The next morning we all went up onto the roof to meet my new friends. I'd had another rough night, I still had not found a comfortable position, and I'd shredded my couch. So I had little energy and my tail almost dragged on the ground. It took a couple Jolt sodas (Hell if I'm going to pour hot coffee down my throat) to wake me up, and a cold shower. Not a good thing.
The two falcons came winging in about fifteen minutes later. Their prowess of flight impressed me no end, They had a style and grace with their new forms that others were lacking as yet. I'd seen a hawk-morph awkwardly flapping around earlier.
The couple was very unusual in many respects. They were so much alike before their Change that they had been inseparable. They wore the same color clothes (if he wore a flannel shirt and jeans, she'd wear a flannel blouse and denim skirt), ate the same foods, drove the same kind of car, well, you get the idea. The Change had made them even more unusual, because they'd become into the same thing. That turned out to be almost as rare as people like me.
With the two falcons now with us, I could see that with the seven of us there we were an almost perfect cross-section of the different Degrees the populace had Changed. Michelle was the least Changed of all of us. Rabbit was barely suggested in her features, with a short snout ending where the end of her original nose had, and slightly longer feet with very sparse fur on the rest of her body. Next came Jack, then Coonie, me, the two falcons, then lastly Bob. Bob's appetite had subsided quite a bit since the day before, it seemed that yesterday he'd been missing some mass, and so it translated into hunger.
We heard some commotion coming from the stairwell. It turned out to be a TV crew. An inexperienced one (damn my luck). A funny thing about them, they were all some kind of canine (newshounds?). Michelle took Coonie aside to talk to her, away from all the converging carnivores. It seemed that the press was after me, no doubt due to what I was. I saw the Bobcat among the taller people, so I knew who'd called them. For the next half hour I answered questions that ranged from the tactless, "Aren't you dumber now that you have a dinosaur's brain?"; to the insensitive, "Did you lose your penis like the bird-people and reptile-people did?"; to the just plain stupid, "What is it like to be a dinosaur?" What is it compels them to ask these asinine questions? These mutts were so inattentive I doubted they'd noticed the fur on their own faces! The Bobcat looked rather smug, though. He'd even brought his (ugly) kid up just so he could pull my tail in front of the camera. I really hate it when they do that.
I began thinking of jumping off the roof on the chance that the Doctor had gotten the shapeshifting function back online, just to get away, but abruptly the smelly dogs finished up and left. They did stink, too. The Bobcat stayed up at the door of the stairwell for a moment, holding his (ugly) kid's hand, and looking very proud of himself. I gave him what I later started to call "the Look". With my eyes it turned out to be very effective. I scared him just enough to know he'd never bug me again. Then it was my turn to feel smug. I heard a mental chuckle from the Doctor.
Coonie came back from where Michelle had taken her, minus Michelle. "Where'd she go?" asked Bob. "I think all this has been a little too much for her. Says she's going to go home," Coonie replied. I asked the falcons about getting flight lessons, even though I knew that once the suit was back online I'd be able to change myself into something like them. "Sure," 'Dancer replied. "All our other students have canceled. Just let us get some new seats, though. I doubt the ones in the planes could fit you right now." The seating problem was affecting everyone. Later, I learned that new designs were up and running within a week, but manufacture was another matter.
We all went down to my apartment, Bob collected some of his valuable stuff from his to keep in mine due the damage to his front door. Coonie and 'Dancer said they would try to make Bob some minimal clothes. When you are covered in hair, you don't really need that much except for modesty, and Bob had a lot to modest about.
Turning on the news, we learned that not all towns and cities had taken the Change as philosophically as Goodland had. Much of Los Angeles and other major cities were in flames, many who'd become predators to my degree of Change and more had lost control and killed (eaten, too) hundreds. It seemed for many that if you had Changed enough, then you could Change completely at will. But when that happened you became almost a slave to your instincts. Those not strong enough (or unwilling) to resist those instincts were now showing themselves as they stumbled upon their natural shapeshift Power.
In the South, racism along color lines dissolved, but was often replaced with one drawn on predator/prey instead. Though it was not nearly as strong as what had existed before. I'd learned that a lot of things like racism had become obsolete during the Plague. Only in the back country did it survive.
We were lucky in America. Most Americans are open-minded enough to accept what happened, so we at least kept a barely functioning government and infrastructure. It was a different story in Third World countries where food and other necessities were more scarce. Africa had degenerated into chaos that rivaled the Plague of '45- '48. Southeast Asia was almost as bad. I won't even begin to talk about China, news from there had blacked out completely.
Something was nagging at my conscience. There was something that I should have done, but I could not remember. Then it hit me. Coonie's comment about Michelle going home. I had not even tried to call my father since this happened. I felt mortified, and put a hand on my scaly forehead. "Guys," I said, "I've gotta make a phone call." I got up and went to the phone. A computer voice said: BEEP "We're sorry, all circuits are busy now, please try again later." BEEP. I tried again and again and only got the same thing. "Dammit!" I yelled, slamming the phone down, inadvertently creating a small force-wave and smashing the phone to bits. If I wanted to talk to my father I was going to have to go there in person.
"I could not get through either," said a voice behind me. I turned around, it was Jack. "Where do your parents live?" he continued. "Grand Junction," I replied, a little distraught.
"Really? Mine live in Denver. They aren't really that far apart, I could drive us both. I think I can fit my tail into the space between the seat bottom and seat back. You should be able to fit in the back seat if you arc that long tail of yours. We can kill two birds with one stone." The two falcons started with that remark. Jack shrugged at them. He was very adamant, and at that point I was willing to go to any lengths to see my father.
When we told the rest of them what we were planning, they encouraged us to go. Coonie volunteered to drive Bob to wherever his parents were. Then that got 'Dancer and 'Cutter thinking, and they decided to visit family too. Jack went up to his apartment to collect a few things, and I gathered some stuff as well. Just as I was about to cut a hole in another pair of shorts, the Doctor spoke up. You don't need to do that. I can make clothes again. With no further adieu I was dressed in a pair of shorts and T-shirt perfect for my shape, complete with a button-fly above the short sleeve for my tail so I would not have to slip it over the end. Of course it was just for appearance, because she could just as easily dissolve the clothes as make them.
