by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
part 1
1 2 3
5 6

  You already know my story. Or at least you damned well should know it, whether from the news reports, the TV movies, the Broadway musical, or whatever else. One more retelling might seem superfluous... but this one will be different. This time around, I'm telling it, not some underpaid schmuck of a Hollywood copy-editor, and I'm not leaving any inconvenient bits on the cutting room floor...

  Opening shot: Closeup on the upper right quadrant of the screen of an iMac. The menubar clock is plainly visible, and it toggles between two states, first reading Tue 10:54 AM, then Tue 1/23/2001. Camera swivels to the left as its field of view widens; we now see a largish room, about 10 feet by 20, with desks/counters lining the walls. A small table on wheels occupies part of the central space, covered with random papers. The desks/counters hold ten telephone stations, each using an iMac (8 Bondi Blue, 1 Tangerine, 1 Indigo) for a data terminal. Of the ten stations, only five are manned.
  Foreground is dominated by one of the five people -- the person on whose Bondi Blue we saw the time and date. His nametag reads QUENTIN and, in smaller letters, SALES ASSOCIATE. He's a large man, a bit over 6 feet tall and 240 pounds; Caucasian; unkempt hair that could use a trim; bushy muttonchop sideburns; thick moustache. All the hair on his head is strawberry blond with sun-bleached highlights, modulo an occasional white strand in his sideburns. He's wearing a red polo shirt with the MacBabbage logo (a kilted Mac-face symbol) over the right breast. He's also got one of those cheap-ass binaural headphones with a swivel-mounted spike microphone. We've only glimpsed his station in passing, but even that little shows us that it's a cluttered mess.
  We see Q. leaning forward and glaring at his screen. Clearly, he is not a happy camper.

  You'd think I would have noticed something at the moment it happened, wouldn't you? No such luck. I'm not the only one, of course, but I've got an ironclad excuse. At that special moment, I was on a screamingly frustrating tech support call with a congenital imbecile; I might not have noticed a Richter 6 earthquake if it happened while I was on the line. It didn't hurt that I'd skipped breakfast that morning -- for me, low blood sugar means lowered patience, among other things.
  I was attempting to talk this waste of human genetic material through the process of raising the memory allocation for a program (Netscape Navigator, in this case). For any person of normal intelligence, this is a trivially simple task that could take all of 10 whole seconds to perform, or 30 if you're new to the Macintosh computer.
  This son of a bitch had been on the line for 6 minutes 47 seconds.
  And counting.
  And he still didn't get it!
  "Alright, now move your pointer up to the top edge of the screen, that's the menubar, and into the upper right corner of the screen. That's where you'll find the Applications menu," I said. This was his third trip to the Apps menu, and he had to be talked through it all three times. It's a goddamn menu, for Christ's sake! I wanted to reach through the telephone connection and throttle the fool. My phone voice is very good; none of my frustration was audible yet, close to 7 minutes in.
  "Now press the mouse button, and tell me what you see in the menu which pops down." Never breed, I thought in the privacy of my own skull.
  "Excuse me -- excuse me -- but that's the Apple menu, which is at the extreme left end of the menubar. What we're after is the Ap- pli- ca- tions menu, which is at the extreme right end of the menubar." Yeah, your other right, fucknose. The invoice for his G4 Cube purchase was up on my screen. Looked like a mail order purchase, we'd shipped it out 3 months ago on the twit's Mastercard. You are a fool, my ancient enemy! Do you not realize that you have thereby granted me absolute control of your card's number and expiration date? Mwaahh-hah-hah-hah-hah!
  "Yes, 'Hide Finder', that's one of the items in the Ap- pli- ca- tions menu. Good. Now tell me what else you see in the Applications menu, do you see Netscape there? No? Alright." Praise the Lord, this time around he hadn't opened --
  "No! No! You don't want to --" Too late, he's already done it. Again. Why did I even hope? In my head, I saw the twit being disemboweled by wolves, no, make it Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. This image was immensely satisfying.
  Right about then is when my teeth went krak-a-takk like a string of firecrackers and a tsunami of PAIN!!! lanced up from Hell, into my teeth and jaws, through my head, and down my neck. I think every muscle in my body spasmed. A strangled, high-pitched "eeaauggh" ripped from my throat before my mind shut down under the overload...

