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

  If fear of losing written language had twisted up my guts, the raw terror of losing all my intelligence was tying them into double half-hitches and Carrick bends and really exotic knots that had never been named.
  I'm dead, or at least I might as well be. How long before I'm just a bunch of randomly-sparking neurons, stimulus and response and that's it? They'll put me in a cage, that's what you do with a wild animal, and they'll feed me and water me and change the sandbox and cutmeupforexperiments and I'llneverknowit'cuzmymind'sgone only whatifit'snotcompletelygone and I'vegotjustenoughawareness to barelyknowwhatIusedtobe and I'llwanttodiebutIcan't 'cuz they'llfeedmeandwatermeandchangethesandbox and andcutmeupforexperiments --
  Somewhere in there I started pawing at the harness that kept me strapped into my seat. I couldn't work the buckles; I was shaking too much, and my ears hurt from the terrible, terrible sound of an demented animal whining its anguish and distress.
  -- feedandwaterandsandbox and and and and cutmeupforexperiments and feedwatersandboxcutme feedwatersandboxcutme feedwatersandboxcutme --
  A tortured, soul-ripping howl curdled the air.
  It was the cry of a beast driven mad by unendurable torment.
  -- feedwatersandcut feedwatersandcut feedwatersandcut --
  I howled.

  Establishing shot: Interior view of chopper's cargo bay. Focus in on QUENTIN, who is almost psychotic from sheer terror, wailing like a banshee and convulsively ripping at the harness straps across his chest with his claws. He's doing the straps (and his chest) serious damage, but everything's holding together. Q. is as oblivious to his self-inficted wounds as he is to everything else in the Universe.
  Zoom out, widening the view to cover the whole cargo bay. The four suits with air rifles are pumping darts into Q. As for the rest of the crowd, now we can finally see that *everyone* has a sidearm holstered at their belt -- a CO2-powered pistol -- and an increasing number of these are now spitting drugged "paintballs" at Q. He's beyond noticing or caring... until he pauses in mid-slash. He looks up, a puzzled expression on his face. The suits stop firing, but do not immediately lower their weapons.

  And suddenly I could think.
  I knew I was still in danger of losing my human mind, the fear was still there... but somehow, it wasn't overwhelming any more. I could deal with it. My pulse wasn't racing. In fact... my pulse wasn't. I had no heartbeat.
  No pulse at all. And I felt fine. Or, rather, the body felt fine, even if the mind was more than a little boggled. But again, I could deal with it. Okay, one more note for this body's User Manual: Breathing and heartbeat strictly optional. No problem, I'll just pencil that in on Page 28.
  "Are you alright, Mr. Long?" It was Melford, his words hesitant, fearful, and uncertain. I looked at him and shrugged, then used a toe-claw to snag the magic slate from where it had fallen on the floor: ((I HAVE NO FUCKN IDEA. I THINK)) -- I paused, then erased that last word -- ((FEAR MY MIND IS GOING.)) I gave Melford a few seconds to let that sink in, then went on: ((HOPE 2 GOD IM WRONG. BUT. IF IT HAPPENS, KILL ME & BURN D BODY.))
  "Ah, are you sure you know --"
  "Rowr!!" I snarled -- that shut him up. It also brought more than a few airguns up to a firing position once more, not that I cared. I had words to write: ((I DO KNOW, DAMMIT! BETTER LIFELESS THAN MINDLESS!!!!))
  He read the slate, then looked directly into my eyes. I don't know what he was looking for, or what he saw. "Very well. I think I understand."
  I nodded, gave Melford a thumbs-up. ((GONNA C IF I CAN FIND A SOLUTION...))
  He raised his eyebrows, but didn't try to dissuade me. "Good luck." At least he seemed sincere...
  It occured to me that as long as I could come up with phrases like "better lifeless than mindless", my mind was still in pretty good shape. Even so, the fact that I'd messed up on 2 to the 11th power (or was 8000-something the -- never mind, don't ask!), a number I used to know, was definitely a Bad Sign. Christ. Only a couple hours in this form, and the new persona has already begun to subsume my former mentalty.
  Mental subsumption was a hazard I'd inflicted on Doppleganger, a superhero character in a play-by-mail game, who had the power to become an exact duplicate of any living thing he could touch. Dopp acquired all of his archetype's memories and skills and knowledge, and severe identity problems had been a recurring subplot in his stories. Of course, Dopp had a ready cure for that sort of trouble; up to a certain point, all he needed to do was revert back to his baseline human form, and he'd be okay. Too bad that won't work... for me?
  I leapt for this ray of hope as though it were my final chance at eternal salvation. Which it might very well have been, come to think of it. Okay, gotta change back. No sweat. No pressure. I did it, I can undid it. Here's my driver's license, just look at that handsome devil, you want to be like him. Sure you do. Come on there, human! I envisioned my human self from head to toe, trying to bring it back by sheer force of will. Nothing happened. Even my heart was still on strike.
  Maybe I'm just not focusing enough. Please God. I closed my eyes to cut down on visual distractions; this would be hard enough with the odors leaking into my nose and sounds that penetrated the helmet, and I needed all the help I could get. Thinking about the physical differences between this body and my former human form, the things that had gone away, I concentrated on the one missing thing I surely would have found most disturbing if I were in my right mind...
  Come to papa, baby. Come to papa, you big, beautiful larynx. I'm the one gets at least three "you sounded so good I thought you were a machine" comments per hour from MacBabbage callers, and I'm the guy performed 13 (count 'em, thirteen) distinct voices for that Rocktree book-on-tape, and I -- want -- you -- BACK! And I want you NOW!
  This time it worked! I felt tissue and bone shift inside me, a very odd sensation but not at all painful. The safety harness crawled across my altering form -- no, I was growing taller -- and my legs were stretching. Odd indeed. The oddest feeling was when my claws (all of them) dropped off, clinking quietly on the metal floor, and all of the hairs on my body fell out. Cold! A close second in the Weird Sensation race was the feeling of fingernails, toenails, and hair growing back in at an absurdly fast rate, and third place went to the reshaping of my teeth. The advent of my new tail, snaking its way down one pants-leg to coil around a thigh, didn't make the grade because it was as much uncomfortable as weird. Tail? I was trying for human, damn it! I looked down at myself, saw black fur and blunt fingernails and a long, slim physical form -- probably weighed about the same as before. I wonder if I conserve mass? Good question. At least I made it to somewhere in the Kingdom of the Apes. Kingdom, order, genus, whatever.
  "Ah... primates are one of the orders within the class Mammalia," Melford said.
  "Thanks," I replied. Then I realized, belatedly, what had just happened. "You heard -- I can talk again!"
Glorious! I improvised new lyrics to the tune of My Boyfriend's Back: "My voice is back, and I'm gonna do some singin'" -- here I raised my pitch two octaves, easy -- "hey la, hey la, my voice is -- Feels so good, I'm gonna set the rafters ringin' -- hey la, hey la, my voice is -- No more soundin' like a semi-human creature -- hey la, hey la, my voice is -- No more mournin' for my finest human feature -- hey la, hey la, my voice is BACK!" For an encore, I took a deep breath (through my mouth), threw my head back, and let out a joyous, triumphant yell: "Yeeeeeeeeeeee-HAW!" -- crack-tinka-tchshhh --
  What was that? I thought, open-mouthed and looking around for the source of the sounds of breakage. Crottled greeps! -- all the windows were spiderwebbed with cracks, and even better, all the humans in the compartment with me were in agony, a lot of them trying futilely to clutch at the sides of their heads through their inflated headgear. Melford, in the seat facing me, was half-conscious and bleeding from one ear. Oh shit...
  That jolted me out of my happy daze, but good. I shut my mouth and tried to lose myself in my seat. Howler monkey, betcha that's what I am now. Loudest critter on Earth, isn't it? Can't think of any other ape whose pipes've got the sheer, raw decibels to do that. I wonder -- no, if the pilot had been affected, we wouldn't be flying steady.
  I wished I could see what we were flying over, but sightseeing hadn't been a priority for whoever designed this cargo bay. With nothing else to do, I curled in on myself and let my mind wander...

