It took a couple of tries, but I did finally get through. "Hello?" said a male voice on the other end. "Yes, um, Fox Cutter please? This is David Smith."
"David Smith? Oh! Connie... er, Coonie's friend! Coonie's friend who needs to go to India!" He said, "So sorry to tell you this, old boy. But India has closed it's borders. Quite unlike them. But considering the current situation, very understandable. The order came right from the top." I have a pretty good idea who gave that order, the Doctor said, anger in her voice. "Anyway, why don't you all come out to LA to my place? That way when the borders reopen I can get you through fast," he continued.
"Well, um, that sounds great, but I don't want to impose," I said. He hardly knows me and is offering to put all of us up? What kind of crazy... whatever is this?
"Oh! It's no problem. There's lot of people who want to start over showing up, and many are selling their places at rock-bottom prices. I've managed to acquire a couple of houses on Malibu Beach and Newport Bay. You can use one of them. One even came complete with furniture and a fifty-foot sailboat!" He had a kind of crazy-sounding barking laugh. I began to have suspicions about his species.
"What was it like in LA?" I asked. "What? Oh, ever seen 'Independence Day'?" He left that hanging for a moment. "Just kidding. The National Guard, those that had finished hybridizing, managed to keep the flames down. All the downtown buildings are OK, their fire suppression systems worked great. I just have one recommendation. When you come, come through San Diego instead of the North or East. They need to reconstruct some freeway bridges a bit, and the traffic is terrible!" He gave me directions to the Malibu house which I committed to memory as my first real test of it's reliability. "O.K., we'll be along in a week or so." Jack and I did, after all, have a few things to take care of back in Goodland.
The first thing Jack and I did was go for some food and a night's sleep. We'd been on the go for over a day, and needed both in large amounts.
We decided on a local pizza place. I decided to experiment with what I could eat, and discovered that tomato sauce had no adverse effects. But I balked a bit from the intense smell from the spices. Jack seemed to love it, though. I stuck with the Old Standby: Pepperoni, while he went with a deluxe that had a small amount of ham on it. All in all it was a good meal (though I had to let it cool quite a bit before I could swallow. I do not chew, that's what my gizzard is for.).
The motel turned out to be a problem. It was one of those "$19.95 a night" sort of places. The Collie-morph front desk clerk took one look at my foot claws and said, "No. You'll be ripping up the beds, sheets, not to mention the carpets." She crossed her furry arms across her naked breasts, which were almost invisible under her heavy coat of long fur. The clothing industry was going to have to make a few changes, it seemed. A good portion of the population had ceased wearing clothing. The police had given up on enforcing the indecent exposure laws.
I decided to try a different tack this time, rather than using the Look. I did not want to bully someone if I did not have to. Besides, I was still on the lookout for signs of my altered personality. I think the Look was one of them. Anyway, I offered a hundred dollars cash, in advance for tonight instead of the normal twenty. She couldn't resist that, so we got the room.
She'd given us a room with only a single bed. But I really did not need the bed anyway, I'd taken to sleeping on carpet because it did not rip as easily. Besides, I wanted to try the new trick my father had taught me. I thought it might give me a better body shape for sleeping on flat floors. But when I got home I'd have to look at some anti-rip fabrics...
Before bed we watched The News Channel. China had finally come back on the 'Net, pleading total infrastructure breakdown. But the rest of the world was skeptical. Africa was coming back slowly, and support was flowing into them from around the world. The US government had ordered all auto seating to be recalled, with the FedGov footing some of the bill. But it would be some time before things got going on that. The President (who frankly had been a bit wishy-washy before) had had a renaissance of personality, and was now what one might define as a "leader". His son had not been seen several days, though.
That was about all we could stand, especially when they got to those claiming they had a cure that were popping up all over the place. The government had started a study to find out exactly what happened. That would take months to even get started. Jack shut the TV off. It was only about seven, but it was late enough so we would not get our nights and days turned around.
I went into the bathroom to try that trick. First, I sort of centered myself in my head. Then I dissolved my clothes, and closed my eyes and made the shift.
