Be Prepared
by Jon Sleeper and Brian Eirik Coe

1997


"Gary, do you have to drag us off the trail every time you see a flitter in the branches?"

Gary Cook didn't hear the voice of his older colleague Reggie West as he centered a Varied Thrush in his binoculars. After all, he hadn't seen one in almost a month! "Amazing!" he said quietly so as not to scare the little beauty off.

"Dad!" yelled his son Jake, the little bird took wing immediately. "I think Mr. West is right. Besides, we should've made camp ten minutes ago," he said more calmly. That jolted Gary out of his reverie of Nature.

Gary sighed. "I guess you're right. I'm sorry." He couldn't really explain it to himself, but it was kind of indescribable feeling of oneness with Nature for him whenever he saw any kind of bird. Which was why he tended to volunteer on summer Scout hikes when he could. It was the tenth time he'd gone out in the last couple years, and he doubted he'd ever get tired of it! What's more, this time his son Jake was along.

Gary walked back over with Reggie, the other Scouting leader for this expedition. He had a lot more experience than Gary did. Mostly from his parents having bolted into the wilderness during the Plague War in order to survive... And his son. Who was looking at Gary with his normal serious expression. "I'm sorry, I should be taking my duties more seriously," Gary said to him. All he did was nod, as if being the tail end of the troop was the most important thing in the world.

Jake was a bit of a worry to Gary. He'd never seen a distinct lack of a sense of humor in one so young. Or any emotion, for that matter. No matter what he tried to teach him Jake just doesn't get it. Where did I go wrong? He must've gotten it from his mother... he thought.

They broke out into the main trail under the thick forest canopy; the light that did manage to get through the branches was very dim, and added to the hushed serenity of the deep woods. There, Gary saw Senior Patrol Leader Jim Olsen making sure the other boys didn't wander off. But they were responsible boys, and he trusted Jim's ability more than his own. Gary was really nothing more than an honorary Scout anyway. Reggie was the big expert on these woods and how to survive in them. Case-in-point, he went up to Andy, the Troop's oblivious Quartermaster, and told him to "be more careful with those shovels. You'll mark up the ground too much so it'll be hard to hide that we've ever been here. Remember, take only pictures..."

"...Leave only footprints," the whole Troop finished. Reggie tended to act like a know-it-all. And he probably was. In the five years Gary'd known him he'd never been wrong. A sudden colorful flash in a branch caught his eye and he quickly lifted his binocs to his eyes in time to see a Ladder-backed Woodpecker hop up the trunk of a tree.

"Daaad!" Jake said. "We've gotta get moving. I'm never going to make First Class if you keep on doing that!"

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry," Gary said. Reggie might have his sayings, but Gary has his, too. Not the least of which was: "You're only young once, but you can be immature f'ever."

"Doesn't matter," Reggie said. "Campsite is a half mile or so away anyway. Then you can look at all the birds you want, Gary. That's why I chose this trail. It's a bit remote, but great for birding." He smiled.

After another thirty minutes of walking they arrived at the campsite, just after three in the afternoon. The campsite wasn't much used, that Gary could tell from his small experience. Of course, Franklin started to take pictures of everything before they made camp, while they made camp and after they made camp. One of his duties as troop Historian. He's a bit too enthusiastic in his duties for a sixteen year old, Gary thought.

Jim and Donnie were supervising the work of the other boys as Reggie and Gary supervised them. Jim's getting better this time around," Reggie said to Gary, who nodded. "He'll make a good Eagle Scout. I just hope his new rank doesn't go to his head..."

It looked like rain that night, so even thought they'd all planned on sleeping under the stars, everyone decided to set up the tents; two for the boys and one for Reggie and Gary. The leaders took the chance to look over the map. Them troop had been making good time. The only major thing slowing them down was Mark. Though he'd gone with the troop a few times before, this was his first experience on a long distance hike and camp out. Even though he'd been out before, he was still understandably nervous.

It looked to be a relatively cool night up in the mountains, especially with the dark clouds that had started to gather. The trees were pretty thick, though in the relatively small clearing a good amount of sky could be seen. Rich helped Jake get the fire going with nothing but a spindle. "I did it!" he exclaimed as the dry tinder caught into a bright, orange, smoky flame.

"See!" Rich said. "A bit of persistence pays off!" Then the flame promptly ran out of tinder and died out. "Damn. Well, try, try again. This time we'd better watch that we feed the fire, too." He grinned.

Reggie went to check the work on the tents, when he heard Mark grumbling. "Donnie, how come I have to dig the latrine?" he whined.

"Well, let's just say you have a knack for it. Nature needs our stuff for fertilizer. Besides, it keeps from stinking up the campsite. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be too deep." Donnie. One of those Nature-Mystics type that are hard for the other boys to figure out. Strange in one so young. But he was a top-notch Scout. When Jim left for college next year, Donnie was almost certainly going to take his place in the troop leadership.

Reggie grinned a little as he glanced over toward Jim. The young man was sitting on a log near the fire whittling away on a small block of wood. The soft pine sliced easily in his hands as he worked. Jim could be called the resident artist of the group. He had a real talent for woodcraft.

He'd been working on the same block of wood the last couple of nights, and it was starting to take shape. But Jim wouldn't tell anyone what it was going to be. When pressed, he'd just grin and say that he wanted to be able to change his mind if he made a mistake. But Reggie was pretty sure that he didn't make many.

The boys eventually got settled, and a small fire was merrily burning in the pit as they all sat down to make dinner. Andy did his job of getting out the food and cooking utensils without much enthusiasm, and grumbled about it constantly. "Andrew..." Reggie started.

"I know, I know. I shouldn't complain," Andy said. "Just because I was assigned this job doesn't mean I have to like it." He finished. Reggie nodded, understanding. "You're not mad?" Andy said, surprised.

"Why would I be? We all have to do things we don't like. I didn't like coming back to civilization twenty years ago. But I did it."

"Reggie, you didn't know there was a civilization to come back to until some Scouts found you. Even then it took them two days to convince you that they weren't Hitler Youth or something." Gary said matter-of-factly.

"You're right, you're right. My family and I dove into the woods so fast we didn't really know how the War was going at the time..." While they cooked dinner they all heard the story for maybe the tenth time that trip. But it was one of those stories that only get better and more exciting the more times one hears it. "...and so we finally arrived back in civilization, surprised that it was even here. But happy to find that it was. And, in my view, better than the one that had been before." He finished about an hour later.

The clouds had closed in on them, and a few fat raindrops suddenly started to fall. They were so large each individual "splat" could be heard as they fell on the leaves in the canopy above. "Well boys, it looks like we'd better get inside. We've got a long day tomorrow anyway..."

The younger boys groaned at this. While Jim, Donnie, and Rich smiled. They knew the drill. They put out the fire first, though.

In the first tent, Jim settled in with Jake, Franklin, and Simon. In the other it was Donnie, Andy, Mark, and Rich.

As he got comfortable in his bag, Jim heard Jake sigh loudly. "Something wrong, Jake?"

Jake was staring up at the roof of the tent, while the rain pattered down on the waterproof material. His expression was neutral, as it always seemed to be. That worried Jim like it did Jake's father. "Nope, nothing." His tone as neutral as his expression.

Jim didn't know how to respond to that, so he didn't say any more. The other two seemed to feel the same way. But they were more experienced with such things. So Jim shut off the gas lantern and they all went to sleep with the sound of thunder in their ears.

In the other tent, Donnie seemed to fall asleep pretty rapidly. So, taking the opportunity, "Hey Andy, didja bring it?" Mark whispered.

"What?" he said, momentarily surprised. "Oh! Yeahsure!" Out of his pack he took out a small handheld TV. They hoped that Donnie wouldn't notice it in their corner of the tent, seeing as how he was asleep already even over Rich's growling snore. They put on their headphones, and saw all of two seconds of "Hard Copy" (something about "time travelers among us", but the lightning garbled the reception) before it was snatched away.

"Guys, you know how Mr. West and I feel about technology on this trip. We have to learn how to survive without this kind of thing. So you know what I'm about to do..." Donnie said, a hint of a smile on his face.

"You wouldn't!" Mark and Andy said in unison.

Donnie then proceeded to take his pocket knife and used it to remove the TV's battery. He then opened the tent and threw it out into the downpour. "I'm sorry," Donnie said. "Now, go to sleep. We've far to go in the morning." And so ended the talking in that tent.

While in the adults' tent things wound down with a very sober question, "Do you think the boys are prepared? I mean, there's a lot of stuff that could happen out here. We didn't even bring a radio..." Gary said.

"You worry too much," Reggie said, sure of himself. "I know these mountains like the back of my hand. Besides, a radio wouldn't carry far in these mountains. We're Scouts, remember. And of course you know one of the most important scouting mottoes is..." he left it hanging.

"'Be prepared.' Yes, I know. But you never know, you know. Stranger things have happened..."

"Now what stranger, or worse, thing could happen but the Plague? And that's cured. Now to go sleep. You're reminding me too much of the past."

"G'night." And that lantern went out.

Before Jake fell asleep, he thought, This trip is so boring. I wish something would happen. Not likely with dad or Mr. West around... oh well...

And so ended another day.

Jim was awoken by a ray of light that spitefully fell right on his eyes through a tiny hole in the tent. Lucky it was on the leeward side of the wind, or it would've leaked more than it had. Jim got up and looked at the sleeping forms around him. Jeez... yesterday must've been more tiring for them than I thought, he thought. I might as well get up and get some water going. Jim always thought himself a considerate person, and most everyone had brought some type of instant breakfast and hot drink mix with them, be it instant coffee, tea or chocolate, and they all needed hot water. Gary and Reggie weren't up yet, even. That's probably the last time they let me choose how far we go, Jim thought.

As he stood up he felt dizzy for a moment. So he took some time to look over the sleeping forms around him. He carefully got into his clothes, thinking I'm going to need to get out that butane stove... the wood's going to be all wet. He reached for a sweatshirt, and started to slip it on over his head...

