The concrete floor was cold underneath my paws. And they were not really mine at the moment, as the "person" that had come with (or is that "in"?) my high tech clothing was controlling my body at the moment, in the form of a mountain lion, or puma or cougar if you prefer.
At any rate, we had just reached the exit of the Costume Shop. Then I asked my erstwhile companion, Just what is it you have planned anyway? Are we going to get out of here or what? At this point leaving was foremost on my mind, shrunken as it was.
The voice answered, We will get out. There's just something I need to take care of firstthe voice hesitated, it felt like it was holding back something. Uh, there's a way out through the laboratory. We can, uh, get out through there. But we have to go through the Terminal to get there.
Just as long as we get out. I had a few suspicions, but I had no idea how well it could read my mind, so I quashed those thoughts immediately. If it had some ulterior motive then it would probably just take control over my body and do it's own thing.
Your turn nowit said abruptly. I suddenly had control back. Coordinating four feet is not as easy as it sounds. My walk was rather robotic and graceless at first, no doubt because there is at least a basic four-footed walk program separate from the Voice, and it took a while to get it right with out tripping over my paws. The fact that I was using senses I was not familiar with may of had something to do with it.
The Voice in my head was giving me directions, so I went left to go down the darkened hallway. It seemed brighter, but not by much. Just how do we get there anyway? I thought.
Just keep going. I owned this place for twenty years until the tourist part went under, I know where I'm goingit retorted. It pointed me down a side hall, where it got darker and darker, to the point where even my cat's eyes could not distinguish any detail. I'd need to be a bat in order to see anything. good idea... the Voice said. The only thing that changed seemed to be my head. My ears got larger, and my nose felt strange. Now you're a puma-bat. Start roaring, and you'll "see".
I found the Voice was right. It was not unlike the sound-sense of the dolphin I was earlier. Through there were differences. There were a few twists and turns, but I soon "saw" a door.
Reaching the end I resumed my normal form, or tried to. When I tried to initiate the change it almost seemed like I was stuck between gears, or something. Uh oh, I thought. I thought you'd said that you'd gotten all the bugs out!
Wrong. I said most. There is quite a difference. You know, that "between gears" idea might work. Try shifting down to full cougar, then humanit said.
I tried it, and it worked. I had to make sure I was completely cougar, only then could I shift back to human. There. Now what? It was still completely black, and I could not see a thing. I was standing in front of the door with my jeans and T-shirt on.
Feel alongside the left side of the door. There should be a slide open panel. Push it. It took a couple of minutes, but I found it. The panel slid open the reveal a lighted plaque with a hand shaped imprint on it. A computer voice said. "DNA and voiceprint identification, please."
"Now what? Won't it only let certain people in?" I said aloud.
Remember, I owned this place. Don't be alarmed, but I'm going to take control again. There is also going to be a small change. Again, don't worry. I was glad it was dark. The changes I felt I was not sure I really wanted to see. I felt myself become lighter, with curves that a man never had. My chest tingled ominously. I really did not want to know what was happening about three feet down. My hair grew longer, tickling my shoulders. There was a pinching sensation on my face as my features changed. My clothes changed as well. Lucky for me, my consciousness was pushed to the side, but I could feel everything. Obviously the Voice had previously been a woman. For some reason the thought filled me with great embarrassment.
"Stop that," said a soft voice out of "my" lips. It -- no, she had taken complete control. "And you think you're confused. When you first put me on, your male mind and body almost put me in shock. How do you deal with it? But let's get on with this. I had to change completely because it makes a full body scan, changing just your hand would not have done it." I felt my arm move, and a delicate hand silhouetted on the glowing plaque. There was a brief tingle through my body from the scanner. Voiceprint identification, please." An obviously computer voice said. She replied, "Dr. Maya Naguma, president and inventor of OUTWEAR, Inc."
What?! I was shocked at first, but now that I thought of if she had said in the beginning that she was the one who'd invented... herself. And if she had wanted my body to begin with, she probably could have killed my consciousness outright.
"Stop that!" she said again. "I can hear your thoughts you know. Yes, I will give your body back after I'm done with it. But it really is easier if I control right now. You'd never know how to use these controls anyway."