It was really more a redistribution of mass than anything. I felt no different, really, until I felt my tail touch the wall behind me. My head thrust farther forward as my neck lengthened a bit more, and I now held my arms up against my large chest unconsciously, my back longer and almost parallel with the ground. I opened my eyes. I had little depth perception, now that my eyes were on the sides of my head. No forehead either, not to mention larger teeth and a longer snout. And I thought my morph felt strange...
I had grasping tridactyl (three fingered) hands, and was able to push down on the lever that replaced the doorknob. I walked carefully on the carpet, my foot claws were quite a bit longer.
"G'night, Dave," Jack said groggily. I began to say the same thing out loud, which started as a low growl, but I stopped myself. G'night, Jack. I kind of lowered myself down next to the wall, amazed at how easily my legs retracted against my body.
First, I tried to rest my head nose-down on the floor, but that did not work. I tried laying on my side, and that did. With my long, flexible neck I rested my head in a completely horizontal position right on the floor, neck curled nearly backward. That position turned out to be extraordinarily comfortable, and I fell asleep almost immediately.
I was crouching outside of a small hole on the dusty red ground. I did not know why I did this, until another small fur-thing came out of it. Instinctively I lunged forward to grab it's neck, then I'd throw it to a different member of the pack. The hunting was good here, easy too; these fur-things slid down the throat nicely. Then, sated and sleepy, I lay down with my other packmates in the shade of a large tree...
"Dave!!" The voice shook me out of my dream. Whaaaat? I thought in Jack's direction, lifting my head off the floor and looking at him with my left eye. He was standing right above me, though. "You were dreaming, I hardly got a wink of sleep all night! You know it's impossible to wake you?" He was wearing just some pajama bottoms, and I could see that his chest had the same thick brownish hair that his head had. His chest still looked quite human, I noticed.
I was dreaming, then... "I still heard you," he interrupted, "and saw what you were dreaming in my own dreams." He paused a moment, smiling. "Did dinosaurs really mate that way? It looks uncomfortable." He was obviously talking about some part of the dream that I did not remember (but I wished I did). It was about seven, and we were both anxious to get back home. I was about to get up and go back to the bathroom and change back into my clothes, but I quickly realized that Jack had been standing there looking at my naked body for quite some time.
I know now what many others must have felt after their Change. Clothes felt absolutely redundant now. Quite suddenly, every feeling of embarrassment of being any way naked (in private or otherwise) dissolved almost completely. In the future, weather permitting, I wore clothes if I felt like it. My only token to modesty being what I called a "tailstrap" to cover my cloaca. And that would usually be a shade that blended in with my natural coloring. I really did not need clothes, even for sun protection. My scales had an SPF factor of at least fifty.
It turned out to be raining outside when we checked out, so the Doctor made me a rainsuit that covered me from tip of snout to end of tail. She also managed to make one for Jack too, through replication (the suit has a kind of nanite called M/EC, or "Matter/Energy Converter". Quite useful). We headed for home under dark skies and the occasional clap of thunder that seemed to be much richer sounding than before. It was almost a natural high.
I drove while Jack lay in the back seat. We talked a little about what we both remembered about my dream. From what he described it really did sound uncomfortable. The last thing he said I almost missed, something about "racial memory", but he'd fallen asleep and I'd been paying attention to driving. I'd have to look it up later.
When we got back, I found an email message on my computer from Bob. He'd taken his laptop with him, and the message was only an hour old. It said:
Coonie's friend got a hold of her just after you called. We'll be happy to meet you in California in a week or so. I'll have trouble trying to tear myself away from my parents. How did it go with your father, by the way? At any rate, Mom's a (I had to look it up) spider monkey (you should see how flexible her tail is. I saw her carry a heavy basket with it, WOW!) and Dad's a red squirrel (and really vain about his tail, too). It'd be hard to explain what exactly they look like... I'll bring pictures. All my parents said about my Change was, "Figures you're a horse. Could not imagine you being anything else, though".
See you in CA, Bob.
Jack and I got started by renting a few storage units. That took a day, and the next we rented a moving van (the rental company was relived when we said "local"). Bob had moved his stuff into my own apartment, and when I talked to him later that day we started carting his stuff to the storage, too. We canceled our leases, George had finally come to his senses, and quite frankly I liked him much better now. He was very cooperative.