In the other tent, Donnie awoke at almost the same moment as Jim. Though for different reasons. There was an uncomfortable sensation from his backside. As if his sweats were suddenly too large, they just didn't seem to fit for some reason. Before getting out of his sleeping bag he reached down to adjust them...

In the same tent, Mark felt odd. It was as if something had gone "click" inside of him. He had been a little bit chilly before, but that feeling slowly went away as if something had shut off inside of him. It didn't help that between one moment and the next that he suddenly had this overwhelming urge to stick his tongue out of his mouth and wave it around. Nor did the pressure of something pushing against the bottom of the sleeping bag, making it difficult to pull into it any further...

In the adults' tent, things were just as strange. Gary didn't really want to get up. But like Mark and Donnie, an odd feeling kept him from doing it in a natural way. He reached down to feel his feet. No, that's impossible. I'm still dreaming, Gary thought. His toes felt dry and scaly, long and thin, too. Moving up his oddly shaped ankle and leg, another odd feeling met his hand. Feathers. It could only be feathers.

Gary blinked, and looked at the face across from him. What greeted his sleep-filled eyes made him squawk in astonishment...

Jim started pulling on the Colorado Rockies sweatshirt, but didn't get very far before it got stuck. Still a bit bleary eyed, and now with the shirt over his eyes, he started reaching a hand up to untangle it. That's when his hand came into contact with something fuzzy, but pretty hard and sticking out of his head. His blood ran cold and the sleep suddenly vanished from his system. "What in the world?" he whispered.

His whisper though, was overshadowed by a sudden shout from the next tent. He recognized Donnie's voice yelling, "There's something in my bag!"Donnie had reached his hand into the bag to feel something apparently furry laying near his backside. Abruptly awake, he'd bolted out of the bag and shouted. He just as quickly started beating at his bag, trying to find the animal that was in it, and then felt stupid when he didn't find anything.He turned his tent mates with a embarrassed grin, which froze on his face as he looked at them staring at him. Finally, Andy spoke. "Don, you have a... um... t-t-tail..."

Gary was still staring at the old woodsman Reggie. The man was still apparently asleep, but he didn't seem like a man anymore. There was nothing terribly recognizable about his face as human. The still sleeping scoutmaster was looking more like a weasel than anything else. He started to reach a hand out to wake the man when he felt odd again. He watched in terrified fascination at the man he had known for years now simply shrank in the sleeping bag, never having awakened. Gary barely noticed the beak growing out of his own face. Then a single thought ran trough his head.

Jake!

Jake had been awakened not by Jim's quiet whisper but rather by Donnie's shout of surprise. But that's not what had him transfixed. He was watching in terror as his neatly ordered world seemed to come apart at the seams. After all, there isn't any reason for someone to grow velvet-covered antlers, particularly not the massive set that he was watching grow out of his Senior Patrol Leader's head. More than that, bright red feathers were starting to cover the head and neck of Franklin.

There was a frantic motion at the small tent door. "Jake! Jake are you all right!"

The four boys looked at each other, and Jim hurriedly reached out for the zipper. "Mr. Cook! Something's happening!" he yelled as he ripped open the flap, and then fell backward as he saw the assistant scoutmaster, about a foot shorter than he was the night before and covered in blue and white feathers. Not to mention the prominent pointed beak growing out of his face. There were just enough cues left for them to tell who it was.

Jake looked at his father with something that bordered on wild eyed terror. "Dad! What's happening?!"

Gary Cook never got a chance to answer. He suddenly started to shrink before their eyes. It was impossible to tell if the man comprehended what was happening even as the boys watched. A moment later, a frightened blue jay fought it's way out of the crumpled T-shirt, paused a moment to look into the tent, and flew away.

A teary eyed Jake suddenly screamed, "Dad! No!" and dashed out of the tent.

Jim followed close behind the panicked boy, trying desperately to put the pure terror of the experience out of his mind. He'd just watched a man turn into a small bird he frequently saw around his bird feeder at home, he knew that Franklin was also turning into a bird and he had antlers that could only belong on the head of a moose. He was becoming terrified that his next step could be on four legs rather than two.

It didn't take him long to tackle the terrified boy, and the pair tumbled down a slight incline a few feet before Jim felt his antlers get caught by the base of a tree, painfully scratching the velvet that covered them. For a moment, Jake struggled to break free of Jim's grasp, but failed. Then, the boy that Jim had never seen show a strong emotion started crying into Jim's suddenly furry chest.

Jim and Jake returned to camp a few minutes later. Try as he might, Jim could not get Jake to say a word. The boy that most of them thought was more than a bit reserved had suddenly withdrawn into himself.

By the time they got back, all of the boys were outside of their tents. But Jim was mostly interested in the fact that he didn't see Mr. West. The boys were all staring at each other and themselves when they broke through the clearing, and then Jim realized that they were all staring at his head. Reflexively, Jim reached a hand up and suddenly realized that he had a muzzle and that his face wasn't likely recognizable. "It's me guys, Jim. Is everyone all right?" he asked nervously in a rumbling voice.

There was silence as the boys looked a little more at themselves. Finally, Donnie spoke. "Other than the obvious, I guess. Where are Mr. West and Mr. Cook?"

Jim paused, not sure how to describe it to the four that didn't see it, mostly because he was deathly afraid that it was going to happen to all of them soon enough. He finally bit the bullet, "Mr. Cook is gone. He just.. he just turned into a bird and flew away." As soon as he said it, Jake started crying again, slipping to the ground and falling to his knees. Jim knelt down beside him and tried to comfort him, but he couldn't even tell if Jake was really aware that anyone was around.

He looked at Donnie, who was stripped down to his shorts. His body was covered in thick gray-brown fur, and hanging down past his knees, he saw a grayish brown tail ringed with black stripes. From the neck down, in fact, he looked like a raccoon. "Donnie, check the adults tent and see it Mr. West is okay." He nodded and started over.

He started looking over the other boys when he felt that same strange sensation he'd already felt several times that morning. He looked at his hands as they distorted and changed, losing a finger on each hand, and they took on the appearance of a cloven hoof. Looking up quickly, he saw similar changes on the other boys.

Franklin grunted slightly as he flapped a still-forming pair of wings on his back, and stared at his hands, which were blackening with scales. Rich was busily feeling around his teeth as his incisors suddenly started to get longer and longer, and his face pushed outward into a very feline-looking muzzle. The fangs didn't stop until they reached the bottom of his yellow furred chin. Mark, moving slowly and wrapped heavily in his blanket, seemed to turn green as drab olive-colored scales covered his head, hair disappearing, and his face pushing into a long reptilian snout.

Then it stopped. Somehow, Jim was sure that it was over, at least for him. He felt right. Ever since he gotten up that morning, he had that feeling like something was wrong, fundamentally wrong. But now, this body, as unfamiliar and new as it was, he knew was his. Like he was always meant to have it. He wasn't so sure about the other boys. Of them, only Rich, who looked like some sort of feline, and with those teeth looked a lot like the long extinct saber tooth tiger, was as evenly changed as Jim was, even if it was only slightly. Donnie was close, but as he walked back to the group from the adults tent, Jim could tell that his head hadn't changed much, though now he bore a light coating of fur that was dense enough to see the black bandits mask of a raccoon.

On the other end of the scale, Jake almost didn't look altered at all. His hands were covered in a pattern of gold, white, and a few black hairs and seemed to be thicker on the palms that it should have been. His sock-covered feet also looked like they were oddly shaped, but Jim couldn't be sure. Simon was staring at his orange, webbed feet. Definitely those of a waterfowl, but impossible to say which one. Andy, the quartermaster, was also only slightly affected, but almost all of what happened to him had given him the head of a goat. Mark was definitely reptilian now, having a long tail, and while his features seemed not quite complete, he moved slowly in the chill of morning. His forked tongue flicked in and out uncontrollably.

Donnie cleared his throat a little. "Jim, Mr. West is gone, I think."

Jim didn't like the sound of that. "What do you mean, 'gone'?"

Donnie nervously shuffled his feet. "I mean that the only thing in his tent looks like a weasel."

Jim's eyes opened wide. "Did you leave the tent flap open?" he said hurriedly.

Donnie frowned, "Yeah, why?"

He barely had the words out of his mouth when Jim bolted for the tent, leaving the still sobbing Jake behind. He reached the tent and quickly closed the screen flap so he could hopefully catch whatever was inside. Sure enough, a moment later, a tiny furred head popped out of the maroon sleeping bag and looked at the moose morph curiously before scurrying back down into the bag. "Damn." Breathed Jim, "It happened to him, too."

By this time, most of the boys had gathered around and he looked them over seriously. He could tell that they were all scared to death, in fact he suddenly realized that he could smell it. It made him more nervous than he cared to admit. Since clearly both of their adult leaders were gone. Jim shuddered, wondering if that was now the fate that awaited them all, if now the adults were all gone, all over the world.

At seventeen, that wouldn't leave him much time before it took him as well.

He looked seriously over the gathered Scouts. "Guys. We're on our own."

It didn't take long for them to decide how to spend the rest of the day. They were all still somewhat paralyzed from fear and could barely think of moving. But more than that, it was going to be harder for them to get out.

"What about all the equipment?" asked Andy, ever the quartermaster.

Jim shrugged. "We'll have to leave some of it behind. We'll make better time going back. It's about ten or fifteen miles of hard hiking, and you're not all going to be as good as before."

Donnie didn't like the sound of that. "We can't just leave all this equipment behind! It doesn't belong here."

"In case you haven't noticed, we're in a new situation. We're not on a campout anymore. We're on a survival mission, and we need to move fast. If we make good time and stayed on the trail, we can be back at the trailhead in two or three days."

"What then?" asked Franklin, who had looked up from examining a red feathered wing, "Do we just go home? What if this is just happening to us? What if it's this campsite that did it? We could be bringing a new Plague back to civilization!"