She was right, and as the door slid open the interior of the next room was completely baffling. As I, er, she walked inside the brightly lit room I saw rows and rows of seats. Not unlike an airport terminal. Along with doors with numbers above them, and what looked to be check-in counters. You hit the nail on the head, Davidthe Doctor thought. This is where all the tourists arrived. They came from far in the future to experience the past. But not just forward in time. There is more than one direction to travel in that medium, after all. I'll show you. She walked over to a standing video screen, it came on as she approached.
TEMPORAL CATALOG the sign said. RESERVATIONS TO ALMOST ANYWHERE IN TIME. PUSH HERE (X) TO ENTER. She did, and a incomprehensible amount of numbers flashed on the screen. It stopped after a second or so. PARAMETERS FOR SEARCH? it said. "Top five most popular destinations from this facility," she said.
This is what came up on the screen:
5. A constant Roman Empire
(Catalog number: B844266, SB233684.212485)
4. Belgarath the Sorcerer
(=: B844266, SB42233845.525000)
3. A world untouched by sapient life.
(=: B745631, SB42684593.148961)
2. Alt-E Horse
(=: B254789, SB78426984.201578)
(=: B844266, [no sub-coordinates])
You can go forward and backward through timeshe was thinking to me. But that gets rather boring. You see, each universe is like a bubble with it's own frequency (the "B844266" ones are your own reality's main coordinates), they are connected by amazingly fragile membranes, that's why we use transfer booths. Cross-reality rips are impossible to repair. Each bubble touches infinite other bubbles, but also have realities contained within themselves, the "SB" numbers. These "sub-realities" are often expressions of the imaginations of those closest to the particular sub-reality, and can be populated by everything from so-called "furries" (you know, anthropomorphic animals) to the characters of almost any story you've ever read, hence the "Belgarath the Sorcerer" universeshe concluded.
Just how many destinations are there anyway? I was having trouble enough with just forward and backward time travel, but this?
In this particular facility's memory? About 218,000, the coordinates for each taking about ten terabytes. When I bought the place from the previous owners (who had gone bankrupt in the 20's; they came from an alternate universe where the Crash never happened, so they could not anticipate it.) it was rather run down. I fixed it up and have been waiting for the tourist biz to pick up so I can -- could -- reopen. She sighed.
Are we here to actually do something here besides look up what would of happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated? I asked.
Ah! Yes, thanks for reminding me. I need to check travel records. My lab assistant is obviously still around, the bastard. Through this I can download his travel records into myself and see if he is here or not... then I can take care of business. Her fingers rapidly tapped the screen, bringing up more incomprehensible data. "Here's what I'm looking for!" she said aloud. Some of the data on the screen was actually at least marginally recognizable. "Good, he's not here," she said, pointing to what looked like a departure date. "The overconfident idiot obviously expected you to stay a Raptor for the full month eating rats and drinking out of toilets. He won't be back until next week!" She was ecstatic, her fingers flew over the console once more. I heard a weak thought, thereit seemed to say.
Just who is this guy anyway? I said from the corner of my mind where I'd put myself, like in a comfortable chair.
"I said I'd invented OUTWEAR," she said as she began to walk toward a door between two gates. There was a sign above it that said: TO THE LAB. "My first units were the cattle costumes that the previous owner used to move her clients in and out without being noticed. They were model 100's, barely more than nanite costumes with simple programming after Congress banned nanotech from internal use after the DYNO BAR debacle, which you discovered why."
I sure did, I thought. Though the Velociraptor form itself had it's own allure. I was sure I'd have more control over my instincts now.
"Yes. My next few designs met with varying success. There was the 1000, 1500, 2000, and 2500. The last one, the 2500 was a disaster. The AI I'd included was buggy and sometimes killed the user by changing them into an inappropriate animal."
There was a mental sob. Her legs were unsteady, so I took some control (god those breasts felt strange!). I hired a graduate student from Bombay Tech who'd been working on artificial intelligence based on living beings. He'd successfully created some robots who had the mentality and instincts of dogs, and had some success at marketing them as Pseudo-Pets. So I hired him to work in the AI for my next model, the 3000. She was thinking more clearly now. He proved to be a very good worker, and was on my Board of Directors within weeks. I assigned him this Lab to do his work away from the main Lab. Then he started insisting that he needed a living human to base the new AI on. I made the mistake of coming here alone to check on him. I was grabbed from behind when I came out of one of the gates, drugged, then downloaded. The download process had not been tested before. The last words that I heard was his voice saying, "Now we'll see what I can do with this company!" There were more mental sobs.
