I spent the next two weeks settling into my new life. The first thing I'd noticed when I drove up to my apartment building, instead of the ratty building that had been where I'd lived, was now a seven-story luxury apartment complex. Apparently my double had a lot of money, which I had actually already figured out by the $2,000(!) in my wallet.
When I walked in the door (it was the same address) I found out just how much money. There was a framed newspaper clipping on the wall that said: 18-YEAR OLD WINS RECORD 200 MILLION DOLLAR LOTTERY! Boy was I rich! But not without price. I called some of my friends and they hung up on me as soon as they heard my voice. Apparently my double had been an insufferable, arrogant, "I've got money and you don't", guy. That would not happen to me (boy, that sounds strange). Only one of my friends seemed not to care, my next door neighbor Bob Stein. I told him of my experience with the tornado (just the tornado). All he said to me was, "Glad to have the old you back, Dave."
I had problems hiding my altered feet. The Doctor said she would work on it, and she partially succeeded. By the end of one week I could at least fit them into some big boots. Before, I always walking carefully to keep them from showing, or ripping the trench coat I always wore when out in public. The hardest thing to hide was that big claw.
The only other thing that annoyed me was that for ten days in a row I'd woken up as something other than human, and not of my own choice. Sometimes I did not mind the particular animal the Doctor had chosen (try sleeping with a nice warm, furry tail curled around your nose), but some things I drew the line. Now, I generally like whitetail deer, but not if I'm a doe instead of a buck. When I complained to her she would give me that mental smirk and think, Just trying to broaden your horizons, David.
But what finally tore it was the morning I found myself on the wall, upside down, in a web of my own making. She'd turned me into a spider. I awkwardly dropped down on a dragline and changed back as fast as I could. I gave her a lecture about "free will" that really was not very good. And in a slightly injured tone she agreed not to change what was really my body anyway without my permission. I also spent a lot of time as a crow, flying around town often just for the fun of it, or to see what else had changed.
In the evening of the day when the Doctor and I'd gotten aquainted, I felt a wave of dizziness. This was the distortion that had bumped me back in time, into an alternate universe. I was now sure I was the only "me" in this one. That reminded me that I should be checking what's different about this world from my old one. The membrane separating this main bubble from another one must have ripped catastrophically. Personally, I'm amazed we're not dead. I wonder where the other one is though? That sub-reality's bubble should have burst already. Doesn't matter, I guess, she thought.
World population was only about 2.5 billion, half what it had been where I'd come from. This was due to a plague supposedly released by the Nazis at the end of WWII. In this universe, called the Plague War. It had killed 80% of the people in Europe and Asia, and about 40-60% everywhere else. It had been an airborne virus that caused it. So even though this town was bigger, it was only because large cities were disdained by the many people.
The treatment was found in the Amazonian Rainforest, proving the worth of natural environments. As a result the world was as clean of pollution as an industrial society could get. Everything had been poured into science and ecology, thus resulting in an upward surge in technology in the '60's that put my original reality's surges to shame. By the late '70's they already had laptop computers comparable to what I remembered before the first Merge.
I got my car fixed, bought a new camera (a nice Canon Elan-IIE), and dropped my classes for the rest of the year. Life was good.
Until one morning...
I got up groggily and started my morning routine, going immediately to the shower. I'd had strange dreams the night before, something about hunting? So I think I was a little preoccupied. The Doctor had been silent for a while, engrossed in her decryption problem. She was sure she'd find some of the answers to her questions in that data. My feet felt strange for a moment. Stranger than usual, that is. The Doctor must have fixed them some more. Those old nanites are so stubborn I wonder how they ever got by with them, she'd told me a couple of days ago.
I had a waterproof radio in the shower, so I turned it on. The DJ was saying: "Good morning Goodland, we have a great show planned for... What Alan? My ears? What about my ears? No, you're crazy! Gimme a mirror." There was a pause. "God, no!" I shut it off, and instinctively looked at my feet. They were back to being almost as bad as they had been two weeks ago. I felt sick. Not again. While I was drying off my legs, I saw and felt them change to accommodate the feet. My calves muscled up, thighs shortening slightly, so I was now standing somewhat knees-bent on my lengthened toes, arches much longer and almost vertical. The ubiquitous coloring and scales spread to match just below my crotch. Then it stopped.
I was not angry, so I immediately asked the Doctor. Are you doing this?
No, she replied. No, we're converging with the subuniverse randomly chosen by the node's computer. The bubble must have burst. It may be that this sub-reality was populated by evolved dinosaurs. Don't worry. Then she went back to her decoding.
