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.
College Station: Wisenbaker Engineering Research Center
Thousands upon thousands of voices. All speaking at the same time, a cacophony of ideas, knowledge, history, information, never one of them vying for domination over the others, yet combined having a stunning effect upon the senses-and all of them screaming along crystal pathways at the speed of light, flowing like phosphorescent mercury down a river of blue fire. A burst of static filled his vision, like staring at the screen of a TV tuned to a dead channel, then a blast of noise, a high-pitched squeal.
John's hand flew from the metal panel embedded in the wall as if it had been burned, his eyes wide, beak parted and head and neck feathers ruffed in alarm. What the hell?
"Tratt?" Colonel Whiteacre's pen-sized flashlight cast a shaft of white light across the open space of the emergency stairwell. "What's wrong? You just stopped there for a moment like you were in a trance."
The other members of their rag-tag party were further down the stairwell, still descending. The person at the front of the group held a similar pen-light, and was using it illuminate the stairs before them. Above them all were the flashing exit signs which would bathe everything nearby with a dim blood red light precisely once every second, sounded out with the mechanical clicking of their timing mechanisms, each one telling them that the exit was located three floors down, then two, then one...and then, hopefully, that the exit was directly ahead. Perched atop the door to each level was a floodlight pack, but these had failed to come to life when the emergency power had come back on, possibly because a circuit had blown somewhere, or a line of bad code had been encountered. The result was a surrealistic, semi-industrial version of something one might see in a horror-thriller movie. A person's imagination could run rampant in this crimson-lit vertical shaft, with its shifting shadows and periods of inky blackness-and many of the people in their group, Tratt included, had to cope with eyesight unlike anything they had known before. Even with the legendary eyesight of a bird of prey John could hardly see anything around him with such low light, and he had caught himself on more than one occasion missing a step with his relatively stair-clumsy talon-tipped bird feet. The only thing that kept him from tumbling down the stairs was his left hand, which never strayed more than a fraction of an inch away from the railing. And what light did register on the back of his large eyes was processed into neural impulses and fed through the optic nerve into the enlarged optic centers of his brain-which promptly perceived half-hidden monsters in the moving shadows, threats brought to life from the raptor's genetic memory. John had to force his legs to move through willpower alone, kept telling himself that those things he didn't quite see, but that he deep down knew were there, were in fact not there. But those voices...he knew that those were real. Knew it the first moment he had felt the tingling magnetic pull from the dark, a warm and comforting presence in an otherwise terrifying concrete-encased downward spiral from the well-lit fourth floor of Wisenbaker.
"What's behind this panel here?" Tratt asked, pointing to the plain white metal panel.
The circle of light moved from his face to the panel. "That's a maintenance node for the building's data network. Why?"
Wringing his hands Tratt moved past the metal panel and continued his descent. "No reason," he said quickly...almost too quickly. "No reason at all."
The colonel narrowed his eyes as his light illuminated the other's face. Damn. I know he's holding something back, but I can't read what, exactly, with that stony face of his. "I know if something was really important, you wouldn't hesitate to tell me exactly what was going on, would you, Cadet?"
Those frighteningly intense eyes met his. "I had a moment of dizziness, sir. That's all."
The colonel said nothing, but kept the staring match up for a second or two longer, then turned his pen-light down from the eagle-like face to the stairs at his feet, leaving the other temporarily blind, and made his way down the stairs once again.
Left alone to his own thoughts, Tratt, with one hand holding onto the cold metal safety railing, looked back at the panel covering the maintenance node. And for just the briefest of moments, his inner senses heard faint whispers coming from inside that panel, embedded in a wall bathed in one-second flashes of black and dark red. Tearing his gaze away from the panel, he made his way slowly down the concrete stairs, following the sound of those below him.
Leonard Hall: ECC Dorm #7
"Knock again, maybe she didn't hear."
A bluish-gray scaly hand rapped against the door, louder and more insistent than before.
"Nattie? Nattie, you in there?"
"I don't hear anything." The scaly hand pounded on the door, rattling the hinges. "Nattie! It's Eric and Reeves; we need to get the whole Team together, Nattie. That means you have to come out, no matter what you might look like."
Eric stood there silent for a while, chewing on his still-human lower lip, idly drumming a large, dagger-like claw that was now a permanent fixture of each big toe. Beside him Reeves, who was, for all appearances, morphing into a tiger, had her hands planted on her hips and her ears pricked in the direction of the door. Both of them wore their Coalition-issue tan and green trench coat, and beneath that the loosest pair of PT (physical training) clothing they could find. Reeves had already made the necessary modifications (very crude modifications, to say the least, done with a K-bar knife) to her PT sweatpants to allow freedom of motion for her newly Changed legs and striped tail. Eric, however, had thus far not experienced any radical change in form, aside from his hands and feet, though the Change seemed to be spreading from there. Presently the Change had already progressed to just below his knees and elbows, and showed no signs of stopping.
I wonder what Nature has in store for me? Eric thought, trying to identify which animal, if any, sported such an unusual toe-claw. The only animal he could think of was the cassowary, a large, flightless bird found in Australia, quite aggressive and somewhat intelligent from what he had heard, and bearing a striking resemblance to the famous velociraptor so popularized/villainized in film and print.
Beside him Reeves cocked her head, ears scanning for any sounds coming from within the room. Her skull-and consequently her ears-had changed to something more akin to the tiger, so her ears were now more toward the top of her head than on the sides. Strangely enough her hair had not fallen out, but now sported alternating stripes of tiger-orange to highlight her natural raven. This complimented her yellowish eyes and the white fluff that crept up from her neck across her cheeks and around her eyes. A unique pattern of fine black stripes flowed over and around her facial features, her own personal facial fingerprint, not unlike the intricate facial tattoos of the South Pacific island-natives of centuries past. "She might be in there," she said quietly, a white-spotted ear twitching. "I thought I heard movement, but it might be someone else in the dorm."
"How could that be? I thought all the floor leaders cleared everyone out."
"Those in the hallways, yes, but there might have been others that stayed in their rooms for safety...or simply because they couldn't get the door open," and as if to illustrate, she held up her own two fur-covered paws/hands, equipped with retractile claws. "Fortunate that the pads gave me some grip, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to operate the door handle!"
Eric knew the truth of her words. Only by wrapping his hand with a washcloth had he been able to generate enough torque to twist the doorknob, and even then it had been a chore to perform such a normally simple task. If this Change is a permanent one a lot more thought will have to be put into the design of simple household objects. Hmm, that means there's a lot of money to be made, too.
"Hey, Nattie!" Reeves called. "Grab some gear, missy, we got a scramble order! Shag it!"
Five seconds ticked by.
"Maybe we should bust the door down," he heard Reeves mutter.
"These doors have metal frames, tough hinges, half-inch-thick locking bolts," Eric informed her. "Walls are cinder-block all the way up through the ceiling tiles."
She lifted a bushy eyebrow. "You were thinking the same thing, then? Breaking down the door by force?"
"Huh?" Hadn't she just said what she was thinking? Suddenly understanding dawned on him, and he checked himself. "Oh-- well, uh, yeah. Great minds think alike, don't they?" He laughed nervously, then added, "Floor leader's gonna raise hell when he sees the damage we make." Then he raised his voice, cupping both hands against the door and yelling into it, "You hear that, Nattie? We're going to break this door down 'less you open it for us! If you can't open it, yell at us, bang on the door, whatever, okay?"
Almost immediately they heard a loud yip! from inside the room. The two outside looked at each other, and the thought was mutual, What was that?
"Take it down," Reeves snapped, "on my count. Three, two, one!"
Their combined weight slammed into the door a moment later, but the door held despite the impact. Three seconds later, the door shook again, this time the hinges giving way a little.
"One more time!"
Finally the door gave way with the sounds of splintering wood and creaking metal. Eric lost his footing and fell in with part of the door, landing just inches from the snout of a very large and very surprised looking reddish-brown canine. His eyes locked with the pale eyes of the wolf, "Nattie?"
The wolf's ears flattened against its skull at the sound of the name and it dashed for the open door where Reeves was recovering her balance. Eric's hand shot out and caught hold of one of the wolf's hind legs, the other hand coming around to get a hold of the scruff of the neck, but the animal was too fast. With a growl-snarl and an incredible display of speed and grace the wolf twisted around, almost folding itself in half, and buried its sharp teeth into Eric's arm, eliciting a hiss of pain from the Cadet and breaking his grip. Seeing its chance for escape the wolf darted across the broken remnants of the door and leapt with barred teeth at Reeves.
The two collided, and Reeves wrapped her hands around the wolf's neck as it hit her, knocking her off her feet with the force of impact and driving the air out of her lungs when she landed on her back. There the two wrestled, Reeves holding the wolf-that-was-Nattie away from her throat with shaking arms, and the wolf straining against the other, snarling, jaws snapping at her arms, her hands, anything within range of those teeth. Oh, God, Nattie! It's me! It's me! But there was no trace of her friend in those fiery yellow eyes, only an animal that wanted to kill her. "Eric!" she tried to call out, but her voice had left her along with the air in her lungs, and the cry came out as a wheeze. Her arms began to give way to the adrenaline-enhanced rage of the wolf, and those long, sharp teeth began to cut into her shoulders, closing in for the throat. Closing in for the kill.
Eric came out of nowhere, a blur in the morning sun streaming through the hallway windows. The wooden chair he had pulled from Nattie's room arced down and caught the wolf squarely in the ribs, sending the creature flying into the opposite wall with a heavy thump, dazed, but not completely out of action. The wolf struggled to regain its footing, yelped and coughed once, then began to crawl on its belly for the nearest exit, staying as near as possible to the wall and the floor. Eric didn't hesitate but an instant before driving the wooden desk chair into the wolf with vicious force, pinning the animal between two legs and a cross-brace support. The wolf snarled and began to squirm, but then it let out a whine of pain and grew still, glaring at Eric and Reeves and panting, its bloodstained tongue hanging out, yellow eyes full of defiance.
"You sure that's Nattie in there?" Eric asked, eyes not leaving those of the wolf. Still, he had to admit there was something familiar about those eyes, something within them, beyond the small black pupil.
"Pretty sure," he heard Reeves gasp, but suddenly she seemed strangely far away, as if speaking to him across a long distance, low transmission quality telephone line, a growing hiss in the background. "If it isn't Nattie, then how did a wolf..."
The voice coming into his ears no longer registered on his mind; all he heard was the beating of his own heart and the hiss of dead air. Eric was peering deep into the wolf's eyes, now well beyond simply playing as an opponent in a staring match. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Eric seemed to remember having heard this said of the human optic system. How true it was, now that he thought of it. Eric didn't know how, but he seemed to have tapped into the mainline of the wolf's conscious thoughts. And if he had come this far, then couldn't he somehow communicate to the other?
Nattie, I know you're in there, he projected into the wolf's wide eyes. Please talk to me.
The voice, if one could call it that, was faint, garbled, totally panicked. Eric? Eric! Please help me! I'm... not... control anymore... Eric, help me!
What? Who's in control, Nattie? Nattie! Tell me, who is in control! Eric blasted these thoughts with as much "force" as he could muster into the wolf's mind, hoping that he might break through the interference and establish better communication with his friend.
I don't know! Just... voice in... mind... says things... But I don't... control over... body. Where am I, Eric?
Meanwhile, Reeves had given up trying to talk to Eric, and was now focusing on getting her breath back. He was stooped over the chair, still putting quite a bit of force into pinning the wolf to the wall, even if the wolf wasn't struggling anymore. They were just staring at each other now, the wolf's eyes wide and blank, pupils dilated; Eric's eyes narrow and focused, pupils constricted to mere pinpricks. Strangely enough Reeves almost believed they were having some kind of...conversation. Then she saw Eric shift his grip so that only one hand kept the chair in place, and reached with the other to grasp the silver ring that he had insisted on taking with him, now hanging from a make-shift necklace made of a boot shoelace.
Nattie, can you hear my voice? He tightened his grip on the silver ring, felt it grow warm in his hand.
Yes, I hear... voice. Came the reply, a little stronger now.
I want you to follow my voice, Nattie. Follow my voice, and see the light I put out for you. Follow it. He focused his willpower on the ring, felt the pulsating energy build within it, willed it into a brilliant light. Follow the light, Nattie. Follow my voice. Go! Now!
Reeves gasped and her hand flew to her mouth. Oh, God! The wolf's form was beginning to change. Eric, though, seemed to be completely oblivious to the outside world, lines of concentration creasing his brow and beads of sweat standing out on his face. Reeves had never seen the look Eric now had on his face, nor had she ever felt so uncomfortable standing near him. Sure, the little guy was about as ordinary looking as anyone could ever hope to be, but there was something about him, once you got to know him as well as she and the rest of Team 5 did, that seemed to be different. When he was relaxed or very tired, Eric would finish sentences other people started, reach for the phone before it had a chance to ring and just know things about you. And he would simply play it all down. "Just a coincidence," he would say. Reeves could physically feel something in the air, some kind of energy... and it scared the hell out of her. Just a coincidence. Yeah, right.
It feels like there's a door in front of me, and I can't see the light anymore, Eric!
Walk through the door, Nattie. Don't look for a doorhandle, just start walking. And follow my voice.
Nattie could feel, sort of, her hands out in front of her, groping in the darkness that had nearly claimed her. It had been a terrifying fall from consciousness, pushed down by an alien mind of pure animal instinct, not allowed control over her body, a prisoner behind the eyes of whatever kind of animal she had become. She had been screaming over her lack of control when her physical body had attacked her two closest friends, injuring them both, and for a time she had actually given up hope...but then she had heard his voice, cutting through the night, and she had seen the light. It had almost been a religious experience, like the Tunnel of Light she had heard people talk about, but this wasn't a tunnel, rather it was merely an intense source of light, bright as the sun, and it's rays had cut down through the darkness like knives. And she had begun her long climb then, urged forward by the reassuring voice, the surprisingly warm light. So now she stood at the top of this slippery mountain she had earlier been knocked down by the alien mind. All that stood in her way was this closed doorway, the surface of which reminded her of crude oil, but through which pulsed the wonderfully warm light. Just walk through it, she told herself.
Just then, from behind her, came the sensation of the alien mind, closing, reaching out with clawed hands, ready to rend her from the top of this mountain of consciousness and cast her back down into the blackest depths of un-being there was. This was like a nightmare: she was being chased by some faceless, formless entity that wanted nothing more than to eradicate her very existence, and she was moving in slow motion, arms outstretched to the roiling mass of the door in front of her.
Twelve feet and a universe away, Reeves was backing further and further from the scene. Eric was trembling, and his hand was gripping that damned ring so tight that his claws were cutting into his palm, drawing blood which flowed in rivulets between the pebbly scales of his hand and forearm. The body of the wolf/Nattie was convulsing violently, alternately changing from more human to less human. This must have been close to what it was like to watch the final symptoms of the Plague, Reeves thought, where the victim's body began to explosively mutate into a mass of quivering sludge. But Nattie, she told herself, was becoming more and more human, despite the occasional regressions. Whatever Eric was doing to her, it was helping her, not hurting.
Digging to the very deepest reserves of strength, Nattie leapt at the door, only to be caught midway by the alien mind. Her hands-or whatever they were-were already through the door, a very strange sensation...and suddenly another pair of hands was on the other side, holding on to her, pulling her through the doorway to the other side.
No! Only me! Only me! she "heard" the voice of the alien mind scream, and it began to tear at her, pull her back through the black, shimmering surface of the door to the dark side. You stay! I go!
Eric, help me! It's tearing me apart!
An arc of painfully bright light burst through the door, striking just behind Nattie with a crack of thunder. She felt, rather than heard, the howl from the alien mind, and its grip slackened. A thought blasted through the door, right on the heels of the light: Never disturb this one again, lest you taste my wrath one final time! And then she was wrenched through the viscous stuff that was the barrier between the two dimensions of her consciousness and unconsciousness.
Reeves saw Nattie give one last violent lurch, then her eyes snapped open and she cried out, a cross between a howl and a human cry of pain. Finally she grew still, her eyes closed. Eric sighed, dropped the chair, and collapsed against the opposite wall, face pale and brown hair matted down with sweat. He closed his eyes and muttered something Reeves couldn't quite make out. She was too busy checking over Nattie.
Her friend's body still had many characteristics of the wolf she had been, but was far more human than animal. She was completely covered, head-to-foot, with a layer of reddish-brown fur, which turned to off-white on her chest, stomach, and the insides of her limbs. Her face was pulled into a delicate canine snout, tipped with a wet black nose, and she still had those sharp teeth. A bushy tail protruded from the base of her spine, and was the same reddish-brown as the rest of her. Her hands, though fur-covered and equipped with pads on the palms and tipped with claws, were still articulated like those of a human. Reeves also noticed that her friend's form retained the same curves and... features... of a human female, though these were covered by Nattie's thick coat of fur. Just the same, Reeves went into her friend's room and filched one of the winter-heavy cotton blankets from the closet to wrap Nattie's unconscious form in, and also a hand towel to act as a bandage for Eric's hand until he could get it looked at.