She obviously wanted revenge, and I could not fault her for it. I was pushed aside again. "Now we find out what he has done in the past decade or so I've been out of contact." For a "download" she did not seem any different from a real person.
The Lab was full of all kinds of nasty looking instruments. There were tanks of gelatinous goo lining the far wall. "Undifferentiated nanites that need programming," she said. The room had five parallel rows of lab tables, each about 25 feet long with a walkway down the middle, breaking the tables into two segments. At each end was an identical table at 90 degrees from the others. They were all a mess, and on one end of the middle table near the perpendicular one, in one of those messes I saw my camera. Hey! Get that, please, I thought.
Latershe thought back. There's just one last thing I have to do. She ambled over to what looked like a computer you would find in my century, I always liked antiquesshe thought. She started tapping on the keyboard, then stuck my three middle fingers into the disk drive. Before I could think anything, I felt a large amount of information be downloaded into my brain. Or maybe it was not my brain, and I was only sensing the periphery of a huge amount of information that was now a part of me. Then she turned around. We were now facing a table with what looked like a mind-transfer helmet straight out of Star Trek. She sighed. Then I felt her become distracted, or perhaps not. Whatever she was doing now demanded her full attention.
I heard a noise, as of a door closing. He was back, and in the same room as us. I ducked behind the table. I heard a shuffling of cloth, like someone wearing a long coat. I peeked above the table.
He was a short man, wearing glasses (more for show than function, I was sure.). Balding (again, for looks), with blond hair. There was what could have been a computer on his wrist, I could see a glowing screen. His eyes had a mad look to them. I could tell that this man was definitely not accessing all his RAM. I felt rage building inside me, the Doctor did not notice as she was intent something else. I crept closer, changing my body back to normal. I scarcely noticed the familiar scales spreading on my arms and hands.
I was barley keeping a lid on my anger. The Doctor still did not seem to notice. Then he saw my camera. And laughed. I knew that laugh. I'd heard it echo inside my mind as he'd laughed at my rat hunting. I was sure he'd planned to make me (or whoever came in) eat one of those bars and see if they lost their minds. That laugh tore it. I felt a familiar shift as my anger got the better of me. I was suddenly comfortable, and balanced on my long clawed feet, claws and teeth were ready to rip his throat out. He did not hear anything. This was perfect. I crept closer stealthily, making sure my claws did not click on the floor. I was one row over from him, and could smell him in my naris.
Letting out a blood-curdling scream, I surprised him completely; knocking him over the table, and breaking my camera in the process. Damn, I thought. I did seem to have more control, like driving an indycar with no training. I jumped up on the table and was about ready to pounce, when I saw he'd made a few modifications to himself while his was out of sight. He was nothing less than a tiger-morph. And a big one too, with only the wrist computer left of his clothing. He took a swipe at me, but I was too quick and jumped backward onto the download couch. He jumped over the table claws extended, roaring, he impacted me right in the chest and we fell on the ground wrestling each other.
He had me on my back. I tried to claw his guts out with the sickle-claws on my feet, and he tried to cut my throat out. There were flashes of pain, but no blood. Our claws seemed not to be able to cut through whatever we were wearing. It was a stalemate; at least until I managed to flip him over on his back. As far as I knew, tearing someone's head off was definitely a killer. I held him down with my hands and feet, he roared in frustration. I opened my jaws wide, and just as I was about to grab his head I heard, David!! Stop!! What do you think you're doing? It was the Doctor. I stopped cold.
"I thought you wanted revenge!" I said aloud, as well as in my mind. Aloud it came out as terrifying snarls. The Assistant's eyes, inhuman as they were, were filled with fear.
I wanted justice, not revenge! Why do you think I was collecting all this information? It was so I could prosecute him in a Court of Law! Do you want his death on your conscience for the rest of your life? she thought. By the way she told me this, I was now sure I could have taken off his head and killed him.
