Author's Note: All characters and their associated "morphs" depicted in this chapter are purely fictitious. Any similarity to real people, living or deceased, actual events, or classified technologies, is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed in this chapter are not necessarily those of the author.
Inside the cramped confines of the elevator the air was beginning to go bad.
Tratt, in some strange bit of detached professionalism, found this interesting. One would think that the amount of trapped air inside such an elevator would sustain an occupant for three hours, at least. But the fact still remained that the air was going bad, and if steps weren’t taken to remedy the situation right then and there, Tratt would suffocate.
"What a hell of a way to go," Tratt muttered to himself. The emergency power should have come on by this time! Lights should be back, and the elevator should’ve automatically gone back to the first floor.
Still, the emergency power had not come on-line, even though the emergency generators screamed overhead. Tratt didn’t know how long he’d been trapped inside this elevator, but he guessed about two hours.
Two hours. Long enough for my world to be turned completely upside down. Everyone has been affected by it, whatever it is. I just wish I could see what I’ve become; get the waiting over with!
But Tratt already had some idea of what he’d become. After that last surge of whatever-it-was had hit him he must have blacked out, because he’d lost track of time. Upon returning to full waking consciousness, albeit exceedingly disoriented consciousness, Tratt had remained still, not wanting to move his new and alien body. But curiosity had eventually gotten the better of him, and he began to check his new body by feel and smell.
Rubbing his hands together, Tratt felt the smooth bumpiness of scales. The hands had four fingers each, including the sharply opposed thumb he had seen moving to its new position. The fingers were tipped with what felt like, for lack of a better description, knives. Four long, curving knives. Talons, maybe?
When I stripped my shirt off. That feeling of having six knives slashing me. Those were talons?
The scales covered only his hands. Beyond that he encountered an oddly layered material of which his scaled hands could not discern any detailed features. Brushing the back of his hand through the material —- it covered the rest of his body, save for his lower legs, which still were covered in human skin —- he heard a sound not unlike fabric being rubbed together. But what was really strange was that this material was actually sending sensory responses back to his brain. The sensation was not unlike running your hand through your hair, but being able to feel this in only sixteen to twenty distinct places on your scalp. Maybe like whiskers?
No. Like feathers, maybe?
And his head, which only a couple hours ago at most was a writhing mass of skin, muscle and crunching bone? In the darkness Tratt couldn’t tell his hands were shaking when they reached up and came in contact with something hard and curved where his nose and mouth should have been. A beak, obviously, and one wickedly hooked at the end. His forehead, although still bearing the bulge of a large brain case, was slightly more rearward sloping than before. His eyes had enlarged to fit nicely in their new sockets, and were spaced slightly more to the outside than before. Judging by their size and position, he still had good stereoscopic vision, but his peripheral vision had been vastly improved.
So what was begun in terror is now complete in... what? Contentment, is it that I feel? Or shock, perhaps?
An itch on his shoulder heralded the discovery of a pair of massive wings attached to his back, just below and to the inside of his shoulders. Slowly flexing the new appendages, he felt them collide with the walls of the elevator before they were even halfway open. If the elevator was six feet across...
Twelve feet, at least. My God, they’re huge!
A similarly impressive plume of tail feathers had sprouted from the base of his spine, and John made a mental note to have an ornithologist have a look at them later. Feathers, he seemed to recall, shouldn’t have been any larger than a man’s hand. But the huge tail feathers must have been over three feet long, for if he canted them down like so he could feel their tips sweep the floor.
So I’ve become a birdman, eh? But am I the only one to... morph into a raptor? No, probably not, because everyone else seemed to be going through the same thing a little while ago, and everyone was becoming some other kind of critter. I’m sure there are others out there like me, only not stuck inside an elevator. But what the hell caused it? Better yet, what the hell is it? Some form of massive phenotype shifting, certainly, but how? Psychological warfare, maybe even biological warfare? But he dismissed that idea immediately. If this Change was some form of weapon, psychological or otherwise, it was unlike anything he had ever heard of, or read about. For all he knew, the events of the past few hours were widespread, probably global —- and maybe beyond that. I’ll have to talk to Reeve’s about this. Maybe she can come up with an explanation. It was then that he had noticed the decidedly unpleasant quality of the air in the elevator. Time was running out for him, for every breath he took in reduced his oxygen supply and increased the level of carbon dioxide. And from what he knew of avian biology —- which wasn’t much —- his new metabolism had him taking in a lot more oxygen than before the Change hit.