When I appeared with clothes perfect for my subspecies, Coonie looked at me kind of strange. I re-explained the suit, and demonstrated by changing clothes a few times right in front of her (without having to become naked, the clothes themselves reshaped before their eyes) before settling back into the shorts and shirt. Any traces of disbelief disappeared when she saw that. The falcons had left already.
Jack and I first stopped at the apartment manager's office on the first floor. Jack knocked, "George? You in there?" he said. The light was on, that much we could tell. "Go away, I don't want to see anyone," said a muffled, gruff voice from within. There was a terrible odor wafting from the mail slot. It smelled like he had not left that office in a while. "I've turned into a monster, and I don't want to hurt anyone. What do you want anyway, Jack?" he continued.
"David Smith and I are going to be gone for a while, we just thought we'd tell you," Jack had an odd expression on his face, he seemed to be getting more from the conversation then the spoken word alone. The expression changed to concern. "George, how long has it been since you've been out of that office?"
"Two days!" he snapped. "I'll call the security service, but I doubt they'll care. I could only get their machine." Jack regained that odd expression, he whispered in my ear-hole, "I don't know how I know this, but he doesn't know that anyone else has Changed the way he has."
I understood, and made ready to break the door down, when he put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me. "You don't have to do that," he said, "not when I've got one of these." He held up what looked like a lock pick. "What are you doing with that?" I asked.
"I got locked out of my apartment once. I really did not want another full set of keys, and I like high-tech stuff, so I got this 'Key-wiz' skeleton key." He gave me that toothy grin. This was a very unique person, and I twitched my tail in response.
We opened the door, a little nervous of what we would find. The cigarette smoke cleared (God, did that smell terrible!) and we finally saw him clearly. A blunt snout and big, yellowed teeth resided on a blunt face, with thick and matted brown fur all over his semi-naked body. His eyes were totally black. In short, George was a groundhog. Jack and I could not resist, and we both burst out laughing, my tail swung so violently that I fell over, and Jack had to lean against the wall to keep from losing his balance. Monster indeed! When we finally managed to contain ourselves, and when I could stand up steadily we explained to George's wide-eyed face what had happened to everyone except children. I asked him, "Haven't you been listening to the radio?" His body stance and smell definitely said, "shock". "N-n-no. You know I don't like that stuff." He slid down the wall onto the floor, looking at me fearfully, "Are you going to eat me now?" I sighed, and Jack and I left.
I got surrounded by kids when we left the building. They were all talking about what they saw on TV about me. I was going to have call my lawyer about those mutts who'd edited that footage, if he was still sane. We ended up hiding in the lot until they all went away, which took a while. Jack's car was a red, racing-striped '68 Camero fastback in immaculate condition. It was love at first sight. He saw my admiration of the car, "It's got a modified SuperCell motor, with special acoustic generators to make it sound like it has the old fashioned V-8. Feel like it too. The SuperCell's got 300 equivalent horsepower, and a range of 700 miles to boot. I'm proud of it. I just hope I can fit in the driver seat."
I sat in the middle of the back seat, my tail arced behind me, and my left leg on the seat in front of me. Jack managed to wedge his tail into a semi-comfortable position. Neither of us was relaxed, and we were definitely going to have to stop every couple hours, else get cramps. The illusory V-8 started with a satisfying growl, and we pulled out of the space. Kids appeared out of nowhere as the lot gate opened, so Jack gunned it and we were on our way.
We decided to try the bank first to see if we could get some cash. I was not sure if my Amex would work right now. Surprisingly, the bank was open. There was a long line out the door though, but I was in no mood to wait. I just gave those in line ahead of me the Look and they just sort of let me cut in without a word until I was in the door. I'd been to the bank before the Change, it was then I'd learned how much money I had. The lottery my double had won was actually a National one. The only one in history. The prize was to be paid in ten years, four of which had elapsed. I therefore had eighty million tax-free dollars (yes, tax-free!). It was scattered all over the place, invested. So I actually had somewhere around ninety million, and access to fifty of that. About a half a million of this money was in this small town bank.
Because I had so much money, the bank gave be preferential treatment. I identified myself to Efram, the bank manager, now a morph of a scrub jay (he was wearing a hat with his name on it). He was very colorful, mostly blue above and white below, with a dramatic white stripe right above his brown-irised eyes. And he was not scared of me, which was nice. "I'll need to see your driver license, and could you stick your finger on this please?" He was pointing to a glowing plate on a small box. I did so, wondering what the thing that blew air over my finger was supposed to do, when Efram announced, "License, David Smith; DNA, David Smith. Good to see you, Dave. You look good."
"But..." I stammered.
"I tried it on myself this morning, and it did the same thing. Apparently there are some things about our DNA that have not transformed, enough to make a positive ID in any case. This is a new ID method introduced a year ago for those with large bank accounts and whatnot. Remember last year when I took a scraping of skin from your finger? That was for this. I sent the data from the scraping to all your other banks too, so you should not have a problem getting money." A DNA identification method? "Not everyone has this ID method yet, so I'd imagine that that line back there is pretty common. I've decided that in this town a driver license is enough, but I wanted to be sure that it would work on someone else besides me." He was a bird of the wingless kind, arms displaying vestigial flight feathers, and Changed slightly more than Jack. He gave me a pained look, "Are you here to close your account? If you do we'll go under." He had short tail feathers, and they drooped in dejection. I shook my head, and they raised up a bit.
Like the other birds I'd seen he wore no clothes. I asked him why not while he got me $1,500 in cash. "I tried on my normal suit and tie, and it felt terrible! Feathers are quite stiff, and when the shirt pulled my chest it yanked on them painfully. They really cover everything, anyway." Then he asked me about my scales. I really did not feel like answering, but started to stammer out one when the lone teller started asking for help; that same lion who'd been arguing with the butcher yesterday was harassing her, demanding all his money. The teller was another bird, a robin. The lion looked my way, so I put all the hostility into my Look as possible. Even he could not stand up under it. While the lion was apologizing for his actions Jack and I slipped out.