  QUENTIN's entire body twitches violently, as though someone wired his fillings for 3,000 volts. His eyes roll up into their sockets, in a Little Orphan Annie effect.
  Next shot is in slow motion, taken from behind Q. & over his shoulder (giving clear view of Tue 10:57 AM in menubar). Camera pans down, tracking his shoulders as he's thrown backwards out of his chair. Just before impact, cut to floor-level shot showing Q.'s right-side profile. We see his face is now hairy ALL OVER.
  Cue Foley FX: loud "crack" when his head bounces off the carpet-over-concrete floor. SndFX note -- try dropping a coconut off soundstage roof onto loading dock?
  Still slo-mo. A minor swarm of tiny white and metallic fragments spew from his open mouth immediately after the moment of impact. His head hits the floor again (no bounce this time) and flops to one side, towards the camera. His face is remodeling itself, looking more and more like the classic Chaney lycanthrope. A cloud of loose strands of hair drift down into view from above.

  I'm not sure what woke me up; too many suspects to choose from. One: The world was loud, and full of odd-pitched noises I'm sure I would have remembered if I'd ever heard them before. Two: My nose wanted to go on strike from the torrent of hyperintense odors currently assaulting it. Three: I felt hot and constricted, as if someone had put an extra layer of clothes over what I'd been wearing already. Four: My whole body just felt wrong; the kinesthetic signals I was getting now didn't quite match up with what I was used to.
  Then I opened my eyes -- big mistake. The room was too damned bright, all the colors looked washed-out. Squinting like Popeye as I sat up, I tried to ask "Hey guys, what the heck is going on here?"... but no coherent words left my mouth. Nothing even vaguely like speech, just a complex, annoyed growl with rising inflection.
  That's when the first wave of panic rolled in: Oh shit. Oh my God. I raised one hand to my throat, and discovered it was... Oh Christ on a fucking sidecar... covered with... fur. My eyes grew wide with fear, only for an instant before the overly bright lights drew a pained yelp out of me and I had to squint again. Oh my God. Sitting up, I peered at my fingers, which bore claws and dark, leathery pads and, and, and more fur!
  Cue the second wave of panic, rising even higher that the first. The adrenaline had me thoroughly wired, shaking like the San Andreas Fault on a bad day. Oh shit. Furry hands, fur all the way up my arms. It was all too loud and bright and odorous and hot, and now this on top of everything else! I whined like a terrified animal, which was just about right, considering my state of mind at the time. I snatched at my shirt's neckline, looked down on my completely fur-covered chest. More panic; strike three, and my rational mind was out. Way the hell out. I howled, a keening wail that could never have come from a human throat. Oh my God not human they're going to call the police and I get hauled in and chained and dissected and I GOTTA GET OUTTA HERE NOW!!

  Extreme closeup on QUENTIN's face. We see that his head is entirely covered in dark brown fur, with severely pointed ears and a black nose-tip, just like the wolf-monster portrayed by Lon Chaney. While the underlying bone structure is basically unchanged, Q.'s face is nevertheless a literally inhuman mask of purest FEAR/TERROR/DREAD.
  Cut to camera looking at his back from the opposite corner of the room. He straightens his legs, a convulsive gesture that propels him in a sitting long jump. He twists in midair to literally hit the floor running, digs his claws into the wall to ensure he can make the turn to whip thru the room's door. The camera follows him thru the door at eye level. The camera is hand-held and partially stabilized; jittery enough to preserve the "feel" of running, smooth enough that the audience can track what's going on.
  Camera overtakes Q. so we can look back at him from a few feet ahead.
  Cue lens FX: Fisheye effect, minor at first and growing steadily more obvious and intense by the second.
  Q. runs blindly thru the office building that contains the MacBabbage phone bank, rebounding off of desks and cubicle walls, knocking people aside, generally leaving a trail of chaos behind him.
  Cut to high overhead shot (no more fisheye) of building's front entry. Q. bursts outside, still heedless of who- or what- -ever might lie in his way, and he accelerates. He's already running faster than any human ever has, and is soon out of sight.