Postulate scenarios for the reason behind this Change all you want outside, featherhead. First order of business is getting out of this box!
Here was where John “Blackjack” Tratt came into his element, a seemingly impossible task with a time limit. I love pressure!
Feeling around on the floor for his discarded uniform trousers, he fished through the pockets until he came out with his keys. Eight keys, one small Swiss-army knife, and a high intensity pocket flashlight, which he turned on with a little difficulty due to his dry, scaly fingers slipping across the slick metal twist-top switch.
A shaft of light exploded into his eyes, and he winced. It was the first light he had seen for a long while, and he felt his pupils constrict as his new eyes reacted to their first experience with light. Had John not been so involved with unthreading his flashlight from the keychain and using it to illuminate his work of tearing out ceiling tiles, he may have waxed into the philosophical of how that sudden burst of light was like being born again into a new body.
A second chance at life, one might say.
Across campus Wes Shaw could have cared less about being given a second chance at life. If he were in charge, he would rather have been dead right now; his hangover was so bad. Not only was the hangover one of the worst he’d experienced -- and he’d had a lot of them -- but he was also hallucinating.
The sound of a trumpeting scream had wrenched him from his fitful slumber, and one eye had opened to the sight of a spinning room. Reaching out with a hand that didn’t feel like it belonged on his body, Wes grabbed one of the rails of the headboard on his bed (called a “rack”) to keep him from flying off as the room continued to spin. Another blast of sound from outside, like someone practicing on a mangled trombone, made him see stars.
“Gawddam fish,” he muttered to himself. “Lem’me dah in peace!”
The single, small window of his dorm room was built into the wall next to his rack, and he braced himself on one elbow to peer outside, parting the blinds with a finger.
The scene before him was one out of a dream... no, more of a nightmare. A man with the general appearance of a wooly mammoth was standing in the center of the Quadrangle, screaming at anyone who got too close, and paced back and forth. His furry brown face was dominated by the huge ears, trunk, and curving tusks of the mammoth, but his body, although stocky, still had some degree of the human form remaining. The people circling the mammoth-man had similar animal qualities to them, but still remained mostly human in general form. There was one person with the head of a wolf, another that was trying to balance on two fragile-looking bird legs, and another who looked completely human, save for a set of antlers coming out of his head. They all wore uniforms of the Corps of Cadets, although these were all in some state of disrepair. And as Shaw watched, one of those people circling the mammoth fell to his knees, gave off a nervous, high-pitched laugh and vanished in a flash.
All that was left of this individual was a pile of loose clothing with something inside of it thrashing around, trying to get out. Those who had gathered began to shrink back from the sight, and just in time too, for the uniform tore away in shreds to reveal a brown and black spotted dog-like creature with huge jaws and teeth. The crowd just stood there, gawking at the hyena in disbelief, until it growled menacingly and stalked towards them.
Then all hell broke loose.
Whatever that microbrew was that I had last night... I ain’t havin’ any more of it! Friggin’ Wild America out there, man. Next thing I know, I’ll see pink flying elephants.
And with that, Shaw let the blinds snap closed on the scene of panicked Cadets scattering across the Quadrangle, trying to avoid the hyena and each other. He rolled back into his bed and covered his head with his pillow, drowning out the noises from outside.
Gotta be a dream.
“Come aw. Get aht’ta der...”
Tratt had his legs spread wide so that his feet —- which were still human, surprisingly, and still sported mirror-shined low cut Oxfords —- were braced against the railing built into the walls of the elevator. He held the miniature flashlight in his beak, and his hands were working with his Swiss-army knife. One shoulder was pressed uncomfortably against the ceiling, and he could feel his wings going numb from poor blood circulation. The mass of tail feathers twitched back and forth in frustration.
The final screw holding the maintenance hatch closed came loose with a metallic <ping!> and fell directly onto Tratt’s beak, bounced off his forehead, and came dangerously close to one eye. He felt a set of protective membranes slide over his eyes as he ducked away reflexively, lost his precarious balance and fell most ungracefully to the floor. A hiss of pain escaped him as he landed wrong on his tail feathers, and the miniature flashlight that had been clamped in his beak clattered to the deck. It rolled until it came to rest in the corner, illuminating part of the wall, some of his destroyed uniform, and a few ceiling tiles.