I could now lift 250, but Jack could lift more like 350. So between the two of us we could take care of most everything. It took three grunting, straining, panting days to clear everything. In fact, I donated much of the stuff my double had liked (but I did not) to the Salvation Army and places like that. They loved the TV.
Many of the auto dealerships had immediately hired anyone would had a talent for building or reshaping stuff. The suit was able to use it's replication abilities to change the front seats in my car so I could drive it. But I ended up trading it on a new Ford Expedition TE (Turbine-Electric, alcohol powered) 4x4 anyway. Mostly because there was a lot of stuff that I was taking with me, and did not feel like buying a van. Jack kept his car, though I offered to buy him whatever he needed.
Jack decided to stay with his parents for a day or two because they'd had little time when the Zoo was there, so he stopped in Denver. I went straight on to Grand Junction and stayed the night there. The next morning I looked in on my father. At my insistence they'd moved him into a less confining environment. I'm glad they'd decided to comply with my suggestion. It would not have been pretty if they had not. I could afford a very good lawyer.
After seeing Dr. Pat again, I realized he was not the man for the job of getting a team together to research the memory problem. I knew someone who was qualified, though. I'd also found out about this "racial memory" thing that I've got. Every night I use my norm-shape to sleep I got these strange dreams. I was remembering the past. 80 million years past. Wow. It also gave me a clue as to why my father apparently did not remember anything. His Alzheimer's coupled with the racial memory must be keeping him from distinguishing which is present, and which just memory.
Jack had slowly been gaining control of his telepathic powers. Mostly from keeping from accidentally experiencing the same dreams I was, I think. When we were moving out he discovered he had another Power. He was a telekinetic, too. It happened while we were moving the TV, I accidentally dropped it on my toes. While I was struggling and whimpering in pain, Jack had been straining at my end trying to lift it, when he yelled, "Up! Damn it!" There was a kind of surging sound, almost like a wave breaking, and the TV lifted about a foot off the ground. After I got my toe out, the suit healing it fast, it crashed down. Causing a bit of damage. It still worked, though. That's why I donated it. Gladly, too.
My father had almost degenerated to how he was before I'd first seen him. But at the sight of me his eyes lit up again. I went in a new enclosure that had a lot more greenery in it than the last one had had. I sat inside and just talked to him for about and hour, hoping he'd understand me, and we wrestled a bit. I was going to have to find a way to have him join me in California.
I took the southern route that Fox suggested. So I had to backtrack to Denver and then go south on I-25 to Albuquerque, then west through Arizona down to I-8 that led to San Diego. Throughout my drive I saw signs of life returning to at lest some semblance of normal, rush hour traffic and such. Not only on the ground, but in the air, too. It was incredible just how fast things were returning, though someone one the radio was calling the way the workforce was shifting around the "Great Migration".
I still tended to get mobbed by kids wherever I went, but I'd kind of learned to accept it a bit. It was hot and dry in the desert, and to keep from panting too much when I was not in my air-conditioned truck I wore loose clothing. A light shirt and shorts, mostly. The Doctor also managed to make me some sunglasses that would fit. With those glasses people actually reacted to me better, something about my eyes I think. I also had a nagging problem with news crews following me everywhere. I'd change to a morph of something else whenever I saw one, a horse-morph mostly.
One other thing about the drive, as I got closer and closer to the coast I noticed that a higher and higher number of those on the road seemed to be morphs of seals, dolphins, sea lions, and even sharks. I guess I had to expect it. About 5% of the population had become some sort of aquatic morph, sea mammals mostly. Once I saw what had to be a mosasaur in a Mercury.
I'd never been to the ocean before. My father always went off to the Badlands of Montana and the Dakotas, and occasionally to Mongolia (I never went with him on those trips, though) on his digs during my summer vacations. We did take vacations before Mom died, but after Dad was even more absorbed in his work. So I'd never seen the ocean.