  I ran. I wasn't thinking, just responding to stimuli. I picked up speed.
  got to keep moving got to keep moving got to keep moving got to keep moving
  I ran. Car horns blared. Engines belched huge clouds of nose-killing fumes. Faster.
  gotta keep moving gotta keep moving gotta keep moving gotta keep moving
  I ran. Traffic lights and reflected glare drilled into my eyes. Drivers cursed and honked, too loud! Faster.
  gottakeepmoving gottakeepmoving gottakeepmoving gottakeepmoving
  I ran. I didn't know where I was going, but it had to be better than the continuing hell of sensory overload I was running through. Faster!
  I ran. The scenery changed around me. I didn't notice, or care; all I knew was that I had to keep going. Faster!

  We follow QUENTIN's headlong rush in a sequence of disconnected shots:
  Q. makes a right angle turn by dint of grabbing a lamppost, his feet sliding along the pavement all throughout, losing little of his velocity.
  Q. runs alongside Lawrence Expressway, his 30-35 MPH almost keeping pace with the traffic in the slow lane.
  Closeup on Q.'s face; there's a blur in the sky behind him. Q. overtakes the camera, after which the blur in the sky resolves to a helicopter, following Q. for whatever reason.
  We see him use a parked car as a ramp to leap across a heavily-trafficked four-lane road.
  Aerial shot from helicopter's POV: There's a lot of trees on either side of the road Q. runs along. It becomes harder and harder to get a clear view of him, and he soon disappears altogether.

  I came to my senses among trees. No sign of human habitation was visible as far as the eye could see. Big, fat, hairy deal; line-of-sight was about 10 meters at most. I could still hear (and smell, gag wheeze choke) cars, but they were wonderfully distant. I actually had to strain to hear automobiles over the local wildlife.
  I put on the brakes, dropping from Headlong Panic to a calm walk in less than 2 seconds. It was interesting how the dirt and loam felt under my toes -- Wait a minute, wasn't I..? Oh. My shoes were still on my feet, they just weren't all there. The soles were gone from the arch forward, completely worn away, and my socks were in the same condition. Not an immediate problem, as the pads on my feet seemed to be as tough as shoe leather anyway. The uppers were as good as they had been before, well, before; I'd always bought a half-size larger on account of my feet being overly wide, and my legs/feet still had pretty much the standard human anatomical structure, so there was enough room in the toe that my new claws hadn't poked through.
  I leaned back against a tree, idly scratching lines into its bark with a clawtip. Nice place. Peaceful. Good spot for a picnic, or just to sit and think. The canopy overhead filtered out the worst of the sunlight, and while the local odors weren't any less intense than back at work, my nose could handle it a lot better here, for some reason. My legs still felt crowded -- to be expected, given that my jeans were never intended for fur-bearing legs -- but above the waist felt okay, probably because the shredded remains of my shirt were hanging off the collar in rags and tatters. I'd had a pen in the breast pocket; not any more. Damn. That wasn't helpful. If I couldn't talk, I'd need some kind of writing implement... but could I write? Hell, could I read? Fear knotted my guts once more. Dear Lord, I can't be mute and aphasic, I just can't be! Wait a minute, pants pockets held my wallet and checkbook -- plenty of reading matter, and yes I could. My new eyes sucked by human standards, but it worked -- I could read. I could read!
  I exhaled loudly, releasing a breath (and accompanying tension) I hadn't realized I'd been holding onto. One down, a subinfinite number to go. Next up, how to test writing ability without resorting to pen or pencil or crayon! Heh -- silly. As long as I had my claws, I'd always have something to write with.
  "Rrrowwrrr!" I yowled triumphantly after I successfully carved the alphabet, then the first verse of the Third Rail Theme, into a tree. Hell, I was so relieved that I howled the theme from Rocky! I abruptly cut off in shock a few measures into it when I realized just what I was doing. Okay, I had zero enunciation and my new voice wanted to glissando every note, but -- Christ on a pogo stick, at least I had a voice! For an encore I did as much as I could remember of Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man, then a couple of Sousas, the Liberty Bell March followed by Stars and Stripes Forever (especially the piccolo part, which my new voice could have been made for).
  I turn a pretty fair phrase, but I'm not going to even try describing how I felt making that music. Let the record show that it lifted my spirits, that's all.
  Even the chopper sounds overhead didn't -- couldn't -- do more than worry me a little. Frankly, I wouldn't have cared in the least, except that I had no idea who was up there nor what they wanted with me. I was pretty sure that none of the three helicopters was black, but considering my eyesight and the canopy and all, I couldn't even swear to that. Okay, they were tracking me, and why not? I must have made quite an impression on people, running through Sunnyvale and Cupertino and all the rest on my way to wherever I was now. At least nobody in the choppers had made any hostile moves yet, so I ignored them as best I could.