I-70 was only a few miles south, and when we got on we noticed just how few were on the road. Most of those were there for the same reason we were, I was sure. The motivation to see family can overcome all kinds of reluctance.
Jack whipped along the road going about ninety. We were about three-hundred miles from Denver, so I did not complain that we might get pulled over. It would still take us hours to get there, though. I ended up having to move my tail around quite a bit to keep it from cramping. I tried to move farther forward to give it more space, but it was never enough. It's funny, but I'd almost gotten used to it being there; though sometimes it still surprised me when I walked.
In order to make some conversation, I asked Jack nervously, "So... what first made you aware that you were, um... Changing?" If I was going to try to get to know him, it seemed a good place to start. "What?" he said. "Oh, I'd been woken up by some strange, high-pitched noises. It was early, but I decided to get up. When I went to the mirror I found I had mule's ears, explained the sounds I'd heard. Then the rest of my head followed suit. Startled the hell out of me. But I'd been in a rut anyway, been laid off a year, could not find a job other than at the Tasty Freeze, so I'm actually rather glad that it happened." He wasn't telling everything, but "in a rut" could mean depression, or perhaps just plain apathy. If that was so, then the Change had actually brought him out of it. He seemed to accept his situation completely. But then, I had too. "What about you?" he asked in return.
"My feet. These four-toed, big-clawed feet," I replied in kind. I did have four toes, not three. The innermost toe is tiny, and high up on my elongated foot. It had a short claw about as long as my finger claws. I barely knew it was there, the next one out had the 4" curved sickle-claw. I think you should tell him about me, the Doctor thought. You stay out of this! I retorted.
"Tell who about who?" said Jack. I looked at him, wide eyed, tail tensed. "You mean you heard that?"
"Didn't you say something? I mean, I heard about your feet, but didn't you say something after that?" Talk about your mind readers...
Mind readers. "No. I was thinking something but I did not say anything." Doc! Could he have heard you? This was incredible! But also rather distressing. He could be. If you can do force-waves then he could probably be a telepath, she replied, interested.
"Well, well, well. Isn't that interesting," he said cryptically, not taking his eyes from the road. We did not discuss it any more that trip, but I think he knew about the Doctor after that, but I knew about the telepathy he wanted to keep a secret. So we were even.
We pulled up to the large house of Jack's parents. Denver was much smaller then I remembered. The trip had been rather uneventful, except for two little things. Jack helped me out of the back seat. I'd gotten my tail in a kink and the cramps were rather painful. I was sure that there was less pain then there appeared to be, but I'd never had a cramp in my tail before. Jack's was in little better condition.
But on to what the problems were. The first was rather serious. We'd stopped to eat at one of the few open restaurants. I stopped a wolf-morph from harassing the deer-morph waitress. Sounding familiar? I countered with "the Look", but the guy jumped me on the way out, and slashed me across the right thigh and the base of my tail with red-glowing claws before I could respond to it. He almost got away, but nothing short a cheetah can match a raptor in full run. For that sprint I'd unconsciously shifted into raptor-norm ("norm" meaning normal shape of whatever you happen to resemble) form, and inadvertently discovered one of my other Powers. The guy had been about a hundred feet away when I managed to start running, but I think I must have run about 150 mph! I ran up behind, and gave him a force-wave to knock him out. We waited for the police to pick him up, I declined the paramedics.
The suit was not repairing the scratches like it should have. Something in those claws of his. Probably his Power, the Doctor explained. I was able to stop the bleeding, but I'll have to figure out what they did. So we put a pressure bandage on it and Jack helped me into the car. We stopped no more until we got to Jack's family's home.
The second problem was more an annoyance than something serious. We were tailed for about fifty miles by a beat up old VW Bus with the words "Party Animals" spray painted on the sides. The Bus was filled with various morphs singing: "It's the end of the world as we know it! And I feel fine."
Jack's parents' place was out in the middle of nowhere, but it had a great view of the mountains. The only blemish on the air was from a smoldering part of Denver. It was a large single level home with big trees all around it, and a red barn about fifty yards behind. It had obviously been there a while. His mother was now a zebra morph, and after Jack convinced them that he was who he said he was, and introduced me, she helped me up to the house. Jack's dad was a bighorn sheep. Both were Changed to Jack's degree, so were not too far from human.
Before Jack and I arrived, they'd been convinced that they were the only ones Changed. All the local TV stations had gone blank, not to mention the phones and their ISP. They were initially very nervous about my being there, but I managed to get on their good side later on. More and more of Jack's relatives began arriving almost hourly. We'd been the first. The whole thing kind of turned into an impromptu family reunion (I hesitate to call it a "zoo", but that's what it was). Jack always got that strange expression on his face just before new arrivals came, and would always surprise everyone by saying who they were before anyone else.
Among those who'd brought their friends I even met another dinomorph! The man was a Triceratops. I sat carefully on a picnic bench to avoid reopening my slashes, then I asked him what his First Sign had been. "These things," he said, tapping the foot-long horn above his right eye. "I woke up face down, caught in the mattress. When I yanked up my head I had a bedspring on each eye horn." He sighed, "I think I was mad for a while, but little Freddie here brought me back."
He was clearly very grateful to the little child at his elephantine foot. The four-year old was adorable, and was so happy that Daddy had become his favorite dinosaur; he'd stopped him from goring his wife (she was a meadowlark-morph) by placing himself right in front of the man who'd almost lost himself in the dinosaur's instincts. "Daddy, you promised," said the child in a piping voice, he looked at his dad with a serious face. "OK, OK. Stand back." He stepped back, then seemed to blur and swell before my eyes. He dropped to all-fours and grew some more. I was sure he outweighed an elephant by quite a bit. When he was finished, he lowered his big head and the giggling child climbed right on, sitting on the frill and holding on to the two upper horns. It was like a scene out of those Dinotopia books.