I relaxed a little, realizing what I was doing. That was enough. The Assistant took the opportunity to knock me into a wall on my back. He was changing more to resemble a cheetah than a tiger, for speed most likely. He ran for the door to the Terminal. I was now in a awkward position for a long-tailed biped. I was somewhat on my back, wedged between the floor and the wall. Get up! she screamed mentally. After him!she continued.
I discovered that the best way to get out was a combination of instinct and brains; instinct so I can operate my body right, and brains so I don't panic. I finally managed to flip over, and I rushed toward the closing door.
There were lights on in the hall that were not on earlier. The Assistant flew around the corner, moving with incredible speed. But Nature had designed the velociraptor with speed in mind. I did not lose any ground on him, but I did not gain any either.
He was running straight for one of the terminal gates, punching something madly into his wristpad. The lights flickered for a moment, the door nearest him opened. In an unexpected burst of speed, he dove through that door which closed behind him. I almost made it through, but the door closed too fast. I had to skid to a stop, but I still slammed against it with a rather large amount of force, seeing stars. Damn! He got away! I thought.
All I heard was a mental chuckle. What are you so happy about? Didn't you want "justice"?
He's not going anywhereshe thought. I knew he'd be back, but not when. I've trapped him in this time, somewhere on this planet. I shunted him to another node, but I don't know which. He's still around and can't go anytime else, no matter how many times he tries. All we have to do is find him. I'm sure I was not the only unfortunate result of one of his experiments. She sounded rather smug. But it's a big planet, and how she expected a poor college student to afford to be a world traveler I had no idea.
I lay down for a moment, tired to the bone. What were you doing anyway? I thought you would have noticed our fight.
I was digging through the mountain of data I'd downloaded, evidence I'll have to decodeshe thought. How did you change without me noticing? she thought, I felt the steel in her mind voice.
Well, uh, I just got angry and it happened on it's own.
That took her by surprise. Well, I guess you'd better change back. We've got to get out of here and start searching.
I tried, but nothing happened. Nothing at all. Do you want to explain why I can't change?
It's a bugshe thought simply. I should not have absorbed all those ancient nanites. They're bollixing up the whole system. Nevertheless, let's go. I'll work the bugs out as we go. Just then lights started to flash. A computer voice announced: WARNING! EVACUATE FACILITY IMMEDIATELY! MAIN MEMBRANE BREACH IMMINENT! SUB-MEMBRANE BREACH IMMINENT! Shitshe said dryly. Damn! I shoulda known I shoulda known... with more emotion. She took control and ran over to a console. It was rather hard to see with vision split with a large muzzle, and hard to type with such long-clawed hands, but nevertheless she tapped a code quickly into the console. He's had an escape plan all alongshe thought, referring to an incomprehensible piece of data on the screen. He was going escape, then isolate us by merging this universe with two others by ripping the reality membranes. And I should of anticipated it. She was distraught. We've got about five minutes to get out of here. I'll direct you where to go while trying to get us human again. The way she thought it brooked no opposition, which I really was not going to do anyway.
Per her instructions, I raced for the Hall. There were red lights flashing everywhere. I stopped at a door not unlike the one that was at the Costume Shop, and nosed the button. Four minutes left. The door hissed open, revealing lots of livestock, all not moving. This was how we hid all the tourists, by putting them in O100 cow suitsshe thought in passing, then went back to fixing our minor dino problem. She was starting to have an effect, I was in a more upright position, and my tail had shrunk, but not much.
Three minutes left. There was an elevator at the opposite end, large enough for several "cows". I simply ran to it and pushed the "up" button. Nothing happened.
There was a ladder on the side of the shaft. It would be awkward and tight with my body as it was, and it proved to be every bit as hard as I thought. My claws would jam against the wall painfully. But she chose that time to fix something, and they shrunk a bit. It made it easier to climb.
Two minutes. I headed open the hatch at the top, seeing stars for a second and almost falling down the ladder. There was a low-growl sound below, like some unholy engine was warming up. I clawed my way on top of the shaft and scrambled in the general direction of open ground.