  We see QUENTIN standing before a tree whose bark he's clawed some text into. He's smiling, but doesn't let his fangs show. He looks up. Camera turns to follow his gaze, then zooms in on the chopper Q. looked up at. The chopper has biohazard symbols and US military markings stenciled on it.

  Where was I, anyway? Looking around, I couldn't name any of the trees, but it seemed like familiar territory... got it! I was somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from Highway 17. Okay, that's 20 miles minimum. Probably more, depending on the precise locale and the route I took getting here. Hmmm... I think it was a quarter after 11 when I freaked out; what time it is now? Too bad I didn't wear a watch. However, I could see shafts of sunlight falling at what looked like a noonish angle, so... call my speed 20 MPH, what the hell. Given the uncertainty in both measurements, I had no confidence in even the one significant digit, but it'd do for a first approximation.
  "Rrrrrr...." I growled, chewing over what few facts I had. 20 miles per hour, over how long a period? That's a fast sprint for humans, and I kept up that pace for tens of miles. So how come I'm not tired or hungry? I should be starving! Maybe I'm pulling calories out of thin air. Yeah, right. So where did I get the energy from? Unless I ate someone I shouldn't... but my stomach doesn't feel full, either.
  Not a pleasant thought. I frowned. Let's not go there, please...
  Back up. Alright, I'm not tired. So my muscles aren't making lactic acid? Maybe, but they've got to be generating some kind of waste, that's basic biology. And there's no way I'm exempt from scientific laws. Cells can't live in their own waste products, damn it! So maybe it's just that my kidneys have gotten upgraded. Come to think of it, that's another sensation that's gone AWOL...
  I felt a twinge of disquiet. No part of my body was providing any "relieve this pressure!" signals. In fact, the last time I'd felt that sort of thing was before my teeth exploded. Interesting. If I didn't know better, I'd say my body was now a closed ecosystem..?
  Wait a second, I don't know any better! And if I am a closed ecosystem, I must have some kind of internal symbiote, it feeds off the body's waste products and vice versa. I wouldn't feel hungry or tired, at least not the same way I used to. Maybe the body's giving off different signals, and I just don't recognize them yet? As for excretion, that'd only apply to stuff that's good for neither the body nor the symbiote... I wonder if I'll ever need to use a toilet again?
  Holy sh -- no, make that holy Toledo! Damn, this is begining to sound like a shapeshifting justification I came up with recently. Hold on, what was that?
  Something had changed. I froze and listened hard. It took me a few moments to realize what had drawn my attention: The helicopter noise. Of the three choppers, I could hear two far away and getting farther, and if my ears didn't deceive me, the third had landed and its engine was slowing down. If they want me so bad, perhaps I should find out exactly what their reasons are. I rolled up what was left of my bright red shirt to put it in a back pocket, then moved cautiously towards the landing zone, heartily glad the damn thing was quieting down.

  Camera is behind QUENTIN, looking forward. He's just beyond the outer edge of the clearing in which the chopper landed. We see that it's a cargo carrier. Bubble-suited persons are disembarking from it. Most of the suits carry no evident weapons.
  Cut to view of Q.'s face as he squints at the chopper in a futile attempt to read the markings.
  Cut to near view of chopper and suits. There are twenty suits, only four of them being obviously armed. All of them carry sensing devices of various kinds. The suits are huddled, going over their game plan one last time before they act.

