The hum of the computers in the APD lab had finally faded into
the background of my subconscious. It was another day at the Alaska
SAR Facility, and -- as usual -- I was sitting down at a monitor
checking my e-mail hoping that there was finally a project for
me to work on. So far, this was not turning out to be a very productive
I had got into town just after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday and had been back at work the next week. During that time, the computers with all of the data had been down, so there was nothing I could do on those. Then, as soon as the data was available again, one of the drives on Cedar went belly up. Of course, we had to wait for about a week until that was fixed -- the good news was that I had something to do trying to recover all of the data that hadn't been backed up somewhere else.
Then, just as everything is coming together, Rick, my supervisor, falls down and twists his foot. Great, another week waiting for something to do, I thought.
So many people complain about going to work and having too much to do. I don't know that too little is really any better, especially on an hourly wage.
Thus I found myself searching through TSA-Talk once more, hoping to find a good story that I could read through. School had sucked down most of my time, and combined with trying to get hours in at work, I hadn't really had the time to let the creative juices flow, myself. Still, it was good to be able to read what others were coming up.
There was only one other person in the lab with me. Tall and skinny, he sat hunched over his keyboard like a vulture. His thin, but surprisingly strong and nimble, fingers danced over the keys. His nose jutted out towards the screen as he worked his way through the system. Justin's green, white, and yellow knit stocking hat perched precariously on the back of his head like a yarmulke, its yellow pom threatening to drag the entire thing off of his head entirely.
Meanwhile, I sat in front of Birch and let my eyes scan through the e-mail. It was approximately one o'clock in the afternoon. Another four hours before I could leave. Well, at least I had some schoolwork to get started on. That was something of a consolation. It would be nice if I actually got to do something for once.
* * * * * * *
Back at the apartment, things weren't much better. I ran a few
friends through D&D, 3rd Edition -- at least that got my mind
off of everything else that was going on. Sixteen upper division
credits -- plus three lower that I have to finish from last semester
-- twenty hours of 'work' a week, and another SCA event coming
up. There are times when everything just drags on you.
The game finally ended at about 12:30 am. Sure we had class, but in that moment of escapism we didn't really care. The party was all fighters -- well, three fighters and a barbarian -- and they were tearing up just about anything I could throw at them. What I had hoped would be a challenge proved either too easy or too deadly -- there was no middle ground. Next game, though, I had a plan: kobolds, pixies, and cursed rings. It was all coming together.
As I lay in bed and tried not to think of all that I hadn't done today, I ran the plot through my head. The lone lancer of the group was getting tired of the half-orc throwing on every item they found before they could ascertain whether it was harmful or not. The half-orc claimed he simply had no reason to fear randomly donning magic items. I wonder how long that would last, though, when 'Gronk' became 'Gronkette.' That should teach him.
I smiled to myself, and gently drifted to sleep.
* * * * * * *
BEEP BEEP BEEP
That has to be the most annoying alarm ever invented. Not only is it an LCD screen (yeah, like you can read that in the dark!), but also the buttons have all gone bad. It takes a half an hour just to set the stupid thing.
Almost without thinking I reached over and turned it off. After lying there a few more minutes I pulled myself up, sitting in bed. Holding the clock up to what little light came into the room, I looked at the time. I didn't really need to--I'd set the alarm the night before anyway, but I did.
'8:30 am', the clock face read.
Shoot! I had wanted to get up fifteen minutes earlier! I must have hit the snooze alarm a few times and not woken up. Quickly, I threw myself off of the top bunk and landed hard on the floor. Grabbing some clothes I threw them on then grabbed my gi and swords and headed off for class.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are always the best. From 9:00 until 11:15 I have Aikido practice with Mr. Abels. The first half hour is the intermediate and advanced classes, and we've been working on Iaido and Aikiken -- drawing the sword, and the Aikido sword work -- to get ready for Mr. Yamazaki, who is coming up to test in April.
I had hoped to get a few extra draws in before class actually started; I could use the practice. As it was, I would be lucky to get there on time.
Rushing down the hill to class, I was careful not to slip in the snow. The weather in Fairbanks had been extremely warm of late, and it was throwing everything off. The roads were slicker, and the snow seemed to pack much more readily. Personally, I preferred it a little colder, with dry powder that seemed to just vanish in a few days. Sublimation, my friends called it.
Getting into the gym, I flew downstairs to the locker rooms and started stripping. Looking up, I was pleased to see the clock face with a good 10 minutes still to go -- plenty of time. Throwing on my gi, I wrapped the obi around my waist and tied it up. Grabbing my ken-bukuro -- my bag containing one iaitou (unsharpened practice sword), one wooden bokken, and two bamboo shinai -- I made it up to class, where two other students were already practicing. Sensei wasn't there yet, so I was doing better than I had hoped; the early alarm had frazzled me more than anything.