Reeves spread the thick blanket out on the floor in the hallway and both she and Eric picked Nattie's still form up and placed it gingerly onto the spread, then wrapped it close about her, Eric maintaining his composure even through the pain of his wounded hand. Once Nattie was secure in her fabric cocoon Reeves knelt down and hefted her friend over her shoulder like a sack of flour, noting with surprise and a little pleasure how easily she did this, how light Nattie felt to her tiger-morphed body. I think I could get to like this.
"We're going to have to get the both of you to the Quack Shack pretty soon," she said -- referring to the Beutel Health Center, the university's on-campus hospital -- as they walked down the empty hall in the direction of the stairs.
"First we get Wes," Eric declared in a voice that brooked no argument.
"Shouldn't take too long, I suppose. Just as long as we don't have to go through the same with him as we did with Nattie, here. I don't think I could handle this a second time," she repositioned her burden slightly on her shoulder.
"Ditto," was the simple reply. Eric was still pale from exertion, whether it was from...whatever he did back there...or because his hand was bleeding so much, Reeves couldn't tell. All things considered, his hand looked to be a wreck from where she stood; he might have damaged some tendons. He would certainly be getting stitches that might leave him with...
"Yeah, chicks dig scars, or so I'm told," he said as they began to make their way carefully down the thinly carpeted stairs.
Reeves stopped short and turned to face him eye to eye, amber eyes narrowing. "Okay, let's dispense with this right here and now!" she said through clenched sharp teeth, a feline growl escaping from deep within her chest. He started to protest, but she cut him off. "No! No, Eric, I won't let you brush this one off. Not this time! That little show you put on back there," she poked him in the chest where the ring was, "that damned ring you always have -- and that Colonel Whiteacre never seems to care about, or even notice -- and just now, when you continued right where my thoughts left off. Don't tell me it's just coincidence, don't give me that excuse!"
Eric blinked in surprise, rubbing the spot where Reeves had jabbed him with her claw-tipped index finger, and opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. How much could he tell her? Stupid question: he was capable of telling her everything. So the question was how much should he tell her? He had his suspicions over what was going on-hell, he'd known this day was a possibility for a couple of weeks now-but he didn't dare tell that to the woman standing in front of him. He'd told only a few others, and those he trusted with his life. Reeves was a close friend, a true friend.
But there are some things you simply can't tell your friends.
"With all that's been going on," he chose his words carefully, "I wouldn't be surprised if more than just our bodies are changing." He nodded to Nattie, her head slumped forward, dark red-brown hair hanging free. "You saw what happened to her. Now, does that make logical sense to you? Does it follow the laws of physics?" Forget about the whole subject; it's just a reaction to stress.
She turned her head away, looking down the stairs once again, jaw muscles tense and ears flattened, whiskers bristling. "Hmmph," she muttered, then looked back to Frosty. "Sorry I snapped at you. I guess it was just a reaction to the stress."
"Don't worry about it," he said with a cool smile. "I think everyone's a little on edge right about now. Come on, let's go get Wes."
As things went, Wes was far easier to work with than Nattie. Eric knocked on the door, this time with his left hand, while Reeves stood to the side, still carrying Nattie draped over her shoulder. It took a couple of minutes of pounding before they heard the sound of the bolt sliding free, and the door cracked open.
"Piss off," growled a voice from the other side.
"'Fraid not, Wes," Eric said. "Get your gear."
"What?" The voice now sounded muffled and confused, as if still asleep.
"You heard me. Get yourself in some gear, we got a scramble alert from the Boss. The whole world's gone to shit, and it looks like we're going to do damage control in BCS. Open the door."
Reeves spoke up. "Wes, we have to get to Zachry soon. Please open the door."
Slowly but surely the door opened wider and Wes -- or what was left of him -- stood in the doorway. He stood perhaps six inches taller now, since his feet had lengthened and forced him into a more digitigrade stance, though he still maintained a roughly humanoid form-granting him the capacity of wearing a shredded pair of BDU trousers and his PT shirt. His face had pushed out into a wolf-like snout, and pointed ears sat atop his head; a bushy brown tail idly twitched back and forth behind him. He studied the two outside the door with brown, bloodshot eyes, black nose twitching, and the two outside in turn studied him. Eric saw that the native Texan had a striking physical resemblance to a coyote.
How ironic, Eric thought to himself. Wes grew up in an area where he had to use sonic guns to spook the coyotes away from his property. Hated the things because he'd always been the one to drag himself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty to put some sonic booms into the forest, then stay up to make sure they didn't come back and scare the livestock. And now he looks like one of the animals he hated so much. God has a really strange sense of humor.
A hand that had been hidden behind the door now moved into view, holding a pistol, a .45. Eric instinctively moved back a few steps, eyes locked on the black instrument of death. "Bloody hell, Wes! Put that thing away, will you?"
"It's not going anywhere," was the reply. "I don't like having people pound on my door, especially when I've got a hangover."
"Couldn't be helped, buddy. We've got to get the Team together, and that means you, too."
"I ain't in any shape to walk anywhere right now."
"Well... then we'll drive there." Eric looked over to Reeves. "Easy way of transporting Nattie to Beutel, right?"
"I've got a car in the Southside garage," Reeves confirmed. Then she looked pointedly at Wes, who sighed and shrugged his shoulders in defeat.
"That little thing?" Wes asked, once he had disposed of the .45 and was stepping out of his room. "Hell, some of the critters I saw runnin' around out there this mornin'll crush that little rice-burner like a tin can." His ears flicked back as the lock turned over with a loud ker-chunk! Then he dropped his keys into his pocket and turned-slowly, lest the world around him start spinning again-and said, "If we're going out there -- on the roads, I mean -- you'll wanna take the Tank." To add emphasis to his words, he patted the keys in his pocket, making them jingle against one another.
Eric and Reeves just looked at each other, and the shared thought was a single word.
The Tank. Wes Shaw's personal vehicle. A nightmarish collection of smooth lines and aggressive angles, all covered beneath a water- and mold-proof tarp in the open-air parking lot a hundred yards from their dorm. The Campus Police frowned upon anyone who drove a vehicle not considered "conventional," but they couldn't do anything to stop Wes from driving that monster on campus grounds, for it was totally street legal and passed -- barely -- the strict environmental checks all road vehicles had to go through. The real thing they frowned upon was the fact that at the flip of a switch the Tank could go from a completely legal road machine to a virtually unstoppable power-house with the capacity to brush aside police cruisers as if they were toys.
Texas is three times the size of Germany, Wes explained as they walked out of the dorm and carefully made their way to the parking lot under the sweltering heat and humidity, over 800 miles from its eastern-most tip to its western-most, and the climate ranged from low mountains to grassy plains, from mosquito-filled swamps to arid desert. Many Texans had moved away from the large population centers during the Plague years, and as a result of this-and the thinning of the population by the Plague itself -- most Texans lived in small towns scattered across the vast open spaces, crisscrossed by a spider's web of back roads and state highways, some of which were poorly kept indeed. The only solution was to have a vehicle that could deal effectively with rough terrain, flooding, and any other form of natural barrier Mother Nature could throw at you.
The Tank was just such a vehicle. Manufactured by the Russian Zil company, the Model 350 was originally designed for use in the Russian military as a light infantry scouting vehicle that could also transport up to eight fully equipped combat troops, or haul supplies, or carry anti-tank guided missiles, or do just about any damn thing you wanted, except cook. Built with flexibility in mind, the vehicle became immensely popular with Russian and former Eastern-bloc countries, so much so that Zil began to offer a "demilitarized" model for sale in the West. The M350's export version had become an instant hit in some of the more isolated towns in Texas and the rest of the United States, seeing service with fire-rescue departments, forest rangers, police forces and even some of the state-funded militias. The vehicle weighed nearly three tons, was just as wide as an eighteen-wheeler, and longer than any full-size pickup.
"Now when Zil made their 350 demilitarized, all they did was change some of the outside looks," he said, pulling back the tarp, revealing the pale green metal beneath, "and a little bit of the operating code to the onboard computers. But if you pull off some of the interior panels you can see where the black boxes go, where the fire control computer goes, and mounting brackets for ceramic armor. This is a military vehicle, kids, with a play-nice exterior... but I changed some of that; put back on some of the original features like the superconductives, the winch, the armor plating, and added some after-market optics and system monitors." He pulled back the tarp, folded it up, and opened the sliding side door on the starboard (right) side so Reeves could get inside and lay Nattie out on a bench that folded down from the port (left) bulkhead. Eric climbed into the back to watch over their charge while Reeves moved forward, taking one of the passenger seats and strapping herself into the fighter-style restraining harness. Eric saw to it that Nattie was properly restrained, then did his own harness while Wes was outside performing his pre-ignition walk around.
"Why do I get the feeling that today is going to be a very looonnnng day?" Reeves asked, swiveling her seat around to face the back.
Eric clicked his claws together, already feeling his legs beginning to cramp up. "I don't know, but I do know that some of the writing I see back here on the bulkheads is Cyrillic."
"Russian? What's it say?"
"'Yankee go home, by way of Aeroflot.'"
Wes pulled the protective covers from the intake and exhaust ducts and checked to make sure there was no foreign matter that could get sucked into the big Lyulka turboshaft...not that a little FOD would do much to this particular Russian turbine. It was designed to handle road-dust, leaves, small branches and even rocks. Anything larger than that would cause a momentary decrease in engine RPM, but the turbine would blow foreign objects out of specially designed discharge chutes, then power back up. Intake screens and centrifugal filters prevented most FOD from occurring in the first place...and peering into the intake, Wes saw that they were in good condition.
Down on his knees and check the hydraulics to the active suspension. No, no red liquid could be seen through the maintenance port, so the cylinders were in good shape inside their composite armor shells. Looking around; no leaks of any other fluids on the underside. Tire pressure control valves looked good; no cracks or discoloration that would suggest thermal stress. Standing back up a little too fast Wes fought off a wave of dizziness and nausea, then went around to the port side and opened his own small driver's hatch. The driver's seat was large and armor plated even in the demilitarized version of the 350, but fortunately there was a big enough gap between the seat and back-rest for his tail to fit -- though the front -- most passenger seat had no such gap, and Reeves had to sit more to one side so her tail was not pinched. The seating arrangement for the M350 was a bit strange, with the driver's station positioned more in the center of the vehicle than in any other Western automobile. Reeves, sitting nearest him, was behind and to the right, with a third, unoccupied seat facing directly across the vehicle in the direction of the sliding door. The rear of the transport had fold-down benches and the roof of the vehicle was outfitted with quasi-airline-style overhead compartments for personal gear, weapons, or mission-oriented cargo. The floor was studded with flip-up tie-down rings for any large cargo items, and thick strips of black GripTuff tape provided a high traction surface between the rings. In the very back was a ramp that hinged along the floor, providing fast ingress and egress of the vehicle. The bulkhead panels all had quick release latches, and fastened to an exposed frame support near the third seat (still known as the "loadmaster" seat) was a small red fire extinguisher. There was a gun rack crudely affixed to the ceiling with exposed bolts...and Eric wouldn't have been surprised one bit if he were to discover that the Texan had additional firearms stashed away somewhere inside this steel and alloy cavern. Maybe in an overhead compartment, or inside one of the wall panels.
It wasn't a secret that Shaw was a member of the Texas State Militia. Many of the larger states, or the states that had been hit particularly hard by the Plague, had vast tracts of land wherein criminals could disappear. In the years during and immediately following the Plague it was not uncommon for bands of raiders hidden away in the hill-country to descend into the remaining towns and crude villages, steal what they wanted, murder at will anyone stupid enough to get in their way, and commit other, more barbaric acts of a time long thought past. It was during these dark times that those just returned from the Plague War banded together, armed themselves, and set about patrolling the nearby countryside, hunting down the bipedal animals who had preyed upon their women and children, murdered their friends and family. And while officially an illegal act, these "Sentry Groups" were directly responsible for the elimination or capture of nearly all the raiding bands...and the authorities could not deny it. So instead of punishing the Sentries, the FedGov formed the State Militias, a citizen police force answerable to the State Police, trained by the State Police, but given the leeway to use their own equipment. Technically speaking once you became a junior in any military school you had an officer's rank in that state's militia, not that an officer's rank in a militia counted for much; a police officer could flash their badge, and you'd have to obey their orders; the same with the fire-rescue service. So, technically speaking again, this meant that Coalition Team 5, all of them having breezed through junior year already, carried officer's rank in the Texas State Militia, even Reeves, a native of California. And being officers in the State Militia, they had full authority to conduct crowd control operations in BCS.
Shaw closed the driver's hatch then removed the safety pins on the door jettison mechanism, the firing pin of which looked like a yellow "T." It'd take a hell of a yank to pull that pin, but when the jettison mechanism was engaged the entire driver's hatch would be cut apart by shaped charges housed within the hatch itself. He'd never had to blow a door out, and he hoped that he never would, because while the shaped charges might be an effective way of getting rid of a metal door in an awful hurry, they could also permanently damage your hearing. And it wasn't such a bright idea to be standing next to the door on the other side, either. Fishing around in his pocket he removed his keys, searched through them until he came up with the 350's key -- a slick little gray carbon-comp and aluminum pseudo -- card number-and slotted it into the receptacle on the dash. The onboard computer bounced a magnetic pulse into the card, was satisfied with the return signature, and powered up the main electrical system. Green and red lights flickered to life around him in his semi-enclosed driver's station, then one by one went out. He quickly read through the major system displays to make sure they were performing within tolerance....And nothing was showing a trace of yellow or, worse, red. That was good.
"Um, before I start the ignition sequence, I think I might ought'ta remind you of where the exits are," Wes said over his shoulder, trying, and failing, not to wince at the pain his own voice caused his over-sensitive ears and pounding brain.
"Why is that?" Reeves asked.
"The 350 uses a superconductive toroidal sol'noid to store excess current generated by the turbine-generator. Sometimes they break, but not often."
"Gee, great," Eric said darkly. "The American Cancer Society's Truck of the Month, huh?"
"Relax," Wes said, pressing the *IGNITE* button and hearing the reassuring sound of the turbine spooling up, "I had the supers inspected last month when I went home to do my requals. 'Sides, you'd have to drop a 350 on its roof from four stories up to even fracture the casing. And from four stories there ain't no one gonna survive that to complain about all those stray Teslas tear-assing through their bodies."
There had been some controversy over the 350 and the health aspects of the superconductives it carried. Turbines generally don't make very good automobile engines, mostly due to their lack of quick throttle response times and their expensive, precision-made internal structures. But during the Science Boom many of these issues were addressed, and new and novel materials were introduced into turbine production, reducing their per-unit cost and improving their durability to seismic shock and other loads associated with road and off-road driving. But fast throttle responses from idle were still a vexing problem-so most sports-car aficionados favored fuel cells or superconductives over strong-and-steady turbine power. The 350, though designed as a light armored personnel carrier, was expected to perform like a sports car on paved roads and go like a bat out of hell from a standstill. Zil solved this problem by marrying a superconductive toroidal solenoid to a high power gas-turbine generator system. The Lyulka turboshaft spun a generator, which in turn produced the electricity to run the major systems, as well as feed power to the high-torque wheel-motors. (There was no transmission on the 350, since the power was fed directly to the wheel-motors.) Excess energy was channeled into the toroidal solenoid-inside its armored casing, the thing looked like a big silver-blue doughnut-that was composed of room-temperature superconductors. Due to the nature of a toroidal solenoid, the magnetic field generated by the current was contained within the "doughnut;" therefore no harmful magnetic fields, which caused cancer, existed outside. And since the solenoid was composed of superconductive material there was no internal resistance to the current, so it flowed inside indefinitely, an excellent source of power that could be bled into the propulsion systems in time of need. This was what the Campus Police frowned upon. The Lyulka churned out 1,700 horsepower on its lonesome-the engine _was_ taken from a helicopter, after all-but with the full backing of the superconductives the 350's combined propulsion system could push that output to over 2,500 ponies...more powerful than most Plague War era aircraft.
Wes brought the active suspension up from its resting state, putting the 350 into "road mode," with its body supported one foot above the pavement, and eased the throttle forward on the Lyulka to its operational range, the point at which the turbine was most fuel efficient. He depressed the accelerator, and the Tank rolled forward. Using the drive-by-wire force feedback stick at his side, he maneuvered the vehicle out of the parking lot and onto one of the small campus streets, fifteen-foot-long whip antennae swishing back and forth in the air.