  The people from the chopper reminded me of the Michelin Man at first. I wasn't sure what was up with that, until one of them got close enough for me to get a clear view. Jesu Christe, it was a biological isolation suit! Self-contained air supply, flexible transparent helmet, the whole nine yards. Looking back to the chopper, yeah, that blur could be a biohazard trefoil. They were clearly going to treat me as if I carried Ebola or worse, and if truth be known, I couldn't think of a reason to disagree. Which left only one significant question: Who were they? Center for Disease Control, Army biowar team, none of the above?
  Okay, make that two questions, the second being: What were their intentions regarding me? If they were CDC, their goal would obviously be to quarantine me until they'd identified whatever threat I posed to public health. The purpose of deploying a biowar team would be a fast-forwarded version of the CDC; to identify whatever the hell had worked me over, and find a cure for it, pronto. As for the darker possibilities imagined by souls more paranoid than mine, I just couldn't see it happening. Not this quickly, at any rate. Be they CIA, NSA, MOSSAD or whoever else, it didn't make sense to imagine that any spooks would want to recruit/control/subvert me for my espionage value before they had any concrete idea of what that value might actually be. A few days or weeks on down the line, possibly, but certainly not within mere minutes of, well, whatever had happened. If nothing else, it'd take those hypothetical spooks more time than had passed just to convince themselves it really had happened! And by the same reasoning, I didn't have to worry about military recruitment (involuntary or otherwise) right now.
  Unless it was all a CIA plot right from the start, of course. But that didn't ring true, either. If these nameless spooks were so bloody concerned about their involuntary experimental subjects going to the media, why wouldn't they just --
  "QUENTIN LONG!" Aarrgh! Damned bullhorn was too bloody loud. I backed way the hell off, as inconspicuously as I could manage, as the horn blared on: "WE MEAN YOU NO HARM. WE WOULD LIKE TO ESCORT YOU TO A SPECIAL FACILITY TO INVESTIGATE THE CAUSE OF YOUR CURRENT CONDITION, AND HOW IT MAY BE CURED."

  Camera follows QUENTIN as he backs away from the clearing with care, moving faster as he gets farther away. At about 100 yards, he turns and runs. Camera stops at this point. Q. vanishes from sight quickly.
  Cut to: Chopper clearing. The helicopter's blades are spinning up. The suits move out in a loose formation, their sensor gadgets quietly blinking and whirring. The chopper rises.
  Cut to: Q., seated on a large rock. He's using his claws to cut what's left of his shoes into several pieces. That task done, he inscribes text messages into the pieces of former shoe. He works in extreme haste, always keeping at least one eye out for his new friends.
  Cut to: The suits, walking between the trees with great care -- none of them want to risk a puncture. We hear commands crackling back and forth over their headset radios.
  Cut to: Q. again. We see the ruin of his bright red shirt to his immediate left, hear the suits a good distance away. He's twisting a shoe-piece between his thumb- and finger- -claws, thus drilling a hole thru the tough material. He then rips a good-sized piece off of his shirt and threads it thru the hole he just made. Satisfied with this handiwork, Q. starts doing likewise to a second shoe/message.

  I didn't really think the suited people bore me any ill-will, but at the same time I also wasn't sure how far to trust my own reasoning on this point. After all, it wasn't like I had anything important at stake, just my life and freedom, right? I picked out the shoe/message that read...
  ...then sprinted towards the suits. I lobbed the message at one as I whipped by him, only a few meters away, and peeled off before any of the suits could do anything about it. I heard a pair of PHUTs -- airguns? -- and sped up by reflex. I felt a tug at the back of one pants leg, the other shot must have missed.
  I circled around behind the suits, giving them a wide berth as I did so. I checked my jeans; there was a dart stuck in the left leg. Between the thick denim, my own fur, and the angle at which it struck, it was in no danger of piercing my skin. How fortunate for me. On second thought, it is fortunate! If they didn't want me alive, they'd use real bullets. A point in their favor, but I'd still prefer to know what they're after...
  The suits found my message without difficulty, and collected for a new huddle. My new ears made it easy to eavesdrop on them at a distance of 50 yards; the conversation was about what I'd expected. He retained his sentience, fire discipline, is he still human or not, mustn't alarm him further, blah blah blah. The guys with the guns, all four of them, formed a hollow square around the huddle while it lasted.
  That over, the man with the horn clipped it to his belt and spoke at a bearable volume: "Mr. Long, I'm going to assume that you're out there listening, and that you can understand my words. My name is Charles Melford. I and my team are from the Centers for Disease Control, and I repeat, we mean you no harm. We wish to isolate you, in order to control the spread of any pathogen you may be carrying. Will you please allow us to escort you to our facility?"
  Escort. Nice word, that. I squinted up at the trees to judge possible trajectories as best I could. I threw some bits of solid debris to confuse the gunmen with false "footsteps", tossed my second message high...
  ...and was off and running (dodging shots that were never fired) before it reached the apex of its ballistic arc. As before, this message spurred them on to another huddled conversation. They argued over the substandard English in my messages, discussed my probable sensory capabilities, and so on. Again, the armed suits kept a watchful eye out for me.
  Finally the horn-bearer, Melford, spoke: "I think I can understand your reluctance to accept my statements at face value, Mr. Long. If I were in your position, I might well be even more suspicious myself." He sighed, I couldn't tell what expression was on his face. "I wish we'd had more time to prepare. You and those like you have taken everyone very much by surprise, Mr. Long." I wasn't expecting that little bombshell. 'Those like you'? I'm not the only changeling? "At this point, I really don't know what to do or say. What would it take to get you to accompany us voluntarily?"