Getting back to his feet and brushing himself off, John stooped and picked the flashlight back up, then cast its light onto the ceiling. He’d had to remove the darkly colored, semi-polished ceiling tiles to get at the inner workings of the elevator’s roof. Now exposed were wiring boxes for the lights, pipes and valve controls for the dry-chemical fire extinguishers, and in the corner an uncomfortably small-looking maintenance hatch. The hatch was the only thing John was interested in right now.
Playing the thin beam of light across the black metal of the hatch John noted there were no handles visible, meaning that the hatch must have swung outwards, not down into the elevator. So he used his free hand and gave it an experimental push, and was rewarded with feeling it give a little. He pushed harder, and the hatch came open with a clunk, then it fell shut again. A third shove and the hatch flipped open and banged noisily against the outer surface of the elevator cab.
A wonderful wave of fresh air spilled down into the elevator, and Tratt breathed deeply of it, relishing how clean it smelled and how cool it was. Cooler than the inside of the elevator, certainly, although under normal circumstances he would have considered the air of the elevator shaft uncomfortably warm and humid.
All right! He thought, and grinned... or thought he grinned, at any rate. His new face must’ve been about as expressive as a stone.
Placing the mini-flashlight back into his beak, John made ready his escape, then another thought crossed his mind. He craned his long neck so that his Oxfords glinted harshly in the flashlight’s beam. Those have got to go. Wouldn’t provide traction anyway...
But manipulating thin laces with talon-tipped fingers proved to be a much more difficult task than he had first imagined. The complete absence of feeling from the talons, combined with the poor lighting from the flashlight, made Tratt give up after a few moments. Muttering around the flashlight he ended up running a talon across the laces, cleanly severing them, and then kicked the Oxfords off. Too bad, too, because he had worked so hard to keep them at a mirror shine. He could always come back and retrieve them, when everything got back to normal... if everything ever got back to normal.
With that final problem solved, the Coalition student moved so that he stood directly beneath the open hatch. God, that thing looks small! But there was no way he could enlarge it. He’d just have to squeeze through. But again the hatch... so small!
-Not big-place! Small-place! Small-place bad! Need big-place, open sky, opensky-goodsky!-
He blinked a few times, shook his head. Where did those thoughts come from? From him, obviously, but what part? Was this some kind of animal instinct he now carried within him, the instinct of the raptor? -Tinyhole, bad, not going!-
His knees began shaking at this point, and his breathing came in ragged gasps. The walls felt as if they were closing in on him, suffocating, closed in, dark! And then he began to feel the tingling of approaching Change again, now in his lower legs.
“Urgh! No! Not again!”
-Where? Where? WhereamI? Where mate? Small-place, small-place!-
Jesus, what’s happening to me?
His hands were clutching his head, as if trying to press out the warring personalities within. All the while his human intellect did battle with the pure instinct of the raptor, the skin of his lower legs flowed and began to remold itself into scales, his feet and toes realigning themselves to the architecture of the raptor’s. The flashlight fell from his beak and the lens shattered upon impact, casting the elevator once again into total darkness.
-Who Jesus? Who you? WhereamI? WhatamI?-
You’re in me! You’re becoming me, and I’m becoming you! I can’t believe I’m thinking to myself. This is a schizophrenic breakdown!
-I you? You not-me! I not-you! Thisbody. Thisbody mine!-
A thick layer of feathers shivered their way down his lower leg, stopping at his ankle. But then another Change began within his body as the raptor’s mind began to assert itself over his own: his physical body began to shrink, become more like the body of the bird of prey. Tratt’s conscious mind screamed out, trying to regain control, but was repelled by the sheer power of the animal mind. A barrier was beginning to form between the two warring intellects, and every eternal second that ticked past had John Tratt’s conscious mind slipping further and further into nothingness.
-Mustescape! Bad-place, dark, closed-in! No sky!-
Stop... don’t do this... can’t let this... happen... must not...
The barrier separating the two minds was constantly expanding, forcing him back further and further from the real world. He found himself growing tired, and a part of him almost looked forward to sleeping for a very long time. There was so much he was expected to accomplish, so many responsibilities placed upon his shoulders. Wouldn’t it be nice just to be able to let it go? Let everything go...