You're a big help, I thought sarcastically. I put on a bathrobe and some boxers then went out and sat in my living room chair. I thought about what I felt when I saw my legs change. The feeling had been different from the suit's shapechange function. OUTWEAR suits, she'd told me, act from the outside in. In order to get around the anti-nanotech laws. This change had felt like it radiated from my bones. So the new universe itself was doing it. I wondered how long the pause would last.
There was a knock at the door. "Dave! Let me in!" It was Bob.
"Not now," I replied, somewhat tense.
"But it's really important," he quieted down and spoke through his teeth. "I've got a tail." It should not have surprised me, but it did.
"You heard me. Let me in. Either I've got a tail or I'm losing my mind. I need you to confirm what I'm seeing." His voice was shaking and serious. I stood up, careful to cover my feet at the door, and opened it. Bob's face was a mix of excitement and distress. Why he was excited about becoming part animal I'd never really know.
He too, was wearing a bathrobe. I closed the door behind him. "OK," I said. "Show me this purported tail." He turned his back, and pulled up his robe. There it was. A big, hairy, black, horse's tail. Covering enough so it not to cause any embarrassment. He saw that I saw it. The lines of worry disappeared from his face, and were replaced by a smile of excitement. "Isn't it great?" he said.
I got choked up for a moment. It was one thing to hear about it on the radio, another to actually see it in real life. Bob had just finished a Ph.D. in genetics. Whatever the look on my face was, it took the excitement right out his face. He dropped the robe back down. "You're not exactly happy about this, are you?"
"It's not that, Bob," I lied. "I was just hoping it was just a hallucination."
He looked at me carefully. "Why? Is it happening to you, too?" he asked. With some hesitation, I lifted up my robe enough to show my feet. His eyes went wide for a moment. He swallowed. "Well, it looks like you're going to be some kind of lizard."
"A dinosaur, actually. A velociraptor, like in 'Jurassic Park'." His eyes went even wider at that word. Then, without warning, there was an outward pushing sensation from my crotch as my stance widened, and a jostling sensation as my pelvis shifted. I clutched my hands to my backside, and felt a long tail slide out from then end of my spine under the thick robe, ripping my boxers loudly. There was an odd sensation from my groin, almost like suction.
My bathrobe in back now was clearly being supported by something, it had been hanging limply in front, now it was pulled tightly against my stomach and riding up my legs halfway. Looking backwards, the scaly tip of my tail was visible out the bottom. I was now leaning forward to balance out the new mass. "Damn, I'm not ready for this," I said. It stopped again. This Merger was definitely taking place in stages. Then I suddenly felt the thing behind me. Long, dry, scaly.
I looked at Bob to see his reaction, but he was in the midst of a change himself. Apparently his had started just after mine. He was on the floor clutching at his feet, which were elongating and getting hairy. His toes were merging into a single mass, a hoof. Long white hair grew just above the hoof, and covered it slightly. Clearly when he finished he would resemble some draft horse, Clydesdale maybe.
Bob's changing stopped. After looking himself over he awkwardly got up and looked to be about six inches taller, owing to his new legs. "Well, certainly we're not going to change all the way, the way our lower halves look proves it. I just hope I can keep balanced..." There was a knock at the door.
"You answer it," I said. "I have to go to the bathroom." Bob nodded, perhaps understanding a little.
I was in the bathroom before he opened the door. I turned on the light and took off my robe. Everything from the waist down was changed. The most obvious thing being was that I probably would not have to wear pants anymore for modesty. There was nothing there anymore, just a short, abrupt three-inch deep downward curve in my ventral outline between my legs (my thighs no longer touched when I stood up straight), that then curved upward again to smoothly merge with the base of my tail, then what was my new cloaca on the rear side of the bump. I could feel a bone in that bump, part of my new pelvis. I decided to ask the Doctor. I've been paying attention, you're still male, she thought. Only people, and not inanimate objects, seem to be affected though. Strange. Maybe the fact that the universe was probably just a subreality of this one, thus making only the biological part different enough to change things...
Is there anyway to make myself stay human? I asked, hopeful, and remembering the temporal shield two weeks ago.
No, that was a one time thing. So much for hope. In the bone marrow, she began didactically. There are cells that are very special. These cells are so because unlike any other cell in the body, they really are not too differentiated. In other words, have not adapted themselves for a specific task of being a muscle cell, or a organ cell, or a nerve cell. The suit keeps about ten of these unchanged in their DNA pattern no matter what form you take. They act as a memory buffer for what you look like so the suit does not need to keep one. That's how I designed it, at least. She paused a moment, as if looking at something. Now the DNA in these cells is changing spontaneously into a new code. Velociraptor, at least in part. How, I really don't know. You'll figure out what to do. By the way, for a while after you finish changing you won't be able to change form using the suit. This is messing up all my careful calibrations specific to your human form. I'll have to reset and write new programs specific to your new neutral shape. I was only supposed to be a prototype, you know. I'm not suited to this kind of pressure. There was that mental smirk again.