I really smelled it before I saw it. It was like nothing else. The salt tang stung at my nostrils almost as soon as I dropped out of the mountains. My first clear sight of it happened after I got on I-5 a few miles north of San Diego. There was a large water area to the left, "Mission Bay" the map said. I decided to stop and try the water. Sea World was supposed to be on that bay. But traffic was being tightly controlled by the National Guard, Sea World had been closed because it had been mobbed by aquamorhs. I found out that they did not want to release the animals, just learn from them. Dolphins did not actually "talk" but did have a kind of rudimentary language. One that the dolphin-morphs could translate.
Unable to get off there, but still determined to see the sea, I went farther north. I got off at an exit marked CARLSBAD STATE BEACH, NEXT RIGHT. And found a parking space right next to the ocean only by luck. And then there I was, standing at the end of an intake jetty for some kind of powerplant that was about a 1/4 mile further down on the lagoon behind me. I heard the crashing waves on the end of the jetty. I felt the sand between my toes. Then I knew this was a good idea.
I waded into the cool water (only about 67 degrees) that foamed around my legs. I shivered a little when my tail dipped in, then dissolved my clothes to the surprise of those around me, and dove into the waves. I did not change to an aquatic form, not with that many people around. Instead I swam with powerful side-to-side strokes of my tail. With my airsacs and hollow bones I was quite buoyant. I must have swam around for half an hour.
The swim was quite refreshing. I lay down on a towel I'd brought out of my truck to dry off in the sun (wearing only the tailstrap) a couple of dolphin morphs came up to me. "Never seen a dinosaur swim," said one female voice. Her voice sounded strange, then I realized that it came out of the "blowmouth" on the top of her big head. Her forearms were flat and fingers webbed, and she had a thick, long tail not unlike mine that had her flukes, a dorsal fin on her back, and blue-gray smooth skin that seemed very attractive to me. "You're pretty good at it," she finished. She was smiling, and I don't know if she meant to smile or her face had Changed to be that way.
"Thanks," I replied. Then they walked away into the water. Puzzling. It turned out that here in Southern California there were quite a few dinosaur morphs. So my celebrity had been more a local thing. I hoped.
I lay on the beach people-watching for about an hour. I overheard bits of conversation like: "Yeah! It's great! It's like I'm seeing with my ears." "Honey, I don't think you ought to swim anymore. Wet fur really stinks." I had to agree with that, and I was now pretty happy I was hairless. It took only a few minutes to dry, if nothing else. "No, I'm not afraid of the water, what made you think I was?" came from a feline-sounding voice. The last one made me laugh. "Duuude! You'd like, think those seagulls would like, be able to like control themselves, youknow," said one male voice with a stereotypical surfer accent. "Todd, you're a seagull," said a sarcastic female voice in reply. "Huh? Ohyeah!" I really hoped he meant the natural-born seagulls, but I went out to sit on the jetty to watch the sunset anyway. I found a rock what would not force me to bend my tail too much, and watched the sun go down in my first Pacific sunset.
It took a good three hours to get to Malibu from there. It was almost midnight when I got there, too. I called Fox again when I was about an hour away. Jack had not arrived yet, and would not for a day or two.
The house turned out to be right on the beach, and was a very beautiful home, even in the dark. Fox turned out to be (big surprise here) a red fox. A very sly red fox. "Dave!" he said, recognizing me immediately. I'll say one thing about my species, I'm easy to pick out of a crowd. "Well met," he said, we shook hands. But I was tired so after he gave me the keys and left I collapsed on a bed (I really did not care for the mattress right then) and slept.
He came over the next morning, and I asked him what he did for a living. "I work for the CIA," he said. I could tell he was being completely honest. Why, I really did not know. But I would not make the mistake of trusting him (at least too much) he reminded me of a character I'd read about in a book.
Fox also had a very interesting "talent". He could shift his Degree of Change from being a normal fox, to basically a human with red, furry-looking hair and pointed ears. He also had an uncanny knack for making a joke out of everything. He was very much like Jack in many respects, and we became friends too. I asked him about the house. "I've got a place about a mile down the beach. This used to be a house of a very good friend of mine. But he wanted to start over. So I gave him $500,000 for the place, cash, and he left to start a new life. He's some kind of African mammal I could not identify. Says he was going back to his roots." He had a thoughtful look on his face. At the "morphic" degree he chose at this moment he looked a lot like Robin Hood from that Disney movie. He also had an English accent that reminded me of it even more.