That prospect seemed to unnerve the Scouts. They all had learned about the Plague War and the millions who died. Now, the boys were even more scared. "Franklin," Donnie began, "I don't think so. This isn't the Plague, not even close. And besides that, if this is a new Plague, we need to get to a hospital and get looked at. Something like this won't stay isolated for long in the Rocky Mountains. The sooner we get to a hospital the faster they can find a cure."

Jim looked at the troop a moment longer. He remembered a lesson that Mr. West had taught him years ago when he was still a Tenderfoot. Never let scared people dwell on their fear. Give them something to do to take their mind off. "Okay guys. Here's the plan..."

One of the problems of assigning busy work is that you end up with nothing to do.

Jim had tried as best he could to take charge, and it didn't seem to hurt that he now had an imposing physical presence. While his torso hadn't changed much in size, his legs had become longer, adding fully six inches to his base height. Add to that the foot or so of partially grown antlers and he absolutely towered over the rest of the troop . The other Scouts had eagerly listened to him as he sent them out on tasks, apparently willing to do just about *anything* that they felt would help them get out of the woods, no matter how useless.

He had Simon, with his webbed birds feet, and Franklin getting water from a nearby stream. Andy and Rich were going through the equipment and deciding what could easily be left behind and what should be taken. The rest were off on minor errands, gathering wood for the nights fire or materials for use in building a small cage to contain the animal that Mr. West had become. Donnie had eventually identified his new form as a pine marten.

Mark tried to help, but it soon became clear that he was almost useless. Whatever had happened had made him cold blooded, and the sun was still mostly hidden at the moment by remnants of last nights storm. He was stripped to his shorts and laying on a rock, trying to get warm in the cool late morning sun, muttering softly to himself.

Jake was searching the skies for his father. He had yet to say a word to anyone.

That left Jim sitting on a log going through his backpack over and over again. He had nothing to do. Indeed, the small tasks that he had set for the boys would take almost no time at all, and he would have to deal with that when the time came. He pulled his pocketknife and the small block of wood from the bag and started trying to whittle at it. His newly formed hands were a little clumsy at first, but he got the hang of it. For the moment, he could concentrate on something that wasn't as frightening as what had happened this morning. He was in that state when an ashen faced Donnie walked up to him.

"Jim. Is Jake around here?"

Jim looked around quickly. He saw the boy through the trees, a fair distance from camp. "He's over there. Why?"

Donnie said nothing, but moved behind a tent, motioning for Jim to follow. "I accidentally discovered something, and I'm not sure that I want Jake to see. Watch." Even as he said it, his form started to get smaller. His already raccoon-like head became more and more like one. In less than a second, Donnie had fully changed into a raccoon.

Jim jumped back a step. "Jeez! Donnie!"

After a few seconds, the form started to get larger again until he was human, or at least as close to it as he was a minute before. "I'm sorry, I should've warned you. It looks like a couple of the others can do it, too."

That got Jim a little worried. "Who?"

"Rich was with me when I discovered this, and he discovered he can do it, too. He's a saber tooth alright. Andy managed to turn into a goat." Donnie grinned. "I don't think he was all that happy about it, though."

Now Jim was curious. "How did you do it?"

Donnie looked thoughtful. "I'm not really sure how to describe it. I started thinking about becoming fully raccoon, and I sorta imagined a barrier between me and it. I stepped through, and I was a raccoon."

Jim thought about it for a second, but couldn't trigger the shift. He was either unable to do it, or just didn't know how. He was also a little nervous about it. "Try and keep this from Jake for now. I'm really worried about him."

Donnie nodded, "Me too. I've already told a couple of the others. Any luck finding Mr. Cook?"

Jim shook his head, "No, and I'm not sure how we'll even know it's him. As far as I can tell, Mr. West doesn't remember being human. If Mr. Cook is the same, he could be miles from here." He paused. "Even if we caught a blue jay, I can't tell them apart."

"So you think that he's basically dead?" asked Donnie nervously.

Jim looked across the field at Jake, still searching the trees for a hint of blue, "God, I hope not."

Gary Cook felt like someone had locked him in his basement and thrown away the key, then bricked over the basement door. That was the only thing he could compare it to. He'd felt this incredible pressure on his mind as he shrank, and the next thing he knew he was flying. Flying! It felt incredible!

He could feel everything his bird body was doing, see what it was seeing (at the moment, a juicy insect), smell what it was smelling. He simply had no control from the mental basement the bird's brain had tossed him. And now Jake was without his father... And with every passing moment the blue jay he now was flew farther and farther away from camp.

No matter what he did, he couldn't break what was blocking him from control. But that would change. I won't leave Jake and my wife alone! He swore it.

Jake sat on a stone and sobbed. It was as if a dam had burst inside of him, and there was no stopping the torrent. He stood off in the trees away from camp, and scanned the branches between sobs.

It was then he heard the voices of who he assumed was Franklin and Simon. "I can't believe I'm a duck," Simon said. "Or at least I think I'm a duck." He felt his teeth, which felt like they would form into a beak if another one of those surges hit.

"Well, at least some ducks are pretty cool looking. Look at me. I'm fire engine red..." Franklin said, cautiously running his hands though his chest feathers. His head wasn't changed much, but black feathers has grown near his eyes and red elsewhere. He had short wings that folded neatly on his back, but he didn't even try to use them.

In the midst of is sorrow Jake was suddenly angry. He stormed up to Franklin and yelled, "For your information, you're a cardinal! One of my father's favorite birds! So don't knock it, 'kay?!"

Franklin realized just how delicate the situation was. "You're right, I'm sorry. I'm just not used to this yet. I guess I just with I'd changed evenly like Jim..."

"It's... it's okay." Jake said, getting a bit of a hold of himself. "But I'm not leaving this spot. My father's around here, and I'm going to catch him." Then Jake surprised himself by flexing sheathed cat-like claws that he didn't know he had. That's when he realized that he had changed a bit, too. "My God..." He recognized the fur, and felt his ever-so-slightly pronounced canine teeth. "I'm turning into a leopard."

Meanwhile, Jim was getting worried about Mark. The troops chaplain was still sunning himself on that rock, and muttering to himself as well. His voice was recognizable as his, and it was amazingly mostly unslurred by his new tongue. "Are you okay?" Jim asked him carefully.

"I don't know," he replied. "I'm so confusssed..." He spoke with a slight hiss to his voice. "And my mind is ssslow in this cool air. But I look at mysself... and... and..." His voice became troubled. "What could I have done that merited thissss?"

Jim sighed, an odd sound that was almost horse-like out of his bulbous nose. "Mark, I think you're reading too much into this. Stuff happens, you know. The Plague just happened, it didn't just kill the Nazis. But does being a reptile make you evil? Does the fact that I'm a moose make me any different?"

He seemed to think a moment, deeply. His tail moved back and forth, tongue flicking. "I don't know." He said. "But I think we need to get out of here, that'ss all I know right now. I'm energetic enough that I can help out now. But I'd better bundle up..."

Some yelling behind him that was so clear he swore the argument was taking place right behind him caused Jim to turn around and bellow "What's going on here?!" before he realized that his more sensitive hearing made things seem a lot closer than they were. It was Franklin arguing with Andy and Donnie.

"For the last time, no! I don't want to try flying!" He yelled, his short wings moving up and down. "Not... not after what happened to Mr. Cook. You can't make me fly!"

Donnie held up his paw-like hand in reassurance. "Okay, okay. I'm sorry I suggested it so soon. Besides, it goes against all the laws of physics that you should be able to fly anyway. Your wings aren't proportioned right."

Franklin's attitude took and abrupt turn with that statement. "What, are you saying I'm not supposed to fly?" he almost squawked. Then he spread his wings and beat them once. Hard. He nearly took off... and didn't seem to notice himself.

"No, no. I'm not saying that, I'm..." Donnie said quickly, waving his arms in front of him.

Franklin sighed and folded his wings. "I'm sorry... never mind. It's just that, well. I wish I'd never woken up this morning...."

"Don't say that, Frankie. You should be happy now. You may not agree with me, but I think that his is a good thing. I mean, look at us! How much closer to Nature can we get?"

Jim saw his moment to break in. "Sure, Don, but I'd rather go home and find out what's going on, first. And I hate to ask this, Franklin, but did you get any pictures of us during that... that Change?" It seemed such an innocuous word, but it fit.

"I'm afraid not." He sighed. "I had other things on my mind." He chirped once seemingly out of reflex, then covered his beaky face. "Man! Why couldn't I have been an eagle?"

The other boys started to gather around a few minutes later, and Jim decided that now would be a good time for a planning session. Mark had finally warmed up enough to be comfortable, it was probably in the high 80's by now anyway. But there was a problem with food...

"What do cardinals eat anyway?" Franklin asked Jake, who seemed to have contained himself enough to be coherent.

"Insects. Lots of insects. Whole." Jake replied, drawing on the information that his father had been teaching him. He would look into the branches periodically for any telltale signs...

"Ugh."

"Don't blame me, I didn't make them that way."

They all ate something they thought they could. Jim found that the amount that he'd rationed himself wasn't nearly enough, and idly looked at some of the foliage surrounding them, wondering if he could eat it. Donnie broke the silence. "Do you think we ought to stay here another night?"

Jim nodded. "I think so. That way we can make sure that we're stabilized like this. I don't relish the prospect of changing any further."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Rich growled knowingly, idly rubbing a canine with a finger. Jim glared at him. "Never mind."

Jim sighed. He didn't want to go into this now with the troop, not with Jake sitting here. He decided to change the subject. "Okay, guys, we need to work out what we're doing tomorrow. I want to get an early start." He looked at the goat-headed Andy. "What's the status on the equipment?"

He sighed bleatingly. "I've set aside the basics that we need to get out of here. We can leave some of our spare clothes and stove fuel behind as well as a some of our personal stuff. But I'm not sure if we'll have enough packs."