"Next stop, Zachry Engineering!"
"Think we can stop at a Zip-E-Mart? I'm starved."
"You ain't getting crumbs on my deck, Frosty."
Wisenbaker Engineering Research Center
Sunlight! Glorious, God-sent, warming sunlight!
The thought was a universal one among the rag-tag group as they emerged from the white-painted emergency exit and found themselves in an open-roofed cargo loading bay in the back of Wisenbaker. It was the first time John had been able to see, really see, the world around him. Casting his view to the right he saw the big garage door to the interior of the loading bay, closed at the moment, and found himself studying individual rivets in its surface...standing from over thirty feet away. Seventeen of them were new, eight needed repainting, for flecks of bare metal were visible from where the paint had been chipped away. And between the metal plates making up the door he could see well-oiled piano-style hinges. A warning sign-the red on the sign was particularly striking to his new vision-proclaimed that this was an Authorized Personnel Only zone, that large machinery plied these grounds frequently, and trespassing was forbidden...and that the sign was produced in Skokie, Illinois, 1989.
"Golden eagle, definitely," said a voice to his side.
John turned, blinking, and saw that it was some form of reptile that was speaking to him. Possibly an iguana, but he couldn't be sure. Lizards were lizards as far as he was concerned; herpetology was not his strong point. This little fellow must have been maybe four feet tall, and was wearing what was left of a pair of maintenance coveralls, streaked with grease. "Excuse me?"
The lizard pointed a claw-tipped finger at him, bright eyes glittering in the sunlight. "You. You have the features of Aquila chrysaetos, the golden eagle. Also known as the mountain eagle or royal eagle."
A blank stare was John's response. "If you say so, sir."
"No, here, look," the lizard said brightly and scurried closer. He pointed to John's relatively massive feet. "Your feet are scale covered, but feathers cover the tarsi. Means you're in with the booted eagles. Your plumage is very dark brown, almost black, except for the base of the tail and the insides of your wings, which has a paler color," the lizard said all of this without taking his beady black eyes from Tratt's own. "The back of your neck will have more of a golden tinge to the feathers, hence the name 'golden eagle.'"
John blinked. "If you say so, sir," he repeated.
The corners of the lizard's mouth turned down. "Have you eaten anything yet? Since your shift, I mean."
"Sir, the group is leaving. I suggest we follow them," Tratt said, starting to walk away.
The lizard darted over to his side and kept pace with the bird of prey, his small claws clicking and tail rasping dryly against the pavement, eyes critically studying the other's wings. "Well, have you? Eaten anything?"
"Not yet," John said, then glared down at the lizard, "but you're really starting to annoy me."
"Oh," the lizard flinched and looked away.
The small crowd of people edged along the pale brick exterior of Wisenbaker, cut across a parking lot and followed their way around the Hydromechanics Lab -- what had once been an old warehouse that stuck out like a sore thumb among the modern curves of the surrounding buildings -- until they came upon Spence Street. Directly across the street was the darkly colored Engineering Physics Building; to their left was the Civil Engineering building; to their right, on down the street a ways, but still very much visible, was Zachry. Tratt saw Colonel Whiteacre eyeing the fountains in front of the building, his feline nose sniffing the air like an olfactory radar, attempting to ferret out any concealed dangers his eyes could not identify.
"The reason I ask," began the lizard as the group congregated near the curb, "is that you probably now have a gizzard."
John stopped short and shifted his gaze down to the reptile. "Say again? Gizzard?"
"Yeah, a muscular pouch in your esophagus where food is ground up by stones before it goes into the rest of your digestive tract. You... didn't know you might have a gizzard?"
"I didn't even know birds of prey had them, until right now," Tratt confessed, trying to comprehend what having a gizzard meant. "So what do you suggest I do? Go look for some gravel and swallow it down?"
The lizard shrugged and held his hands up innocently. He cocked his head and regarded the eagle with one eye. "To be honest, I don't know. It's not every day that you converse with a golden eagle about dietary needs. My advice to you right now would be to find an ornithologist, or check yourself into Beutel. There's bound to be more bird-people around, so what works for them should work for you."
"I thought you were an ornithologist," Tratt said, wondering where this gizzard of his was located in his body.
"Me? Lord no! I just go bird watching on the weekends. Never seen a golden eagle in Texas, though. They're mostly found in the Northwest or Western states."
"Well... what do I eat? Golden eagles, I mean."
The other was quiet for a moment. "Um... rabbits, rodents, other birds, some fish... I think. Anything you can kill, pretty much."
Tratt held his hands out in front of him, fanned his talons in the sunlight and watched how the sun reflected dully from their curved surfaces. "Anything I can kill, huh? With these I guess I'll be going after bigger game. Deer, maybe." A momentary flash from his raptor memory allowed him to remember how exhilarating it had felt at the end of a successful hunt to feel a rabbit's spine crushed under the immense pressure of his talons, its life extinguished in one final squeal. After taking a few pieces for himself, he would return with his prize to his mate and their nestlings. And just as quickly as it had begun the memory faded away like a dream, leaving Tratt standing next to the little lizard-person once again.
"Why would you want to? Get a burger!"
"Where's the fun in that?" Tratt asked, ruffing his head-feathers and clicking his beak in laughter. Then he felt a peculiar tingling between his eyes...
"Another surge!" someone called.
Northbound on Bizzell Street
Nattie was shivering on the bench across the cargo bay, so Eric lifted the release mechanism to his harness, feeling the straps auto-retract from him. He started to get up to move across the bay so that he could check on her, but then his legs both gave out and he fell clumsily to the deck. The constant whine of the turbine, even when encased in its soundproof housing, drowned out his gasp of horror as he watched his body continue to change. "Reeves!" he tried to call out, but oddly his voice had completely left him and the only sound he managed to produce was a dry hiss.
But Reeves didn't hear him. She was facing forward, totally absorbed with the world outside through the front windscreen. They'd already had to make several quick stops to avoid running into wild animals that one should never have encountered in the Texas wilderness, like a pack of timber wolves that had darted across the street in pursuit of a panic-stricken caribou. There were people out and about, clumped together -- whether out of fear or a sense of protection in numbers, she couldn't say. Most of them, though, had the appearance of herbivores, and this made Reeves wonder what the distribution of herbivore to carnivore was in College Station; whether it was similar to the ten-to-one (or whatever it was) ratio found in nature. It was also interesting that every member of Team 5 she had thus far met were all carnivores. A natural fluke? Or are all the members of the Coalition now wolves and lions and such? I'll have to check this out when I get the chance.
Behind her armored seat Eric was writhing on the cold metal deck, not in pain, but in panic. The body he had thought he would be morphing into, some form of known terrestrial avian or reptile, was swiftly becoming something else. His fingers had thinned and lengthened from their previous appearance, knuckles bulging, and those claws that tipped each finger had become larger, more well defined, gently curving knives. The cuts on his hand rippled and disappeared without so much as line of discoloration. His arms had lengthened and become more muscular... and the scales that he had fully expected to develop instead turned out to be...
It was true. His arms and legs, and now more than ever his rapidly changing body, were all covered in long, thin feathers. The feathers were alternately striped with blue-gray and dark green, and when viewed together gave him a striped appearance similar to that of a tiger. But what creature had this kind of plumage?
His observations were cut short when his chest heaved out uncontrollably, though not because of an intake of breath. Eric's ribcage was pushing outward, accompanied by sounds he never wanted to hear ever again, and deep inside he could feel his inner organs shifting around, his lungs alternately contracting and expanding as their position inside his ribs changed, disturbing his natural breathing rhythm with uncontrollable inhalations and exhalations. He experienced tunnel vision and lost all sense of color...then was completely blind, but half-aware of the changes that were progressing up through his neck and into his head. He felt himself falling to one side at the same time he felt his jawbone snap loose and grow longer. Pinpricks along his gums and a numb, bloated feeling from his tongue. His fillings popping out. The itching sensation of feathers emerging from his skin, replacing his hair, which fell to the deck by the fist-full. There was an explosion of color behind his closed eyelids and a wash of a million different smells. The Change had gone to work on the wiring of his brain, stimulating the growth of new neural pathways, the alteration of various sensory centers, and within ancient though never used areas of that marvelous organ... that was where other, more sophisticated Changes were taking place. These subtle Changes took only a few seconds, and when the Change was complete the newly activated portions of his brain began firing, growing more and more active until the entire center was alive with electrochemical fire.
A thump accompanied by the sound of tearing fabric from behind her made Reeves turn to see what was going on in the rear of the 350. What she saw made the fur all along her back and neck stand on end. "Wes! Stop the truck!"
"What?" Wes turned to see what all the commotion was about in the back, and when he did both feet slammed down on the brake, bringing the big vehicle to a screeching halt.
Zachry Engineering Center
Colonel Whiteacre checked his watch again, for the fifth time, and cursed quietly-not that anyone would overhear him; the other members of their little group had long since dispersed to wherever they had to go on campus. Where the hell were Eric and the rest of his Cadets? They should've been at the fountains by now. He shaded his eyes with one hand and glanced up and down Spence Street, but couldn't see them. There were people outside of the buildings, gathered in small groups. Some of them were in conversation, and some of them were simply watching the world around them. His sharp nose detected the scent of anxiety and thinly masked fear, like a pile of dry grass just waiting for a spark to start a conflagration. His feline instincts were all on the alert. Something didn't feel right; there was a bad smell to the air, something he couldn't put his finger on.
Bad hunt, a quiet voice observed in his head. Bad air. Not right.
A few yards behind the pensive colonel, John Tratt was soaking his feet in the cool waters of the Zachry fountains -- which always seemed to be malfunctioning in some way. Today they were simply shut off. He wiggled his toes and felt the protective membranes -- the lizard had called them nictitating membranes -- slide over his eyes. Spreading his wings to their fullest to absorb the heat of the sun, Tratt sighed with pleasure.
Nice. I hope this Change hangs around for a while, and isn't some kind of fucked-up dream.
Tratt heard an electronic warbling, a few clicks, and Colonel Whiteacre begin speaking. Turning to look at his superior, he saw that the colonel had a small flip-open cellular phone pressed awkwardly to one ear.
"Yes, sir," the colonel said, and waited for a moment, then turned and eyed Tratt. "Yes, sir, I believe I have one Cadet matching that description. No, sir, I have not had the chance to meet with the other Cadets assigned to me...they're on their way here right now. Yes, sir. That's correct. Say again?" The colonel's eyes narrowed in thought as he studied Tratt with a critical eye. "I'd say about an eight, sir. Golden eagle, from what I've been told. Maintenance guy; goes bird watching on his spare time. No, no behavior of that type."
John cocked his head to one side in query, raised what was left of his eyebrows at the colonel. The other shook his head and made a dismissive gesture with one hand, meanwhile continuing on the phone, "I seem to have the features of a feline, sir. Leopard I think, but with more grays and whites than tan and black. No, sir, I have not. Voices? No, nothing as distracting as that...although I do hear a whisper sometimes. It's hardly intrusive, sir."
Ah, so the call has something to do with the Change. But what's the rest of this about?
"Understood, sir. I will send them over if they match the characteristics, sir. Yes, sir, we're ready for a scramble..." At these words, John sat up straight, watching the colonel intently, trying to determine what was being said over the secure phone line by his instructor's body language. "Roger that. Out."
The colonel snapped the miniphone shut and slipped it back into an inside coat pocket. Then he turned to the golden eagle. "You're going to Beutel."
"May I ask why, sir?"
"The Jedi Masters want everyone who has avian or other anomalous features, including a radical alteration in physical form, to go to Beutel for full physiological and psychological checks. They think that people who look more like animals may also be prone to succumbing to the instincts of that animal."
"Oh, come on, sir! You don't think that I'd..." and then he remembered what had almost happened to him in the elevator.
"Think about that triceratops in Wisenbaker, John. Ordinarily I'd agree with you: yeah, it's bullshit. But that big lizard in there makes me agree with their plan. You're going to Beutel, and that's final. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. What about that scramble order?"
"We're on standby. We'll act as reserves in the event the local PD can't handle anything that might come up, and also fill some of the gaps when shifts change. I'm going to be working directly with the Jedi Masters in the situation room to coordinate our deployment. Oh, and classes are cancelled until further notice." He flashed a grin when he saw the raptor perk up. "Yeah, I just knew you'd be all broken up over not having that calculus test this week."
"A real shame, sir. Real shame."
The colonel turned his head ever so slightly. "Here comes the rest of the team," he said, well before Tratt even saw the pale green, wedge-like form of the Tank make the turn from Ross Street onto Spence. It rolled down the street with about as much grace as an avalanche, turbine engine hissing and over-sized tires making a humming noise on the pavement, until it pulled up to Zachry and rolled over the curb as if it wasn't even there, and finally it came to a stop. The sliding side door opened and Reeves-it had to have been Reeves, but John didn't know how he knew this-jumped out, glancing a bit nervously over her shoulder. Wes emerged from his driver's hatch and stepped around the front of the 350, looking very happy to be out of the vehicle. Finally a third occupant stepped out into the morning light, and John felt his beak gape a bit.
The creature looked like something from the latest Hollywood dinosaur thriller movie, except it had a more upright stance, rather like the little lizard-man that had identified Tratt as a golden eagle. But aside from this humanoid stance the creature seemed devoid of any human features. Its legs were long and well muscled, feet articulated in a digitigrade stance, with toes that seemed more birdlike than reptilian. A massive claw projected from the large, thickly muscled big toe, its shape more like that of a dagger than a sickle. Its body had some characteristics of a bird, particularly the deep chest, which was plainly visible even though the creature was wearing a Coalition trench coat. A long, semi-flexible tail twitched slowly from one side to the other from where it emerged at the base of the coat. Its head was like that of the velociraptors in Hollywood movies, though this one's snout was narrower and longer, and there was a much more noticeable swelling of the cranium to accommodate the human brain within. There was an unmistakable intelligence in its fiery green eyes, and not just a little mirth. But the most surprising feature of the creature was the dazzling coat of feathers that covered its entire body, save for its snout, lower legs and feet... and when it removed its hands from the coat pockets -- powerfully built, thin and quick fingers of unusual length, numbering four per hand including the sharply opposed thumb -- Tratt saw that its lower arm and hands were also devoid of the feathery coat. The feathers each had stripes of light and dark color, so when the creature moved these alternating stripes on the individual feathers would intersect with the stripes of adjacent feathers, casting the illusion of natural motion, of grass bending and swaying in the breeze. Smaller, more down-like feathers covered its underside, colored in a stony gray, and long, stiff greenish-black feathers ran along its spine in a crest. Similar stiff feathers -- or were they very thin scales? -- lined its jaw, but these had a brilliant electric blue coloration, tipped with white. A line of these bright feathers ran down each side of the creature's tail.
The creature standing before them hadn't existed on the earth for at least 65 million years, if not more, and the nametag on its tan-and-green trench coat read Eric Bolzhauser. A silver ring, hanging from a makeshift necklace, gleamed brightly against its chest feathers.
"Elementsss of Coalition Team Five, reporting asss ordered, ssir," Eric announced in a voice that sounded like waves rolling onto a sandy beach as those with him came to attention and saluted in unison.
"Cadet Bolzhauser," the colonel replied after getting his senses back and returning the salute, "why are there only three of you before me? Where is Natsuko?"
"Cadet Okuda is currently unconsciousss and in need of medical attention, ssir. Requesst permisssion to take her to Beutel Health Center for treatment."
"What happened to her?"
"Inssstinctsss, ssir. Sshe attacked Reevess and me when we were trying to gather the resst of the Team, sshe wass not... human."
"Sshe iss human... but very weak. Perhapss a broken rib or two."
The colonel nodded and both he and Tratt moved down to where the others were standing. Wes took the colonel inside the 350 to let him see Nattie for himself, while Tratt stayed outside.
"Don't tell me that hiss of yours is genuine," Tratt said to Eric after hands were shaken all around, and Reeves gave him a good hug and a peck on the cheek.
The other's snout wrinkled in a grin, revealing teeth like long ivory blades. "Shush, don't let the boss catch on." And he chuckled -- which actually did come out as a hiss. "So, you've obviously become a bird or something. Eagle?"
"Yeah, some maintenance guy said I was a golden eagle. What've you become?"
Eric shrugged his shoulders and held up his bony hands. "Some kind of dinosaur, if that's at all possible. Probably some kind of relative to the velociraptor, but one I've never heard of."
The colonel and Wes stepped out of the 350 again, with the colonel in the middle of a sentence, "...to Beutel Health Center ASAP for observation." Then he turned and pointed to Eric and John. "You two, you're going with Wes and Natsuko. Wes will drive you to Beutel, and you will check yourselves in for examination. Do whatever the doctors tell you, understood?"
"Yes, sir," the two of them said in unison.