"Osu! Joshua, good morning!" one of my sempai said, at the end of a kata. I returned the salutation and went up to the front of the gym to bow my sword in before practice. Sheathed at my side, I found a section of floor and sat down. Breathing in and out, I calmed myself and attempted to clear my mind.
With each breath in, I focused on the one point in my center, expanding it out into the universe and beyond with the exhale. I still try too hard, but I pushed even those worries from my mind. School, work, graduation, SCA, and even the stories I had waiting to get posted to TSA, all were banished for the next several hours, and my world was calm.
Calmly, I flicked the sword in and out of its scabbard a few times, practicing the twist of the wrist while staring straight ahead. After a few of those, I went into the first kata of what we were calling 'set A'. From a seated position, I rose, twisting the hips to help clear the scabbard as I delivered a horizontal cut. I followed this with an overhead cut -- the grooves on the side of the blade caused it to whistle as it came to a stop in front of me.
Performing chiburi -- flinging the 'blood' off of the blade -- I stepped up, and back, and returned the blade to the scabbard. The slight scraping told me I had yet to perfect the art, but I was getting better.
With the click of the tsuba against the scabbard, the move was complete. Silence descended, and it was then that I noticed something was amiss. It wasn't just me that was silent, but the entire gym. Turning my head, I looked over at my classmates.
Both of them were standing and staring at me. "What's wrong?" I asked, and one of them actually put his hand on the hilt of his sword. I hardly noticed, however, instead puzzling on the strange frog that seemed to have gotten stuck in my own throat, making my voice sound... odd.
My sempai, Mark, a student from Germany, seemed to remain somewhat calm. "Josh, is that you?" he asked.
What kind of a question is that? I wondered to myself. "Yeah, ahem, yeah, I think so. Something's wrong with my throat, I think." I was actually pretty embarrassed, because the voice coming out was more like that of a woman's than a man's. I put a hand up to my throat.
"Umm, Josh, just calm down..." Mark was saying. Now why would I have to worry about that? I felt my throat, commenting silently that I really needed to trim my beard.
"Ah, aaah, aaaaaaaoooohhh." I said, feeling the throat. Something was wrong about the way it was vibrating. Could you pull a vocal chord? I asked myself.
Meanwhile, Mark was still coming towards me, arms out in a non-threatening manner, as if I was threatening him or something. "Mike, you had better go call an ambulance or something."
"What's wrong?" I asked again, my own voice sounding odd, "Is it something on my head?" Without waiting for a response, I raised my hand to my forehead.
That was when I noticed it. My entire arm was coated in black fur, and I could see that even the skin beneath it was black. Where my fingernails had been, I now saw the tips of claws; in my excitement they extended, suddenly, as my muscles tensed.
"What the --!?!" I cried, trying to back away and falling backwards over the scabbard that was still lodged in the obi I wore. I felt a pain behind me. I already knew what it was, without looking -- it was a pain I had figured out long ago, but hadn't had any way until that moment to prove right or wrong. It was the pain of a squashed tail.
I let out a definitely yelp at that, and then a second as the back of my head hit the wooden floor. Slowly, I raised my head, looking up at Mark. Across my field of vision, I noticed my chest rising and falling as well, although it seemed higher, more rounded than I had ever seen it...
One hand went to my crotch, where I could already feel what I had guessed. My manhood and my form were stripped from me somehow. It was something that I had, in truth, dreamed of experiencing -- but dreaming and having it happen were two different things altogether.
Dazed and confused, I could only think of one thing to do in such a situation. Righting myself back to a kneeling position, I began to pray: "Father in Heaven, please help me now. Forgive me for my sins, and please help me return to human form. Father, if this is because of something that I have said, or done, please forgive me. If it is not, then... Lord, please help me to understand and to deal with it. Lord, in Your name, all things are possible; please take this from me. But not my will, but thy will be done, amen."
I left my eyes closed for a few seconds longer, opening them when I heard someone coming through the door. "What in the --?" came the remark. I looked up, noticing no change as I did so, and saw Sensei in the doorway. Although he seemed to remain calm, it was the first time I had truly seen him caught speechless.
As soon as I saw him, reflexes kicked in. Before I knew what I was doing, I was turned around and bowing; it was only in retrospect that I considered how foolish that must have looked. "It's Joshua, I think." Mark said, "Something happened during practice -- Mike went to call the ambulance."
