by Joshua Badgley

  The next day brought some answers, however few. One of the nurses brought in a newspaper for me. He left it on the table when he brought in breakfast. He seemed remarkably calm considering the situation. I thanked him for the kindness. "Don't worry about it, miss." he replied, only a hint of apprehension in his voice, and then he left me to myself once more.
  I know he meant well, but those last words hit deep. I didn't break down and cry; I'd gotten over that stage. However, until the nurse had mentioned something, I hadn't really been thinking of that particular part of the change. Eventually, I knew, I would have to get used to it. I would definitely need to remember that when using public facilities -- that might be an awkward moment.
  Not that anyone would say much to a six-foot tall anthropomorphic female panther walking into the men's room. Or any room, for that matter.
  Why this form? I asked myself again for the hundredth or so time. Why not 'Tatsushu', the dragon king of World's Edge? Or perhaps Ryuo, the fox-morph samurai? Or even Tygrin? Why Shandranax?
  I could only think of one reason -- because of how much she had meant to me over the years. The others, though more in the forefront of my mind currently, didn't quite have the same bond as Shandranax and I. I hadn't spent days on road trips, writing their stories as if it were my own journal; I didn't go through the real and imagined pain of their trials and tribulations as they rose from a common thief to a powerful mage. Sure, it was all fantasy -- but that's what I would have called this at any other time in my life.
  The 'Law of Contagion', I believe it was called. Or something like that. It was the idea that if two things are in close enough contact for an extended period of time, then they grow closer and closer together. Apparently, whatever had caused this had reached out to the form held closest by some similar bond and had imposed that form on my own. Whether from my subconscious or just my life experiences, I did not know.
  Picking up the paper, I could see a photograph of the hospital where I was staying, and an inset that could have been a brief snapshot of me through the hospital door, but you couldn't see much besides one fur-covered arm. At that moment, the faith I had maintained in the journalistic integrity of the Daily News Miner plummeted. The cover could have been on any dime store or checkout stand tabloid, and the story wasn't much better.

Woman Struck by Sudden Lycanthropy
  Fairbanks, AK - It appears as though our state is not immune to the crisis sweeping the nation, as a woman was brought in to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital yesterday for a strange, unknown disease. Apparently, sources say, she looked like she was covered in fur, with green, glowing eyes.
  Some people said that she was a 'werewolf', a mythical beast that is said to take the form of a wolf on the full moon.
  These days, 'lycanthropy' -- the mythical disease said to cause a person to change into a werewolf -- is believed to be simply a mental condition, in which the patient believes they have become a wolf or similar beast, often associated with schizophrenia. No physical change has ever been reliably reported to accompany this illness, however.
  When reached for comment, Dr. John Lessinger of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, suggested the following explanation: "Perhaps it is a form of hypertrichosis, a condition which causes hair to grow at a terrific rate in areas that it normally would not be seen... [hypertrichosis] is believed by many people to be one basis for the werewolf legends."
  Hypertrichosis is believed to be a hereditary condition, and is not contagious.
  The patient herself could not be reached for comment, and her identity has not yet been disclosed...