Corner of Bizzell Street and University Drive: Hydroco Fuel Station "This isn't Beutel, Wes," Eric commented when they pulled into the fuel station and Wes powered down the turbine. Auxiliary power still functioned at the fuel station, fortunately. There were a number of other vehicles in the station, and more than a few of them packed with clothing and personal possessions, although why this would be Eric had no idea. Perhaps people were obeying some instinctual wanderlust by going on a road trip?
"Yeah, I know. I need to fill the tank."
"Don't tell me that the 350 sucks down almost a full tank driving only a little over two miles!"
"Hell no!" Wes said as he opened the driver's hatch. John pulled open the sliding side door to get some breeze going through the interior. Even though his sense of smell wasn't very acute, the scent of a super-predator such as the velociraptor-like critter Eric had become still put his instincts on edge. "I been meaning to top off the tank since my last drive here from home... Gawdamn it smells out here!" The coyote-morph ran his debit-card through the slot on the pump and inserted the fueling nozzle into the port on the side of the 350, flashed a toothy grin at a nervous-looking doe morph in the next bay over. "Howdy, ma'am."
Eric poked his nose out the open side door and gave the air a whiff, wrinkled his snout and stuck his tongue out. "What is that?"
"I don't smell anything," John complained.
"Count yourself lucky, man. It stinks outside. Kind of a stinging, pungent odor. Very nasty."
John glanced out the open driver's hatch where he had a clear view down quite a bit of University Drive, the major east-west street that ran the entire northern border of the Texas A&M campus. It was a six-lane artery that carried a massive amount of traffic through the College Station area. Shops and apartment buildings lined the northern side of the street, while the modern buildings of A&M East Campus lined the southern side. He noticed wisps of fog wafting up from the sewer grates -- something commonly seen on the campus, particularly behind the North Side Garage, near one of the physical-plant power facilities, the one with the huge condensers. Tratt dismissed the vapor as just steam, although this was the first time he'd seen it off campus. "Maybe you're smelling the fuel Wes is pumping?"
"Maybe... but I've never smelled this before. They usually have some additives to give fuel a distinct smell, even for a human nose."
"Well, then maybe you're getting a whiff of some other additives that the human nose couldn't detect?"
"Sounds right," Wes said from outside.
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, broken only by the occasional whine of a fuel cell vehicle starting up or the excited chatter of some children scampering around the family station wagon. Eric was the one to break the silence.
"So where were you when the Change hit?"
"Stuck in an elevator," Tratt admitted, feeling his nares flush red with embarrassment. "You?"
"In the shower. Let me tell you, opening a door with scaly hands is a real bitch." He stuck his head out the door. "What about you, Wes?"
"Slept through the whole fraggin' thing, Frosty. Woke up with an Excedrin headache, an' it didn't help none that I was on first floor, and the whole world was goin' ape-shit right out my window. Helluva way to start any day, believe you me."
They exchanged small talk for a few minutes, and then John shifted forward on his bench seat, fingers knitted together. "Hey, Frosty? You been experiencing... ah, this'll sound stupid...anything strange? Like stuff happening around you that wouldn't ordinarily be happening on any other day of the week?"
The feathered dinosaur blinked a few times. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, John. Could you give an example?"
Tratt sighed. What the hell, why not? "A little while ago, when we -- me and the Boss -- were going down the emergency stairwell in WERC, I heard a bunch of voices in the dark. Then I saw these bursts of static when I touched a maintenance node to the building's data network." He saw Eric's eyebrows raise up a good inch. "Look, man, I'm not making this up! I know what I saw, what I heard. I swear, Frosty, somehow I was reading that data stream."
The feathers along Eric's spine shifted a little, and John saw a distinct flash of comprehension in those green alien eyes. Eric looked at him then, as if trying to weigh an issue in his mind... then he opened his mouth to say something, and quickly shut it when Wes hopped back into the 350 with a cheerful "Right! Let's rock."
"We'll talk later," Eric said quickly, ending the discussion.
Wes started the ignition sequence for the turbine, and it lit off with an audible whoosh! "Whoa there, little fella," Wes said, noting how the engine temperature soared into the yellow zone for a brief moment, then returned to the green. "Looks like you're running a little too lean there." He brought up the fuel mixture display screen, dragged the fuel-air mix to include more fuel in the flow, and watched as the temperature decreased into the lower green band. "Weird," he said to no one in particular, flipping switches in an overhead panel to activate additional engine performance sensors within the turbine casing. He'd analyze the results at a later time.
"What's up, Wes?" Eric called from the back.
"Nothin', Frosty. Engine spiked a little there on start-up, got a little over the green. No problem; it happens sometimes with these Russkie machines."
"What could cause it?"
"A little combustor blowback into the compressor at start-up. Burner-cans kick in before the compressor's up to full speed; you get a little combustion blowback into the compressor discharge duct, as well as the normal blast through the transition piece to the turbine. Don't worry about it. Ceramics will take one hell of a lot more torching than that before they start to degrade in life. But, hey, let's get the hell out of Dodge. It stinks here. Next stop, the Quack Shack!"
"Oh, joy." Eric mumbled. "Iron maidens, flails."
"Leeches, glowing hot pokers."
"Lobotomies, bamboo poles."
"Ouch! Nice one!"
In his driver's station, Wes just laughed to himself.
Beutel Health Center
The Beutel Health Center, more commonly known as the Quack Shack by the Cadets, was a red-brick edifice three stories tall, equipped with modern diagnostic equipment, a full biotech lab, six hot-fueled ambulances, a suite of observation rooms, operating rooms, fully-equipped and operational hospital wards, and a crew of the most heavy-handed-but well trained-medical personnel ever to grace a small college town. In some ways the nickname was undeserved, as Beutel served as a go-between for two county hospitals, and was capable of handling most trauma cases that could roll through the doors. There was even a helicopter pad on the roof with an integrated instrument landing system for poor weather operations. The building was located prominently on Jones Street, an inverted horseshoe-shaped street that joined up with Wellborn Road, the dividing highway between East and West Campus. There was a railroad line running alongside Wellborn -- and yes, Cadets were known to place pennies on the rails to see them flattened by the multi-ton locomotives as they rolled past. Standing tall at the apex of the horseshoe bend of Jones Street was the Albritton Bell Tower, a major A&M landmark; one of the tallest structures on campus.
Eric looked longingly at the athletic fields below the bell tower as he and Tratt carried Nattie's still-unconscious form into Beutel. "I hate hospitals, John. Did I ever tell you that? Needles... God, I hate needles!"
The automatic doors swished open, and Wes, grinning, made the symbol of the cross in the air with two fingers. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," John heard the Texan intone before the doors closed again, and the overpowering smell of disinfectant filled his nares. Eric looked like he was about to gag on the stench.
They were in a waiting room with walls painted beige and white, two halls that stretched to their left and right and a third straight ahead of them, black and white checked floor, and a counter behind which a frazzled looking crow-minus the wings-was glowering at them. "Now what?!" the crow squawked. "Bird-people go down that hall," it -- John couldn't tell if it was a he or a she-pointed with a claw down the right-hand hallway. "And dino-critters go down there!" the crow stabbed the air in the direction of the left-hand hallway with its other hand. "Any questions?!"
"Yeah," Eric whispered behind him, "didn't your parents ever teach you about 'inside voice' and 'outside voice?'"
John chuckled as he turned to speak to the crow. "A friend of ours is unconscious. We think she might be dehydrated, or suffering from heat exhaustion, or something like that, and she may have broken a few ribs. Is there a place where we could take her to recover?"
"Oh." The crow leaned over the desk and shrieked out in a voice so loud that Eric thought his eardrums might implode, "HEY, MIKEY! GOT ONE FOR YA!"
A rhinoceros-morph dressed in lab whites huffed around the corner. Eric's eyes bulged a bit as his instincts screamed for him to _Runrunrun!_ away from this huge man, but instead he was frozen in place, crest-feathers flattened in fear. The orderly came right up to him-towering over the Cadet-and took Nattie in a surprisingly swift and gentle motion. "I got her, buddy," the man grumbled, and then carried Nattie like she was feather-light down the hall and around a corner. "Suzie, taking her to Curtain Three. What's you's guys names?"
"John Tratt, and the statue over here is Eric Bolzhauser." John cocked his head to indicate the dino-morph who was standing stock still, eyes very large.
The rhino-morph nodded his huge head and disappeared into the bowels of the Health Center. "We'll take good care of her," his voice thundered around the corner.
"Well, what're you waiting for?" demanded the crow -- no way in hell her name was Suzie, Tratt decided. "You! Over to the bird section. And you! Hey! Hey!"
Eric gasped and his feathers all stood on end in an instant, an explosion of fluff and color that made John nearly burst out in laughter. The super-predator looked utterly ridiculous with all his feathers bristling, as if someone had tossed him into a clothes dryer set to "fluff." "Huh? What?"
Suzie-crow softened her expression-if that was possible for an avian -- and pointed very deliberately down the hallway to their left, speaking very slowly as if to a moron. "Go down that hallway and wait in line. The doctors and the dinosaur scientist eggheads are gonna have a field day with you. And the brain guys will pick through both of your heads before this day's out."
John turned to his friend and extended a hand. "Well, Eric, it's been nice knowing you."
His feathers beginning to return to normal, Eric took the hand and shook it. "Yeah. Great. I love being the center of attention for doctors."
As John was walking down the hall to the "bird section," he heard Suzie-crow call out, "And the both of you featherheads! Stay clear of open flames!"
The sign was quite obviously thrown together in a lackluster manner, merely a half-sheet of poster board taped to the acoustic ceiling tiles with "AVIAN" scrawled across it in permanent marker, and an arrow pointing around the corner of the hall. John followed the arrow and found himself at the end of a very long line of other people, all of them having the appearance of birds to a greater or lesser extent. Someone had been kind enough to break out a number of folding chairs, which were stacked against one wall, and John took one of these chairs, opened it up, rotated it around backwards so that the wide fan of his tail feathers was not pinched, and took a seat next to a very bored looking female falcon-morph wearing an old and faded green bath robe. Then he looked around him.
On any other day this hallway would have been very dull-beige walls, windows built into one wall offering a visually stunning view of the building's parking lot, and the omnipresent safety posters -- but today the walls were awash with color, the reflection of the sun from the feathers of those waiting. Brilliant red from a cardinal-morph reading a paperback novel, sea blue from a jay engaged in conversation with the drab brown robin next to him, and a rainbow of greens and blues from a peacock wearing a white lab coat, walking to where John was sitting, carrying a clipboard and pen. The doctor handed the golden eagle the clipboard, saying as he did so, "Fill these forms out to the best of your ability, don't give any false answers, and when you're done give them to the attendant at the entrance to the lab."
The peacock looked over to the falcon-morph. "I don't recognize you. Did you just arrive?"
The falcon nodded her head, pulling the robe closer about her, "Yes."
"Well, then you'll have to fill out the same forms... here," the doctor said, holding his empty hands out.
"If this is some kind of joke... oh, God!" the falcon jumped in her seat as a new clipboard and pen materialized in the doctor's hands with a flash of green flame. John just stared, too shocked to say anything.
"Fill these out to the best of your ability. Go on, take 'em, they aren't going to bite you!"
The falcon reached out and snatched the items from the doctor's hands, looking at them as if they were made of gold. "How'd you do that?" she asked, finally.
"Wish I knew, because it's damn handy. Anything I want, so long as I know right where it is, I can grab. Only works for things within a hundred feet, though. Might be more for other people with the same Gift, or Power, or whatever you want to call it."
"Does it work for living organisms also?" John asked.
"Never tried it, and I don't really want to find out," the doctor said, then added as he began to walk away, "Remember to turn those in when you're finished with them."
John and the falcon-"My name's Linda, Linda Wells," she said when John asked-filled out the forms, noting how they had been quickly thrown together. The sheets were still warm from being printed out, and there were a number of spelling mistakes and formatting errors. The questions ranged from the ridiculous to the intimate, the wording lacking any tact for such sensitive subjects. John answered his truthfully, using the full space given to describe "any anomalous mental or 'psychic' experiences noticed within the past two days." He was sure he'd catch hell for writing down that he'd heard voices coming from a metal box... the kind of story you'd read in a supermarket tabloid describing how Satan's voice had been heard coming from a toaster oven. But the paper had told him to be completely honest in his answers, and he had been.
Then John and Linda both made their way up through the double-rows of people, turning in their clipboards to the attendant sitting behind a desk. "Go through there," the attendant said, pointing to a set of swinging doors, "and take these with you." The desk-attendant handed them both a slip of paper, marked "RAPTOR."
Inside they were greeted by yet another attendant, this one wearing safety glasses perched atop his beak. He also wore a pair of latex gloves, although the claws on his hands had punched clean through the fingertips of the gloves. They handed this attendant their slips of paper. "Raptors," John said.
"No shit," replied the attendant, jabbing two fingers at a set of stools next to a counter. "Okay. Sit over there, I'll be right back." He disappeared through another set of swinging doors that led deeper into the lab.
Linda readjusted the robe she wore and took her place on one of the stools. John was perfectly content standing right where he was, and began to look the place over.
A typical hospital room. Three hospital beds arranged against the far wall, partitioned with tan curtains. Medical display units were mounted to the wall above the beds, but these were currently shut off. Behind them were glass-faced medical cabinets, packed full of various diagnostic equipment ranging in complexity from tongue depressors up to hand-held X-ray scanners. A "crash-cart" was parked in the corner of the room, plugged into a wall outlet. And in the corner, up by the ceiling, there was a TV.
"Why do you always do that?" "Do what?" John asked as he reached up and turned on the TV, only to be greeted by the hiss of static on a dead channel. Flipping up and down the frequency range he found that every channel was dead, except for The News Channel, and there the only thing he could see was the vague image of an anchorman. The image kept fading in and out, and the sound didn't come through at all.
John turned off the TV.
"Every time you stand still for more than ten seconds you start looking around the place, like you're searching for something to steal." John cast her a stern glance, and she added, "I'm not saying that you will steal anything, though. Just makes me nervous, that's all."
"Ah, don't worry about it," John said. "I always do that, I guess. I just used to do that with my eyes, but now my eyes don't turn as far as they used to, so I turn my whole head, I guess."
The attendant came back carrying two Pyrex glass containers, each filled about halfway with steaming pebbles of the same general shape and size. "Two loads of gizzard stones, comin' right up," the attendant said, handing them the containers.
Linda looked at hers, poked the pebbles with a talon. "What're these for?" John felt his mouth go dry, and there was an uncomfortable tightening sensation from somewhere near his stomach.
"They're gizzard stones, lady. You swallow them. Don't worry about them being clean, we got a whole pile of them sitting in boiling water in the back."
John shook the pebbles in his container around, saw how there was still some water at the bottom. The lizard-man was right when he said he might have a gizzard. "The whole thing?" he asked, knowing full well the answer.
"Hey, just be thankful you two aren't seed-crunchers. They got a double shot of those to down. Trust me, just pop 'em in, rock your head back like this," the attendant demonstrated, tossing his head and neck back in a very bird-like manner, "and you'll know what to do from then on. Don't ask me how you'll know... but you'll just know what to do."
John turned to the falcon and extended his glass. "Let's get this over with. Bottoms up!" he said, and downed the stones in the way the attendant demonstrated. He stood there for a moment with his head held back, feeling the hard little objects slide down his throat, rattling against one another, an utterly alien, yet strangely natural sensation. And then it was over. He relaxed and looked over to the falcon. "Your turn."
The falcon morph appeared rather ill as she glared at the stones in her Pyrex glass, and she almost looked like she was about to refuse, but then in one swift motion she swallowed the stones like she was taking a shot of vodka. The feathers along her neck stood on end for a good minute, then returned to normal. "Yuck," was all she said.
One vial was filled with blood, and another one was being filled from the needle they had stuck into Eric's thick-skinned arm. They'd punched so many holes into his arm, trying to find a vein, that he'd almost passed out twice. And right now he was thinking about giving the goddamn doctor a good kick with a hind foot, see how he felt about having a hole punched in him.
"How many more?" Eric growled.
"Just one more," the doctor said in that phony soothing voice all doctors use when dealing with difficult patients. Eric could smell the anxiety the doctor felt being so close to the dinosaur... and he was secretly pleased, but also a bit wary. They'd told him in very blunt language that if he became too much of a problem for the doctors they'd put him under with a general anesthetic. And then they could do any damn thing they wanted to him.
Finally the doctor removed the final vial, made the appropriate notations in his chart, and placed the vial in with the others. An orderly whisked the blood samples off to the lab for a "full work-up." Eric had already seen lab technicians busily working on electrophoresis gels, amino acid tagging, nucleotide sequencing, and any number of other tests. Almost every paleontologist on campus was inside Beutel now, picking and clucking over the dinosaur-morphs, taking measurements, performing their own little tests on the hapless Cadets and faculty in this part of the building that had become an indoor Jurassic Park. Eric had his own little following of paleontologists and paleobiologists, all of them consulting with hand-held data units and each other, trying to figure out just what the hell he had turned into.