Jim frowned, "What do you mean?"

Andy pointed at Franklin. "He can't wear a pack like that without really modifying it. That's going to increase the load on the rest of us."

Jim sighed, "Okay, and I don't think that Simon is going to be a good hiker because of those feet." He thought a second and looked at Mark. "How effective can you be in the morning?"

Mark looked more than a little embarrassed when everyone started to look at him. "I'm not ssure. I guesss it dependss on the weather." He shifted uncomfortably, "Now I'm feeling hot."

Donnie stood up and walked over to Mark, pulling him gently to his feet. "Let's take you into some shade for a minute. You're more reptilian than you look, and you've lost just about all your ability to regulate your body temperature. Not only are you going to be slow in the morning, but you need to watch that you don't overheat."

Mark sighed and looked at the sky, "Any other bad newsss?"

Donnie smiled slyly, "You probably will be eating insects."

Mark rolled his eyes and looked at Jim. "Sstill don't think that thisss iss a punishment?"

Jim chuckled a little but didn't answer as Donnie and he got into the nearby shade of a pine tree. Jim turned back to the other campers. "Okay guys, we've got about four good hours of daylight left. I want you to double check everything before dark. We should break camp as early as we can." He turned to Franklin. "Can I talk to you alone a minute?"

The others drifted off to check their gear, while Jake went back to searching the trees for his lost father. Jim shifted a little on the log he was sitting on and looked at Franklin seriously. "Have you tried the wings yet?"

The red-feathered scout opened them slightly. "No, not yet. Jim, I'm afraid too. Look what happened to Mr. Cook."

He nodded his antlered head. "I understand. But if you do decide to try, and you can fly, we can get help that much faster."

Franklin traced one of his taloned feet through the dust. "I'll think about it, Jim. I really will. But... I'm afraid of heights."

Jim managed to stifle all but a slight smile. "Wow, that's ironic," he said carefully.

Franklin sighed. "I need to check my gear. Jim, promise you won't tell anyone? I mean, if this is forever, I'd prefer people not know."

Jim held up a hoofed hand. He folded the fingers in an approximate sign. "Scout's honor." He said with a grin. Franklin left, leaving Jim alone with his thoughts.

Not for the first time, the new moose morph ran his fingers through his thick, dark fur. What am I supposed to do? he thought. I'm scared to death myself. How am supposed to lead these boys?

Jim stood up and walked over to the blue and tan tent that last night had held Mr. West and Mr. Cook. He looked in and saw the furry creature that they believed was Mr. West sleeping comfortably on the top of the sleeping bag. Jim looked it for a long time. Finally, he quietly asked, "What would you do, Reggie? What would you do?"

The marten looked up lazily from it's sleep a moment, stared dully at the moose on the other side of the screen, and went back to sleep.

That night at dinner, the small group was far quieter than they had been the night before. As the temperature began to drop, Mark stood up. "Guys, I'm going to have to go to bed. I can't function in the cold." He looked around. "But if you don't mind, I'd like to lead us all in a prayer first." Jim smiled a little. There was a reason why he'd chosen Mark as the chaplain when he became the SPL.

They all murmured their agreement and bowed there heads as Mark quietly recited a prayer for guidance and protection. As soon as he finished, Mark went into a tent to sleep, his energy level gone. Soon after eating his ration of freeze dried beef and noodles, Rich had claimed exhaustion and gone to join him.

Jake was still out in a clearing with a flashlight and a net that he had rigged out of a couple of T-shirts looking for a flash of blue in the branches.

Jim looked over the menagerie left around the small campfire as he whittled away on the block of wood. "Why is everyone so quiet?" he asked.

Andy looked up from poking the fire with a stick. "What is there to say?" he asked. "We're all thinking, I guess. What if we're stuck like this?" he punctuated by tapping one of his horns.

Donnie grinned at that, "I'm not sure I mind. I'm not going to say that I'd have wished to be half raccoon, but I can think of worse things. Might be fun."

Simon chuckled. "Fine for you. At least you look pretty much like a raccoon. Look at me. I've got ducks feet and shiny green feathers in my eyebrows. I look a little silly."

Andy looked at him again, squinting now. "I didn't notice that you had feathers there. What kind of duck has green feathers like that?"

Simon shrugged. "Jake didn't know exactly, I just assume that I'm part duck. I wish Mr. Cook was here..." he stopped, his voice trailing off. He looked around a little nervously, like Jake might have heard.

Jim sighed. "Look, guys. We're all scared. We don't know what's going to happen when we get out of here. But we'll be fine."

"What if we're the only ones? What if we're just freaks?" asked Andy quietly.

Jim shrugged, "Then we deal with that. But this world has seen stranger than us." He poked the fire a couple of times, tossing in his wood shavings. "Let's clean up and go to sleep. We have a lot of hiking to do in the morning."

Most of the boys broke up at that point to try and get a little sleep, but Donnie held back. "Jim? What about Jake? He said that he won't leave without his father."

Jim tapped a cloven hoof on the ground a couple times. "Donnie, Jake is coming with us tomorrow. He can't survive out here alone, and we can't stay." He looked sadly at the bouncing light of the flashlight in the nearby clearing, "Gary Cook is dead."

The words "Gary Cook is dead" echoed through the branches, to the ears of the blue jay that was, at the moment, sitting perched in a tree doing whatever blue jays do when they're not flying. Which in this case was sleeping, head tucked under one wing. A position that felt new and wonderful to Gary, because though the bird was sleeping, he was not.

He'd nearly given up. Resigned to being a prisoner in his own body. But with those words he forged his will into a mental sledgehammer, and *hit* the barrier that blocked him. He hit it again, WHAM! and again, WHAM!

WHAM!

WHAM!

WHAM! ...crack.

One little crack. But nothing more. Gary was mentally exhausted, but he could hear the murmuring voices of the scouts filtering through the leaves. It was suddenly morning, and he'd heard what sounded like a duck screaming.

Duck screaming? He hoped to God that nothing else had happened. Though he was tired, he managed to work up the mental strength to yell into the blue jay's mind, Wake up! Which startled the bird into flight.

Sleep had been nearly impossible for the whole troop. Jim reflected on the conversation of the night before, before he decided to get up. It'd been hard enough to find a comfortable sleeping position, so Jim craved every moment he could get. With his new hearing he would easily sense when the boys were stirring. So he thought.

The images of the boys around the campfire after dinner, illuminated in the flickering light haunted him most. Jake's tear-streaked face when he'd returned to camp around midnight. He'd nearly cut his face with his own claws. Jim took a few more minutes of thinking of that image, and how those boys depended on him, before a quacking scream tore the air.

Simon had awoken to a familiar feeling in his body. He'd dared not open his eyes, but he could feel the whole thing happen. The tickle of feathers growing upon his head. He felt his teeth move into a blunt-ended mass. They fused completely and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't close his lips around the protruding lump. His lips themselves were stretching around it, becoming stiffer. His nose was flattening against his face, nostrils rotating outward.

His forming bill was numb compared to his old mouth. But he could feel the edge with his longer tongue in a brief moment of calmness. It had a rounded edge, like a duck's bill.

In later years he'd probably admit that he'd overreacted, but the only thing on his mind at that particular moment was he was turning into what could only be a duck. What kind of duck he couldn't care less, but his reaction was perfectly understandable.

He screamed.

To Jake, sleeping right next to him, it sounded more like an incredibly loud quack. It caused some kind of instinct to suddenly awaken within him. Leopards may be predators, but a giant duck is beyond their league.

Jake was halfway up the nearest tree before he even realized what he was doing.

Of course, Simon's anguished quack awoke everyone. Who, when they saw what had happened to him, started to check themselves over. What ensued was a full five minutes of pure panic. Oddly, it was more panic than the morning before. "OhmygodohmygodOHMYGOD!!!" Simon yelled in a gravelly voice, feeling his new bill and feathers.

A moose-like bellow from Jim managed to get everyone's attention. Jim seemed a bit surprised for a moment, and looked a bit wide-eyed, but he managed to amaze himself by keeping his head. "Stop! Calm down! Simon... do you feel any different in your head?" The look that Jim remembered in Gary's eyes, that was the key. Yes, there was panic in Simon, but otherwise he looked like he wasn't starting to act more like a duck.

And a very colorful head it was.

Jim couldn't help but gape. Frankly, Simon had been a very homely looking person before. He'd always worn dull colors. His personality was great, but otherwise he didn't look like the type to get the girls for his looks. If the world had changed like they had, then that would change. "I can't believe I'm a duck," Simon said, almost sobbing.

In response Jim grabbed a hand mirror from one of the packs, almost dropping it in his altered hands. Jim knew morale was important. This had shaken everyone up. If he didn't do something for Simon fast then he'd be a hindrance.

Jim knew Simon's species very well. Wood duck. One of his favorites. A sleeked-back iridescent green crest began right at the top of his bill, and went all the way to the back of his head. His eyes (still a bit wild) were a deep orange with black pupil. His beak was the same color, except the top from his nostrils forward which was grayish. Other than the crest, his eyes were surrounded by a thin ring of white feathers, white on this throat, and around in a white curve up around his throat up to near his eyes.

Simon looked in the mirror out of morbid curiosity than anything else, and when he saw that face in the mirror (he noticed he had more forward-facing eyes) he did a double take. "No way..." he nearly whispered. He gingerly touched a slightly altered hand to the start of his crest, and smoothed it back, carefully grabbing where the crest was hanging like a pony tail. "I look like a punk duck!" He said shakily, though a bit more confidently.

"One of the best looking birds in the world," Donnie comforted, having managed to calm himself down.

Simon shook his head in utter disbelief. There was this odd mental feeling of rightness. His panic vanished. "God, guys, I'm sorry. But what if we all change like Mr. West did? I don't wanna fly south for the winter!" He said half-jokingly.

Franklin broke in. "Sorry, I hate to interrupt. But where's Jake?"