"What?!" I must have said it out loud, and loudly too. There'd been some animal-sounding laughter in my living room, and it stopped abruptly. To my misfortune, just as I was about to open the door, Bob and a complete stranger literally came bursting in. Actually, Bob had knocked just twice on the door before knocking it (accidentally) right off the hinges, and on top of me. "Dave! Sorry, guess I don't know my own strength." He'd obviously gone back to his apartment for a while, because he was wearing a kind of toga made out of bed sheets. I saw that he'd changed a bit more, (and so had I, but had not noticed) mainly in the hair and muscle department. There was black hair up to his chest, and his chest muscles rippled with obvious power. He yanked the door off me." Are you OK?" the stranger said in a mid-baritone voice.
"Yeah, I'm fine." At least she had not taken the suit's healing powers off-line. Just as Bob lifted me up, I realized I was naked. I quickly wrapped a towel around myself, blushing (or maybe not blushing, I did something else with my tail to show embarrassment). Instinctive, I guess, because I no longer had anything to hide. The stranger probably had that same wide-eyed look Bob did when he looked at me, I avoided looking at him directly." You aren't going to eat me, are you?" the stranger said, a humorous lilt to his voice.
Bob and the man left my room, and I followed Bob's example by making a kind of loincloth, it was the only thing I could think of to get around my tail, which I'd noticed was about a yard long, and had a relatively small diameter at the base. Overall my lower half was slightly larger, though it felt no heavier (discounting the tail).
When I went back out into the living room, Bob introduced his friend. His name was Jack deMule (which he'd obviously changed from his original name, which later turned out to be a common trend). He even looked not unlike a mule, his change had started from the head down. His head had slightly wider spaced eyes and a relatively short muzzle, and long, moving ears. His hands were four-fingered with thick nails, and hairy on the back. "Pleased to meet you," I said.
His response was a laugh that sounded not unlike braying. "Glad to meet you too! I've always liked dinosaurs." His grin showed large teeth. It was also infectious. Everyone was smiling.
All three of us were reluctant to turning on the TV, so we went on the 'Net with my computer and thence to IRC. After checking on a couple of obvious channels (=tails and =animalheads) we were disappointed that most conversation seemed limited to something like:
Bear> wolf: what are you changing into?
Wolf> a wolf. bear: what are you?
Bear> a bear.
So much for intelligent discussion. Though I did talk with a camel-girl named Janice who was very skeptical when I told her what I was becoming, and managed to have a very good, but short, conversation with her. She said she had some friends she needed to take care of, and had only gotten on the 'net by going to the local root server. I could not blame her for her skepticism, not with the rest of the 'net the way it was.
There had been no more changes since the last surge, for us at least, so Jack, Bob, and I decided to talk until the next one happened. Later I found out different surges not all surges affected everyone, that Janice girl said she and her friends had finished already, but we were clearly not done.
Jack, it turned out, had worked for the US Government. Doing what he really would not say. "He's got a great collection of James Bond films," Bob said in passing, perhaps hinting at something. Jack and I had hit it off immediately. Afterward, I learned that those who'd stayed with friends and family while the Change had happened were more psychologically healthy than those who'd gone through it alone. We kept each other sane by confirming what was happening really was.
Another surge came. It hit Bob first. I saw his arm muscles grow even larger, and he, taller. His fingers fused so he had only three per hand, with thick nails. I guessed that when Bob finished he'd be seven plus feet tall, and an unknown amount stronger then he had been. His chest barreled slightly, and the black hair stopped at the base of his neck. Clearly his head was next. Then it was my turn.
My nipples (such as a human male has) disappeared. Two additional rib pairs grew in, making my waist a little less flexible; my chest barreled a bit and expanded to account for my slightly stooped stance, dropping my shoulders so it'd be easier to raise my arms forward. But it was my arms and hands that drew my attention the most.
My actual arm bones changed very little (save for larger muscles), but my hands were a different story. Taking the smallest finger as =1, and =5 the thumb, fingers =2 and =3 fused, and got more circular in cross-section. The two flanking fingers increased in diameter slightly. My arm hair fell out, scales in. They conformed to my overall coloring, which was much like it had been before.