The doctor placed a ball of cotton over the needle wound, then taped it down with a small amount of medical tape. "All done!"
Eric glared at the doctor. "No, it's not. What's after this?"
The doctor pointed to another white-clad figure in the room, a man with surprisingly simian features. "He'll be running internal scans upstairs. Nothing invasive. We're going to be running CAT and MRI scans of your body and brain. We want to see how you're wired up there."
"Especially how you're wired," added one of the paleontologists.
"No!" cried another, "I want imaging of the upper GI."
"We'll need tracing for that, then," the simian doctor said, went into another room for a moment, and emerged again holding a glass of viscous greenish-white liquid, which he handed to Eric.
"This is a tracing compound, completely harmless. It'll make it possible for us to see the progress of food through your digestive tract." He turned to the paleontologists. "We'll get the upper GI first, then proceed to the neural scans, agreed?"
"Agreed," the others said.
"Drink it," the doctor ordered.
"Bullshit," replied the raptor, feeling his lips pull back in a silent snarl.
"Drink it, or we put you down and feed it to you through a tube." The doctor snapped his fingers loudly, and a snake-morph materialized from the hall, carrying a pneumatic gun. The snake leveled the dart gun at Eric's chest, face totally devoid of expression. "It's your choice," the doctor concluded.
Eric regarded the goo in the cup with revulsion and lifted it to his lips. His sense of smell rebelled at the scent of the stuff, and he felt his guts tighten as his instincts all told him not to drink it. "If I puke this shit up again, I'm aiming straight for you, doc." And with those words he emptied the contents into his mouth, swallowing the vile-tasting sludge while trying not to gag.
"You want what?" John demanded as the nurse handed him a curved plastic bowl.
"A stool sample," the nurse replied.
"In here? But I don't have to go!" It was a lie, but John's sense of modesty... well, it just wouldn't allow this to happen.
"Oh, no problem!" the nurse said in a cheerful voice, filling a glass cup with water and emptying the contents of a small packet of powder into it. "Drink this, and in about twenty minutes, you'll really have to go."
"Dammit, okay, okay." John frowned as best he could, more a slicking of the feathers along his brow than a facial expression. "Look, you got any, you know..."
The nurse smiled and pointed at a door in the corner of the examination room. "Through that door, down the hall and to your left."
"Thanks, I think," the golden eagle said, hopping down from the cold metal table and making his way to the restrooms.
Oh, this sucks. This sucks more than anything has sucked before.
Eric was feeling rather ill by the time the imaging sensor made its final, buzzing sweep over his mid-section. At least they'd put a pillow under his head so he was more comfortable during the time the imaging specialists and the paleo-people had been scanning his guts. Inside the control room the paleontologists were going nuts over this new find of theirs, an entirely new dromaeosaurid, and a cousin to the famed velociraptor. They'd already christened this new predator Cryptoraptor since it was such a biological puzzle, but the full species name would come later. Preliminary DNA analysis suggested that the creature was more closely related to some of the feathered dinosaurs of 120 million years ago, but paradoxically there were also certain skeletal features and genetic markers that were found only in the later dromaeosaurids of 65 million years ago. The knife-like toe claws of the cryptoraptor had a cross-section like a cartoon heart, with a channel-like indentation running along the length of the upper surface of the claw. And MRI scans had located internal structures at the base of each toe claw with numerous small channels leading to the surface of the skin, like tear-ducts, though no one knew what function these served. There had thus far been no fossils found to indicate the existence of cryptoraptor, but here was one stretched out on the imaging platform for all to see. The paleontologists had already agreed to do a joint publication of their new find in the next edition of the Journal of American Paleontology, and more than a few of them were jotting down catchy titles for the article.
"Wonderful! Just look at the intestine. Pure simplicity in itself."
"I want a copy of these runs."
"So do I."
"Bet you'd never have thought you'd be seeing this day."
"I've heard that some individuals have the ability to become the animal they resemble. Perhaps we should see if this one... what's its name...?" "His name is Eric. Eric Bolz-something."
"Whatever. I want to see if he can do this kind of shift; get some pictures if it's possible."
"Pictures of a real, live cryptoraptor? I'd give my eye-teeth for that!"
"So," the doctor interrupted, "you're happy with six internal imaging sweeps?"
"Should we have more?"
"We usually only do two," the doctor admitted. "Six is still perfectly harmless. I'd like to proceed to the neural activity maps, anyway."
"When can we see if he can do this, this... Norm-shift thing?"
"Now, if you wish."
One of the bone-hunters reached into his backpack and pulled out a digital camcorder. He fumbled with the controls, since trying to manipulate them with claws was not such an easy task. The doctor announced over the intercom that their tests were completed, and that Eric could sit up, which he did, slowly and painfully.
The doctor led the team of scientists into the sterile white imaging chamber, where Eric was sitting upright and massaging cramped neck muscles. "These men and women have a request for you, Eric," the doctor said, gesturing to the lead scientist, a female squirrel-morph. "Doctor?"
"We'd... us that is... would like for you to make yourself a real cryptoraptor. We're going to film what you look like."
The raptor slid easily off of the imaging bench and approached the squirrel-morph, taking an odd sense of pleasure in seeing how she started to squirm the closer he got. "And how would you suggest I make myself a real cryptoraptor?"
"Some people claim that it's as simple as imagining yourself walking through a door," another scientist supplied.
"Through a door..." Eric nodded. "Okay, I'll try this door idea of yours, but first... Doctor?"
"Yes?" The simian doctor stepped over to Eric.
"I believe this is yours," Eric said just before he brought up the tracing compound with a gurgling belch, creating an awful, smelly mess all over the doctor's white lab coat.
"GODDAMMIT!" the doctor bellowed as he fell back away from the raptor, then stormed out of the imaging lab, muttering some very unpleasant things while simultaneously holding his arms out away from the smelly green ooze covering his coat.
One of the paleontologists scribbled into his notebook: Cryptoraptor has highly acidic gastric juices, aiding in rapid digestion of meat and possibly carrion. Note: subject also has a sick sense of humor.
"Okay!" Eric said, clapping his hands together and regarding the scientists with an evil grin. "Now that the good doctor has left you all to me... let's see how fast you all can run!"
The faces of the scientists changed suddenly, and two of them started to edge toward the exit.
"Just joking." Eric soothed. "Right... walk through a door." He took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and focused his mind on seeing a door in front of him.... "Here goes."
The paleontologist put the camcorder to his eye and started recording.
"Please stop moving, Mr. Tratt," came the voice over the intercom.
John blinked his large eyes inside the huge doughnut-shaped sensor of the CAT scanner. "I wasn't moving, sir."
The doctor looked over at the technician beside him. "I didn't see him move, either."
"Then what in the world could cause this?" The technician pointed at the blurred image on the screen. The first few images had been pretty good, showing relatively normal images of the brain, and the activity maps had been stunning, but these latest shots were awful. Every one of them was blurry. More than blurry in fact; totally unreadable. The technician had been in the Air Force as a radar operator, and had seen first hand what it looked like when a radar jammer scattered the target tracks on a radar screen. What he saw before him now was strikingly similar. A thought occurred to him, and he depressed the microphone activation button. "Mr. Tratt, are you thinking about the scans being performed on you?"
"If you were in my place wouldn't you be, sir? First trip into one of these things... and it's scaring the shit out of me. Pardon my French."
"What're you doing?" the doctor asked when the tech removed his thumb from the button.
"I think he's got some kind of ability to affect the scanner, somehow. He's frightened of it, and he's unconsciously jamming it."
"You tell me, Doctor." He thumbed the microphone on again, "Mr. Tratt?"
"I'd like you to try to focus your mind on something else. Focus on..." he thought for a moment, "Focus on the doctor and me, sitting inside the control room. I want you to imagine yourself standing inside here with us."
"Please just focus, Cadet."
"We're going to run one more scan, then it'll be over."
John focused on seeing inside the control room, thought about what it would be like to stand inside the room with the doctor and the imaging tech. He was focusing so intently that he barely noticed the whispering voices when the machine clattered to life, making loud banging noises every quarter-second or so as the scanner traced a circle around his head.
Inside the control room the technician watched as the image began to form on his screen, resolving itself from the top down...only the image was not entirely one of a brain.
The doctor's eyes widened and he leaned closer, hovering over the technician. "What is that?"
"That, doctor," the technician said, looking around the ceiling of the room, "is us." He pointed to a corner of the room with a claw.
A security camera looked down at them with its cold glass eye and red LED. The doctor moved closer to the camera as the technician promised Tratt that he would need only one more scan, and to please remain focused. Then he engaged the scanner once more.
From the top of the screen the image took shape. Superimposed over the image of Tratt's brain was a fuzzy black-and-white freeze-frame image of the inside of the control room, as seen by the security camera. The doctor was looking into the camera, hands on hips, eyebrows raised, and the technician was frozen in time, peering into a terminal monitor.
"Ever seen this kind of ability before?" the doctor asked in a voice that shook ever so slightly.
"Nope. But I think Cadet Tratt in there is going to find himself with a whole bunch of new friends when these results get to the government."
"Who in the government?"
Tratt didn't hear the conversation going on inside the control room. "Hello? Can I get out of this machine now? Hello?"
After about four hours of testing, poking and prodding, the medical staff decided that the initial batch of subjects deserved lunch and a rest. All of the internal imaging had been completed, blood samples taken and analyzed, and the subjects now had all experienced one form of humiliation or another. The rest of the day would be taken up with interviews and psychological tests. Lunch, the staff decided, would make the Cadets and faculty more easy to deal with, although some of the psychologists wanted the subjects on edge with empty stomachs, that way they were more prone to answer truthfully.
Lunch was served both in the cafeteria and also on the roof. The staff had decided the roof offered more of a pleasing environment to the avians, and also dispersed the scents of the people better than any air conditioning system could. Guards were still posted on the roof and in the cafeteria, armed with dart guns and watching for any signs of trouble.
John was on the roof, perched on the hand railing of the helicopter pad, engrossed in a rare hamburger-hold all the toppings, please-that had just come off a grill someone had been thoughtful enough to haul up to the roof. There was a good-sized gathering of people around the grill, over by the fenced-in enclosure for the huge blue-black solar panels, although whether they were standing there waiting for food, or simply enjoying the smell of cooking meat through predator noses Tratt had no idea. Linda was perched next to him with her wings spread protectively around her own "kill," which she was devouring with great gusto. Sure, it may have been un-ladylike to tear off chunks of meat and swallow them down without hardly chewing them... but who was going to chastise her for her lack of manners? John was doing the same thing, and he found it perfectly to his liking.
Good taste, the raptor part of him thought. Better if it were rabbit, though.
Eric found them easily enough. A giant black eagle, sitting -- no, perching was the word -- next to a falcon just as large was not difficult to miss. He'd already eaten, and he carried with him a Big-Gulp drink container, filled with a grape-flavored athletic drink to replenish nutrients lost during all those tests and bloodlettings. The bone-hunters were downstairs in the cafeteria and were currently going over the digital recording of his norm-shifting, along with the data they'd gathered when they put the norm-shifted 'raptor onto a treadmill and run him into the ground. They seemed satisfied for now, and he'd slipped up to the roof without their noticing. He'd figured Tratt would be up here, and his hunch had been correct.
"Hey, John," he said by way of greeting, sidling up to the safety railing.
The black eagle swallowed down the last gob of food and licked his talons clean, then turned to the dinosaur, hind talons clicking on the metal rail. "Eric! Good to see you still in one piece."
Eric smiled -- or thought he did, but actually the end of his tail twitched back and forth -- and fluffed his feathers by way of a shrug. "I'm sure there are pieces of me all over the building by now. I'm something of an enigma for the scientists; a new kind of dinosaur."
"What do they call it -- I mean you? You know what I mean."
Eric smiled again. "They have given me the unofficial christening _Cryptoraptor._ Pretty smooth, isn't it?"
The eagle saluted the dinosaur, "Cadet cryptoraptor Eric Bolzhauser, reporting as ordered, sir!"
"Oh, don't even start, John," the other growled in mock severity, resting his aching arms on the railing and sniffing the air. "Hmm...nice."
"Yeah, we've got some great breezes up here. The Squids that have become bird-morphs are practicing their carrier traps on the other side of the roof, if you wanna watch."
Just as he said this two hawk-morphs streaked past on their right, perhaps a hundred feet above the roof-level of Beutel, their reflections slipping across the flat solar panels in the blink of an eye. When they were about a quarter-mile beyond the front entrance to the Health Center, almost over the center of the athletic fields, they both turned sharply on their wings ninety degrees to the left, leveled out, flew the front length of the building, then banked hard again so that they were approaching the building. They passed the rooftop and continued on for another half-mile, then the leader of the formation began a slow turn to her left until she was lined up with the center of the building. Her wingman stayed on her wing as she approached the building, descending with her until he was fifty feet above the rooftop, where he leveled off. The formation leader, though, continued her descent, slowing, extending her legs out and forward, talons spread wide, concentration plainly visible in her flashing brown eyes. She passed over the edge of the building, flared her wings, and smacked the metal railing with her hind feet, making it ring almost like a bell, then pumped her wings with tremendous force, driving her back into the sky in a cloud of dust and small rocks, right over the heads of John and Eric.
"Three wire!" she called out as she rejoined the other hawk in the landing pattern, this time forming up so that he was the wingleader.
A group of other avian-morphs were collected around a kestrel who held a clipboard and was writing notes. "That's another three wire for Cadet Dzerensky. Clark, she's right up there with you," he said to a great horned owl, who made a grunting hoot.
"We'll see how she performs on night traps..." the owl started to say, but fell silent when his sensitive ears caught the drone of turboprops on the wind.
"What's this?" Eric asked when his own ears caught the sound, shading his eyes with a hand and scanning the horizon. "Got 'em. Your four o'clock, Blackjack. One... no, two... three C-130s, inbound. And another one behind them, still too far to get a positive ID."
John turned around on the railing so that he was facing the big four-engined cargo aircraft, now clearly visible gray-green shapes in the sky. There were three of them, in line astern formation, two of them equipped with external fuel tanks and refueling probes. Special operations aircraft. The third was plain gray, and had civilian markings. The last aircraft Eric was referring to was much smaller than the C-130, had almost a black coloration, and sported a high wing, which drooped down ever so slightly at the tips.
"CV-22B?" someone thought aloud.
"Eric?" John asked, not taking his eyes off of the approaching aircraft. He knew that Eric had a personal obsession with military aircraft, and if it flew and was military, no matter what nation it belonged to, Eric could identify it.
"No, it's not an Osprey," Eric said quietly as the formation approached. "It doesn't have tilt-rotors. Fuselage is too thin, and it's got twin turbines mounted above the wing-routes. I think... Jesus, John, that's a Flatliner."
"No one else flies them. Something must be going down, something big."
Fountain Plaza: Outside the Chemistry Building
Reeves glanced up distractedly when the big cargo aircraft roared overhead, momentarily blotting out the sun. She noticed how two of the big turboprops had wing tanks slung between their engines, and lance-like refueling probes projecting from above their noses. The third seemed to be a perfectly ordinary looking cargo transport, albeit of the same airframe as the military transports. But the last one really made her sit up and take notice.
The last aircraft had a charcoal black coloration and sleek, stealthy lines. Its wings were mounted high on the fuselage and tapered gently in the diamond configuration so typical of stealth-designed craft. The twin engines were buried deep within its wings, were muffled, and had heavily shrouded exhaust nozzles -- vectored nozzles, she noted. The fuselage was narrow, but Reeves thought it would be possible to fit perhaps a light infantry squad inside, maybe even a small scouting vehicle. Saw-toothed panel lines gave away the position of the weapons bay doors, and it didn't take a genius to guess that there was a cannon housed within the canoe-shaped blister near the "chin" of the aircraft's nose. The canopy was perfectly designed to allow the pilot and co-pilot/gunner maximum visibility, while safely dissipating incoming radar waves with its ultra-thin gold film coating and saw-tooth joints. Twin vertical stabilizers, canted outward at an aggressive angle, blended smoothly into the rear of the craft. There were no horizontal stabilizers. It was an aircraft that just screamed out "don't tread on me" from every angle, and flew overhead with a sinister, whistling hum.
"Going to Easterwood Airport, looks like," Wes said, handing her a box of rubber bullets and keeping one for himself.
"Mm-hmm." She went back to work on her rifle, checking the rear sights to ensure they were properly set.