Just go to sleep...
-Needsky! Needair! Can’t breathe! Trapped! Badbadbadbad! Dark! Must escape! No escape!-
Yes... and John finally felt his mind slip off the edge and begin its plunge into darkness, absolute nothingness. An eternal slumber of the best kind: a sleep without nightmares, without the painful memories of his past to come back and haunt his dreams.
But then a mental “hand” grabbed him, pulled him back from the brink. It was the mind of the raptor, its survival instinct grasping at whatever chance there might be for freedom from the darkened interior of the elevator and survival. The elevator, it seemed so far away now. The human consciousness dimly recalled an elevator, but now there was only a comforting darkness, and the firm grasp of the raptor’s own consciousness upon his own keeping him away from it.
-You-know? You-know where-sky? You show!-
And John’s consciousness was pulled further from the brink. Now he was slightly aware of the sensation of his body returning to the semi-human form it had assumed during the Change.
Yes, I’ll tell, but only on one condition...
-No! You-tell! Now! Or let-go, you-go!-
Let-go, John replied, and you no see sky ever again.
Silence from the raptor’s mind. Then, -You no-tell?-
Nope. Not unless you let me take control again. You let me take control, I tell, I get us both out. The raptor’s mind seemed to be considering the offer. And for one terrifying moment, Tratt actually believed the answer would be “no,” and he would be released into nothingness. But then he felt himself being pulled from the brink, then pushed back to where he had originally been, which was firmly in control of his body. Then something entirely unexpected took place.
The raptor’s mind somehow merged with his own! He was aware of memories and experiences, both his own and of the raptor’s, being shared at an intensely intimate level. The raptor felt the emotional pain of the human’s youth, and the human experienced the visceral blood lust of the kill and the ecstasy of flight. Memories John would never have revealed even to his closest friends were laid bare... and strangely enough were accepted for what they were by the raptor. There was no judgment passed by either side of this strange communion. Where once two warring minds had been within the same brain, there was now a single, seamless composite: not entirely John “Blackjack” Tratt, nor entirely the raptor, but something else.
“Emergency power activated. Emergency power activated.”
The synthesized voice came through the closed elevator doors and echoed down the elevator shaft. Small red lights flickered to life in the corners of the elevator, illuminating the ruined interior of the steel box, causing John to look up sharply in surprise, his wings mantling in irritation.
“Oh, now you decide to come on?” he growled.
The elevator lurched into motion, and the sounds of hydraulics and motors whining filtered through the open maintenance hatch. The elevator was returning to the first floor, obeying the electronic instinct known as “auto-recall.”
So much for your grand fantasy of escape through the elevator shaft! John thought as the elevator slowed to a smooth stop on the first floor.
The polished aluminum doors slid open with that universal <ding!> But what had been a brightly polished, well-kept lobby now looked as if a bomb had gone off. The great counter that housed the security station had been totally destroyed, half of it turned upside down and resting across the lobby. Shards of plastic and wood littered the floor, along with papers, dirt from the now un-potted plants, and foam padding from the furniture. Staring straight out of the elevator, Tratt could see the ruined remains of the doorway to the Chemical Engineering department. If Tratt hadn’t known any better, he would have guessed that the doors had been blown into the lobby, as if something very large had smashed through them, something the size of a truck.
The overhead lights which once hung suspended from the ceiling by metal cable, arranged in neat rows ten feet above the floor, now hung in ruins. Some of them were flickering their last moments of life away, others were cold and dark, and still others had been knocked completely free, left dangling by a single cable, slowly rotating. One of them was still functioning, and it bathed the elevator in an uncomfortable white light so that Tratt had to shield his eyes, then it rotated away.
Tratt stepped warily out of the elevator. His nose detected a scent, which the raptor’s instincts immediately identified. Blood. And then he heard the distinct sound of something dripping.
“Oh, Jesus,” Tratt breathed, fearing the worst. “Tom?”
Behind him the elevator doors began to slide shut, but John clamped onto either door with his hands, engaged the safety override, and felt the doors slide back open. Something terrible had happened down here, that much was obvious, and there was still the open maintenance hatch as a viable means of escape. Hauling over the wrecked remains of a stool, the birdman jammed the doors open. The elevator tried to close its doors again, but the stool did the trick, and the elevator began beeping in distress at the perceived malfunction.