"Joshua?" my teacher said, quizzically.
I simply nodded. "Sumimasen," I apologized, using the Japanese expression that came so readily to mind, "It's me. I'm not quite sure what happened." Now there really was something in my throat -- it was a gagged sound, welling up from the back of the throat. I choked it back, however, and wiped away the accompanying tears. They would do me little good, I knew.
"Oh, my, God." Sensei said, "I, ahh, can't say that this has ever happened before."
"Too much Ranma for me, I guess." I said, trying to crack a joke. Apparently, neither of them were Ranma fans because the only smiles they cracked seemed rather forced.
"Mark, go get the rest of the class, and make sure they don't come in just yet." Sensei said, his eyes never leaving me, "Josh, just hold on. We'll try to figure something out."
I only nodded. What else can you do when they find out that you've been transformed into a female panther in the blink of an eye? It didn't take me long at all to figure out 'what' I was, but the next was to figure out why.
Perhaps it had something to do with my midnight visualisations, I thought to myself. Often, when I couldn't get to sleep, I would calm my mind and wipe everything from it, trying to forget all sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Then, I would play games with my mind, and would 'feel' the skin stretching and changing. I'd done this ever since a dream of changing into a unicorn in third grade.
Over time, the form had started to define itself into a large cat. Graceful, dextrous, and strong -- just about everything that I, the dyspraxic, sensory integration dysfunctional young man, was not. I could feel the large, sharp teeth, and the body covered in fur.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always wondered if, with enough prodding, I couldn't actually get my body to respond in some way. Just a little change would be gratifying. So I had tried to tone it down -- rather than something as drastic as a panther, what would it feel like to be female? Not even changing species, just gender.
Eventually, I had grown out of hoping for any real changes, and lived with the ones in my head. I had experimented with many forms, but the female panther morph seemed to be the strongest, because it was so different, and held meaning. She had worked her way into gaming, and even stories that I had written. Her own, short, amateur novel still waited to be finished under its working title -- the very name of this character -- Shandranax.
Now, I found myself in that self-same body. Why? The question again surfaced to the forefront of my thoughts. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps the mind over matter really did work. Well, I thought, there is only one way to find out.
Closing my eyes, I tried once more to wipe everything from my mind -- to be as blank as a freshly cleaned slate. Once all sensation seemed to have stopped, or at least as much as it was going to, I started picturing myself changing.
It was with gratitude that I could feel the face pushing in, and the teeth rounding out. The fur was gone, and something was pressing outward against my underwear and the pants of my gi. I opened my eyes smiling in anticipation. Only to realize that nothing had changed.
Like the illusions of my earlier fantasies, this was not something I could just will to happen, apparently. There seemed to be something more to it than that.
By this time, the ambulance had arrived. They rushed into the room, gurney ready, with Mike rushing alongside and trying to explain, quickly, what had happened. The medics were listening half-attentively, but stopped halfway into the gym.
The medics looked, blinked, and looked again. "What's the problem?" One managed to ask. It had to be the stupidest question ever, but I doubt I could have thought of a better one, given the circumstances. Nonetheless, it didn't exactly deserve the most intelligent response, either.
"I think that this," I held up a furry arm, rolling back the gi so that they could see it more clearly, "could be considered a major problem."
The medics still just stared until a second one got up enough nerve to speak, "Um, miss, are you sure you don't need a veterinarian?"
Why is it that, when faced with an overwhelming problem, an otherwise rational being can become the most idiotic creature on the face of the planet? How did we ever manage to get this far with this kind of a fear response? I guess I was lucky, though. They could have come out with another common fear response: violence. Come to think of it, I think I prefer the stupidity, given the options.
After some convincing that I was a rational being that had just moments before been human -- human male, no less! -- they took me back to the ambulance. They insisted that I lay down and then they proceeded to strap me onto the gurney, in case anything should happen. I was perfectly happy to comply with them. As they took me outside, one grabbed out a small, two-way radio.
"Steve, get ready. You're not going to believe what we've got here."
* * * * * * *
I had never really been inside Fairbanks Memorial Hospital before
-- can't say that I ever wish to again, either. Not that there
was anything wrong with it, just that I prefer to be outside and
healthy, thank you.
Nobody at the clinic knew quite what to make of me. They poked and prodded and took all sorts of samples. I have to say; giving the urine sample took quite a bit of effort. For one, I had to keep my new tail from getting into things it shouldn't. Then there was the new plumbing. In all, it was a thoroughly embarrassing and rather weak moment. The hospital gowns weren't exactly made for someone with a tail, either, which caused a few more embarrassments until we finally figure out how to tie it closed properly.