They were only two in a very large circle of Cadets, almost thirty feet in diameter, ranging from a mouse-morph to a dolphin-morph, all with towels stretched out before them on the pavement. On these towels rested military-issue assault rifles and magazines which were rapidly filling with rubber riot control ammunition. Everyone was wearing full-body boron carbide and Kevlar body armor-liberated from the storerooms of the campus armory-and these were guaranteed to stop anything up to a .50 caliber projectile. Everyone had their own set of body armor, complete with nametag and unit insignia. None of them were looking forward to this afternoon...and more than a few were dreading the night. The thought that she, Revatee Shah, might be forced to shoot someone with a rubber bullet-non-lethal though they were-was a difficult one to accept. But there had to be some kind of buffer out on the streets, some kind of motivation to keep people from looting. Most of the city was still without power, and every time there had been a major power outage in a relatively large city, and where there had been a lack of police or military control, looting had broken out, property had been destroyed, lives had been lost. The BCSPD was doing a fine job right now...but they would eventually tire, and replacements had to be found. Their replacements-at least a small number of them-were gathered in this circle, loading bullets into 40-round magazines, thinking about the future.
"Awright people, listen up!" a horse-morph wearing a stiff-brimmed campaign hat announced, walking into the center of the circle. He wore full tactical assault armor with the name "Doherty" stenciled across the right breast, the rank insignia of a sergeant on one shoulder pad, and his rifle slung over the other shoulder. His helmet, though ill-fitting, was cinched tight, the night optics lens reflecting brightly in the sun. Across his chest was a belt of red-tipped rubber bullets and three extra 40-round magazines. "You all are familiar with your M-19-A3 catalytic discharge rifle. You have all qualified with this weapon. You know its guts, and I already know some of you have named your weapon." He cast a glance out of the corner of his eye at Wes, who maintained a neutral expression. "Soon you and your weapon will be placed into danger, and you must know the rules of engagement. These are your own people, ladies and gentlemen, and you will treat them with respect. You will not fire unless fired upon, or are in grave personal danger and have announced that you will discharge your weapon. You have all learned this in your military science classes..." The drill instructor paced back and forth. "But this is not a classroom. Tempers will flare this afternoon and tonight, mistakes will be made. No plan ever survives past initial contact. If you discharge your weapon without authorization or outside of the rules of engagement, you will be held accountable."
That generated some quiet whispers in the group. This was for real.
"You are responsible for your actions. In the end, you have the final decision to fire or not. If an order is given that you know is not right, you are in no way obliged to follow that order. Excuses like 'I was just following orders' will not be tolerated!"
The drill instructor removed a bullet from the bandoleer across his chest and held it up for all to . "This is a standard NATO crowd control projectile! It fires a light charge to give it a muzzle velocity of only 900 feet per second, as opposed to the standard combat charge with a 3,000 foot per second muzzle velocity. This projectile is identified as being non-lethal... but that's bullshit! If you strike a person in the head, throat, or other soft tissue area, the projectile will penetrate. Be careful where you aim, if you are forced to fire."
Reeves ran her thumb along one of the bullets, felt it slide solidly into place in the magazine with its thirty-nine brothers and sisters, and listened as the drill instructor outlined the objectives of the night, went through emergency procedures and radio frequencies, and then oversaw the distribution of the hands-free radio links. Finally two other camouflage-clad Cadets came into the circle, carrying large cardboard boxes. On the front of these boxes was stenciled in large black letters: MRE.
Everyone groaned when they saw the packages. MRE was an acronym for Meal Ready to Eat -- although anyone who'd eaten the shit for more than three weeks straight would tell you they were really "three lies in one." The little dark-brown foil packets stored specially prepared food that could sit on the shelf for years and not go bad. Of course, every one of them tasted like flavored paste with maybe some noodles mixed in. You got used to it... you also got to hate it. The smart people carried little plastic containers of hot sauce to add some flavor to the slop without having to heat it up, since hot food had a unique smell when out in the woods-and when you're out in the woods trying to sneak up on a simulated enemy, it's not a good idea to announce your presence by heating up some spaghetti.
Reeves reached into the box when it came around to her and removed one of the cold metal packets, praying that she hadn't picked up one containing "beef stew." She turned the packet over and read the label. Beef ravioli.
It could have been worse.
"Aw...shit," Wes muttered, ears drooping as he read what was in his packet.
"What did you get?"
"Liver an' onions. Wanna trade?"
"Not a chance," she said, opening her Kevlar vest and slipping the MRE in against her shirt, letting her body heat keep the food warm until it was time to eat.
Maintenance Control The dispatcher tiredly depressed her microphone switch for perhaps the thousandth time that day, and answered with a mechanical, "Campus maintenance, is this a new or existing ticket number?"
"It's a new one," replied the voice on the other end. "I just want to report that something smells like it's died over on Northside. We've had to open up all our windows in the dorm, but the smell just keeps getting worse."
"Bad smell from Northside," droned the dispatcher, typing in the complaint on her keyboard with stiff fingers. Screens glowed around her, bathing her in an eerie blue light, since most of the overhead lights were off. Partial power had been restored to central campus, but that was it. "We'll send someone over as soon as possible, but it may take time, what with everything that's been happening today, sir. Please be patient."
"We'll do the best we can, ma'am... but the smell is really pretty bad here in Schuhmacher."
"Perhaps you should open your windows to vent the air out, sir."
"Christ, lady, I already told you we did that! It's not helping; it's getting worse!"
"Very well, sir. We'll send a crew out as soon as one becomes available."
"Hurry, will you?"
"We're doing our best, sir. Goodbye."
She killed the connection, then sighed and leaned back in her chair and looked at another dispatcher in the station next to hers. "Got another smell complaint from Northside, Cheryl. Makes the twenty-fifth so far."
"They're just smelling the bioreactor complex with their new noses. Physical-plant ran out of the place this morning, and they've had some spills. File a maintenance dispatch and forget about it."
The dispatcher did just that, sending an electronic message to the over-worked and under-staffed maintenance crews scattered across the campus, trying to reconnect blown power systems, fix mechanical failures, prod starter engines to life so they could start the turbine generators of buildings. And then she forgot about the smell problem, focusing on the flashing call indicator lights on her switching board.
None of the dispatchers recognized that the bioreactor complex was located on Southside, West Campus, and that the wind blew from Northside to Southside.
Beutel Health Center
Eric was fuming, but didn't show it on the outside. He wouldn't give these rat-runners the satisfaction of seeing him throw a fit. The sun was well past noon in the sky, and all of the dino-morphs that had gone in for testing after him were already gone. But not Eric Bolzhauser. The bone-hunters were finished with him, thank God, but now the experimental psychologists wanted a crack at his brain. Some of the neural scans must have piqued their interest, because he'd been on the receiving end of all sorts of ridiculous tests designed to determine his "psychic potential" for the past who-knew-how-many hours. Try to make this penny move, Eric. Try to affect this bouncing ball, Eric. See if you can figure out what's inside this box, Eric. Sit up, Eric. Beg. Roll over. Fetch! This better be the last test, otherwise they better plan on putting me down with a dart... because I swear I'm gonna take this out on someone real fraggin' soon!
There was a simple flip-up dividing wall attached to the table where they were sitting. Eric was resting comfortably on a stool, occasionally taking a sip from his Big-Gulp container, while the psychologist on the other side asked him questions. There was a stack of large tarot-sized cards next to the shrink's elbow. They were sitting in a small, barren room, with walls covered in acoustic tiles and a mirrored window facing Eric, through which he knew several people were watching him.
He smiled and waved at his reflection for the benefit of those in the observation room before the doctor raised the next card.
"Okay, Eric," the lion-morph doctor said in his grandfatherly, gentle voice. "Please tell me what you think is on the other side of this card that I am holding."
The raptor was quiet for a moment. At least this test was a bit more entertaining than all the others, because all he had to do was invent a bullshit answer, and the rat-runner would write it down and not pester him to keep trying. "Square."
"Mmm-hmm." The doctor placed the card back down on the table, made a notation on his clipboard, and lifted another card, smiling along his lion's muzzle. "And this one?"
"Queen of hearts."
Another card, another notation.
And on and on it went for maybe an hour.
Eric found himself becoming bored near the end, and he let his mind wander. He'd long since decided that this was a waste of time, and so he found himself studying the scratched-in graffiti on the tabletop, throwing out random answers when he saw another card being raised through his peripheral vision.
"Fishing rod... red ball... chess piece... alarm clock... Coke can... car."
I should demand the last five-or-so hours of my life back, he thought to himself, prying loose a splinter of wood with a talon, continuing to answer from off the top of his head. "Diamond. Star. Sword. Biplane. Television. Piano. Thirty-seven. Twenty-eight. Six. Nine. Well, gosh, doc. If you'd quit mumbling the answers to yourself, then maybe you'd get better results! My hearing has improved some since this morning." He raised his eyes to the doctor, who was looking at him with a rather peculiar expression. In his hand he held a card with "4+5=" printed on it. The doctor turned the card over. The answer was written on the back.
"Eric," the doctor said, running a hand through his white-streaked mane, "what was I mumbling?"
Caught totally off-guard and unable to invent a plausible excuse in time, the raptor blurted out, "'Like nothing I've ever seen before.'"
"That's correct, Eric, but I didn't say that. I thought it."
Someone rapped against the mirrored window from the other side, and the doctor turned in his seat. "Excuse me," he said by way of apology, and exited the room.
Oh, shit, Eric thought to himself, rubbing his hands together nervously. They're trying to decide what to do with me! I must have answered nearly every one of them correctly. I don't want to end up in some glass jar for the rest of my life, some sort of lab rat! He rested his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands, staring at his reflection in the mirror, feeling the icy grip of fear begin to creep along his spine.
The door opened and the psychologist stepped inside, holding it open. "No more tests, Eric," he said with a warm smile. "Just a final interview. There are some men from the government -- just arrived, in fact -- that would very much like to meet you."
With feathers flattened in anxiety Eric slowly got up from the table and walked over to the doctor, who placed a large and comforting hand on his shoulder as they started to walk along the white-painted hallway toward the conference room at its end. "They were the people who came in on the C-130s, right? They're here to do what? Take any unusual subjects back to some lab for further study?"
The grandfather-type doctor laughed. "Hardly, Eric. These people just want to talk."
The doctor opened the heavy oak door to the naturally lit conference room and showed Eric in. But For Eric it felt as if he were taking the final march to stand in front of a firing squad. He hesitated, and the doctor had to give him a little shove to get him into the room, where he stood still, staring at the floor, dreading the future. The doctor closed the door to the conference room, leaving him alone with the people inside.
"Hello, Eric," one of them said.
"What's with the electrical gear?" the golden eagle asked as the green-clad lab technician secured the last electrode to his scalp, then smoothed down the feathers he'd had to move aside. "Am I cable-ready now?"
The lab technician didn't laugh behind his cloth facemask. "CE-30 in place. Run a check, please?"
A voice crackled over the intercom, echoing around inside the cramped, tile-lined room, "Signal's good."
The lab technician looked down at the test subject. "Okay, Mr. Tratt. We're going to be monitoring the electrical activity of your brain during this test. We're going to give you a laptop to play with. Fully equipped with all the latest games and a satellite-link Internet connection, but it's also got some fun puzzles on it for you to work."
"I don't really care for puzzle games, sir. Never did."
"Oh, we think you'll like these games," the technician promised as a very attractive-stunning would have been a better word-female eagle-morph came into the room carrying the laptop, which she handed directly to John, giving him a sly wink and a quick caress on the hand that the lab tech didn't see before she left again.
Back in the control room the observers noted the increased electrical activity in the test subject's brain. "I'd say the telemetry is working," commented one of them, idly sipping on a cup of coffee. "Good call on the sexual innuendo thing, Ed. That lit up every center of his brain like a Christmas tree."
Ed shrugged. "Seemed like the fastest way to test the telemetry. Is he rigged for the laptop?"
"Yeah, Bill's plugging in the in-Sense now."
"Okay, Mr. Tratt," the man said. "I've just plugged this second set of electrodes into the laptop. Are you familiar with in-Sense technology?"
John shook his head, feeling the leads from the electrodes brush against his feathers. "Not really. All I know about it is what I see in magazines and the news. Some kind of direct input device? Works off of galvanic skin response or EM waves from the brain-SQUIDS or something like that. Air Force played with it back in the seventies, tried to make their aircraft fly-by-thought, I recall. Couldn't get the kinks ironed out before Congress pulled the plug, so the core concept and technology was released into the computer industry as a lab curiosity."
The man's eyes smiled behind his facemask. "Pretty close. We've rigged you with an advanced prototype in-Sense device, and this laptop will accept commands from both the headset and the keypad. Some of the puzzles on the computer require you to use only the headset. To operate the in-Sense headgear just think your commands at the computer, and the operating system will understand and obey."
"May I ask a question?" John asked, opening the laptop and powering it up.
"You guys think that I can influence computers by thought, don't you? More than that, anything with a circuit, right?"
The technician nodded. "From the description you wrote down of hearing voices from a data node, it sure sounds like it. This test will give us an idea how your gift works, and how well you can use it." Then he left the room and closed the door, leaving Tratt alone with the computer that was already whispering to him.
Bill entered the control room, pulling the facemask from his muzzle. Inside the test chamber the golden eagle was rapidly becoming involved with the laptop. "What've we got for him?"
"Easy stuff at first, some simple password blocks with text hints in the query field... He's already broken the first one since you walked in here. After that they get more challenging; we take away the hints, then take away the text field, then the keypad input."
"Just passwords? Hell, any cracker can bust a password with a hand-held and the right program."
"It's not just passwords... He's broken the second password already, by the way. We also put encrypted files in, secured file areas, from public domain stuff all the way up to the latest and greatest used by the NSA-and you know how much computing power it takes to crack those codes and security breakers. We've got the laptop linked in to the system in here, so if or when he triggers a breaker, we'll know about the compromise."
"But he won't."
"According to the egg-heads back at SRI, no. It'll be just like he's taking a stroll through the OS. He won't even know he's cut through the breakers until we tell him."
"Third barrier is down," Bill commented.
"I'm glad this guy will be working for us," Ed breathed as the fourth barrier began to crumble. The EEG in the corner was going berserk, not from the actual electrical signals from the subject, but because the subject's "gift" was interfering with the EEG machine itself.
"The OS is no longer reading in-Sense," the attractive female eagle-morph reported from her station. "He's 'mancing the OS, now. Took him only two minutes!"
"'Mancing?" Bill asked.
"It's a word we've come up with to describe this particular Power. Technomancing." Ed nodded toward Tratt, who was sitting comfortably in the test chamber with the computer resting in his lap, no longer using the keypad, just staring blankly at the TFT screen as data flashed across it. "It seems that Mr. Tratt can influence computers on a level deeper than the code itself... Fourth barrier down."
"NSA is going to have a fit when they find out their best encryption was swept aside by a college student."
"Better this guy than an info-terrorist."
Bill folded his arms across his chest and frowned. "He'll need almost constant supervision. Having a Power like that out on the streets-loose?-no way. Any ATM he comes across would be like a bag of free cash. What're we going to do with him? He's a liability."
The man with the coffee, who up until now had remained silent, spoke up. "Don't worry about that. We've already got something that'll effectively give us control over him and ensure that he's got a sweet deal as a reward. It's a win-win situation."
"What if he refuses?"
The man with the coffee smiled. "He won't."
"So you say. But what if he refuses?"
The man took another sip from his mug, smacked his lips. "He won't," he repeated, this time with a tone that communicated much more than was said.
His name was Edward R. Pryce, but everyone called him either "Ed" or "Eddie." No one called him Edward, except his fourth-grade English teacher, he had explained. During the day he had taken on the appearance of a gyrfalcon, a stony gray raptor with feathers that were tipped with darker gray. He was also "flighted," as they called it, meaning he had a pair of fully functional wings protruding from near his shoulders. The man was smaller than Tratt, Eric noted, but was no less intimidating in appearance, with a relatively short, but cruelly hooked beak and buffed gray talons. His small, powerful hands were covered in yellowish scales, and he wore a pair of what looked like torn-up shooter's gloves, probably to provide grip in handling small objects that dry, scaly skin wouldn't be able to hold well and still manipulate. A rift in the down-like feathers beneath his right eye betrayed the location of an old scar. And while the man did not seem to be well educated, he had a world-wisdom that few could ever hope to match. He did not speak with any accent, so Eric couldn't tell where he was from, apart from America-and Eric had strong feeling that this man could imitate almost any accent from any country given a couple days of immersion. Eddie Pryce was a spook, plain and simple, as were the other people in the room more than likely.
Everyone was sitting around a very large circular table with a polished black soapstone surface. The center of the table was glass, and a futuristic-looking ring of halogen lamps, suspended by ultra-thin steel cables, provided the only source of artificial lighting. There were about seven people there, but Pryce was the only one speaking. This made Eric suspect that Pryce was the one with the highest rank.