Then he turned back to the ruined lobby and the grizzly task of finding the body... if there was a body, which there was. It was not Tom the Security Guy, thank God, but one of the maintenance personnel. Tratt first found the puddle of blood, then looked up into the glazed eyes of the dead woman draped over one of the lighting fixtures. Her body was lying on its back —- which was quite obviously broken —- with her arms dangling down, dribbling blood from what must have been a great gash across her chest that Tratt couldn’t see from where he stood. Her legs, partially Changed, hung from the other side, and she was still wearing one shoe. The other had fallen free and lay in the puddle of blood. The face, which was still frozen in an expression of surprise and fear, had some feline features.
John suppressed the sudden urge to retch, and he turned away quickly, trying to force the images out of his mind. He held a hand to the side of his beak, took a deep breath, looked anywhere but behind and above.
Drip, drip, drip.
His stomach heaved, and began to lurch his way to the exit, trying to put as much distance between himself and the carnage as possible. “Oh, God...”
The sounds of running, bare feet on tile snapped John back to reality. He dropped to a crouch and his head snapped to the right just as two individuals burst through the heavy double doors leading to the Nuclear Engineering department (to his left were the shattered remains of the doors to the Chem-E department). One of them had the head of a horse, complete with black mane, and the other, a diminutive woman of no more than five feet, had the lower body of a white mouse. Just as soon as they were through the doors they slammed them shut, both of them panting hard. The horse-man had on what was left of a black security uniform, and he rested his shoulder against the wall to keep from falling over as he gasped for air.
“Tom?” John asked, standing fully erect and moving closer.
The mouse-woman screamed at the sight of him and backed against the door. The horse-man snorted in surprise, the whites of his eyes showing, and reached for his sidearm.
“No! It’s me! John Tratt!” the raptor-morph yelped, waving his hands up in the air in surrender. Then he thought better of it, and lowered his hands so that they were behind his back. No sense in waving around that set of carving knives, John thought. “Don’t you recognize me?”
The horse-morph lowered his hand from the pistol a few inches, cocked his head, but said nothing. His nostrils were flaring, and his ears were laid flat against his skull.
“On second thought,” Tratt added, “scratch that last question. It’s still me, though.”
“Fair enough,” said the horse-morph, finally, in a deep bass rumble. “No time for talking, though. Is there a way out of here other than the front entrance? Power went out, the building buttoned up, and I couldn’t override.”
“Something nuts happened, that’s what!” snapped the mouse-morph. “A goddam triceratops happened.”
“There are no tri...” but John’s words were cut short as they all felt a vibration in the floor.
“Ummm... run!” the horse-morph ordered as the vibration became more intense, and the sound of smashing furniture came through the heavy wooden doors, growing louder with each passing second.
“There’s a maintenance hatch in the elevator!” Tratt called as the two nearest the door started edging away from it. For some reason, no one thought barricading the door would do much good against whatever it was that was making so much noise behind the closed doors.
“Go!” the Security officer pointed to the elevator entrance at the same time he was drawing his weapon. “I’ll try to keep it distracted.”
Tratt beat the mouse-morph to the elevator, since it appeared she was having difficulty keeping her balance with her new legs. He knitted his fingers together and crouched down beneath the open hatch, providing a step for the woman. But she had other plans, or was simply so terrified, that she used not only his knitted hands, but also the elevator walls, his shoulders, and finally his head, which she gave a rather nasty kick when she jumped the rest of the way. His head collided with the nearest wall, and he saw bright colors.
There was the sound of something exploding outside, and through dazed eyes John saw the big black wooden doors burst from their hinges and shatter into hundreds of fragments. Wooden splinters and shrapnel sang through the air. Those doors could withstand almost any pounding you could put them through and were not supposed to break, but the creature had blown right through them like they were made of cardboard.
Sandy brown in color and roughly the same size as a medium truck, the triceratops shook its frilled and horned head clear of debris and came to a sliding stop on the smooth floor of the lobby, knocking over desks and chairs like they were toys. Beady black eyes surveyed the room, locked upon the black horse-morph, and the triceratops snorted a challenge as it shook those massive horns back and forth. The speed with which it tossed its head back and forth was incredible, and the image of docile and slow-moving dinosaurs was shattered for Tratt, even though he’d known they were supposed to be quick and bird-like.