Jim looked up abruptly and then started scanning the campsite. Donnie jogged over to the tend that Jake had been asleep in. "He's not in here. Did anyone see him leave?" Everyone looked stunned and slowly shook their heads.

Damn. though Jim, I hope that he didn't run off. Jim sighed slightly and then raised his hands to his muzzle. "Jake!" He bellowed. "Where are you?!"

There was a long silence broken only by the rustle of leaves in the early morning breeze and a few birds chirping in annoyance at having been awakened earlier than usual. Then came the small, quiet voice, "I'm up here."

Everyone in the troop started looking upward, eventually seeing a glint of light off Jake's eyes as he sat perched near the top of a huge pine tree. Jim walked to the base of it and looked straight up at him. The tree lacked branches for the first ten feet of it's height.

"How on God's green earth did you get up there!" he shouted.

"I'm turning into a leopard," answered Jake, as if that explained everything.

"Well get down here. Simon's fine, there isn't anything to worry about."

There was a long pause, by which time Donnie and a few of the others had joined him at the base of the tree. "I can't get down."

Jim sighed and shook his head. This is all we needed. he thought, his tempter getting a little short. He turned on Donnie. "Can you climb up there and get him?"

Donnie blinked out of surprise. "Me?"

"Yes, you!" grumbled Jim. "I don't see any other tree climbers around here!"

Donnie just looked at his friend in shock for a moment. Jim rarely lost his temper, and had really even been a rock through all this, but he'd lost that control now. "Okay." He answered quietly. "I'll do it."

Jim picked up on the surprise of the troop around him and hung his considerable head. "I'm sorry guys. I don't know what got into me."

Donnie smiled a little. "If you're this prone to tempers now, wait until that velvet comes off." He looked up at the tree and at his changed hands and feet. "Should be a cinch. I'll get him down." Jim just nodded and rubbed his muzzle a bit in embarrassment.

Donnie took another quick look at the tree. He'd been in the woods a lot in his life, and climbed a lot of trees, but now he was in a form that practically designed for it. He tested his black claws in the soft bark to make sure that they would penetrate, and then started to pull his weight up with them, using his feet to spread it all out. Like a rock climber pounding petons into the rock as they climbed, he kept that up until he could grip some of the thick branches higher on the tree. "You okay, Jake?"

Donnie couldn't see him, but his voice was close. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Donnie."

Donnie just grunted out a laugh as he climbed. "No problem kid. Happens to the best of us." He pulled himself up a few more branches and found himself eye-to-foot with Jake. Looking up, he noted that the kid had managed to get within five feet of the top. "Good climb kid. Ever though about becoming a telephone lineman?"

Jake didn't seem to get the joke. Then again, he never did. Instead, he just looked down, "Now what?"

Donnie braced his feet hard on a branch that could hold their weight. "Reach down and grab my hands... Ow! Damn! Retract your claws first!"

Jake looked at his hands embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I..."

Donnie sighed. "Forget it. It's not like you've had them long. Com'on."

Jake reached down again and this time grabbed Donnie's hands. Carefully, they started making their way down the tree, Jake gaining more and more confidence as they went. They were about fifteen feet from the bottom when it happened.

Jake suddenly stopped and shouted, "Dad!" He lunged for the blue jay perched on a thin branch only a few feet away.

"Jake! Don't! I can't hold you!" Shouted Donnie, but it was too late. He felt his balance shifting as center of gravity moved. "Grab something!"

Jake didn't care at that moment for his own safety, he only saw the little glint of blue and white. He didn't even notice as his feet left the branch and he started to fall. The next thing that he knew, he hit the round with a snap.

"It's broken," pronounced Jim. "Not badly, but definitely broken."

Jake sat back against the tree and sobbed, not really caring. "He was right there. I almost had him."

The others looked around at each other, not sure what to say. None of them were convinced that Mr. Cook was anything more than a bird right now. None of them wanted to stay and wait for him to return.

Jim shook his head and started looking around. "Donnie, you and Andy try and set this as best you can. Rich, give me a hand building a stretcher. Everyone else, start making sure that we're ready to get out of here as soon as we're ready to move Jake."

Jim led the sabertooth into the forest to look for some long branches to form to backbone of the stretcher. They walked in silence a few minutes before Rich broke the silence. "Jim? H-how do you know if you're losing your mind?"

Jim stopped short and looked at his friend. There was a worried look on his feline features. "What do you mean? What's wrong?"

Rich was beginning to look more and more uncomfortable, like he wished he hadn't mentioned it. "Ever since yesterday, I've been hearing a voice in my head. Something different. Something... primal. I can't explain it."

Jim shuddered a little as he looked at his friend. Rich had always been a nice guy, if a little narcissistic, but definitely stable. Of everyone in the troop right now, he was the one who could most easily kill them all if he lost touch with reality. "What do the voices say?" he asked nervously.

Rich shrugged. "I can't really put it into words. It's been telling me to hunt, to sleep. It almost feels like instinct, but something more." Seeing Jim's worried expression, Rich smiled a little. "Don't worry, whatever it is isn't telling me to hunt you or the others. It seems to recognize you as friends, equals. But I caught scent of some deer last night and it was all I could do to not go after them."

Jim wasn't sure what to do or say. He placed his hoof-like hand on Rich's arm and smiled. "Look, who knows what this is. I've got a feeling that it's some kind of instinct. Maybe some of the others are hearing it too."

"Not you?"

Jim shook his head. "No, not me. I don't really feel like acting like a moose, really. But then again, I don't know what that would mean anyway." He shrugged. "Look, let's talk about this on the trail. We need to get a couple of good, straight branches that we can use..."

"There is one over there," Rich interrupted, pointing to a moderate sized mound, "on the other side of that packrat burrow. And there is another one over there," he said, pointing at a lichen covered boulder about fifty feet away, "buried under some pine needles."

Jim blinked. "How do you know that?"

Rich opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, frowning. "I don't know." He said finally, "I started thinking about them again when you asked, and it just occurred to me. Let's see if I'm right." Jim followed his friend to the packrat burrow and looked on the other side.

Sure enough, a reasonably straight branch, broken off by wind, was laying on the ground. They found one of similar size and strength near the boulder.

Jim smiled cautiously as he looked at the two branches. "If you're that good, where's my watch? I haven't seen it since yesterday."

Rich spoke almost instantly. "You must have dropped it when you went after Jake yesterday morning. It's in some leaves at the base of a tree near camp. I'll pick it up when we get back." He looked mildly shocked that he knew that, but a little smug at the same time.

Jim wasn't smiling now. There was something about this that wasn't natural. Rich had always been the type to lose things. Now he seemed to know where they all were. "Rich, where's Mr. Cook?"

He pointed at a tree. "Right there."

Jim spun his head around in time to see the startled blue jay take wing and fly back toward camp.

Jake felt lost.

The calm, reserved boy that everybody knew was gone. In his place was a boy that seemingly could only experience sadness and depression. It showed on his face quite plainly. There would be a permanent streak of tears down his face, he was sure. However long his face remained human, at any rate.

The pain from his broken leg had faded to a dull throb. Part of that was due to the Advil in the first aid kit, and the rest to his own efforts to ignore it. But even drugs and mental resistance have their limits.

He was strapped to the stretcher, his leg in an expertly made splint, tightly bandaged, and carried between Rich and Jim. They were certainly the two strongest members of the Troop. Every time they jolted him, no matter how careful they were, Jake would hiss in pain. A very feline-sounding hiss. One jolt made him extend his claws and he nearly cut through the long sticks that made up the sides of the stretcher. There was an ominous cracking noise. "We'd better put Jake down, Rich," Jim said from up front. Maybe we ought to find some thicker poles... Rich?"

Jake looked up to see Rich flexing his muscles like a body builder on stage, and admiring them as he did so.

"RICH!" Jim bellowed.

"Huh? What, Jim?" He didn't look up from his self admiration.

Jim didn't look happy. "Will you quit that and go find some better poles? Jake's claws are too sharp for these."

Rich's ears flicked once, and he grinned. Making him look even more fierce. "I know just where to find them..." he said cryptically, and went off in search.

Jim shook his head. If Rich gets any more self absorbed, I'm going to have to watch him like a hawk. He blinked. Well, too bad I'm not a hawk. His ears twitched to the sound of Donnie's voice. He sounded very apologetic.

"I'm sorry about that, Andy. I really am. But I wonder why it won't work now..."

Andy somehow managed to look angry with that goat's face of his. "Because this is very sensitive piece of electronics, and spending the night out in the dirt and wet ruined it!" They'd recovered the battery to the TV, and found that it didn't work. Even when the battery was carefully cleaned the only result was a brief flicker of the microplasma screen, some staticky voices, then darkness. "That wasn't a weatherproof battery, Don. When it got wet it closed the circuit and drained out most of the charge. And I don't have another one. It was hard enough to sneak the TV past Reggie in the first place." Andy looked at the makeshift cage that held their former Scoutmaster in Franklin's hand.

"What can I say, guys? You knew this was a 'no tech' hike when you signed up. You're lucky I didn't take a hammer to it like I know some other scouts would." He looked at his raccoon paw-like hands. "Besides, how was I supposed to know this would happen?"

Jim was fed up. "Guys, stop it, will you? All this arguing is getting us nowhere. Did you get anything at all when it came on briefly?"

"Just one word," Donnie said. "'Change', I think. But it was so garbled I can't really be sure."

Jim sighed. "Well, that's a lot of help. What channel was it on?"

"The News Channel, I think. So that gives us no indications about this at all. I could mean anything from the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, to a story about people getting short changed on the New York subways."

Jim was deep in thought, then he felt momentarily queasy. Without a second thought he hiccuped and brought up a wad of already chewed granola bar and proceeded to chew some more. It was a very calming thing, and he didn't realize what he was doing for at least thirty seconds. At which time he promptly stopped. "Guys," he said around the thing in his mouth, "moose are ruminants, aren't they?"