  QUENTIN removes several red-ragged messages from his back pockets. He looks at them in sequence, one after the other.
  Cut to: Q.'s POV. The message he's looking at reads as follows:
  Q. looks over towards the suits for a second or so, then makes his decision. He returns all the other messages to his pockets. He puts "SUIT OFF" between his teeth gingerly, gagging on the smell and taste of it, then fills his hands with bits of debris. He starts running, never keeping to the same direction for more than 3 steps in a row, tossing debris like a fighter aircraft drops chaff.
  Cut to: One of the armed suits. He's not happy. He hears the noise of Q.'s approach, footsteps and thrown debris and all, and he tries to track Q.'s actual position w/ his air rifle. Q. bursts into view from behind a tree.
  At that very moment the camera shifts into slow motion, allowing us to clearly see every nuance of Q.'s broken-field running. Our POV armed suit swears under his breath; he obviously doesn't have the reflexes to keep up with Q.'s directional shifts. No shots are fired. 10 yards distant from the forwardmost suit, Q. throws his arms up and *leaps* high into the air, inertia carrying him forward.
  Slo-mo camera tracks Q. in "flight". He cranes his head down and spits the shoe-piece backwards, cancelling much of *its* forward momentum. He clears the suits by a good 3-4 meters, and hits the ground running.
  Cut (just before Q.'s actual impact) to normal-speed view from opposite side of the grouped suits. Q. rebounds sideways, his next step takes him forward, and he's out of LOS within 2 seconds or less.