With some trepidation, I volunteered to look after the smallest children in the house since I really could not walk very much anyway. The Doc said it would be a few more days until I was healed. That day there were about fifty adults there, and ten kids. Many wore clothing directly proportional to how much fur or feathers they had. I guess for some wearing clothes was redundant, but some who really had not Changed very much also wore no clothes. Strange. It was rather shocking at first. To blend in I wore nothing except my shorts, but that was more to keep cool than anything; the weather was very hot. (And, well, maybe to show off my unique coloring.)
One other thing. A little over half had chosen a new name for themselves. Several times I was asked, "why don't you choose a new name?" I just shook my snout and said, "If I want to, I will."
One of the adults had the Power to reshape objects (wow), and was helpfully reshaping all the car seats to fit us. But it was my actions around the kids that brought Jack's parents around. For some reason kids seemed to love me. We watched a lot of videos, the most popular turned out to be Disney's "Robin Hood" (you know, the version with all the animals) and unfortunately "Jurassic Park". Mike the Triceratops was also a kid-magnet, so I was not overwhelmed by them this time. He mostly gave them rides.
In order to feed this Zoo, a group would go daily to find open markets and bring back all they could buy. I contributed quite a bit from the cash in my wallet. The barbecue pits dug for the carnivores worked full time. I had to convince many of those carnivores that meat was not the only thing they could eat, and that in fact most carnivores did not eat just meat anyway.
A week after the Change, the Zoo peaked in population. There were about 150 adults there that day. I asked Jack, "Is your family really this big?" He shook his muzzle and replied, "No. Only about fifty are my family, most brought friends along." Jack had been having really intense headaches, and would sometimes bray quietly in pain. I think there were too many people there for his new telepathic sense. No amount of Tylenol would help.
On that same day I was finally up and around. The Doctor had finally healed me completely, and she cursed that wolf every chance she got. That day had been really hot, with a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Most stayed in the shade. I spent much of my time in the big red barn trying to keep my panting to a minimum. The sight of my teeth tended to unnerve some. It was too far away from most parents, so there were no kids here. Just the odd part-Changed teen. I was standing with Jack in the loft, while he described to me how he played up here in his childhood. We looked out to the access road, and saw three trails of dust kicked up by some vehicles coming up the way. "Uh-oh," Jack said.
"'Uh-oh' What?" I asked. "That, is a trio of news vans. TNC among them. Someone must have leaked that our little party had you two here," Jack replied, referring to Mike and me. "Is there any way to get out of here without them noticing?" I asked.
Jack shook his muzzle again. "No. And if they see you in a car driving away at least one is bound to follow us until you give an interview. And you'll overheat if you try to hide in one of the fields. I guess you're stuck with it."
There is another option, the Doctor thought.
"Your friend has a suggestion?" said Jack. I nodded, and the Doctor continued. I'm fully recalibrated. Sooner than I expected, I know. She seemed to hesitate a moment. Um, much of the suit's Active memory has gone into bringing out your Powers. Not to mention the most of the auto-adaptive circuitry. This thing can still shapeshift you, though. I'm down to 100 animals in Main memory that are available to you. But there's a time limit on each.
"Down to 100? How many were there in the first place?" I asked.
There were about 10,000 originally. The healing and computer interface functions are unaffected.
"So what do you want us to do?" I asked. Her plan was very simple. Jack got in his car and drove to the fence along the main road about a half mile from the home's driveway. Now that I could shapeshift again, I formed the image of the crow in my mind and commanded the suit to make the shift. It felt much better than the last time. The news crews had set up shop around Mike's large form under one of those trees. I sat in a branch right above one of the camera people for about a hour and a half while the interviewers asked Mike questions almost as stupid as I'd been asked. Then the fatal question came, "We understand that there was a second dinosaur here. Can you tell us where he is?" said a foxy lady reporter directly below me. "Well," Mike replied, idly scratching his chin. "Last I heard he was over in the barn." We'd left just in time.
I left a little "gift" on the reporter's jacket before I took off. I think birds take great joy in doing that. I did. Jack waited in the car with the right-side window down. I landed on the fence about a hundred feet away and did crow things, while Jack drove slowly forward. Then I hopped down and pretended to peck at something on the ground while Jack finally got right next to me. He opened the door, so I pumped my wings and hid on the floor.
As we drove away, Jack barely kept his braying laughter in check about what I did to that reporter (I really wished he would not eavesdrop on my mind). For the last couple minutes I could feel the suit straining as the time limit came up. But we were still too close to the house. So I slowly expanded into a crow-morph temporarily. I maintained that until we were on the freeway, and then changed back into my normal scaly self. For some reason having something cover me that was not scales made me feel, not exactly sick, but very strange.
We were back on the road again. I'd been anxious to get moving anyway. Jack's headache subsided almost immediately after we left. The new car seats worked out great, Jack's tail was no longer in a kink, and mine rested curved on the floor in the back. Jack had managed to get some of our things from the house before we slipped out, so he used my StarTac celphone to call his parents (the phones had come back a couple days earlier) and apologize for not saying goodbye.
The phone rang a couple minutes later. It was Coonie. "David! Glad I finally got a hold of you," she said in her mellifluous voice. "Sorry. But the phones were down here in Denver. Where are you now?"
"Visiting my parents in Chicago. Mom's a wolverine and Dad's a otter. An otter! I'd never have believed it. But I never would have believed this black mask on my own face either." Her parents were obviously O.K.. If the trend held my father would be O.K. too. She went on to talk about something that happened at a motel they stayed at. They'd gotten separate rooms, and when Coonie knocked on Bob's door no one answered. Then she heard a nicker over he shoulder. It was Bob. Changed completely. At her exclamation of shock he Changed back. I spoke to him about it. "I wanted to think a bit." He explained. "You would not believe how therapeutic grazing is! I put a lot of things in perspective the night I spent doing it. When that suit of yours is working again, I strongly advise taking an equine form and trying it." Perhaps I would.