  Not with that kind of reporting. Werewolf indeed! I understood their theory of hypertrichosis -- that would have been my first guess with the information given. Still, as they said, it was hereditary, and didn't come on spontaneously. Furthermore, I had never heard of it actually modifying the bone structure as it had.
  The article went on to say that, in related news, there was a rash of werewolf sighting around the country. Some people were suggesting that this was just one large, elaborate prank, pulled off by an effective, well-organized Internet group.
  I had to laugh at that last bit. 'Well-organized' and 'Internet' did not exactly seem to mesh together well, in my humble opinion. Still, the thought got me wondering about TSA. I'm sure they'd love to hear about this one. Of course, it would probably just be seen as another story, but if this was part of something larger. Still, it would require Internet access, which I did not have, at the moment.
  Turning on the television once more, I went straight to CNN. Although they still had no idea what was going on, the reports were being confirmed. Apparently there were transformations everywhere -- horses in elevators wearing business suits, and a tiger suddenly appeared in a business office. All of this seemed to have occurred some time between 2 pm and midnight on Tuesday, Eastern time, US. It was uncertain whether or not the phenomenon was limited to the US or not.
  Eventually, one of the doctors came in to talk to me. She had dark bags under her eyes; I guessed that it had been a long night for folks in the lab. "Ms. -- I'm sorry, Mr. -- Badgley," she began, "We've looked over everything we have, and then some, and I must admit, we have no idea what has happened to you. The closest we have come is a few other cases across the nation."
  I nodded, "I've been watching the news." I told her, "I thought that there might be a connection, but I still wonder what it might be."
  "Well, for now, we're in contact with some of the other hospitals, like I said, and we'll try to get you as much information as we can. At the moment, we need to get some information from you -- when this thing struck, what you've eaten, et cetera." The doctor's hands gestured as she spoke.
  I simply nodded and took the pile of papers that were handed to me. Looking through them, it seemed like they asked more questions than a National Security background check. It took me almost two hours to fill it out to the best of my knowledge. At the end, they had an 'other' category, for anything else that might be important. I almost left it blank, but on an impulse I wrote down 'member of TSA-TALK'.
  By noon, I knew that this was pretty widespread, whatever it was. CNN was running and rerunning the piece about the werewolf and the centaur, interspersing new bits every so often. It was real, and that was about the extent of the conclusions that anyone could draw.
  With a sigh, I turned the television off, a little while later, the doctor returned with the answers I had given. "Mr. Badgley," she asked, looking down at the papers in front of her, "Can you tell us what this -- TSA-TALK -- is?"
  "Not much," I said, "Just an e-mail list I'm on. They share stories about transformations; I just figured most of them would get a kick out of this. Still, I think that it has something to do with my transformation."
  "How so?" The doctor asked. There was something she wasn't saying, but I wasn't sure what it was; I'm a fairly trusting soul, though, so I didn't question the possible ulterior motives.
  "Well, I am one of my characters," I told her, "literally. One of the figures I wrote about online and off. I think somehow this is linked to my own subconscious."
  "So, you're saying that you wanted this to happen?" The doctor asked in that hospital voice that makes you wonder just what will happen if you answer wrong.
  I thought about the answer for a minute, my forehead furrowed as I debated the question with myself. "Not really." I finally answered, "I mean, I wanted to be able to transform -- to take on a new form and experience everything new and different -- but I really had no qualms with how I was, either. In fact, though this is all very interesting, I would rather go back to my own body, if I could."
  "Did you know that there have been other reports of people from this TSA-TALK that have come down with this condition?" the doctor asked me. That came as a surprise, but it made sense. I had no idea how widespread this thing was, but if it was wide enough then surely other members of the list would be hit, too.
  "Nobody paid an e-mail list much mind, I guess." the doctor went on, "But enough people mentioned it that it raised my curiosity."
  How many people were hit? I asked myself. Well, I hadn't been told of anyone else in Fairbanks, and that is about 80,000 people -- but this is Alaska. It could be that people changed out in their cabins somewhere, where there was nobody around. Either that, or it is confined to the list somehow.
  Now that would be ironic, I smirked. After all those stories about 'what if... ' and it finally hits the whole list at once. Still, it might be possible.
  Sitting in bed all day was really starting to drag. I had already explored the feel of the fur, and the claws, and the tail -- as well as the new gender. While intriguing, the novelty was definitely wearing off. I needed some exercise. I needed to see what was going on in the rest of the world. CNN was nice, but it was only a small window.
  However, I still dreaded going outside. For one, there were the newspapers and reporters -- I was still surprised they hadn't stormed in or tried other, more drastic measures. Even more frightening, however, was facing my friends and family.
  They already knew something was up, but how does one explain... this? My only real hope is that they've been watching the news for the last 24 hours. That, and their friendship, love, and understanding, were all I could hope for at this point. I wasn't even concerned with school anymore, other than vaguely wondering if this was one of those mythical traumas that would get me straight A's in all my classes.
  I agonized over the decision I had to make for some time. Finally, I found the courage I needed somewhere deep inside me. With my mind firmed against the future, I pressed the call button for the nurse.