Later in the day I went to see my CPA. Most buildings had at least a few soot marks on them. I identified myself to the secretary(bird) and went in to the office.
My CPA/stock broker insisted on being called "Trickster". I'm sure you can guess why. I'd met him before, after my incident with the tornado, and he was a very shrewd, and very honest man at the same time. That is nothing compared to how his personality Changed.
"You lost about 6 million in the stock markets before they stopped all trading. But the next payment arrived auto-deposit from the fedgov just before the Change," he was saying. "The shoe companies are dropping like flies because most don't need them anymore." He looked at my own feet. "Neat meat hooks," he said. "Anything else?" I asked. That was 6 mil I'd never miss.
"Other than I'd like to be able to invest as much as I can into the pet and animal product company stocks, no." So I released about 2 mil for him to fool with. I really did not care if I lost it. Not because of what you're thinking, but I hardly had had time enough to even get over the shock having that much money before all this. So if he lost it all I'd never really miss it.
The house Fox had given me (for only $750,000, and I'd had to haggle a bit. Business is business, after all) was huge. It was two stories with the lower one sunk into a hill right on the beach, so you only saw one level on the street with the garage. Most of it was level with the street, and there was 4,000 square feet total. Five bedrooms, three of them Master Suites. A big kitchen, well-stocked with a walk-in refrigerator. A THX home theater system in a windowless but well-ventilated room on the lower level that had a more modest size TV. The furnishings fit my taste exactly. There was an extensive nature library, with an 886-375 Mhz computer in the same room. Huge windows to watch the sunset were on one wall of the living room on the upper floor, and a wide deck with a hot tub just outside. If one is going to live in California, this is the way to do it.
When Jack arrived two days later he was just as impressed as I was. He said "Wow" quite a bit like I had. After looking the place over he cheerfully moved right into the Suite two doors down from mine.
I really wanted to take pictures of the beautiful sunsets, and I had not touched my camera in over a week so I was itching to start up again. But the pentaprism viewfinder was just not working with this muzzle of mine. I could not fit it levelly under my eye, I had to tilt my head quite a bit in order to get a level picture. I ended up buying a look-down viewfinder. It was often harder to use, but solved more problems than it caused.
I had trouble finding an open camera shop. At least 40% of the workforce was starting anew and left many problems in it's wake. There turned out to be enough workers to keep things functioning. I got that new viewfinder just in time.
I was walking along the shore southward taking pictures as I went along. I'd started taking early morning walks along the beach with my camera. You never know what you'll see. What I saw that morning was beautiful. There was a horse running through the waves coming towards me. I'd found that I could control my time perception, so I switched to slo-mo mode. It did not at first occur to me who this was, but I clicked quite a few great looking photos before the Thoroughbred stopped right in front of me. Then, I saw what I had taken as part of it's mane actually was a medium-sized real raccoon. That raccoon expanded in size until I recognized who it was, Coonie. Somehow she was also wearing some kind of bathing suit. "Hi Dave!" she said in that liquid voice of hers. She then slid off the horse's back. As she ran up and hugged me around my neck the horse Changed back into Bob.
After I got over the shock of Coonie's hug I asked him, "I thought you were a Clydesdale." "I am," he replied. "But domestic horses are all the same species, apparently I can be anything within that range." He demonstrated by becoming morphs from many breeds like Budonny, Arabian, and Shire. "He discovered he could do that on the way here, we got in late last night at Fox's place," Coonie said. "He was wishing he was small enough to sit in the passenger chair, then the next thing he knew he was a Shetland-morph!" I think that solved Bob's problem about not being able to fit in regular-sized cars.
As we walked back to the house, I told them both of them about my father. They both expressed their condolences (Coonie with another hug. What was with her? I'd almost started thinking of fur as repulsive). I also asked Bob about perhaps starting a that memory research team.