Donnie nodded, and laughed chitteringly. "Yeah. That they are."

All this time, Jake was sitting on a rock, his leg stretched out in front of him. Sadness still overwhelmed him. But the sadness was a wedge. The floodgates were opened, and feelings, real feelings, flooded into Jake's mind. Donnie's comment, for some reason, stuck Jake as extraordinarily funny.

Laughter.

Laughter from somebody who'd never actually made such a sound is something quite extraordinary. The whole forest seemed to go quiet at the sound of it. Which was a good thing, since the bird brain that was in control of Gary's blue jay body was right at the limit of hearing. Gary'd almost given up, again, at directing his body towards camp. The last time was a rather large disappointment.

Up until the saber-toothed cat (Rich?) had scared his bird brain off the branch, things had been going fine. Well, almost fine. It'd taken three hours just to get himself anywhere near camp. The mind of the blue jay was so random and, well, flighty for lack of a better term. Go back, you idiot! Go back!

-???- Came from the bird's mind. Nothing very distinct, but just a feeling of being asked a question.

Oh, nowyou notice me! Follow them for God's sake!! Gary screamed.

-Followfollowfollow? Follow what? Follow?- Was the "voice" from above.

FOLLOW MY SON, YOU BIRD BRAIN!!

-Chick? ChickfollowChick?-

YES!!!! Follow your chick! Gary's tone was desperate.

A long pause for thought. Gary could almost hear the slow grind of the bird brain above him. -Chick hungry! Feedchick!- Then the bird took flight.

The only thing Gary could do was find a place in the back of his mind, then hope for the best. For his strength was spent. This was his last hope.

He was so exhausted, he was drained to a nothing. His mind was rocked to sleep by the incredible sensations of flight.

The day wore on. Jake's sudden outburst of laughter had stunned the whole Troop. Nobody knew what to make of it. "Jake, are you okay?" Jim asked, bewildered.

Jake stopped just long enough to stare at his SPL. "'Are you okay', you say? Do I look okay, you antlered fool? My father's a damned bird! Just like he always wanted. While I'm here in a stretcher with kitty claws on the ends of my fingers! WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I'M OKAY???" Jake nearly roared the last sentence. He was getting some odd feelings from his face. He was suddenly seeing too much nose.

Jim audibly gulped. "Now Jake, I didn't mean anything. But..."

Jake's claws scraped the rock he was sitting on. Uncomfortable feelings from his backside he scarcely noticed. "I don't carewhat you meant or didn't mean! I just want to make it clear that I'm rrr..." Jake coughed once to clear his throat. "I'm rrr..."

"Um, Jake. Calm down, please. Please?"

But Jake pressed on, his anger overcoming everything else. He let out a ROAR instead of human words. Then the tingle that had spread over his body finally reached his broken leg. Before he blacked out, Jake saw a leopard's tail extending out of his shorts, and his arms totally covered by spotted golden fur. Then the changes reached his shattered leg, and he blacked out.

Consciousness only returned when he felt something being pushed into his mouth. His human mouth. Not the one that had fangs and a longer tongue that he briefly remembered feeling. His mouth was full of several things. They crunched, and were very moist inside. Other sensations returned.

He heard the sound of whirring wings, and a weight suddenly vanish from where it'd been sitting on his chest. Somewhere, a blue jay squawked.

Dad, Jake thought. He was about to open his eyes, when the weight returned. He felt the hardness of a small beak pushing a winged insect of some kind into his mouth. Realizing just what was happening, he opened his mouth to accept the "food". The bird sitting there squawked approvingly, then flew off for more.

The next time he felt the landing, he carefully opened his eyes, and met the eyes of the blue jay sitting on his chest. The sun was just coming up, and he could clearly see. The bird's eyes were devoid of any intelligence, and regarded Jake with some kind of wary acceptance, and a bit of confusion. Hi dad, Jake thought towards the bird, I hope you're enjoying this camping trip. I guess you'll have better luck getting close to other birds, huh? The bird merely stared back at him, tilting his head left and right. Still confused as hell, an insect in his beak.

Mutely, Jake ate the proffered bug, spitting it out when the bird flew away for more.

While his father was off chasing bugs for his son to eat, Jake took time to think. There was nothing of his father in that bird's expression. A horrible realization dawned. His father was dead, taken by the very thing he loved the most.

And yet, Jake didn't blame the birds. He blamed himself.

The bird landed once more on Jake's chest, and for the first time he saw what his father saw in these little birds. They had a kind of dignity to them. The jay hopped about, feather crest bobbing up and down, tail feathers tilting to provide a balance. The incredible agility of those hops said much for Nature's masterful design. Then the bird stopped hopping, and looked Jake right in the eye.

Ever so slowly, cautious not to extend his claws, he moved a hand up to his lay on his chest. The bird didn't move. Then with tears running down his face once more, he stroked the soft feathers on his father's chest. "Goodbye," he mouthed.

Jim chose that moment to wake up. And the bird flew off. Jake didn't attempt to catch it.

Jim just stared at Jake, who stared back. "Well? Are we leaving this forest or not?"

"Um... yeah," Jim rumbled.

Jake just turned his head away and said nothing. Slowly, he realized that Jim was still staring at the back of his head. He turned back and asked flatly, "What?"

"How are you feeling?" asked Jim quietly.

Jake wasn't sure what to say. Was he asking about his leg or his father? He just sighed. "I'm okay."

Jim stepped over and started looking at the bandages around Jake's leg. "This is still holding up, at least." He looked up at the horizon, where the sun was just beginning to peak above the mountain tops. "We'll be on the way pretty soon."

"My dad's dead, isn't he?" asked Jake bluntly.

Jim wasn't sure how to respond. He glanced at the cage that held Reggie, who still had showed no signs of intelligence, just pure animal frustration at being held against his will. But he'd seen a glimpse of the blue jay as he woke. There was something more there. "I don't know. I really don't know."

"He is."

Jim just shrugged. Jake didn't seem to want to argue this anymore, and Jim didn't want to say things to hurt him more.

Mercifully, there was a distraction. Rich woke, yawning widely as he did so. Jim felt his heart stop for a split second. The sight of a morphic saber tooth yawning was better than the best coffee for waking up in the morning. Reflexively, he licked his chops as he looked up and saw Jim. "Morning." He said quietly.

Jim smiled his greeting. "Morning. Give me a hand with breakfast." He half whispered. "I don't want to wake them until I have to."

Rich stretched, somehow looking more relaxed doing that than when he was asleep, and stood. "No problem. They all need it." He looked down the trail, which disappeared around a bend a few hundred yards away. "How far do you think we have to go?"

"We might make it by nightfall. We made good time yesterday." Jim said and he pulled the portable camp stove from the bag and attached the butane canister. "Grab the filter pump from Andy's pack. We'll head over to the nearest stream and grab some water."

Rich smiled wider and reached for Donnie's pack, unzipping the lower compartment.

"That's Donnie's. The filter is in..."

As he held up the small filter pump, Rich glanced up with a sly grin. "You want me to locate the tream?"

Jim chuckled and tapped his nose. "No need. I can smell the water coming downwind." He said as he gapped a water jug. He looked at Jake, who was only half watching the two of them. There was no way to tell what he was thinking. Briefly, he thought about waking up another of them, but decided not to. They would only be gone a few minutes and someone would undoubtedly be awake shortly. "We're going for some water." He said pointing to where his nose told him it was. "We'll be back in just a few minutes." Jake just nodded silently and turned his unblinking gaze to the sky.

Jim and Rich shared a look, but said nothing. They were both deeply worried about the kid, but there was nothing they could do. In a way, it might have been easier if they knew that Mr. Cook was really dead. If they had a body, one that was clearly him. But they didn't. They had a blue jay that only a few people saw change, and only it at times seemed to have any intelligence.The pair stepped through the heavy mat of dead pine needles. In only a few minutes, they could hear the trickle of water, and Jim looked smugly at Rich. "You're not the only one with talent, it seems."

Rich just shrugged, keeping his face impassive. "No big deal. At least I didn't need to wake up Andy to see where he'd packed the pump."

The two smiled and knelt at the edge of the small stream, really little more than a trickle of water. The pump was a handy tool, and probably the most high tech item they'd brought. The intake pipe had a large, bulbous microfilter on it that was guaranteed to get out microorganisms, dirt and even some bacteria. Even if they planned on boiling the water, it was an extra degree of safety. The pump was decidedly low tech, though: Pure hand motion, and rather inefficient. Rich started pumping furiously on it, filling the jug at the rate of about one gulp at a time.

While he was working, he asked. "What are we going to do? When we get back, I mean."

Jim sighed and looked away. "Don't ask me that, Rich. Please don't. I've been trying not to think about what happened to the world."

Rich stopped pumping and looked at Jim, realization in his eyes. "Oh God. Both Reggie and Cook changed all the way. You're..."

"...About two steps from being a moose. Don't think that I haven't thought about that." He said quietly. Then he motioned at the pump again and Rich went back to pumping, more slowly this time.

"I guess we'll see soon." He said quietly. "And we'll deal with what comes."

Jim chuckled nervously and absently started rubbing on an antler. "Easy for you to say. If we both go the way of the adults, then I might end up your dinner someday."

Surprisingly, Rich looked up with a serious expression. "Don't even joke about that."

Jim's smile faded. "The voice?" he asked.

He nodded. "Yeah. It's been pretty insistent. It's still not interested in you guys beyond the fact that you're not threats or competition, but honestly I don't think that it would care one way or the other."

Jim smiled and shifted his position on the ground. "I'm not worried, but..." the wind shifted, and a new scent was carried on it. Something that tickled a thought in the back of Jim's brain. "You smell that?"

Rich looked into the breeze and sniffed. "That musty smell?" he asked. At Jim's nod, he sniffed again. "I think so, but it doesn't mean anything to me..." his eyes got a little wide. "But it does mean something to my voice."