Coonie had finally gotten a hold of her friend in LA, but we were getting out of range of my little celphone. She barely had time to give me the guy's name and number before she cut out.
The Rockies were beautiful. But then they always are. They smelled good too, now that I think of it. I sometimes understate how important that sense had become to me. While we whipped around on the windy mountain roads Jack and I talked quite a bit. I think that while in those mountains we ceased just being acquaintances, and became friends instead. There's something about mountains, I guess.
One question he asked me, "Were you always this impulsive?" "What?" I replied. "What do you mean, 'impulsive'?"
"It's just that you seem to dive snout first into things without thinking about them beforehand. First, you were going to break down the door to George's office. Then you intimidate both a lion and a wolf without thinking of what might happen later. With the latter time getting you hurt."
I think he noticed something about my Changed personality that had escaped me. I was more impulsive than I used to be. I actually had felt anger in those situations, rather than fear. Wait, anger was not exactly right. Irritation was a better word for it.
I was pondering what had actually happened to my personality was we drove out of the mountains, and onto the basin that held my home town.
As we drove down nearer to Grand Junction, I brooded. I brooded over what had really happened to me. It had seemed clear cut. My brain had rewired itself, and I thought it had done so in a predictable way. Boy was I wrong.
When I was Changing back at my apartment a week ago, I'd thought that I was supposed to be smarter. Perhaps I was, but had not opportunity to use this prehistoric brain yet. My memory was very good, I knew that much. If I thought about it hard enough I could remember almost every detail of our stay at Jack's parents place.
The sun was low on the horizon, it had been midday when we left, now it was late afternoon. We started passing cars that had been abandoned on the side of the road, some looked like they'd been pushed off by some heavy machinery. The western slope of the Rockies is dry, and we saw almost no one else. It got hotter as we descended, and Jack turned on his A/C. Panting is not the easiest way to cool down.
But what was really bothering me about myself was this damned impulsiveness. I was not like that before. Now instead of anything else, in stressful situations I get irritated. Don't worry about it, the Doctor thought. I'm sure it's just that it's so soon after the Change that the chemical balance in your new brain is not right yet. She seemed unsure, though.
But if she was right, what was I supposed to do until it was balanced? If I did not stop throwing myself into things, heedless of the potential danger, would I get myself or my friends hurt of killed? I was not particularly worried about myself, the suit could handle everything short of a decapitation, but it was my friends I worried about.
"Stop brooding!" Jack said, surprising me. "Will you quit that?" I snapped back.
"Sorry, I was not really eavesdropping. But right now I can't really control this thing. Your thoughts were right on the surface so I could not help it. Listen." His voice became serious. "You've got friends, good ones. And they're hard to come by. I know we're all going to India at some point to get this guy you've told us about. But don't worry about the danger. This 'Assistant-bastard' guy needs to be stopped. Personally, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get him. Now, where's your dad's place?"
With that statement he shook me out of it. For now, at least. I gave him directions, and we drove up the house. A half block away was a large area of blackened ruins. There had been a large fire at some point in the last week. In fact, it only smelled about two days old. The whole neighborhood was deserted. I ran up to the door of my father's house, quelling rising panic only by channeling it into my feet in tiny force-waves, which made the concrete driveway crack loudly under my feet. The door looked like it'd been forced, it was chained shut. There was "Police Line" tape everywhere. There was a note on the door. It said: TO ANY NEXT OF KIN. PLEASE GO TO MERCY HOSPITAL FOR INFORMATION PRETANING TO YOUR RELATIVE, ROBERT SMITH. THANK YOU. Then there was a map.
I dashed back to the car and we sped to the hospital. My anxiety almost got the better of me. Jack must have smelled my urgency, and took shortcuts I'm sure he took out of the minds of those close by. We went through an alley only inches wider than the car itself. But he was an incredible driver and did not scratch the paint.
We had to park almost a mile from the hospital. It was nearly sunset, and the sky was just reddening. There were so many cars around parked in random places that it was just plain impossible to move any further. Not to mention the National Guard personnel vehicles everywhere. I power-sprinted around those cars, sometimes jumping from car-roof to car-roof, startling several morphs out of their fur. A few dressed in National Guard uniforms were also apparent. None tried to stop me. A large crowd was milling outside the building. While I was trying to devise a way through Jack caught up. "How do we get through?!" I yelled over the clamor of the crowd. One the National Guardsman (a woman, actually, by her body structure.) who was now something like a Jaguar, saw my anguished expression. She then used her authority to push a path through the crowd for Jack and I. She looked very muscular, and wore only a token uniform. She gave the crowd a Look that put mine to shame, and whoever did not get out her way she'd bare her teeth. Amazingly, no kids bothered me. It took about ten minutes to get through the crowd this way.
I dino-smiled my thanks, and we both went to the front desk, where I identified myself to the Mallard duck nurse. "Smith?" she said in a gravelly voice. She took my driver license and my DNA-ID print to confirm I was who I said I was. She then brought Jack and I to a small waiting room to wait for the doctor. And wait. And wait.
We waited for what seemed like forever. The single window got darker and darker. To pass the time, and to keep from going mad with anxiety, I practiced form-shifting with the suit. She'd put the 100 animals now available to me into a catalog format, so I could find what I wanted. 100 is small compared to the 10,000 that had originally been in the catalog. But I was sure I'd never use them all. As she said, there was a time limit on each, doubled when I used the morph. So I tried several birds, and five mammals. One was a mule-morph like Jack, and another I tried was a normal chestnut Morgan stallion. In the brief few minutes that I used it I think I got a rough feeling for why Bob was as happy as he was. I'd have to investigate it more later.
At about midnight, Jack told me that there were two people coming to the door. One was my father's doctor. I was about to open it to meet them, but Jack stopped me. "Just listen for a sec." We heard voices arguing, then two sets of footsteps. The voices became more and more distinct, until we could hear two, one male and one female, arguing. They stopped right outside the door and we listened.