"I'm not a neurologist," he said. Then I told him about the racial memory. "Well, that could be genetic. And I do know a couple of people who specialize in memory. I think I could call them and see if they're still around to take calls. I make no promises, though." That was all I really asked for.
With Bob and Coonie here, Fox came over and we told him my story and our rudimentary plan for getting to the madman. "It'll never work," he said. I asked why and he went over each point one-by-one explaining all it's weak parts, which was really almost all. Except the ones divised by Jack. "Listen," Fox said. "You are in bodies you're not familiar with, with untested and unfamiliar powers that need to be trained. If you are going to go into a dangerous situation, you need to be at peak. Only careful planning for every contingency will insure success." Then he took Jack aside for a moment to talk with him.
Coonie had been flirting with me the whole time. I sat beside her and whispered, "What are you doing?" in her ear. "Well," she whispered, "Fox and I used to be, kinda involved. The break up was kinda hard, and I kinda told him that we were living together."
"What! Are you 'kinda' nuts?!" I said almost too loud. I quieted down quite a bit. "You told him we were sleeping together?! I hardly know you!"
"No, just living together like in separate bedrooms. I'm not that crazy. I'm sorry Dave, but I've been telling him for the past year that I've had this great boyfriend. Bob would not have anything to do with it, but he thought you'd be willing." She smiled. I looked at Bob and he mouthed "I'm sorry." Could be worse, the Doctor observed.
Just then Fox and Jack came back in. Jack had a determined set to his ears, and that "Iron Determination" look was back in his eyes. Then he smiled. "I really like this man, Dave," he said.
"That wears off fairly soon," Coonie said dryly. Fox just glared at her for a moment, then he fox-grinned. Coonie had put her furry hand on my scaly arm, and twined her tail in mine. That was a strange feeling. Not erotic, but oddly pleasurable. I think I saw something in Fox's eyes that Coonie did not. He was actually glad she'd found a new boyfriend.
"I'm moving in with Fox," Jack said. "Says I have a 'talent' for... um, 'getting necessary information' among other things, and wants to give me special training. Hell if I know how he'll do it. But he's the expert in sneaking around." Fox coughed for a second, "It's not 'sneaking around'."
"Isn't that what you do?" Jack said.
"Yeah, but it's such an ugly phrase." He grinned again. Fox suggested a rigorous self-training program, but I guess Jack's two Powers made him special.
Above all, we wanted to do this legally, at least at first. Jack moved to Fox's place, Bob and Coonie moved into the other Master Suites. I was getting bored, so with Bob's help I turned one of the other small rooms on the lower level that had no windows into a darkroom. The pictures I'd taken of Bob turned out to be very good. So good Bob showed him to Fox, who showed them to friends.
After about two more weeks I'd been getting very bored again (and I'd started karate classes). Then there was a knock on the door. Outside was another horse and a gazelle of some kind. "We'd heard from Fox that you do portraits. Would you do ours?" I was hesitant at first, but could not resist a possibly good photo. So the next morning we met on the shore below my house and took several pictures of them in several poses, in their morph and norm forms, running and standing in the surf. They absolutely loved them when I showed them the proofs of the best, and ordered several enlargements. Word spread.
I got several other requests over the next week or so. I'd started something here. So, taking the clue I bought all kinds of photo equipment, including a few medium-format cameras (mainly Bronica and Mayamia 6x6 cm and 6x7 sizes) and some studio equipment. I turned one bedroom into a studio. I had perfect spots just outside and on my deck for other kinds of photos. And the boat presented possibilities for aquatic morphs (though I had no idea what I was going to do if any bird morphs wanted aerial shots).
When some expressed a desire for painted portraits, Coonie spoke up. Turns out she was a painter before this, and her transformation made her hands even more nimble. I'd take and enlarge a photo as a model, and she'd work from that. Her paintings were almost indistinguishable from the photo, depending on the style she used.
Bob was busy getting his team together. That was going OK. India wasn't showing any signs of reopening it's borders anytime soon. Other than that, and how Coonie and I had to act when Fox was around (I'd grudgingly agreed to the charade, don't know why).
Time marched on.