"Eric Bolzhauser," Pryce recited with his eyes downcast to the Cadet's personnel file. "Finishing junior year, Coalition Engineering, Team 5, under the instruction of Colonel Mark Whiteacre, former U.S. Army Ranger. Grade-Point-Ratio 3.9 out of 4.0, top of your class--" the gyrfalcon head came up "--Not bad, Cadet! Not bad at all. Pretty damn respectable." He looked back down to the file, lifting up a page. "Your major study is mechanical engineering, haven't even shown an interest in switching to something a bit less demanding. Never missed a day of class...never came down with any illnesses...ever. On the rifle range you consistently score 'expert' marksman, and are qualified in the M-19-A3, M-60 and numerous small arms. You're also checked out on encrypted sat-com relay. 'Cadet Bolzhauser is a brilliant, driven, and enormously resourceful student...destined to wear stars.' That is what Colonel Whiteacre seems to think of you, and your Corps of Cadets military science instructors are also full of praise."
Why is he reading me all of this? Is he trying to flatter me into something?
Pryce closed the folder and tossed it into the middle of the large tabletop. "Five out of five stars, Cadet. That's what they think of you. The various intelligence agencies like to keep tabs on this kind of person. That's no secret, and you knew it when you came here to this university. You know that we are members of the intelligence community-well, at least we're under their payroll. I'm not an analyst, that's what she does, over there," he pointed a talon at a lynx-morph wearing casual business attire and wire-frame glasses. "So now let me read what we know about you.
"Eric Bolzhauser, only son of Victor and Anja Bolzhauser." There was a new folder in the gyrfalcon's talons, and he read from it as if Eric wasn't even in the room. "Born oh-two-twenty-seventy-five in Chicago Women's Hospital. Mother, Anja, died shortly after due to complications. Father, Victor, raised Eric and encouraged his natural interests in art and history. Due to Victor's rather lucrative investments overseas and his passion for travel -- a passion which his son seemed to share -- Eric traveled extensively during his childhood and adolescence, particularly Europe, Asia and the Pacific Rim, sketching the locales he saw, being tutored by local educators. It was during a two-month stay in Cairns, Australia, that while swimming Eric was pulled out to sea by a rip tide and subsequently nearly drowned to death." Sitting in his seat, Eric flinched as that dreadful memory came back to him, the feeling of his life being smothered by the thick, choking salt water flooding his lungs; unimaginably cold and painful for the sensitive tissue, burning his sinuses and throat. "Search efforts were mounted, and two hours later Eric Bolzhauser's body was found, five miles out to sea, floating on his back in a state of severe hypothermic shock and was cyanotic. During the return flight to the hospital at Cairns he had to be defibrillated three times, and upon arrival was in a comatose state, where he remained for the next week. Aggressive physical therapy restored his motor skills and vocal ability, but when additional tests were run to determine whether there was residual brain damage, an anomalous amount of brain activity was discovered in the temporal lobe. Additional anomalies were uncovered when an IQ test, administered by one Dr. McKennan, determined an increase in IQ of more than seven points, heightened memory retention and concentration, and a fundamental shift in natural interests away from the arts and into the hard sciences -- almost every one of them, in fact."
Eric found that his mouth had gone dry. These people knew everything about him.
"Returned to the United States under the care of relatives, Eric attended the Monte-Claire School for the Gifted in Seattle, Washington for his final few years of high school-where he also studied metaphysics and archaic religions." Pryce looked up at him with a raised eye-ridge, but Eric said nothing to explain that rather odd, but completely accurate, period of his life. "He graduated top of his class, awarded full scholarship to Texas A&M University and immediate acceptance by the Coalition Project Board, two members of which have close ties to the Zeiss-Remann Pharmaceuticals Corporation, the same corporation Dieter Bolzhauser purchased in Berlin in 1910 after the original owners declared bankruptcy, now one of the world's largest genome research and gene-therapy corporations, also responsible for a good portion of the production of the Plague vaccine. Hermann Steiner, current CEO of Zeiss-Remann and long-time friend of the Bolzhauser family, denies having anything to do with Eric's unusually quick acceptance into the Coalition Project. Cadet Bolzhauser shows great promise as a military officer, a competent leader with unswerving loyalty to the FedGov and the American people."
The gyrfalcon closed the folder and looked up to a pale -- or what would have been pale -- Eric. "You've got a very colorful background, Cadet. A little over two weeks ago you really caught our attention when you successfully developed a method of locating the focal point of, of--" Pryce looked over to the lynx.
"A spatial-temporal disturbance that momentarily disrupted the normal operation of the supposedly infallible atomic clocks of EMF sensors designed to detect lightning strikes anywhere on the planet," the woman explained in machinegun English.
Eric sighed and relaxed, closed his eyes. "Is that what all this is about? You want me to get the exact location of that energy flux?"
Tawny yellow eyes seemed to look through the Cadet, and he fought the urge to squirm. "Not entirely," Pryce allowed, then removed a series of sheets from the folder and slid them across to where Eric was seated. "This is as detailed a briefing as we can offer. If you do not feel comfortable with the arrangements, then our business is concluded, and you walk out of this room the same person you came in as."
What's this? Eric thought as he began to read through the papers, gradually sitting further and further forward as their contents, and the implications, sank in. Phrases like "POTUS authorizes immediate commissioning with above Top Secret security clearance," and "matter of vital national security," and "choice of active-duty post upon graduation" leapt up off the page at him. Then he looked up. "Is this some kind of joke?"
The look he got in return told him it was not.
He had to remind his heart to resume its beating as he looked back down at the paper-it was a fax-and he saw the Presidential Seal, the digitized signature of Jack Tallman, NatSec to President Hadden, and General Alexander Furst, Chairman of the JCS. God, it's already been signed from On High? This set off warning bells in his head, and he lowered the papers. All of this was going too fast... these people were trying to dazzle him into making a snap decision by dangling a security clearance and a direct officer's commission in front of his nose. Why? Eric looked directly into Pryce's eyes.
This entire day, all the tests, the delayed release, and now this interview, the feathered dinosaur projected. You or your agency-no, it was your agency, I See that now -- you were looking for what? Why did you focus on my accident in Australia and the tests afterwards? Why?
Across the table the gyrfalcon turned his head away suddenly. "Get out of my head, Eric!" Then an aura of red flared around him, and Eric found himself violently ejected from the other's mind, leaving him with a slight headache. He'd heard of people with a Nullification Power during his time with other dino-morphs that afternoon, but Pryce was the first person he'd seen demonstrate it.
"I apologize," the Cadet said, massaging his temples with his knuckles. "But try to see this from my point of view. I don't know who you are --any of you. You know everything about me, and probably even more than what you have in that file there. You're attempting to bribe me with a commission and a security clearance -- and before you say anything, yes I read the briefing front to back, and I know you can't give me any details of what's so damned important that you bypass all military protocol. Why didn't you pick someone else? What's so special about me?" He looked around the table. "What? Is it that I've developed a talent for Telepathy? I met five other Telepaths today, and some of them learned to use their Power faster than I have!"
The lynx-morph spoke up. "Being a Telepath is part of the reason, Eric," she said. "Consider the future we now face. With all of these new Powers people are developing, how do we ensure they aren't used to commit crimes? A person with a Power of Pyrokinesis could be the perfect arsonist, leaving no fuel traces, no fingerprints; just a burned-out husk of a building. And what happens if a group of such individuals bands together, using their Powers to compliment each other? They would pose an enormous threat to the safety of American citizens, not to mention national security..."
"Telepath spies, you mean?"
"That's certainly a possibility. They could move around inside a person's thoughts, gathering information without even touching them, or being near them. The only way to counter that threat is with a Nullifier or another Telepath.
"That is where you come in, Eric. Your brainscans from this afternoon show a heightened level of activity in your temporal lobe. Far more than ever before. The other Telepaths you met today may very well have learned to walk -- telepathically speaking -- sooner than you have... but the difference between them and you is that their level of power is comparable to a bang-snap, while yours is a hydrogen bomb."
Eric laughed. "You're joking, right? That's a good one! A super-H-bomb Telepath. Yeah, right." His laughter became forced, then died away altogether. "You're not joking."
"No, Eric. We're not." Pryce got up from the table and paced to one of the windows overlooking the athletic fields, now bathed in early evening sun. "The world isn't a safe place, Eric, contrary to what The News Channel says. Cities are burning out there. People are dying. And everything has come to a screeching halt," he turned away from the window, sunlight glinting off of one iris, "but things won't stay stopped forever. They'll pick up steam again, only this time the rules have changed. Friendly governments may fall and be replaced with hostile regimes. We need to be prepared. You, Eric, are only one of many people the intelligence community-CIA, NSA, NRO, DIA, and so on-is paying a visit on today, and dangling this golden nugget before their nose. The reason is that we need to collect the best talents available and train them as best we can to help protect our nation.
"And we sure as hell aren't the only ones doing this right now. You're a smart young man, you can figure out what might be going on in China and the Middle East. Over there if you show considerable talent you may not have the option of saying yes or no to an offer. Refusing may earn you, or more likely a family member, a bullet.
"But we live in a free society. You can say no, but we would have to look somewhere else for a talent with as much potential as yours. That would take a lot of time."
Eric swallowed and looked at the papers sitting in front of him. "How many Telepaths of my caliber have you heard of?"
"None as of right now."
He was quiet for some time, and then the realization of his situation hit him. If everyone else were a bang-snap, and he, a nuclear weapon, then there would be only one real choice in obtaining a very powerful explosive. Someday he might find himself plucked off of the street by some very unpleasant people with even less pleasant motives. Hell, it might even be the CIA who would do him in, rather than allow a rouge Telepath of such power to walk the streets. So the situation that he was presented with really offered only one viable option.
"What would my function be, should I sign on?"
The lynx-morph answered his question. "You would serve as a kind of telepathic shield for our operation, keeping other possible Telepaths from reading the thoughts of those involved."
"What's to stop me from doing that? Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't do that, but--"
"It wouldn't matter, because once you sign on, you will know what everyone else involved knows. Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, we're not a bunch of backstabbing men-in-black who go slinking around back alleyways. We don't keep secrets from each other when we're working on the same project; it decreases efficiency."
"An anti-Telepath Telepath. Sounds fun."
He pulled the sheets back to him. God, I hope I'm making the right decision.
"Anyone got a pen?" Second Lieutenant Eric Bolzhauser, U.S. Air Force, asked.
The stench was unbearable, and Reeves closed the sliding air vent in the back of the Model 350, coughing as she did so. She would rather have dealt with the distracting scents of the other Cadets packed in around her on the fold-down bench seats than inhale that foul odor another second. Vents had been turned on full blast to keep the scents of the predator-morphs from causing uneasiness in the prey-morphs, and both sides of the predator-prey mix were armed. And no one in the vehicle, least of all Wes, who was driving, wanted an armed confrontation in the back. But the horrendous, sinus burning stink from outside had short circuited everyone's new sense of smell, and had then gone to work on their lungs, making them cough.
So now the vents were closed.
Fortunately, the hodge-podge convoy of personal vehicles and campus buses were close to their destination, the intersection of Tauber Street and University Drive.
Reeves was sitting on the edge of one of the bench seats, the butt of her rifle resting on the deck, braced between her knees, and her poorly fitting Kevlar helmet was pushed back on her head. Across the noisy open space was another nervous Cadet, a seal-morph from the looks of it and pretty handsome, who was tapping his foot on the floor and chewing the life out of a stick of bubble-gum. The Cadet's rank insignia on his armored vest told her that he was a finishing freshman, a "Fish."
The Cadet's eyes glanced her way, and she favored him with a broad, disarming wink, which he smiled back at.
"D'ya hear about Zwick?" one of the others in the back called out to a muscular black bull-morph.
"Nope," the other rumbled.
"The poor bastard turned into a fish, a trout I think--"
"TINS, man. This Is No Shit. The floor officers found him floppin' around on his floor, havin' trouble breathing. They had to wrap the guy in wet towels and get him outta there quick."
"What happened to him?" inquired one of the others in the back, a raccoon-morph.
"Last I heard, they took him to the marine biology building. Got him in this big acrylic water tank with filters and all. Gave him a waterproof markerboard and pencil so he can write and communicate to the outside. They also got a dolphin-morph in there, helpin' to rig some kind of underwater hydrophone thing so he can talk like over a phone."
"Hey, I hear that Garwood turned into some kinda water cow--"
"Dugong," corrected a doe-morph, while she adjusted the straps on her helmet.
"Yeah, one of those things. Ugliest damn things in the world, if you ask me."
"There's worse," said the raccoon-morph.
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Some cave-dwelling catfish I seen on a documentary. They never see sunlight, ever, and don't have any pigment to their skin. They don't have eyes, either...well, maybe they do, but they don't work."
"There's also those hairless rats that live underground, right?"
"Mole rat, I think. Yeah. At least Garwood can see and talk."
"Did ya hear about that triceratops in Wisenbaker? Lady went nuts right when the shit happened this morning, went full Norm and tore the place to hell. Killed someone, I hear. Had to put her down with enough tranq to drop an elephant. Now I hear they got her in some kinda reinforced concrete enclosure, trying to get her back out of Norm."
"So what's the deal with this riot thing we have to put down?" broke in the seal-morph.
"It's not a riot... yet," the bull-morph said.
"They're a buncha hippie freaks anyway," sniffed the raccoon. "Runnin' around butt-naked, babbling about the end of human history, the rise of the Animal God, Great Spirit, whatever the hell they call it. I think the PD ought to step up their patrols for Mary-Jane in the city, if you ask me."
"They haven't done anything provocative, remember that," Reeves said, looking at the raccoon from across the cargo bay. "We're just there as a buffer."
"Sixty seconds!" Wes called out from the front, his face briefly illuminated by the red brake lights of the bus in front of them. "Everyone get ready."
Removing one of the magazines from her vest, Reeves checked to make sure the rounds were seated properly, then slapped the magazine into the port on the underside of her weapon. The others around her, and in the vehicles in front and behind them, were doing the same.
The 350 made its final turn onto University Drive, which was bathed in a golden light from the setting sun. People were out on the street, on the sidewalks, walking aimlessly about. Some of them had signs made out of poster-board, and a few had made crude banners out of bed sheets. The people were on the opposite side of the street, the north side, as the convoy began to slow, angling toward the southern side.
"Ten seconds! Ready at the doors!"
"Yeah, baby!" shouted the raccoon, pounding the bull-morph on one beefy arm. "Let's get it on!"
Reeves was about to say something to the raccoon about his dangerous over-enthusiasm, but the doe-morph beat her to it. "Hey, sport. Cool it."
The raccoon turned his head and was about to make a reply when the 350 came to a stop, and the rear ramp opened with the hiss of hydraulics to let in a wash of acrid air, heat and humidity. "Go!"
The Cadets trotted smartly out the rear of the vehicle before the ramp even had a chance to hit the pavement with a metallic clang. Their squad moved toward their prearranged rally point where they would meet with the police officer and Cadet troop handler that would be issuing them their deployments. Amidst all of this the crowd across the street booed, waving their signs in the air with proclamations like "FREE THE LAB ANIMALS!" and "TAKE IT OFF AND LET THE FUR FLY!"
"Oh, I like that one!" laughed the raccoon as their group hustled along beside one of the white-and-maroon busses. Wes meanwhile retracted the ramp, gunned the engine, and moved the 350 out of the way of an approaching truck, rolled over the curb, and parked on the grass near the Northside Garage, next to a large stand of shrubs. Then he killed the engine, powered down the electrical system, gathered his helmet and rifle, and trotted over to where the squad was to meet. He found that his new digitigrade stance made it possible for him to move along at a reasonably speedy pace with very little effort. Perhaps being half-coyote wasn't such a bad thing? He was starting to like this insanity.
Beutel Health Center
The cafeteria was empty, or very nearly so; Eric could hear the sounds of people working in the kitchen. Beutel's cafeteria may not have had the most stunning selection of gourmet food, but no one disputed the breathtaking view of nearly the entire campus offered by the transparent alloy walls. The floors were covered in white and maroon linoleum tiles, the school colors, and the fifty-or-so tables in the room sported similar coloration. Most of these tables were lined up against the window walls, and the feathered dinosaur found the giant golden eagle perched at one of these, gazing out at the campus. A steaming cup of green tea sat before the eagle, and John's scaly hand idly rotated the cup between his talons.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Huh?" the eagle head swiveled almost completely around. "Oh. You surprised me. Sure, take a seat."
"Quite a view, isn't it?" the other asked, having found a comfortable position on a chair that had never been designed for anything but a human.