I was perhaps a bit more light tan than I had been, with black running in a line down my spine, and a faint tan/black tiger-stripe pattern on my sides and tail (the end of which was black, with a bit of light tan in the dips between scales). My fingers lengthened an inch, and gained three-quarter inch claws at the ends in addition to that. The claws were long enough to cause damage if I so chose, but short enough so I could manipulate things. They seemed to come right out of my fingertips, they were a dull white, and the skin below was quite sensitive (possibly so I'd have more accuracy in handling things). The surge stopped at the same place Bob's had. I was almost wondering what I'd look like after my head changed. For some reason I did not fear it.
Other than the addition of a tail (he'd pre-cut a hole in his shorts) and perhaps more hair down his legs, Jack did not change much. "Let's find out what'd happening on the news, shall we?" Jack suggested.
Bob and I agreed, and I turned on the huge set my double had apparently liked (though I thought it was too big). A 61" monster that had all the bells and whistles.
There are some people, no matter the situation, that will stick it out no matter what happens. The anchorman on The News Channel was clearly one of those people. He had a head that resembled an elk, complete with growing antlers. He was speaking in a clear, deep voice: "...we are now getting unconfirmed reports that children under the age of puberty seem unaffected. We can only speculate about elsewhere, but the children in the building's daycare center show no signs transformation." He was obviously trying not to think of his own situation, as his big brown eyes showed their whites.
The report went on to say that in ultrasound scans of completely changed pregnant women, the fetus was still completely human. Women in labor at the time would give birth to normal human babies, the only problems being that those who were part-bird or part-reptile (or the occasional part-dinosaur) needed a different source for milk, as they'd lost their breasts. "Interesting," we all said at once.
I sat down in my chair. My tail was stiffened quite a bit, to be a good balance tool no doubt, but it was still flexible enough so I could turn it forward to sit uncomfortably in the easy chair. I would have to have it (the chair, not my tail) modified later. The report ranged all over the place, the Change was obviously happening worldwide. I sat with one hand holding my chin, the other unconsciously scraping the arm cushion. No one said anything for a while, the images on screen said enough.
At one point I heard Jack say, "Uh, Dave?" I looked up at his hairy face. "What, Jack?", I replied. He just pointed at the chair arm I'd been idly scratching. It was shredded down almost to the wood base. "Oops," I said. "I'll have to be more careful."
The President had come on briefly, asking for calm. He apparently got it, because there was very little looting. Surprisingly, the President was a bald eagle, uh... "morph" I guess is the word. He even came out naked as he was clothed in feathers! He had six limbs, the extra two were the wings on his back. The only thing that had not changed yet was his head. It almost looked like he was wearing a sort of costume, but he obviously was not by the way he demonstrated by flapping a bit.
Bob took me aside for a moment. He towered over me by about a foot. And I'd gotten several inches taller, too. He'd finally gotten used to walking on those hoofed feet. "Look," he saying in a quiet voice. "I think Jack's personality's changed a little. He seems a bit more stubborn. Not that the change has been great, but there is a difference. It worries me what will happen to us." I saw that by "us", he actually meant "you". I was turning into a predator after all, and I might look on them as potential prey. To tell the truth, I was slightly worried too. All I could say was, "We'll see."
Just then, Jack yelled at us, "Guys! Guys! C'mere quick! You've gotta see this!" We rushed over to the TV, running awkwardly with our partially metamorphosed bodies. Jack had taken the chair, so I stopped behind it. TNC was in Calcutta, India, and some reporter who looked like some rodent was interviewing a guy who looked like a tiger. For some reason the tiger-guy looked familiar. Then the reporter made some sort of joke, and there was the familiar sadistic laugh. That did not make me mad though. Why I'll never know. But I cried out "Yes!" and swiped my right arm down in a gesture of triumph, shredding the back of the chair accidentally. That's him all right, thought the Doctor. Also, I think you should tell them about what really happened. They're your friends so they have a right to know. If they need a demonstration I think I can manage the crow. Then she was gone.
It was agonizing about how to open up such a confession, but they did it for me. Two questions opened the door completely; 1)"Who were you talking to in the bathroom?" from Jack (apparently I'd spoken out loud more than I thought); and 2)"Something more happened to you other than being in that tornado. What is it?" from Bob. I told them the whole story, only leaving the Doctor out (I knew I was stressing credibility as it was). Surprisingly, when I finished Jack just looked at me and nodded, as if he knew something. Bob just went bug eyed for a while, then sat down on the fake fireplace, wincing for a second when he accidentally sat on his tail.