"But you've got to help me!" said the pleading female voice. "I-I'm a porcupine for God's sake! There has got to be something you can do about it. This has got to be some sort of disease!" She was near hysterical. "Now, Nurse Charmichal." Said a calm, almost musical male voice. "Other than your looks, there is nothing physically wrong with you. Yes, your vital signs are slightly different, but we've cross-referenced them with documented porcupine norms. In fact, you're in better health then you were before your transformation! And no plastic surgeon could possibly alter your face. Besides, everyone including myself is in the same predicament. I've got a beak for crying out loud! And there are others worse off in looks than you. Now, I've got a next-of-kin in here that I have to speak with. Are you going to be calm?"
There was a long pause. "Yes," said a dejected voice. Then he opened the door. The two who came in were a study on just how extreme the Change could be. She was undoubtedly a porcupine. She had a short muzzle, spiky hair going halfway down her back, and paw-like hands. But that was really it. She was so close to human I'm sure she had not had to change her diet at all. On the other hand, the doctor that came in was basically an oversized bird with a large head and four-fingered hands on the ends of his wings. I'm sure he could have flown with them if he wanted to. He was some kind of bird I could not immediately identify. Looking in the large catalog provided by the suit, it finally matched him as a summer tanager. He was quite colorful, his feathers were the most brilliant red I've ever seen, except his wings and tail feathers which had dusty black highlights. He looked to be about 4'8" tall. "Which one of you is David Smith?" he asked in a high-tenor, musical voice.
I raised my hand and he walked over, head bobbing like mine does when I walk. "I'm Dr. Patrick." We shook each other's dry, scaled hands. "Before I take you to see your father, I want to give you and your friend a full physical examination. To have benchmarks for others if nothing else." I was obviously surprised at that remark. "It's really necessary," he continued. "I won't let you see your father until you take one. Besides, we need all the information we can get about everyone. Being a doctor just became a hundred times more difficult. You're lucky I was an exotic animals vet until six years ago when I decided to go into human medicine. That's why it took me so long to get to you. Sorry about that by the way." He somehow managed to put regret onto that avian face of his.
I started to protest, but the Doctor spoke up. Do it. I think you're OK, but he's more of an expert than I am. I want to be sure you stay healthy. Besides, you have not seen your father in over a year, it can wait a few more hours even after what's happened. So Jack and I agreed to an exam.
The hospital was crowded, so I had to share an examination room with Jack. We were separated by a curtain, though. At least they gave us a bit of privacy while making us put on those stupid robes. I took off my clothes, rather than making them suspicious by making them disappear. I pulled off my shirt (careful not to rip it), then my shorts by unbuttoning front and back. I'd never have been able to take them off if it was not for those rear buttons just above the base of my tail. Nice design, I thought to the Doctor. I'm glad dinosaurs did not sweat, because I had not been able to take a shower in a few days. Jack was rather fragrant, though.
Just after I put on the robe (at least the open back was convenient, my tail went right out the back without obstruction) the doctor entered the curtain and we started the check up. Someone else worked on Jack. First they tested my senses. My vision had improved quite a bit. I could see almost into the near-infrared (which accounted for Dr. Patrick's seemingly intense red coloration). My acuity was also better, somewhere around 20/5. Low-light vision had also improved greatly to more like a cat's. And my field of view was wider, though it was a trade off in depth perception from the long muzzle that split my vision. Hearing, I had a much greater range in the high frequency area, and could hear sounds that were as much as ten decibels quieter. Jack easily put me to shame with his hearing, though. But that was probably because I lacked external ears.
They confirmed what I already knew with the sense of smell tests. I was more like a wolf in sensitiveness in that area.
I weighed about 140 pounds, which is surprising because I weighed about 190 before. Now, I could also lift about 250 without trouble, before only about 130. In the speed and endurance tests I had a rather wide margin. My endurance was terrible, even with short distances. But I surprised everyone with my speed. Even without my power-sprint ability (in my morph form) they ran the machine up to it's full speed, which was about 50 mph, and I knew I still had more. Dr. Patrick wanted to put me out on the track, but I told him, "Maybe later, after I see my father." He reluctantly agreed to that. It was the hernia check I was dreading.
The thing was, the doctor's bedside manner was such that I really did not mind disrobing. I don't think he thought of me as an animal, but it was really hard to tell. He started by checking my teeth and throat. "You've got a gizzard?" he asked. I could only answer "ahhh-haaa" with my mouth open. He was probably able to see right down into it, because my mouth could open so wide. The thing he used for the heck up looked kind of like an Apple Newton. Attached to it was some kind of bulb-ended diagnostic tool on a cable he'd poke and prod in various uncomfortable places. Next was my claws, he examined the cuticles and how sharp they were ("Ouch!"). He tested the full flexibility of my tail by the simple expedient of grabbing it and swinging it all over. He did so without warning, almost unbalancing me. "Do you mind?!" I said, a growl in my voice. He was entirely unruffled (pun intended) by that though.
But that's the only unexpected thing he did. The rest was like the examinations I'd taken for high school sports, with the minor difference that he had no external uh... equipment to check. Really he did not know how to go about making a hernia check anyway, but he did confirm that it was in there. He had another, non-intrusive way to check the inside.
It turned out to be something like an MRI scanner, except it was a full body thing. I first swallowed some kind of foul tasting fluid, then stepped naked into a white cylindrical room. There was a buzzing sound for a minute or two, then they said they were done and gave me my clothes. "The doctor will be back with you in a moment," the porcupine nurse said.
When I saw him a few minutes later, he had a bearing of satisfaction about him. He showed me a "skeletal scan" as he called it. My skull had several open spaces, one right in front of my eye sockets. "Well, Mr. Smith. That confirms something else I was wondering. You've got hollow bones and airsacs just like I do." Then he paused, and looked over is results one last time. By now the sun was just coming up, there was light streaming in trough the east-facing window. "I don't know much about dinosaurs, but from the bird-of-prey transformees I've examined you seem in good health. There was just one thing on the scanner that did not make sense, though. Seems you have a higher metal content in you body. Must have been a dinosaur characteristic." He seemed dubious about that, though. Maybe it was the nanites that werecausing it.