The Security officer held his pistol at the ready. “Mr. Tratt,” he called, “when I tell you, I want you to press the ‘close door’ button.”
“Don’t argue with me, boy! Just do it!”
Tratt kicked the stool loose, held the doors open with one hand. A talon hovered over the button. “Ready,” he said, noticing that his beak was parted and he was panting.
The triceratops became tired with the staring match between it and the horse-morph. It gave a great bellow and began to move forward, a freight train gaining speed and momentum. Those huge spears lowered to point directly at Tom, who immediately began firing and retreating at the same time. But the slugs didn’t penetrate the armor of the t-tops; they only made it angrier. If the slugs had been made of lead they might have penetrated, but these slugs were of the special compressed powder variety. The slugs would penetrate soft flesh like a normal bullet, but would disintegrate upon impact with a solid object, like a wall—or a bone shield. “Now!”
Tratt mashed down on the button and the doors began to close.
The triceratops was quickly gaining on the Security officer, and would soon overtake him. John could see the grim determination in the horse-morph’s eyes, his black main flying behind his head and neck as he sprinted for his life, the Smith & Wesson automatic clutched in his right hand. And behind him a mountain of flesh and muscle. The doors of the elevator seemed to move so damned fast!
With a final cry of desperation Tom leapt the final distance, flashed through the narrow opening in the doors and slid into the rear wall with a grunt of pain. The doors clicked shut...
And two massive horns screeched their way through the metal, the nearest one only a foot from Tratt’s beak. The doors buckled in the middle, creaked, threatened to give way.
John could hear the sounds of the triceratops struggling on the other side of the door, mostly snorts and angry grumbling. The horns wiggled in their places then receded as the beast extricated itself.
“Not much time before it breaks through,” Tom said as he picked himself up.
The whole elevator shook and the dent in the middle of the doors grew larger. Tratt had to resist the urge to cover up his ears —- or whatever he had now. The sound reminded him of what it must have felt like to be in a submarine under depth-charge attack: trapped inside of a little metal container and having sets of giant hammers beat on it like a drum.
Tom leapt up to the emergency hatch, caught onto its edges with his hands, and expertly hoisted himself through. He stuck his head back into the elevator, extended a hand. “C’mon, grab hold!”
John was nearly knocked off his feet as the triceratops rammed the doors again, but he managed to stumble over to the hatch, where he reached up to take Tom’s hand. The security officer reconsidered taking Tratt by the hand after getting a good look at those talons and instead reached down to take him by the wrist before pulling the raptor through. He was not gentle, as Tratt hissed in pain when his arm was nearly wrenched from its socket, and one of his wings clipped the sharp edge of the hatch’s frame. Fortunately this lack of concern for John’s comfort actually saved the raptor’s life, for as soon as he cleared the hatch they all heard what could only have been the sound of the doors giving way and the triceratops breaking through.
Peering down into the elevator Tom saw the narrow snout and huge horns, occupying the space where only a few moments before three people had been. The triceratops tossed its head from one side to another, sweeping the air with those deadly horns, putting dents into the sides of the elevator.
“Oh!” cried the mouse-woman, then covered her mouth.
But it was too late; the triceratops had heard the noise from above, and its powerful neck muscles made its head flick upward in a blur, piercing the roof with its horns. Tratt jumped when one of the horns materialized uncomfortably close to his right foot. “Gotta get off this thing!” he said, dancing nervously around the hole. Three beams of light cut through the dusty air in the shaft, then three more as the horns punched through the thin metal of the elevator cab once again.
I can’t see shit in here!
The mouse-morph pointed at an indistinct shadow in the corner. “There! Ladder!”
Making their way as quickly as possible over to the ladder, the mouse-morph scurried up first, then Tratt, and finally Tom, firing the last of his magazine down through one of the holes before jumping the rest of the way.
“Now what?” the mouse-morph called over her shoulder.
“Climb,” Tratt answered. “Put as much distance between us and that elevator.”
The triceratops continued to hammer away at the inside of the elevator. It had already torn away most of the roof, and was presently banging the small third horn on the main supports that housed the cable and emergency brakes. Tratt didn’t have enough time to fully explain to the woman why they had to get away from the elevator, but she didn’t seem to have a problem with climbing away from the noise below.