It was then when the last surge (for us) hit. Jack first this time. Jack's feet changed very little, he now forced to walk somewhat on his toes. He had three hoofed toes like some sort of proto-equine. Then he seemed finished. I spun the chair around so I would not face them. In back of the chair was a long mirror on the wall. I saw my head change in complete detail, it is something I will always remember.
My irises spread to cover the entire eye. My eyes increased in size a bit, pupils elongating into cat-like vertical slits. I could see a faint greenish vein pattern. I smiled, my cheeks disappearing once more as I gained the reptilian grin. Scales moved up from my neck to take over my lower jaw. My forehead flattened, and had more pronounced brow ridges. My neck lengthened and reset in a less vertical angle, so my head would jut forward. Hair and ears were absorbed, leaving scales and a small hole respectively. My jawline started to extend, nostrils turning out and forward, then widening to look just like a couple of holes at the end of my... muzzle. My growing muzzle did not extend fully, and stopped at about two-thirds the length of the normal raptor. My teeth were not as long as the normal raptor's either, though they did still look fearsome. I felt a few "finishing touches" going on in my body, I could feel a slight fork in my tongue. I had to change the position of my tail as it thickened and lengthened a bit more. I had a general feeling of being much stronger. As my brain's synapses rewrote themselves my body finally felt consistent, though still strange. My insides quivered a bit, making their own completion.
All-in-all, I was rather pleased with the result. My eyes faced more forward then the natural raptor's had, my brow ridges merging forward into the top of my snout, thus I kept most of my depth perception, not to mention my color vision, even though a muzzle split my vision. My cranium was somewhere between human and raptor in size, with a small forehead, thus the length limitation on my jaw, and the fact that my eyes were closer to the top of my head. My hearing was better than the RAPTOR RIPPLE bar's, so that product's reproduction had obviously been flawed. The sense of smell I had was much more sensitive, and with it I could smell Jack and Bob behind me. My face was symmetrically mottled with tan and black, with a large patch of black above my naris extending above my eyes (maybe to act like a sunblock?). My lower jaw was medium gray to match my underside, with small black spots (which were small black scales). So I was tan w/black stripes above, and gray w/sparse black individual scales below. I wondered what my skull would look like in an x-ray, I knew quite a bit about dinosaur physiology.
Then I noticed something else. The reason why I was noticing everything was the fact that I had great clarity of thought. The eyes I saw in the mirror had a great amount of intelligence in them. When I remembered the when I looked in the bathroom mirror in the Hall the first time I changed, I seemed to remember eyes that had hardly a fleck of brains in them. No wonder it'd been so easy for the Assistant to control my mind! The sharpness of thought that I had rivaled that of the dolphin I'd been in the Costume Shop while I got to know the Doctor. My brain might be smaller, but I must be using so much of it as to more than make up for the difference. Raptors must have been very smart dinosaurs. I could not smile in the human sense, instead the tip of my tail whipped around from side to side.
It'd gotten really quiet back there where Bob and Jack had been talking. They were not afraid though, the only thing I could smell (yes, smell!) was curiosity, and perhaps concern. I spun the chair around to face them.
They saw my changed head, and my stronger-looking body. Shock and maybe even worry crossed their faces. Then they saw past what I looked like, and into the look in my eyes. "You've changed, haven't you?" said Jack. "Yes, I think," I replied. He obviously meant more than physically. I was talking with relatively little mouth movement, it was coming more from my larynx instead. It sounded no different to me.
"You look cool, Dave," said Bob, voice deeper than it had been. He did not look so bad himself, quite magnificent, in fact. He had all the given normal features of a horse's head, including black mane and long ears. He had a long, powerful neck which looked very flexible. And a larger cranium than horses do, a slightly shorter muzzle, with more forward facing eyes. He had not lost any of his intelligence either, by the look of those eyes there was even more brains than before, and they had in there a look that I recognized. It would be near-impossible to make him angry. And when he did get angry you'd better stay away from those fists. "You do too," I replied. With my heightened perception, I saw that the "stubbornness" that Bob had perceived was not quite the right term. Perhaps "iron determination" was better. I knew that when he had a goal in mind he would not quit until he got there.
They still did not quite believe my story though, so I convinced them by turning into a crow on the spot. I could feel the suit strain to make the change, and I was sure I did not want to try to change again until the Doctor recalibrated.
We discussed what should be done about the Assistant. Jack said that on the news that the bastard had gotten backing from the Indian government to find a "cure". I was sure I did not want anyone to experience such a "cure".
Watching the news again, TNC reported that the Change had completed itself about the same time we'd finished changing. It was almost midnight. At that time we decided that it was best to go back to our own apartments and discuss what was to be done about the Madman in the morning. Everyone said goodnight and left for their own apartments.