My other Doctor confirmed it. The nanites are metallo-organic. And completely state-of-the-art. I'm surprised they even picked them up. That scanner-thing was interesting. I wonder if... She paused, then I heard vehement swearing "under her breath". Damn, damn, damn! That thing scrambled almost half the data I got from the Lab's computer! It's scattered all over the place now, I'll have to reconstruct it... I was about to ask exactly what happened, but I knew she would be so engrossed in what she was doing she'd not respond to me.
As he brought me back to the original room where Jack and I had been taken, I noticed that a disproportionate number of those standing or sitting in the hallway were holding their bellies. Dr. Patrick anticipated my question. "Many of those you see in here are here because they ate things that they really should not have because they thought that's what they were supposed to eat. Can't believe the ignorance of some people. Just because one is a bird, like me, does not mean that you have to eat just seeds. Even deer have been known to eat some meat at times." He had a kind of high, twittering laughter that seemed, well, strange to say the least.
"I'm going to put you back with your friend now, and I'll be with you in another half hour or so after I look at his test results." He opened the door to the room and I went in. When Jack came in a few minutes later he had a very dark look on his mulish face, his ears were laid back on his head. His ears betrayed his mood like my tail does. "The next person who makes a 'Francis the Talking Mule' reference is going to get punched in the snout." He said. I could not help but laugh, and that got him started laughing (braying) too. I was so tired, the testing had taken all night. All I wanted to do was have something to eat, then sleep on the floor.
I read some magazines that had to be about a decade old while waiting for Dr. Patrick. They were National Geographics, though. So the photos were beautiful. And they kept me awake. Quite surprisingly the (literally) colorful man came in right on time. "Now," he said. "Let's go see your father." That really woke me up. I jumped out of my chair (it had an open back), dropping the magazine on the floor. "Your father is at another location, I'll give Mr. DeMule his test results as we go."
We ended up having to take Jack's car. First we went to fill up on hydrogen for the car's SuperCell. The "engine" itself was an outgrowth of technology used on spacecraft. Fuel cells are actually very simple. Hydrogen and oxygen are forced together at a controlled rate through a semi-permeable membrane that has a small platinum content, with an anode and a cathode. The by-product is a large electric current and a bit of heat. The electric current is then used to drive an electric motor in each wheel hub. It's only exhaust is water vapor. The original hydrogen and oxygen are separated from water vapor in the air by using electrolysis powered by solar panels. So it is therefore almost completely nonpolluting.
I drove while Dr. Patrick perched in the back discussing Jack's "unusual brainwave patterns". Driving turned out to be rather difficult. I actually had only two toes that touched the ground. They were rather long and moderately thick; the toe that had the big, hooked inner claw higher up on each foot made it difficult to hit just one pedal. But I managed. The car itself was a joy to drive. Luckily that distracted me and I did not think of where we were going, which was the local humane society that was out in the middle of nowhere.
As we drove up I felt strange. It was like my emotions were wrapped up in a thick blanket. They were still there, but inactive. I think I was preparing for a big shock, though I did not know what was going to happen. I think I was trying to protect everyone by not losing control.
We got out of the car and walked towards a tall concrete enclosure. When we'd gotten out of the car I'd gotten a huge amount of animal smells, but they were all feline, canine, or sometimes reptilian. What I was smelling now was altogether different. It was vaguely familiar. I turned to Dr. Patrick, green eyes wide in shock. "Oh, no! He isn't!"
"He is," he replied. "But unlike you he did not keep his mind. I'm sorry." We'd stopped at a steel door that opened into an enclosure. I collapsed against it, feeling faint. If my emotions had been functioning fully I think I would have gutted the bird-man.
When I regained my faculties, he spoke up again. "I don't think you knew about this, but about six months ago your father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. We also think he transformed completely in a single one of those surges when most others took at least three. I don't think his mind could take it. I call it 'Rapid Cognitive Degeneration Disorder' or 'RCDD'." My emotions were coming back slowly, and I gave Dr. Pat a cold stare that would make a chili pepper freeze solid. "Why didn't you call me about the Alzheimer's?" I asked just as coldly.
He was taken aback a bit. "Because your Father asked me not to." That did sound like him. He'd raised me by himself (I was an only child) after Mom died. Dad was not a bad father, just so absorbed in his work he tended to ignore me sometimes. That's why I'd originally been the stereotypical "poor college kid". Unfortunately this meant I had to pay my own way through college. I heard footsteps from behind the door, and then a familiar sounding short scream/growl, and a sniffing sound. Dr. Pat said there was a viewing window in the door. I got up and opened it.
My father was perhaps more tan than I was on his body, and he had a stronger tiger-stripe pattern. But his head was almost completely black, with only small areas of light tan just below his naris and on his brow ridges. I looked into his eyes. They had a vacant, mindless look to them, there was very little intelligence there, perhaps only as much as the living raptor had had. It was strange looking at one that was not me in the mirror. If you looked at him the right way he looked rather sinister. But so did I, I think.
I think he smelled me, because he suddenly ran up to the door, screaming challenge. I felt a vague compulsion to go in and fight him, but resisted it. Then, as he calmed down and glared coldly at me through the bars, he suddenly stopped, and cocked his head. He looked at me with one eye, then the other. And just for a second, I saw a glimmer of something in those eyes. Abruptly he walked away towards the far wall. I knew what I had to do. "Open the door, doctor," I said to Dr. Pat in a steely voice.
He was clearly shocked by that statement. "But he's a-a... No, I can't let you." He crossed his wings across his feathered chest defiantly. "So am I, Doctor. Either you open that door, or I'll do it for you. And you'll hate the way I'll do it." I gave him the Look at the same time.