For Tratt, though, the climb was an unnerving experience. Most birds of prey didn’t have good night vision, and this handicapped John severely in the narrow confines of the elevator shaft. Relying on an uncertain sense of touch to find each successive rung, trying desperately not to accidentally claw the woman’s ankle or Tom’s hand, Tratt climbed, and all the while he kept hearing the twanging of the elevator cable growing louder and louder. They climbed past a rattling air vent, and the coolness of the exhaust felt good against Tratt’s feathers as he climbed past it.
“I see the door to the second floor,” the woman above announced. “Hold on,” she said as she reached out with one arm and began banging against it, calling out, “Hello? Anybody there?”
“Jesse, pull your arm back in,” Tom called. “I don’t want you losing your grip. And if you do, you’ll fall back into an elevator with a very pissed-off triceratops.”
“And how are we going to get out of here, then?” she asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.
“I’ve got longer arms than you, Jesse. Let me do it, okay?”
“Hmmph. Fine. Whatever.” Tratt heard her smack her hand back onto the ladder. He also heard the metallic twanging of the cable take on a decidedly different pitch, and then it happened.
The elevator cable, not designed to withstand sudden transitions between tension and slack, gave way with what sounded almost like a gunshot. Several tons of tension within the cable was released in a few thousandths of a second, and it whipped upwards like an inch-thick guillotine, lashing out against the walls and leaving long gashes in the structural concrete. Tratt ducked as something hummed past him, throwing sparks against the wall and peppering him with bits stinging of concrete. The counter-weight of the elevator whizzed past on the opposite side, free-falling to the base of the shaft where it landed several seconds later with a thunderous crash. Below them the elevator fell free for about three feet before the emergency brakes kicked in and brought it to a grinding halt.
The sudden movement must have spooked the triceratops, for it immediately ceased its assault and vanished.
“Well...” he heard Tom comment from below. “That was... different. Everybody in one piece up there?”
“Good to go,” answered Tratt.
“Yes,” the mouse-morph replied in a small, frightened voice.
“Okay, we’re gonna climb up this ladder and bang on the elevator doors to every floor. Someone’s bound to hear us.”
“And if they don’t?” asked Tratt as he felt his way up the ladder.
“Then we’ll open them ourselves.”
Tratt didn’t bother to ask how Tom planned on accomplishing that feat, instead focusing his attention on the climb.
The second floor seemed to be deserted, else everyone on it was so far from the elevator doors that they couldn’t hear the banging of Tom’s fist against them. The third floor had someone on it, for Jesse claimed she heard muffled voices, but no one answered the hammering on the elevator doors. The fourth floor, the top floor of Wisenbaker, turned out to be their lucky floor. As soon as Tom pounded on the door, they heard a reply. Three knocks in quick succession, then the sounds of people straining against the elevator doors.
Tratt saw a sliver of pure white light appear between the steel doors; watched as it grew wider. Then he saw fingers reach around the edge of the door, and finally the distinct shapes of people working to pry the doors open. Finally the opening was large enough so that a huge bear of a man (pun certainly intended) could reach in with his stubby finger-claws and shove the doors the rest of the way open.
Jesse was the first to be pulled, wide-eyed, from the ladder by a gray wolf-morph. Then Tratt was hauled through the doors and placed next to the mouse-morph, sitting on the cold checkered tile floor. He let out a long sigh and rested his head against the wall as Tom was brought through and the elevator doors slid shut of their own accord. Someone filled a plastic cup with water from the water fountains across the hall and handed it to the Coalition student, who took it with a grateful nod and did his best not to spill it when he tried to drink from it. But spill it did, dribbling out of his beak and running through the feathers of his neck; however he still got a few good gulps down, and that did the trick. As he handed the water to Jesse, Tratt took a look around him.
The fourth floor of the Wisenbaker Engineering Research Center was austere in appearance, with smooth white walls, a white ceiling, black checked floor, and the only real colors coming from the blue “lanes” painted onto the floor that acted as guidance marks for the robotic sweepers during their nightly runs. The office doors had simple aluminum doorknobs, and there were no windows to allow one to see inside the offices themselves. Most of the doors had keycard pass-through locks, and were generally identified as 402(A-G) or, more rarely, gave some clue as to what lay inside. Directly across from Tratt was 401(Neurosystems Lab). Narrow windows that went from floor to ceiling let in streams of morning sunlight that glinted brightly off the polished steel water fountains.