"Predator." They said in unison as they jumped to their feet and started running for the campsite.

Rich hadn't taken more than two steps when his body suddenly lurched forward. For a split second, Jim thought that his friend had fallen, but Rich never lost a step. One moment he was more human than animal, and in the next, he'd torn out of his clothes and landed on all fours. The powerful saber tooth tigers body shot forward at a seemingly impossible speed, despite the thick trees.

Apparently lacking that same ability, Jim was left to run on his own. While his new body seemed powerful and sure footed in the forest, he couldn't get much more speed out of it. He briefly lost sight of the tawny yellow fur as he crested a small hill near the campsite. As he got closer, something in his own brain started processing the smell. He didn't know how, but Jim knew the animal that he was smelling. He could scent it's location.

There was a black bear in the campsite.

There was a human shout of surprise from the campsite followed almost instantly by a deep feline growl. A few seconds passed, and Jim crested the hill and got a look at the scene.

The bear was standing practically over Donnie, whose dark brown eyes were opened to their limit. The other scouts were scattered around, all not moving, but all awake. No one wanted to be the one to tangle with a bear.

At the moment, the bear looked and smelled confused. From his vantage point, Jim suddenly realized why. What it was seeing wasn't anything that it was used to. It had probably smelled the raccoon that Donnie had partly become, then been surprised to find one that was so large. Now, it was looking at the snarling tiger with a look of even greater bewilderment. After all, there were mountain lions still in these parts, but nothing that approached the size of a bear. Now this animal was looking at a predator that was at least it's own size.

Jim was afraid to intervene. He had a feeling that if Rich was to simply fade into the background now, the confused bear might do the same. But now it was clear that the tiger and bear were setting themselves up for an attack. Rich started to circle around, coming closer to Andy, who had been sleeping on the edge of the campsite. The goat-headed quartermaster shrank slowly into his sleeping bag, his horns and ears poking out of the sack.

Jim suddenly realized what Rich was doing. He was trying to put himself between the troop and the bear. His lips were pulled back in a snarl, showing a mouthful of deadly sharp teeth in addition to his obvious six-inch canines. The bear, probably more interested in defending his roaming range now than in the troop or it's food, growled deeply and moved in for the attack. It bunched itself up as if getting ready to make a running attack.

The bear didn't get very far.

Rich suddenly bounded forward and took a swipe with his own paw. In a scene not witnessed since the days when man still considered an obsidian spear-tip state-of-the-art, the heavy claws of the saber tooth tore through fur, skin and muscle across the bears face. The bear, now wounded in addition to scared, made an attempt at an attack again. Rich met the attack easily, dodging the swipe and managing to push the bear away from the center of the campsite.

The black bear, now bleeding from slash marks across its muzzle and shoulder, turned tail and ran.

Rich was just about to give chase when Jim found his voice. All of his voice. "Rich! Stop!" he bellowed.

The tiger blinked a couple of times and turned his attention to the moose. Jim felt his heart skip a beat, and then another, and then another. He couldn't decide who was in charge in that brain. Finally, the saber tooth shook his head a little and blinked. Sitting down confidently on his haunches, he cocked his head smugly.

Jim smiled weakly, still feeling wobbly in the knees from fear. "Remind me not to piss you off." He turned his attention to the troop and started walking toward them stiffly. "Are you all okay?"

Donnie was still breathing hard, but looked around and nodded. "Yeah, Rich scared the bear away before he got too inquisitive."

Slowly, everyone started to calm back down a little. Generally, bears were still fairly uncommon in these parts, and those that were around tended to avoid people. Most of the boys hadn't seen one outside of a zoo, and after the stress of the previous couple days, seeing one now was almost enough to put them all over the edge.

Jim walked over to Jake, who was still strapped onto the stretcher. Luckily, the bear hadn't tried to move him around at all. "You okay?"

Jake didn't look at him at first. His eyes were glued to Rich, who was still in a full formed saber tooth. As he watched, Rich suddenly stood up to his hind legs, shifting more human as he did so. He was grinning from ear to ear, then went to go find some clothes.

Jake was feeling the world drop out from around him again. No one had told him that Rich could do that. Suddenly, the snippet of memory from the night before began to come tighter, and he realized that he had done the same thing. All at once, the kid who had so rarely felt a real emotion was flooded with them: Guilt, fear, regret, panic. He reached out and grabbed Jim by the front of his shirt and pulled him closer. His claws automatically came out of their sheaths and he dug deep into the flesh of the moose morph.

"We've got to find my dad! We can bring him back if we can find him!" he suddenly shouted, feeling a brief tickle of growing fur on his arms.

Jim fell to his knees from the pain of the unexpected attack. "Jake!" he managed to grunt, but he couldn't fill his lungs with enough air to say more.

"We can't leave! He's still in that birds body! I just need to convince him to come back! Please!" he begged, tears streaming down his face. To Jim, Jake's teeth were suddenly much, much sharper.

Franklin and Donnie each appeared on either side and grabbed Jake's hands, pulling them off of Jim. Jim stumbled back a couple of steps, bleeding from the wounds and too stunned to speak.

"You can't leave him out there to die!" he cried. Having let go of Jim, his leopard features began to vanish again. The focus of his anger was out of reach, now.

All of a sudden, there was a surprised snort from behind them. Everyone turned slowly, thinking the bear was back. Instead, they were greeted by the sight of a woman on horseback. They all blinked a couple of times as they realized that wasn't exactly true.

It was a horse on horseback.

For a long moment, the Troop merely stared at the sight uncomprehendingly. The horse-woman sitting atop the horse was quite an unexpected sight. They could all see her hoofed feet in the stirrups, two very equine ears, muzzle, mane, and a flowing tail down one side of the saddle. She was wearing a brown Forest Management Service uniform, for the rest of her was still human-shaped. She was palomino in color, with a golden mane and tail that looked like frozen rays of sunlight.

The Troop gasped collectively, and Jim fell onto his hands and knees, cloven hooves digging into the soil. But not from the pain of the still-bleeding claw marks on his chest. But from utter and complete relief. "Thank God... Thankgodthankgod..." he whispered into the soil.

"I assume you boys are Colorado Troop 54?" The woman asked in a voice that matched her looks.

Donnie nodded vigorously. "Yeah! Yeah! That's us! Umm... Who are you?"

The horse-woman smiled, showing big equine teeth. "Marge Thatcher of the Forest Management Service. Sorry we didn't show up sooner. But the past few days have been hectic, as you can understand." She nickered like a real horse would, eliciting a like response from the horse she was riding. "Airwalk here says he's happy he can go back to the barn now. Too bad I can't oblige him."

"Airwalk? You mean...?" Rich asked, eyes wide.

"Heck, no! Airwalk is a natural horse. It's just now I can understand exactly what he says. It's a little hard to translate, but I'm the only mounted officer that can do it. And not because I'm an equine. Anyway, is your moosey friend okay?"

Jim was still laying on the ground, thanking every deity there ever was. Rich spoke up. "Well ma'am, we were kind of afraid we'd go the way of our troop leaders."

Thatcher blinked, and looked around, as if noticing for the first time that there seemed to be no adults in the Troop. "You mean your moose-man isn't?" She slid out of the saddle and tied her horse to a log.

Donnie shook his head, and pointed at the cage that held the pine marten. "He was one of our leaders. Reggie West. The other..."

"Was my dad," Jake said robotically. "He turned into a blue jay and flew away." Fresh tears started to flow, but not as much as before. He stared at his leg and tried to move it, and hissed in pain.

Thatcher was already moving, first aid kit in hand. She nearly tripped on her hoofed feet, and Airwalk seemed almost to laugh at that. She shot back a quelling look and then sat down next to Jake. "What happened?"

"He broke his leg when he fell out of a tree," Jim said, having regained himself a bit. "I'm Jim Olsen, the raccoon is Donnie Butler..." He made introductions, "..and the boy with the broken leg is Jake Cook."

The horse-woman just nodded, looking at Jake's hurt leg. "You boys did a good job setting this, considering. You're lucky he didn't change very much. He looks like some sort of feline?"

"Leopard," Jake said matter-of-factly.

"Ah! Be happy about that. A friend of mine became a rather large whale. We were lucky we got him to the local seaquarium before it was over."

Jake just nodded, and looked down at the splint that held his leg. He then looked up into the branches to see if his father was around. But he saw nothing. Not one bird. Except perhaps Franklin.

"If I may interrupt," Mark began in his slightly hissing voice. He was still sluggish because it was cold. "But are you the only ranger out?"

"By no means," she said, kneeling next to Jake's broken leg. She carefully took off the bandages and looked more carefully at the area of the break. "In fact, I'm going to call one of them now." She stood up and pushed a button on a hand radio. "Horse Lady to Red Feather, come in Red Feather. Over."

"Horse Lady, this is Red Feather. Go ahead," Came a squawky voice from the speaker.

"Get down here, Eric. I've got a broken leg I'd like you to look at. You've got me in sight? Over."

"I sure do, Horse Lady. Coming in now. Over."

Everybody heard the flapping of some rather large wings, and then a huge red-chested robin darted through a rather large hole in the canopy. He was basically a huge bird, but they could all see that he had arms as well as wings, like Franklin did. Carefully strapped to his chest was a white bag with a red cross and the words "Paramedic" on it.

Franklin was just staring at what he'd just seen, as the robin went to examine Jake. "Are you in pain?" The bird-man asked. Jake nodded numbly. "How much?" Jake didn't answer. "If you don't tell me how much, I'll have to do something you may not like..." The bird-man crouched next to Jake's leg, scaled hands hovering over it. When Jake still didn't answer, he did the only thing he could. He pinched the leg gently.