One minute. Then I found out why she had not tried to change me back all the way. I was fast. Not fast enough though. A wave of dizziness passed over me, but I seemed to be surrounded by a bubble of sorts, which protected me from the surging waves of distortion I saw race over the land around me. Then there was a physical shockwave that knocked me out completely.
I came to in a wheat field that had not been there before. This is getting to be a habit of yours, losing consciousness that isshe thought dryly.
Well, it was not my idea, I replied.
While you were out I was able to fix some things. Not everything, but if you dress in a trench coat and a big hat none should notice you. She was right. All around I still was not human. In general, I still had scaly skin with that tan/black/gray coloring, a two foot tail, and too many ribs. More specifically, my right hand had five fingers with claw-like fingernails, but my left was almost unchanged (that wrist was more flexible though). It was the same story with my feet. They were close to being the same as when I was a 'raptor, only smaller. I felt my face and head with my most normal hand. It was very close to being normal but I could still see and feel a short muzzle about as far out as my human nose. My skin there was smoother. It was the best I could doshe thought. The distortion from the explosion screwed me up again, even though I was able to make a one-time-only temporal shield of sorts. But it will be a day or so until I'm finished fixing thingsshe thought apologetically.
"Well, now what," I said aloud. My voice was much deeper than it should have been.
We go into town and try to get you homeshe replied.
"I have a car, you know." I turned around to where the house should have been, but there was nothing there. "Now what?" It was dawn, and I was facing east so I could definitely see there was nothing but wheat ready for harvest.
We go into town like I said. Start walking. When I did I always felt like I was walking uphill, but I was sure that was because of my unusual shape.
I saw a road about a mile a way, so I went for that. It was the same rode I drove into town on. The explosion had thrown me across town! Not quiteshe thought. If this makes any sense to you, it was the universe that moved, not you. I walked with my head down to keep drivers on the road from seeing my face, and had to take short steps or risk it showing I had a tail. She was still working, and I felt my feet change a little more, and my short tail shrink a bit. On my left hand the inner finger was now opposable.
I almost bumped into a road sign. CAMPTON, it said: POP 2,500. I looked up, and there was the town right in front of me. It was sooner than expected, especially since it had only been a tiny town of 250 before. A sign of the merger of two universes. You might be the only person who notices anything differentshe thought.
I saw a newspaper bundle in front of a newsstand. The date was one day before I arrived. Do you want to explain that?
Well, the physical force of the explosion coupled with the temporal distortion must have thrown us back in time about eight days, to the day before you got hereshe replied.
So I'm not even here yet? So how am I supposed to get home? Before she could answer, a pay phone rang. Because I don't like to just let pay phones ring, I answered. "Hello?" I said.
"Yes, my name is David Smith. I'm calling about the house in the ad," said a familiar voice. It should have been familiar, because it was my own.
Before I could answer, she answered for me in that deep voice. "Yes, and how can I help you?"
"I'm in a photography class, and that house will make a perfect subject," my voice had a haughty, arrogant inflection to it that I'd never had. "Where can I meet you?" he said.
"Meet me at the Cactus Jake Bar & Grill, it's on Main and you can't miss it," she replied.
"See you tomorrow then, 3:00 sharp!" He-I-hung up.
What are you doing? I asked. I was going to point myself away from here!
I was getting us a way out of town that did not involve walking or flying (as a bird, that is). There are some quite obvious differences between this universe and your own. We'll let him have his own experience with the Assistant, (and he should have the same experience that you did), thus putting him into another universe and leaving you the only you. Got that? she concluded.
I think so. Though I hated the idea of letting myself go through what I did.
Now, we are going to be stuck here until after the tornado tomorrow, so find a hidden place and let me work on your face and hands so we can roam around more freely. There was a dim alley between two buildings so I went in there and sat down on a low sawhorse so to give my short tail some room.
Unfortunately there was a homeless man sleeping in that alley. Sitting had exposed my clawed feet. The man's head was right next to them, and the first thing he saw when he woke up was those long sickle-claws. He screamed, looked up at my face, and saw something he obviously did not like. He ran out the alley screaming, holding a whiskey flask, shouting "Aliens!"
You'd better work fast, he's likely to get a policeman, I thought.
But who'd believe him? she replied pointedly. Carrying that flask will probably get him brought in, if anything.