Looking at their saviors Tratt noticed one feline-morph regarding him thoughtfully with striking green eyes. He had the general appearance of some form of big cat with large gray and white splotches, and was wearing a rumpled khaki trench coat with silver eagles pinned onto the shoulders. His feet were digitigrade, and a black and white striped tail poked out from beneath the coat.
“Mister Tratt, I am guessing?” the Colonel said as he strolled casually over to where the bird of prey was hastily getting to his feet and assuming a position of attention.
“Yes, sir!” the Cadet fired back. He did not cut a salute for two reasons. One, he didn’t trust himself with flashing those talons around near his face. Two, he was out of uniform. Completely out of uniform, as it turned out. But the thick covering of feathers took the place of clothing, and for some reason John really didn’t mind this at all. Modesty, it seemed, had been tossed out the window. He could see a canine-morph female that was not wearing any clothing at all, and she seemed perfectly at ease, as did everyone else around her.
“Mister Tratt, you are one hour and forty minutes late,” the Colonel said, regarding his watch. “Have you anything to say for yourself?”
The twinkle in the Colonel’s slit-pupil eye gave it away for Tratt. “Only that I was delayed due to... unforeseen difficulties, sir.”
“That’s putting it pretty mildly,” the Colonel grinned with sharp fangs. “No trouble, I hope?” He fished around in a pocket of the trench coat and came out with a device that looked like the detonator to a bomb, complete with the red button on top of the grip. Colonel Mark Whiteacre pressed this button with his claw-tipped thumb.
Almost immediately Tratt heard a persistent beeping noise coming from beneath the feathers on his left arm. The beeper-watch with its elastic strap had survived and remained firmly attached to him all through the Change, and later the ladder-climb through the elevator shaft. But now his watch was halfway up his arm. When his skin Changed and moved it must have carried the watch with it. Parting the feathers with a talon, he read the digital display:
EMERGENCY ASSEMBLE TEAM5, CONFIRM COPY.
Absently he reached down and pressed the appropriate button. The beeping ceased, and the hand-held unit the Colonel carried gave off a single beep. On its LCD screen:
TRATT, JOHN S. COPY.
“Now we wait,” the army colonel said.
BOLZHAUSER, ERIC. COPY.
SHAH, REVATEE. COPY.
Typing with a single claw on a painfully small-looking keypad, the Colonel sent this single message:
ASSMBL @ ZACH FNT ASAP.
UNKNWN EVENT, PSSBL SCRMBL 2 B/CS?
DETAILS TO FOLLOW.
“You really think the Jedi Masters are going to send us in for crowd control?” Tratt asked, using the nickname of the Office of the Commandant. “Bryan/College Station is a pretty level-headed town, sir.”
“Most of the time, yeah, I’d agree with you. But today I’m not taking any chances. Everyone’s in shock right now, but that won’t last long. We’ve got to get control of the situation before the defecation really has a chance to hit the wind-making machine.”
It makes sense. Everyone seems to have inherited—or acquired—some degree of animal nature. I’m sure... hell, I know... that this goes far beyond mere physical appearance, right down to the level of instincts. If there are people who become totally controlled by their instincts... then we could have a lot of bodies on the deck before the day is through. He remembered the triceratops, still somewhere on the first floor probably, and how it had utterly destroyed most of the place in its rampage. The cleaning woman, Tom had explained on their climb, had been gored by the triceratops then tossed like a rag-doll into the air. She’d landed on one of the lighting fixtures in the position John had found her in.
And if there were more people like that out there on the street, loose?
John felt his feathers ruffle and he shivered.
BE ADVSD, CHAOS ALRDY ACRSS A&M E-CMPS.
WLD ANMLS IN STRTS, SME PRDTRS.
WILL ASSMBL T5 HERE, THN PTRL 2 ZACH.
“Good,” the Colonel said. Frosty had realized there were dangerous animals running loose on campus, and that there was chaos in the streets. To venture out alone would have been unacceptably risky, so Eric was planning on assembling the remaining members of Team 5 at their dorm and then cautiously moving to the fountains in front of the Zachry Engineering Center. The colonel looked up. “Let’s find a way out of this building, shall we?”
John looked down at his watch as their motley crew of office-workers, maintenance staff, computer techs, engineers, scientists, and military personnel made their way along the hall to the emergency stairwell.
The LCD display read 0915.
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