"Yeah. Really impressive colors this time of evening." John pointed with a talon toward the west. "The reds and oranges really set off the CNST and the rest of the bio buildings. It's almost like God is mixing paint up there, adding more and more red...then making it turn purple. He's taken and highlighted those cirrus clouds real well, hasn't He?"
"Yeah. Look at the sun. Now I know where the Japanese got their idea for their flag. Ever seen a sunset from the equator?"
"Nah. Never been out of the country." John never took his eyes off of the setting sun. "There it goes."
The sun slipped silently below the horizon, turning it a deep, glowing orange, fading to purple. Now the brightest objects in the sky were the blazing red-orange high altitude cirrus clouds. Stars began to peek into view in the east, and the moon was already out. Cool blue cumulous clouds drifted across the sunset, casting long streaks in the sky from atmospheric dust and pollen.
"Encore," John breathed before he turned back to his friend. "They made you sign, too, didn't they?"
The 'raptor nodded. "Yeah, they did."
John lifted his cup to his beak and expertly poured a little into his mouth, then angled his head back and swallowed. "You know... they own us now. We're both officers, and we're part of their operation here, whatever it is. When do we get our briefing?"
Eric fluffed his feathers in a shrug.
"Anyway," John went on, "we can't back out now. Court martial, probably an all-expenses-paid trip to Leavenworth."
"Nope. No turning back."
"What was it about you that gave them such a hard-on?"
Eric chuckled and tail-grinned, looked directly into the eagle's eyes and sent his response.
John flinched. "Oh, I see. Nuclear weapon, eh? Interesting way of putting it."
"They call it 'Technomancing.' Seems that I can do what you do, only to computers."
"That would be pretty useful to the computer industry...or the NSA," Eric said, scratching an itch under a feather on his neck.
The eagle shuddered. "Don't remind me. They gave me this laptop to mess with, loaded with all sorts of password blocks and encrypted files. Made me slog my way through that mess, but it wasn't that tough. I can't really describe how it felt...kind of like what you see in the movies when they portray virtual reality, only I didn't see things like that. It was kind of random, like I saw what I wanted to see, only the content was the same, you understand?"
The feathered dinosaur shook his head.
"Think of it in terms of a photograph developing. At first, hell, it's just a white sheet of photo paper, but over a period of time -- and in my case, a little concentration -- you start to see an image developing. That's the best way I can describe it. You see, when they first plugged me into the computer all I saw was the computer; TFT, keypad, the usual stuff. Then I started hearing what the computer was doing, kind of like a constant drone of voice output, but it was all at the same time. Hard drive was being accessed, RAM was being used, screen constantly being updated, virus scan of the files being executed, input from the in-Sense and keypad...all of that I heard, everything at the same time. And I understood it, somehow. Then I started feeling what the computer did, like magnetic pushes and pulls on my hands, then my arms, and then I started to see inside the thoughts of the thing. Yeah, I know computers don't think, but that's the best description I can give. I really didn't see anything, at least with my eyes, but still saw it with... with--"
"Your inner Sight?" Eric offered.
"Yeah," the eagle nodded. "My inner Sight." He took another drink. "Then I stumbled onto the satellite link to the Internet."
"What was that like?"
"Scary," John admitted. "I mean, all of this information, right there! I just had to want something, and I found it through the browser program on the computer. The people monitoring me said that I'd made six hits to completely different sites in less than a second, and that my pulse-rate was as high as Everest. They were considering cutting the satellite feed but decided not to on the off chance that my consciousness might somehow get dropped like so many packets somewhere over the Pacific."
"So what's your limit?"
The eagle-morph shook his head. "They don't know. I think I scared the crap out of them today. They were practically bending over backwards when they made me their offer!"
Eric stood from his chair and made his way to the nearby drink stand and poured himself some of the strong tea. "So what'd you get in return?" he asked as he returned to his seat. "Choice duty assignment?"
"That and all my academic costs, housing, food and transportation."
"For the rest of the time here at A&M?" Eric negotiated with the small cup and the hot liquid inside and succeeded.
The cryptoraptor nearly choked.
"Fuckin' Pagans," the raccoon-morph said darkly as he surveyed the crowd across the street with a pair of digital binoculars. "Just look at those people, wearing those devil signs!" He lowered the binoculars and spat.
Their squad was stationed near an ambulance that was acting as a kind of first-aid station for people who were being overcome by the fumes. Some of them became ill; some of them even went into respiratory distress. The more serious respiratory cases were brought over from across the street where they were treated with oxygen and moved back from the street. The Cadets were curious as to why no one had bothered to clear the people off the streets, since the smell-whatever it was-had gotten so bad, but the police officer in charge had told them that the situation was too volatile for that kind of action. A move on those people across the street could turn them from a simple peaceful demonstration into a destructive mob, and casualties on both sides would be the result. No, the officer had explained, it was best that they just wait it out. The people on the other side of University Drive would eventually tire, get hungry, and go home.
"Show a little respect for their beliefs, jarhead," the doe-morph said. "They aren't Pagans."
"Then what are they?"
Reeves saw Wes roll his eyes.
"We're Wiccans," said a breathless, muffled voice from behind them.
Wes turned and saw who it was that had spoken. The woman was sitting in the open back of the ambulance rig holding an oxygen mask to her small feline snout. She was not a pretty woman, but she had kind eyes and a quiet, powerful presence. Her face was highly angular, with almond-shaped pale eyes and high, arching eyebrows. Pointed, black tufted ears peeked out through her salt-and-pepper waist length hair, which was highlighted with black feathers affixed with leather strands to small braids of hair that draped across her shoulders and down her chest. She wore a simple jade-green robe, highlighted with white on the cuffs, and a leather belt with many pouches. A gold pentagram attached to a silver necklace gleamed in the light from the setting sun, resting just above an area Wes's country-bred sense of modesty forbade him to look.
"What the fuck are Wiccans?" the raccoon morph demanded.
"Watch your mouth, Fish," Wes warned, then stared the other Cadet down.
"We're nature worshippers," the woman said. "We see the God and Goddess in all things in nature."
"Pagan," the raccoon shrugged, shaking his head, and walked away to go watch the crowd again, as were most of the rest of their squad. Reeves stepped off to the side of the rig and filled her plastic canteen from the cooler someone had set up there.
The feline didn't respond to the raccoon's comment, merely arched one of those long eyebrows and switched the oxygen mask from one hand to the other. Wes noticed that she was wearing a silver ring on that hand, the same kind of ring that Eric always carried with him. "Say, ma'am, mind if I ask you a question?"
"Call me Cheyla," she said. "Take a seat, you look like you need to relax."
Actually, that wasn't such a bad idea, so Wes pulled over a trauma kit, a sturdy red and white plastic box about the size of a picnic cooler, and sat. He couldn't help but feel a bit nervous with those uncanny pale eyes watching him, as if they were seeing much more than the visible spectrum. "That's your real name?"
"No," she said, "it's my Wiccan name, the name I adopted when I performed my self dedication twelve years ago. It only seems appropriate now that I change my name on a permanent basis, don't you think?"
"It's your choice, I suppose. The question I meant to ask you is just this: why?"
"Why? That's a pretty vague question..."
"Wes," he supplied.
She nodded. "That's a pretty vague question, Wes. Why what? Why has the Change occurred? Why are we all changed partially into animals? Why is the vast majority of the mass of the Universe unaccounted for?"
Wes held his hands up for her to stop. "Let me rephrase that question. Why are you people demonstrating out here, in this smell?"
Cheyla smiled thoughtfully and was quiet for a while before answering, removing the oxygen mask from her face. "I suppose the reason we're out here is that many people feel that this first Change is deserving of a second, albeit smaller, Change. Not a Change of the physical form, like this morning, but a Change in the way we view ourselves, our surroundings, the Universe, God, everything. Earth-based religions like Wicca -- the common term for one of us is 'witch' -- Druidism, Pagani and any number of other Eastern ones I can't pronounce have been thinking in such terms long before Christianity made its appearance. I suppose we feel that it is our duty now to become more open with sharing our beliefs to those who have had theirs shattered. Kiss the image of a God with the appearance of a human goodbye, Wes. What does He look like now?" She replaced the oxygen mask and breathed deeply.
Wes scratched his chin. "You've got a point. But aren't you going about it the wrong way? I mean, you're wearing those Satanic insignias..."
"They're called pentagrams," Cheyla interrupted through the mask. "They're a symbol of protection, just like wearing a Christian cross. But when you turn one upside down, then it serves to attract negative energies... and attention. An inverted pentagram is what you're talking about, the same as an inverted cross or a perverted swastika. A standard swastika is really a sign for protection, but that bastard Hitler twisted it to his own purposes." She removed the mask long enough to make a barely audible spitting noise.
"Oh," Wes said a bit sheepishly. "I stand corrected."
"That's another one of the things we're aiming to do, Wes. Educate the population. Let them know that it's okay to have a different view of the world than the next person."
"And you think that by standing out on a street with signs this will educate people?"
Cheyla frowned with a graceful downturn of the corners of her mouth, the tips of her sharpened canine teeth peeking out beneath her lips. "No, this isn't the way. I told them that many times, but...I don't know. I suppose this smell has made them all go a bit crazy. I think the whole world will be a little crazy for a few weeks. You know about Denver and the other cities, don't you?"
"Haven't gotten a hold of a TV to watch today. Been up and goin' since this mornin'. Why?"
Cheyla returned the oxygen mask to its place on the tank and recited the cities that were in flames, and his face took on a look of shock. "My, God." Then he spied Reeves watching them inquisitively from the side of the water cooler. "Reeves, you better listen to this! Tell her, Cheyla."
They were piling clothes out in the middle of the street down by the fuel station. Lots of them. Sweaters, pants, skirts, undergarments. Anything and everything designed to be worn on a human body. The members of Coalition Team 2-known even before the Change as "the Zoo" because they had a Crowe, Wolfe, Fox, Byrd and a Drake-were watching all of this from behind a police cruiser, some of them having assumed a prone position, watching through digital binoculars from the level of the street. Down the street, where Team 5 was located, the crowd was more peaceful. Not true of this group. None of these people were wearing a stitch of clothing, they were drinking, and they were angry.
Another rock banged into the roof of the cruiser, and two of the Cadets flinched away from flying debris.
"This is getting nuts," hissed Jeff Byrd, a rather scrawny fellow with the attributes of a spitting cobra who was crouched down by the front fender and holding his hands over his head as another rock sailed by.
Christy Drake, an antelope-morph, was resting prone near one of the rear tires, her glasses balanced somehow on her elongated face. "What are they doing? Why are they piling all of those clothes out there?"
"Shhh! One of them is saying something." This came from Tim Wolfe, a brick wall of a man with the features of a dappled gray stallion, complete with white mane that traced its way down his neck and terminated at the small of his back. He pushed his Kevlar helmet back so that his ears could swivel more forward to better hear the speaker.
"This day marks the end of human history!" declared a floppy-eared rabbit female (sans all clothing) who had dyed herself-for some ungodly reason-bright blue. The crowd around her cheered. "We must cast off all traces of this repressive past, cast down the false histories created by corrupt governments! We have lived under the yoke of tyranny for long enough, and it is time to throw down these devices of social control and declare with one loud voice 'we will not be herded into oblivion, we will resist with all means available! We shall overcome! We will write a new history!'"
The rabbit-morph went on in her tirade for many more minutes, whipping the crowd into a frenzied mass, and Tim wondered how a person could ever have become so angry that they would attempt to foment a rebellion against society in general. But he didn't have long to ponder the psychological aspects of the scene before him as more rocks began to pelt the police cruisers lined on their side of the wide street. Something crashed and tinkled very close to them.
"Sumbitch, Tim!" Stephen Fox, who looked like a mongoose, called out over the din of the crowd. "They're throwing bottles!"
"...to burn these symbols of the Old World and let the New World be born!" the rabbit-morph was yelling, her arms held high into the sky, a bottle of clear liquid clutched in one furry hand. As if on cue a group of four others from the crowd emerged, carrying red plastic containers, and from these they poured large quantities of reddish liquid onto the pile of clothing.
"Incoming!" called out Byrd, and the Cadets ducked away from another bottle as it smashed into the side of the vehicle, splattering the cruiser with the same reddish liquid that was being poured onto the pile of clothing.
Christy noticed the smell immediately, identical to what they had smelled for so many hours, only a hundred times more powerful. "Tim! That smell!"
Tim lifted his nostrils to the air, and the whites of his eyes showed. Oh, my God. It was right in front of us, but we didn't make the connection. Vapors from the primer fuel for turbine engines. Holy Jesus, this whole place is a bomb!
He found himself suddenly standing in full view of everyone, a mountain of muscle and body armor and waving arms, bellowing to everyone who could hear him. "Everyone! Get away from the street! Get away from the fuel station! Team 2, go, go, go! Move!"
There was a commotion down at the fuel station, maybe a mile away. Wes snatched the binoculars away from the raccoon-morph and leapt up onto the hood of a nearby car, put the device to his eyes and engaged maximum zoom. He saw a Cadet standing in the middle of the street, nametag reading Wolfe, waving his arms like a madman, obviously yelling something that the people around him found most disturbing, for droves of people were streaming away from the street. All except a crowd of people standing near a pile of clothes. One of them held something shiny in her hand, a cigarette lighter.
"What the hell?"
"What's up, Wes?" asked Reeves, Cheyla standing slightly behind her.
"I dunno...somthin'." He reached down to his belt-mounted radio and keyed his microphone. "Team 2, Team 5, how copy?"
Christy Drake heard a crackling radio call in her poorly fitting earpiece, but paid it no heed. These radios were bargain-basement pieces of crap, and only looked good as a piece of decoration on their body armor. They were prone to picking up the conversations of ham radio operators with very poor quality.
Besides, she had other things she had to take care of, like spreading the alarm on down the line before she wisely decided to follow Tim's instructions and get as far away from the street as possible. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her past the Zachry fountains...
"Reeves, they aren't responding," Wes told her, although that was unnecessary. Reeves had heard the radio call loud and clear over her own hands-free set. "Let's see if we can raise them with the CB in the 350. Cheyla, you're welcome to come along if you want."
"Thanks, I think I will," she said as she followed along behind them at a brisk pace, heading for a large, boxy, pale-green vehicle with twin whip antennae sticking up out of the back.
Tim was being pelted with rocks, both large and small, and he was bleeding from multiple cuts. "For God's sake, get away from the street! Run!"
A large chunk of concrete hit him squarely on the side of the head, and he fell to one knee seeing stars. Then there was a presence by his side, a hand helping him back to his feet. Stephen Fox grinned at him, flinching as another piece of debris sang past his ear. "Terrible Tim, in trouble again!"
"Get the hell out of here, Fox!"
"Nothin' doin', Tim. You got me into the Teams, and I'm gonna get you outta this mess! Come on!"
Tim Wolfe was almost twice the mass of the mongoose-morph, but the little guy had such an iron grip on his arm, and Tim was still dazed, that he stumbled along with the smaller Cadet, heading for the side of Zachry, all the while feeling rocks pelt the back of his body armor and helmet.
The rabbit-morph flipped open the lighter and rested her thumb on the flint wheel, lifting the little silver device in the air as if it were the Olympic Torch.
Beutel Health Center
The cryptoraptor suddenly sat bolt upright in his seat, spilling his drink all over the table.
"Hey, Frosty, you okay?" John asked of him, but didn't get any response. His friend was completely frozen, his face a mask of total fear, eyes wide and pupils dilated, Seeing but not seeing, and his jaw quivering. It looked almost as if he were experiencing a nightmare that he couldn't rouse himself out of. "Frosty? Talk to me, man. You're scaring me, here."
Eric's voice came out a rasp, sounding very far away. "The fire! Run! Run!"
And in the cryptoraptor's mind, he Saw a wall of flame roaring down a wide black ribbon like a flash flood, burning the ribbon, lifting people, cars, trucks, the entire world up into the sky, spinning everything crazily about, and then consuming it with its infinite hunger, adding to the energy of the burning wall. He felt and Saw the wave of burning energy approaching him, felt his feathers shrivel, burn, his flesh wrinkling and turning black, the ground beneath him become soft and sticky. He tried to scream, to cover his face with his hands, but as he did so he Saw the flesh of his arms fall free, revealing singed bone and burning connective tissue, Saw his hands contract into withered knots...and through all of this he could still See, even though his physical eyes had long since boiled away in their sockets. And then the wave of fire was upon him, a screaming mass of pure, unrelenting energy, neither good nor evil, consuming his body and soul in one awful moment.
The feathered dinosaur screamed out loud at the same instant the rabbit-morph depressed the flint wheel and unleashed the fires of Hell with a shrieking howl from the sewer grates and manhole covers.
|WoC Archive||Top Page|
|Part 3: Matters of National Security||Part 5: Firestorm|