  I looped around to 30 yards in front of the group, walking silently after getting beyond their line-of-sight. Their argument was in full swing before I found a spot to eavesdrop from; issues of trust, unnecessary risk, mission objectives, yammer yammer yammer. Chuck asked for one volunteer, but (what a surprise) nobody really wanted to risk exposure to me and whatever had changed me.
  After a minute or so of pointless wrangling, Melford stepped away from the group and broke seal on his own suit. Helmet off, then gloves, and he kept going. That was all I needed; he was working on his suit's lower-body segments when I walked up to him. I moved slow and smooth, ready to bug out at the twitch of a trigger finger.
  I smelled an acrid odor, sharp and bitter, that grew stronger as I got closer to him. I heard his heartbeat, for the love of God! Was it fear I smelled? I crouched to his left, smoothed out a section of dirt between and in front of us both, and wrote:
  It wasn't exactly Johnny Carson material, granted, but it did the job. That unpleasant odor started to dissipate, and Melford actually smiled. "I was assuming that you retained your full human intellect. With that joke as evidence, I'd better rethink my hypothesis."
  I stuck out my tongue at him (being careful not to lacerate anything on my fangs) and blew air between tongue and lower lip -- that is, I gave him the good old raspberry. It was passable.
  His smile faded. "I take it that you're mute?"
  I raised my right hand, curled my thumb and forefinger into a circle and fanned my other fingers.
  "Were you before?"
  Like you don't already know? Wait, no prep time, alright. I shook my head. He nodded.
  "In that case, I think you need this more than I do," he said, handing me a flat object from his belt. In essence, it was a G.I. "magic slate", a sturdy plastic sheet over a flat, smooth slab made from some sort of waxy material. I almost used a claw, but thought better of it and instead pulled the slate's stylus out of its socket. Fortunately, my claws were merely annoying, not a serious obstacle to holding the stylus, even if they did extend an inch beyond my fingertips. I wrote ((TNX 1E6.))
  Melford nodded again, then spoke into his headset: "You may land for pickup. Mr. Long is here and will accompany us back to Ames." Ames Research Center? Coolness, I thought for a moment, until something else occured to me. I wrote on the slate, then got Melford's attention.
  Melford frowned and thought for a moment. "So your senses are that acute." I nodded. "Well... a helmet would dampen sound to some degree, but I'm not sure what we can do about the smell." He smiled, saying, "Maybe you could just not breathe until we land?"
  I rolled my eyes -- and then it hit me: Maybe I could hold my breath that long! It'd make for a conclusive test of the symbiote idea, that was for sure. I blew the air out of my oversensitive nostrils, then stopped breathing. As expected, the ambient odors got drastically weaker; what surprised me is that they didn't go away entirely. Oh, right. Not breathing just means no airflow to carry crap into my nose, it doesn't stop diffusion through still air. Then the chopper landed, and its accompanying sensory shock derailed my train of thought. Covering my ears with my hands helped, some. I faded back anyway.
  "Ah -- there you are, Mr. Long." Melford again. Gosh, I wonder why nobody else wants to talk to me? Wimps. Melford held out a helmet from the chopper; I tried it on experimentally, and after adjusting the straps, it was a halfway decent fit. It also worked as advertised for muffling sounds, thank God. I gave Melford an "okay" hand sign and followed him up to the chopper.
  I didn't need to inhale yet. Score one for the symbiote; the breathing reflex depends on a high level of carbon dioxide in the blood, so if my CO2 gets absorbed by a symbiote first, that reflex doesn't get triggered. QED. It felt weird, at least psychologically speaking. The body was getting along without lung activity just fine; it's the mind that was having a little trouble coping with this new reality. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe. I don't have to breathe.
  "Are you alright?"
  I blinked, looked around. I'd stopped dead at the door to the chopper's cargo bay, which had been fitted with seats for this mission. I took the slate from its place at the waistband of my jeans: ((AS O-K AS CAN B EXPECTED. JUST GETTING USED 2 IT ALL.))
  "Of course." Melford nodded, and motioned me to get on board and strap in. I did, and he followed suit, saying, "You know, it occurs to me that your condition must have some fairly extensive psychological repercussions."
  I smiled -- must have shown some fang, because Chuck flinched visibly. Repercussions? You don't know the half of it... you putz. ((LIKE BURN VICTIMS, AMPUTEES, DISFIGURED'S IN GEN'L? NO SHIT, SHERLOCK!)) I erased the slate to make room for more text: ((SEE ALSO: REWIRED BRAIN, NEW/DIFF. ENDCRN. SYS, NEW INSTINCTS, ETC ETC)) And again: ((NEXT I'LL TRY "PAINFULLY OBVIOUS HYPOTHESES" 4 $300, ALEX!)) Something felt oddly familiar here, which made it a classic deja vu deal, since nothing like this had ever happened to anyone, as far as I knew.
  Totally new experience? Well, sort of. God only knows I've played enough shapeshifting characters of one type or another, and this is right in line with my own private speculations that never got into any RPG sessions. At least I don't have any problems with the new persona taking over...
  I felt it again, that feathery tickle of deja vu along the inside of my skull.
  Or... do I? I reviewed my recent behavior, the more recent the better. The sound of the chopper's engine was a big distraction, especially when we lifted up into the air, but I forced myself to tune out the damn noise. Was I more aggressive than usual, less patient, more arrogant?
  Oh, shit...
  Hold on a sec, none of that's necessarily a warning sign for having your mind decay down to animal-level intellect. Do the math, let's try powers of two. 2 -- no, the first one is 2 to the zeroeth power, that's 1 -- so make it 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024... 2048... 4000 something, 4096... 8000... Come on, you know this sequence! Next after 4096, it's... 8092? Damnit!
  Down at the base of my spine, I felt the first tiny stirrings of fear.
  Oh my God. I am losing it.

part 1
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