Once the tests were done, I felt completely drained. They sent me to a hospital bed, and had me lie down. In the meantime, they asked if there was anyone they should contact. I thought about it for a while, and eventually came up with a list of names, with my parents, roommates, and supervisor right at the top. I did ask that they not mention my 'condition' just yet, and was assured that it would be kept confidential. I also asked not to receive visitors just yet. I wasn't exactly sure how to deal with people at the moment, let alone friends.
Apparently, 'confidential' in a case like mine had a fairly loose interpretation among some of the staff. I'll never know if it was a nurse, a janitor, a doctor, or even a patient, but it seemed as if the local reporters were soon at my door, attempting to take pictures. The hospital eventually had to post a security guard to keep them out. I'd always wondered what it felt like to be hounded by the press. Now that I knew, I understood why celebrities often act the way they do.
Sitting in bed didn't give me many options. I didn't have a computer, and the only thing to really drain my brain with was television. I turned it on and started flipping through channels. It didn't take long before I hit CNN, which was flashing one of their 'breaking story' graphics. Apparently, there was an epidemic of strange animal sightings in the past couple of hours -- enough for CNN to start breaking the news, anyway. People claimed to see werewolves, centaurs, and even dragons. I had little doubt that this had something to do with me. Perhaps we had been hit with one of those 'waves' of magic that fantasy authors love to write about. I continued to watch the news on into the evening to see what was happening.
Of course, being CNN, the same stories were being repeated over and over again, with only snippets of new information. After a few hours, I changed the channel, and then simply switched back every so often to check on any new developments.
It was in the middle of a rerun of Babylon 5 that I got a phone call. It startled me at first; nobody had told me about the phone by my bed. I picked it up cautiously. "Hello... ?" I said, in wary tones. I tried to make my voice sound as deep as possible.
"Hello, is this Josh's room?" Asked a familiar voice.
"Matt! It's me, go ahead." I replied.
"Really? You sound like a --"
"I know, this thing has really messed with my throat." I said. It wasn't exactly a lie.
"What is it? Is it contagious?" My roommate continued.
"No, I -- I don't think it's contagious. I sure hope not. Nobody here is quite sure what it is, though."
"But you're okay?"
"Well, fine as I can be, given the circumstances. I'll live."
"Oh good." Matt said, relieved. The last thing he needed to hear right now was too much bad news. "There are others here who want to talk to you as well."
"Put 'em on." I said. As the phone switched hands I could hear Matt tell the others, 'His voice sounds really strange.'
"Hello?" This new voice belonged to Laurel, one of our neighbours next door. "What happened?"
"I got hit with something in Aikido class. I'm not sure what, and neither are the doctors here. I don't think I'm going to die, and I don't think it's fatal," I added.
"Oh," Laurel said, and off-phone I could hear her tell the others, 'He says he's feeling okay.' Well, I wouldn't have put it in exactly those terms, but what the hey.
"Well, get better." She said.
"I'll try." I replied, although I didn't have much stock in that at the moment.
"Here's Justin." Laurel said as she handed off the phone.
"Hey, how's it going?" Justin asked.
"Could be better." I told him.
"You know, you sound like a girl." Justin said, laughing. If he only knew the half of it.
"Yeah, well, I don't think I'll make broomball tonight." I told him, "Oh, and check out CNN if you get the chance."
"Eh, whatever. See you around."
"Tell everyone thanks for calling." I told him, and then there was a click as he hung up the phone.
It was only a half hour later that my mother called. "Joshua, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," I said, wincing at my own voice.
"Josh, is that you?" My mother asked, quizzically.
"Yes. This thing has really attacked my throat, and the rest of my body. Still, I think that I am going to live."
"That's a relief." My mom said, "I'm sorry, I called as soon as I heard. I told Denny something was up. Do you need us to come up there?"
Yes! I wanted to say. I want you to come up here, and I want you to hold me like you used to do and tell me everything is okay. Instead, I simply said, "That's alright. I don't think there's anything you guys can do."
"Okay," my mom said, sounding unconvinced, "But call us if it gets worse."
"Bye, I love you."
"I love you, too, mom." I said, and hung up the phone.
I was going to have to face them all, eventually. Still, I wanted to try to come to grips with it myself before I had to help other people cope with it.
There were a few more phone calls that evening from reporters and the like. I just said 'no comment' and hung up the phone. Eventually I started to just hang up the phone. As soon as I heard the words, "... and I'm a reporter for..." Click! Down the receiver went. The news story was still forming as I went to sleep that night. Hopefully, tomorrow would bring some answers.