He crumbled under my gaze. "O.K., O.K... It's your funeral." He slid a key card through an electronic lock, there was a beep, then he opened the door just enough to let me slip through. Before he closed it I thought in Jack's direction, Am I doing the right thing? He just shrugged with an concentrated look on his face.
Dr. Pat almost closed it on the tip of my tail, but I managed to get through in time. My Father was pacing the far wall of the bare, high walled enclosure. I stepped out away from the door, in full view of the viewing port. I set the suit's healing function as the priority, and closed my eyes. "Dad, it's me," I said.
I could not tell his mood, the wind had shifted so I was now upwind of him. But my hearing picked up walking, thump, thump, thump, thump. He circled me several times, and I briefly caught his oddly familiar scent as he went upwind of me. I kept on waiting for a charge. After what seemed like an eternity, I got one. He charged me, screaming, from behind. The impact was so hard it made me lose my breath and forced me to the dirt.
We rolled around on the ground, wrestling each other. I did not even try to fight back, I did not want to hurt him. But he seemed to be "pulling his punches". It seemed more like he was playing with me than trying to hurt me. Reflexively, I Changed to 'norm'-shape, and wrestled back. We were like a couple of kittens play-wrestling with each other. Or a father and son doing the same thing. He'd play-bite my tail, I'd bat his head. We were kicking up quite a bit of dust, so I don't think Jack and Dr. Pat could really see what was going on. Dad and I finally got tired and stopped, unwillingly of course. It had been way too much fun. I'd never been in full control of my "norm" form before. I think my father unknowingly had shown me how to do it.
I finally got up and Changed myself back. It was more a redistribution of weight than anything, I weighed about the same in both forms. From then on I knew that I just had to put my mind to it and my body would obey.
After I could speak again, I looked at my Dad and said. "OK, you can change yourself back now." He cocked his head at me like had before, uncomprehending. There was bright intelligence in those eyes now, somehow he'd known who I was. "Dad, c'mon!" I said, more loudly this time. "Dad!!" I yelled in anguish, but he only looked back at me with bright eyes, and his tail twitching happily. He did not remember. I gave him a sad hug around his long neck, he licked me on the side of the head. For some reason that raised my spirits tremendously. Then I slipped out the door with his intelligent, but also vacant, green cat-like eyes that were so much like mine looking my direction.
Outside I saw Jack fanning Dr. Pat with a clipboard. Apparently he'd fainted when my father charged. He gave me an incredulous look and said, "Thank God!" and rushed up to me. "You're all in one piece!" He was feeling me all over, just to be sure I was there. I made him stop with a withering Look. "Do you realize," I said to him in a icy voice, "That by putting him in that-that prison you've probably made his condition worse? If he'd had been in familiar surroundings he'd probably have come out of it." I turned to Jack. "Did you get anything from him?"
"I don't know," he replied. "There was a flash of something for a moment, but I don't think he actually remembered you. It was more like an impression of trust and love associated with you. Somehow he knew you were his son, even through your altered appearance. Don't ask me how." But if he did not remember anything... that was almost worse than being a "mere" animal. But the fact that my father had responded to me, that he remembered me at least in some way, gave me hope for what might be in the future. I got in the car in the best mood I'd been in since Jack and I'd left my apartment.
Dr. Pat asked a few more questions on the way back to the hospital. "Do you have any more family that should be notified?" he asked. "The only other family I can think of is my uncle Walt and cousin Dan. I can give you Walt's number, but as for Dan... He's a college student going to some Northern college just two years behind me. I've only met either of them a few times, and don't really know them very well. Otherwise, Mom was an only child, and both sets of grandparents are dead, too," I replied.
"Out of curiosity, what did your Dad do for a living before he retired?"
"Retired? Hah! I'm sure he never really retired, he loved his work more than me. He was a paleontologist and so was Mom. They worked mostly with the small theropods like Troodon, Herrerasaurus, and... Velociraptor!" Something clicked in my head. In the summers of my adolescence, I spent much of my time with him on his digs, and when I was older handled some of the specimens. It was during these summertime digs that I took up photography by first taking pictures of the sites, (it gave me something to do, I was often bored to tears before) which then evolved to taking artistic pictures of the landscape. I got complimented on my photos, and I grew to love photography I'd made it my Major. But my Dad had thought that I should have been a paleontologist like he was, that's why we had not spoken in a year.
The fact that we'd both apparently become the same species of dinosaur was surprising. Randomness was a big part of the Change, but it seemed that if you spent a lot of time with certain types of animals, than it was far more likely you'd become one. (Later, I'd found out that among zoo workers, the "exotic" animal morphs were more common) Apparently domesticated animals like dogs and cats were not in this group, else we'd be a nation of house pets. I never went to zoos much when I was a kid, but museums with dinosaur bones yes. Lots of museums. So I'd had little exposure to other types of DNA. That also meant that there had to have been some undamaged DNA in the bones of those dinosaurs. Somehow, something had picked it up, and then something had transferred it to a greater expression in our bodies. Of course, I was sure it was that RAPTOR RIPPLE (who came up with that dumb name anyway?) bar's fault in my case. But for everyone else, the Merger was a big part--but it was only one piece of the puzzle.
Dr. Pat was saying something to me that shook me out of my thought. "...why we wanted to give you a physical. We had to get your normal vital signs in order to judge how healthy he is. Apparently your father is in perfect health, there's just something that's not connecting in his brain to get his memory working again. Perhaps if we had the money to research the problem, we could find a treatment. But alas! There is no such fund yet." He was genuinely sad that there was no money, now that he knew that my father was more than just and exotic zoo specimen, that is. "How does a million dollars sound?" I replied.
He looked at me in shock,. "You mean, you're that David Smith?" he said. I nodded. "I'll contact my CPA and set it up as soon as I can." Now that I had a CPA. Quite coincidentally my CPA was in LA too. And I was going to get there sooner rather than later. My experience with my father had given me new hope. We dropped the bird-man off at the hospital, he gave me his business card so I could contact him. When he was gone, I plopped a new sun-charged battery into my celphone and called Coonie's friend.