Jake's response was a feline hiss of pain, and a brief moment when his face suddenly became more leopard-like, before he passed out. "Oh, dear," The bird-man said in a concerned voice. "Perhaps a bit of morphine is in order. I don't think it's a serious fracture, but I'd have to get him under a skeletal scanner to be sure." Out of his chest pack, he took out a syringe and filled it with a measured amount from a vial. "This should keep him from hurting too much." He injected Jake with the drug.

"How long will that hold him," The horse-woman asked.

"You're close enough to the trail head that it should get him there. But I suggest keeping his leg as immobile as possible. We should all be grateful that he hadn't transformed very much. We're all going to have to learn new physiology." He stood up, setting his wings on his back a little more comfortably. "Now, is there anybody else that needs attention?"

Franklin spoke up. "You can fly with those things?" He spread his own wings.

The robin seemed to grin around his beak. "Yes, I can. And it's the most incredible thing I've ever experienced. But back to business. Is there anyone else hurt?"

Jim raised his four-fingered hand. "Me," he said. "I think Jake forgot he had claws... Ow..."

Mindful of his own short talons, the robin-man examined the fairly shallow claw slashes on Jim's chest. "Your unconscious friend there didn't hurt you too bad. But you'll want to get those cuts sewn up as soon as possible. I've got some antibiotic creme that will work better than the stuff you've got in your first aid kit." He reached into the pack on his chest and took out a tube. He then put some of the white paste on his scaled palms and rubbed it into Jim's fur. "Don't strain yourself too much. I'd tell you to shave all that fur off, but that isn't possible here. Just keep a bandage on it for now."

Jim nodded, and winced as the creme stung at the cuts before they went a little bit numb. "Thanks," he said. "Out of curiosity, I know we're not the only ones out here. How many others are you searching for?"

Marge took a piece of paper out of her pocket. Airwalk nickered impatiently from where he was picketed, making her turn back and snort once warningly. "You're actually the first group we found. There's at least twenty on this list of mine. Those are just the ones that we knew were coming out here. We only just started searching this morning, I'm afraid. It's taken that long to get things organized..." She reached up to feel her muzzle and ears, sighing.

"It's okay," Donnie said, "we understand completely. Are you going to leave us to do more searching?"

Marge shook her head. "With the condition that young Jake is in I'd better stay with you until we meet up with the other paramedics. Radio signals don't carry very far in these mountains. Eric, you'd better get up as high as you can and notify base camp that we've got a troop heading their way."

"Right!" Eric squawked. "I've done all I can here, anyway." He looked at Franklin. "And I think that some congratulations are in order for you, kid. You're about to gain something that mankind has wanted for millennia. I'll see you around." He walked over underneath the break in the canopy, spread his wings, and pushed himself off the ground. Franklin stared.

Marge walked over to Mark, who was still sunning himself. "Are you going to be able to move soon?"

"I'm ready now, I think," Mark replied, "I jussst can't be in shade for long."

Marge walked back to Airwalk and removed something large, thin and square from the saddle bag. "This is a chemical heating pad. Some bright boy back at base thought of using them just in case we found anyone reptilian. If we put a jacket on you and put the heating pad inside, that should keep you moving."

Mark's forked tongue flicked a few times, he seemed to think about it. Finally, he sighed. "I guessss I'm going to have to live with thisss for the ressst of my life anyway. If it getsss the resst of usss out of here fasster, then let'sss do it."

With Mark taken care of, Donnie took Jim's place, and Rich picked up the stretcher that the still unconscious Jake was laying on. Marge sat in Airwalk's saddle once more, and rode near Jake.

They didn't make very good time. Simon kept holding them up, since his duck's feet weren't exactly made for walking long distances. He also had that mirror in one hand, and would look in it every five minutes. Mark had trouble with that long tail of his, nearly hitting it against a rock or two. While Andy just walked along, grumbling something to himself in a bleating voice, and occasionally tugging at one of his horns.

Jim kept an eye on Rich, whose ego had surely grown to ridiculous proportions since he'd won against the bear. He kept his other eye on Franklin, who was looking up at the giant robin, who was visible through the trees in the sky above. Every once in a while he'd open his wings and flap them a few times, as if he wanted to join Eric in his new freedom.

Oddly, the only other thing that dominated Jim's thoughts was food. All he wanted to do was go home and gorge himself on the biggest salad he could make. Lettuce, bell peppers, chives, celery... he thought. Food dominated his subconscious mind, until he smelled something.

A scent so familiar that it could only be one person. "Mom?" he whispered to himself. Then he heard it.

"Jim! Are you out here?!" It was his father's voice. At least, he thought it was his father's voice. It was deep and rumbling, but it had that tone that Jim's ears picked up immediately.

"Dad?!" Jim yelled out experimentally. He wasn't disappointed. Though he was just a tad alarmed at first. After all, most people would try to run away from a gigantic humanoid black rhinoceros when one charges at a person. Because, much like Jim, his father seemed to instinctively know that the anthropomorphic moose was his son. "Dad! You're crushing me! And you're going to bend the antlers, too!" The pain in his chest was incredible. He grunted in pain.

Jim's father let him go, and Jim caught his breath. "Much better. Thanks."

"Are you hurt?" his father rumbled, looking at the white bandage on his chest. The only thing he was wearing was a pair of sweat shorts.

Jim sighed. "Can we talk about it later? If you're out here, where's everyone else?"

Jim was answered by a menagerie of animal people that one would normally find only on cartoons. Three of them, a Dalmatian, a bobcat, and some kind of antelope, were carrying a better stretcher for Jake, who had been put down by Rich and Donnie.

Jim was overwhelmed by his parents in the next ten minutes or so (his mother had become a rather small bird called a sandpiper, and she had wings, too), while the paramedics took care of Jake, who's mother had not appeared yet.

But when she did appear, she made quite an entrance. After all, a giant flying squirrel would tend to attract attention to herself. And at the scent of his mother, Jake started to regain consciousness.

The physical pain was gone, but there was an ache inside that just wouldn't go away. Jake would've stayed unconscious, but the was suddenly a lot going on around him. Then he'd smelled it. It smelled like his mother, but not quite. So obviously she had changed, too. He didn't open his eyes, fearing it was all a dream and he'd wake up to find that his mother had vanished like his father did. That is, until he heard her voice. "Jake? Are you okay, dear?"

His eyes shot open immediately to look into the largely rodent face of what could have been his mom. He was unsure until he saw her lips move, and his mother's voice come out between the buck teeth. "Jake? Oh, thank God you're okay. Well, mostly okay. The paramedics say you'll heal. Where's your father?"

He would've given everything he owned so she wouldn't have asked that question. He could only respond in one way. "Dad always liked birds, mother. And now he's one of them." For Jake, that admittance forever slammed the door on his father ever coming back. While the paramedics carried him to the ambulance, Jake told his mother exactly what had happened, while she cried and demanded the rangers find her husband. The rangers tried to assure her that they would do their best, but they exchanged knowing glances. Jake knew that would be impossible.

Jim sat with Jake, while the ambulance blared it's siren on the windy mountain road. A veritable train of cars and vans followed. Jim felt a need to say something. "How are you feeling?" was all that he could come up with.

To Jim's surprise, Jake smiled weakly. "I'm going to move on, Troop Leader. I think I've cried myself out, now. And I think my mother needs me in once piece now more than ever. Dad wouldn't want me to leave her alone.

"And just maybe, I'll go watch one of those movies my father always wanted me to see. Somehow I have this overwhelming urge to watch 'Airplane!'." Jake's smile was like the dawning of a new day.

Epilogue

A year passed, and the alarm in Jake's bedroom blared a single note. At that particular frequency, one note was all it took.

Waking up for any feline morph was more a process of slow stretches and a lot of yawning. Jake had replaced his bed with what was in effect an artificial tree branch, much like natural leopards liked to sleep on in the African savanna. Usually he slept with one arm and one leg (or one leg and one fore leg) draped over one side of the "branch" that was suspended from the ceiling.

Checking the time, he saw that it was nearly noon. Actually early for him to be waking up on a Saturday. But today was rather special. Because his mother was at a "mindlost" support group for most of the day, which left Jake to go to Jim's house without having to tell his mom where he was going.

In the months since the Change, Jake and Jim had grown into a close friendship. Though Jim would soon go off to college. The resumption of normal school schedules had taken a long time in a lot of areas. The world was still recovering from the Change, and would be for several decades at least.

The others in the Troop had come to terms with their own Change, for the most part. Simon, Rich and Mark had moved away some months earlier, and Andy's family was showing signs of a growing restlessness to start anew. Jake didn't blame them at all. Though he devoutly wished that they could be there for what he was about to do today.

Everyone knew Jim's favorite hobbies was woodworking. He was endlessly whittling practically anything in his spare time. Everything from aircraft to xylophone bars. He was going to give Jake a hand today, but not with whittling. Jake had a rather different idea for his own project. A rather special birdhouse.

Franklin showed up while Jake was putting on the final touches. The cardinal had finally overcome his fear of flying a month after the Change, when he'd finally completed Changing himself. "The sky called me, so I went to her," Franklin had said.

During a short break, Jake looked up at the large rack of moose antlers mounted inside of Jim's bedroom. There was a bronze plaque on the stained mahogany mounting board that proudly declared, "my first rack of antlers -- 1996". Jim was inordinately proud of his antlers. "Jake, how do you managed to look that comfortable?" Jim asked for the umpteenth time.

Jake just yawned and stretched and briefly groomed himself. He was a mid-Degree morph. Digitigrade feet, feline muzzle, ears, tail, etc.. There was a kind of special pleasure associated with using his rough tongue to make sure he was squeaky clean. "It's a feline thing. If you'll excuse me, I have a birdhouse to finish..."

Jake got it home before his mother arrived, and even nailed it to the tree outside his bedroom window, using his claws to climb the tree. It was in a place that was hidden from view directly underneath. Though his mother would surely see it when she looked out the window.

He didn't care.

Here merely dozed on his "branch", and waited for the telltale flash of blue at the entrance to the birdhouse.

Dad would come home, one way or another.



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