She did work fast though. My eyes probably still had slit pupils, and my mouth was still reptilian. So that was what probably scared the man. My jaw joint cracked and popped, I had cheeks again, and a separate nose . And my scalp tingled as my hair grew back. My right hand lost all sign of scales and claws, and was now normal. My left though was still not right, only having four shorter clawed fingers. My tail shrunk further, and my feet normalized slightly mainly by shrinking the large claw. The black/tan mottling on my skin resumed a more normal color. That's the best I can do. I never should have absorbed those old-style nanites. Everyone makes mistakes, thoughshe thought.
I was not about to let "myself" go into the situation uninformed, so the Doctor replicated for me a fake ID and some money and I opened a membership in the town library. I photocopied all that I could, then rented a room with a view of the restaurant so I could see when I arrived. I ordered room service (a very rare hamburger), and the Doctor worked nonstop through the night to get me normal again. It worked, mostly. All except for my feet. I found out that I'd shredded the sheets in my sleep. My feet were stubborn, and still resembled a somewhat smaller version of the raptor's feet, they had not even lost the coloring or the scaly skin. I was stuck with the trench coat for the time being.
About 3:00 in the afternoon I saw a green BMW M3 pull up in front of the restaurant. It was me. I guessed that that explained the arrogance, my double must be rich. I gathered my big stack of papers and went across to the restaurant.
"You must be David Smith," I said in my deeper voice. "You called about the house."
"Yes, I..." he started. Talk about deja vu!
"Before you go out there," I interrupted, "you should know some thing about the place. Read these." I dropped my load of papers on the table, and left the dim restaurant to go back up to my room.
He obviously did not heed my warning. I saw him get into his car (which was oddly silent) and drive in the direction of the house, just as the thunderstorms to the east started to rumble.
Now what? I asked. My (new) car was going to be miles away, and I did not really feel like walking. She'd given up on my feet for the time being, but I rather liked the effect anyway.
It may be a long distance to walk, Dave, but as the crow flies it's very short. There was a mental smirk.
I knew what she meant. Won't I get stuck? Won't my feet stay the way they are?
Actually, no. Your feet are stuck from become more human, but not the other way around. A bird's feet are very close the raptor's, so there should be no problems. She sounded smug.
After the tornado passed (it touched down about a mile away from the motel) and the sky cleared, I checked out the motel and found a secluded place. I decided to initiate the change myself. It really was not so different from the raptor at first except for lack of tail. But then my fingers fused and my chest swelled with flight muscles. Black feathers sprouted and everything looked as if it was growing. My teeth fused, then thrust forward in a black beak. There were few changes to my feet. I watched my wings complete with flight feathers, and felt my tail feathers finish.
Everything finished it only took five minutes. I let an experimental "Caw!", then used the embedded flight program to pump my wings and leap into the sky. Nobody notices a crow. The Doctor pointed me in the general direction of the house, and informed me she was going to go back to digging in that data she'd got.
I can't even begin to describe the feeling of freedom that first flight gave me. My eyes were good, and my field of view was wide. I saw that the land was a checkerboard of fallow and cultivated fields. I rode thermals, for a while got mixed up in a murder of other crows, I even ruined someone's paint job. But then I remembered what I was here for and by nightfall I reached what was left of the house.
I saw there was very little left as I settled on a fence. The house had collapsed in on itself and there was debris all over to the northwest. I saw my double's car, and it was undamaged. I pumped my wings a little and landed by the open door. Then I changed back.
I only had to pick off a few black feathers, and I saw my feet were still raptor-ish like she said they would be. It was a nice car, with very little damage except a couple of dents in the windshield... Dents in the windshield?! I tapped it a couple of times and got a metallic sound in response. It was some kind of transparent metal. I saw that the car was electric (actually a BMW M3FC, FC for "fuel cell"), the range must be very good to drive such a long ways. There must have been a few advances in this universe that had not happened in my own. Looking inside, I saw that on the passenger seat was a wallet. Opening it, I saw that it was my double's. Not only that, but the keys were in the car. The guy must have been so arrogant that he did not care if things got stolen. Things were looking up. There was even space in the debris to drive back onto the road. I left the Doctor to her info-search, got in the car and drove for home.