-morph all along, but a twen-cen audience would never have believed that." They could assume the Change never happened, or was reversed; but for tv and movies, that would take either CGI or some clever makeup. Or, they could make use of the ever-popular temporal anomaly to retroactively change the characters.

Periodically I checked the phones. Local lines were up. The Net was up, I discovered on a visit to the computer lab. But Benton, Kentucky, seemed to tbe out of the loop. After a while, I found a news site regarding telephone outages. "Western Kentucky and Tennessee: Restoration in progress (32%)." The site was updated hourly, it claimed.

There was a shout from the row of terminals across from me. I spun around... and smiled. Cindy, ever the web-addict, had banged her long nose on the screen.

At least here, life was returning to normal. Sort of.

The week passed without major incident. Doctor Miere determined that ranid-girl (aka Lisa Graham) was immune to the gender-switch effect. The administration immediately ordered her to detach her train of admirers or face suspension. Cindy continued her humorous griping, and Marisa her genuine griping. Why the latter persisted in hanging around me, I hadn't the foggiest notion. Every time I met her, she accused me of being self-centered. She refused to test herself for any powers, even "ordinary" shape-changing. ("Norm-shifing" was the ridiculous name the media soon tacked on. To me, "norm" should have designated the original human form, but it seemed that furry sites had long ago taken it to refer to full animal shape.) Maybe Marisa hoped that hanging around biology students would make her the first to hear about a cure. Maybe she enjoyed deflating my ego. For all I knew, maybe she thought I was Elvis risen from the dead! I tried not to ignore her whenever I could, but she kept it up regardless of what I did. If I wouldn't talk, she spent the time complaining to Cindy about how annoying I was. So I consented to spend a little time talking with her rather than listen to that. As a result, late Wednesday evening I finally convinced her to try to norm-shift.

The sun had set, but the campus lighting system had been upgraded extensively after a girl was kidnapped from the nearby Wal-Mart parking lot, so I could see fine. Apparently Marisa could see as well as I could, or she would have been complaining about that. Quite likely she could see a little better, as my eyes no longer quite matched my contact prescriptions.

"The things you talk me into doing," she muttered. It was the first time I had talked her into doing anything, so I failed to see her point. "How do I even know I'll be able to get back? What if I get stuck?"

I sighed and pointed to Barbara, a slightly changed prarie dog morph. "Barbara can change you back if you really get stuck. But I don't think you will; no one has yet."

"That you've heard of. There are places all over the world that are out of communication with everybody still, and even if there weren't there'd be no guarantee we'd hear about it before next week or next month." She was dressed, as usual, in the t-shirt and strap-shorts combination I'd first seen her in. The administration was still debating over whether or not people could dispense with the shirts, even if they were covered in fur or, in the case of women, didn't have breasts anymore. After all, some of them argued, the guys had likewise been forbidden to go around shirtless before the Change. Meanwhile, people like Andy (the bison morph), were complaining constantly and staying in their air-conditioned rooms virtually all day.

"Even then we still have Barbara."

"Yeah... and if I do it and my power quits, why not hers?"

Barbara smelled disgusted. "It's not going to quit, Marisa. Everybody's powers have been working just fine."

"Hmph. Like you really have anything to worry about. You hardly even look different. Well, let's get it over with." She stepped into the Lily Pool.

There was a certain protocol forming at Harding already, regarding shifting. The admins had already reluctantly conceded that clothes were unnecessary in animal form, but what about when you shifted back? For those who didn't take their clothes with them in some way when they changed, the solution had been to provide "changing tents" for use outdoors. They were being set up all over campus, and naturally Harding was trying to promote their use in the rest of town as well.

Marisa suddenly flashed with a bright blue light. Well, if the standard conditions held true, she wouldn't need the tents. Swimming around in the pool where she had been standing was a long, eel-like yellow-gray fish.

Barbara lifted an eyebrow. "Impressive." Like a lot of really low-degrees, she couldn't shift any more than I could. I was the other side of the coin, so nearly an opossum even in my morph state that shifting wouldn't have entailed much, and likewise that sort of body often didn't shift, so I had heard.

"I'm sure she doesn't think of it that way," I sighed. "Probably more like disgusting and degrading." The lamprey was doing laps around the pool, and looked content enough, but how could you tell?

"If she thought so, she'd change back," Barbara pointed out. "If she could, anyway." From her tone of voice she was pretty sure the latter case was unlikely, but as several minutes passed and Marisa didn't revert, I started to get worried.

"She can't be enjoying it that much. Not with all that grumbling about not wanting to be a fish."

Barbara groaned. "I think you're right. I don't know if she's really stuck, but from what you said maybe her brain is so simple she can't think of changing or something."

I had agreed to try one other thing before letting anyone use a power on Marisa, though. She was incredibly paranoid about that, beyond even her general distrust of the way things had become. I held up a hand to Barbara and gingerly dangled my tail in the water.

As we had expected, the lamprey darted for it instantly and latched on. With a howl, I yanked my fifth limb out, flailing it in the air. That last bit was not exactly part of the plan; I hadn't expected the bite to hurt so much!

"Stop it!" Barbara shouted. "You might hurt her!" Yeah, right, like she wasn't already tearing my tail to shreds. Just as I stopped swinging her around, that little nerve ganglion that passed for a lamprey brain got the message from the gills that she was out of the water, and suffocating, and she let go her hold and dropped onto the ground. She flopped once, twice, three times, and just as I was about to scoop her up and sling her back in she flashed blue again.

She gave me an incredibly evil look with one eye and Barbara the same look with the other. "I don't care... <gasp>...what anyone says or what... <gasp>...reason anyone gives. <gasp> I am never doing that again!" Then she turned and stomped off... well, flopped off... back toward her dorm room.

Barbara shrugged. I shrugged. It wasn't like she didn't have a point, or the right. But at least if I was lucky, she'd never speak to me again.

Of course, I wasn't so lucky. Marisa continued to hang around me, grumbling. Perhaps she had come to enjoy putting me down, or maybe it was just that I listened to her and not many other people would. At least, though, we didn't have as much time we could spend together, because on Thursday classes resumed.

The professors dug in, scrambling to recover three lost days worth of material. Clearly less time had been needed to adjust, and no one was happy about the situation. Nonetheless I scrounged the minutes to check the net posting and try to call my family several times that day. But the damage was due to scores of local incidents, and the repairs seemed to creep along. At least my part of Kentucky was sufficiently middle-class to be of fairly high priority. It was Friday morning -- 3:00 AM, actually -- when the lines opened at last.

No, I didn't call them. They called me.

"This is Marshall County Hospital. May I speak to Lance Harmon?"

Ohno. I took a deep breath. "That's me. What happened?"

"Are Gary and Melinda Evans your parents?"

"Yes." My heart must have been pumping liquid helium in place of blood; I felt not just cold, but flash-frozen.

"You should come home. Soon. There's been an... accident."

No one was awake. I woke them. I had a license, but no car. Not enough money.

Of course, no one would lend me their car. And no one was going my way. The buses weren't running yet. Only major airports had re-opened. I was stranded.

At six o'clock, I was preparing to start hitching rides when help appeared. In the form of Marisa.

"Cindy said you needed to get home. Can you wait till noon?"

Anything, any time today, was better than hitchhiking. "I can borrow your car then?"

"You can drive my car then. I'm not letting it out of my sight."

Great. A weekend, at least, with Marisa. "Where'll you stay?"

"I have cousins. It's no big deal."

"Sure you wouldn't rather drive?"

She looked down at herself. "How?"

I groaned.

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