  Interior of the chopper's cargo bay: QUENTIN is now a howler monkey, except that he's 7 or 8 feet tall, significantly larger than a real one (note to research: real howlers are 2-3 ft long and good for 130 decibels or so, what about 2-3 * size?). We see a pile of shed fur around the base of his seat, and loose hairs continually drizzle out of his pants-legs to further litter the floor. He's folded himself up compactly, with his knees up by his shoulders, arms wrapped around his legs, hunched-over back, and head scrunched down between his knees. His expression (not aimed in any particular direction) is 1 part Fear to 6 parts Worry. He's unconsciously humming "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to himself, very quietly.
  While Q. hums, the camera slowly pans around the cargo bay. The suits are recovering from Q.'s unintentional sonic assault. Nine airguns are pointed directly at Q. Melford is reporting back to home base; he's speaking much louder than necessary, even after taking the chopper noise into account. As the camera pans all the way around to Q. again, we see that he's still folded in on himself, gently rocking forward and back in his seat as best the straps will allow, still humming, and not paying attention to anything outside his head.

  ...Jesu Christe, I hope I'm not contagious. But Melford said "those like you", so how many other changelings are there, and who/where/what are they now? Are any of them contagious? What common factors do we share, besides the fact that none of us feel like ourselves today...
  ...I think I ripped myself up good there, but I don't feel a thing now, and I'm pretty sure I didn't even before I went ape. Just how fast do I heal now? Do injuries go away when I change? And does it make any difference what form I choose...
  ...I really ought to have asked Melford to show his ID. Then again, if he were a fake, would he have overlooked that detail? And what difference would it make anyway? For all I know, whatever zapped me can spread like the common cold and kills its host in 12 hours or less -- quarantine is really the only sane option...
  ...First time I try for human, nothing happens; second time, I get howler monkey. Okay, I'm a shapeshifter, I just need to learn how to steer this thing...
  ...No way a news blackout would work, even if some high-powered nasties did feel like trying. Too many people must have seen me, and God knows how many saw the other changelings, whoever they are. Can't silence all the witnesses without bringing more attention to what they want to suppress....
  ...How long can blood just sit there before it starts clotting? Don't suppose it makes a lot of difference. Even if it did, muscle contractions would still keep the blood circulating, just not as fast...
  ...Tell someone? Who? And why bother? They'll hear about it soon enough, on the 6 o'clock news. Hell, I don't even know if I'll be allowed to talk to anybody...
  ...Why me? For that matter, why anyone? I could almost believe Julius Schwartz was visited by Barry Allen, because this surely feels like one of Schwartz' Silver Age Flash issues! Here's hoping that whatever did it left detectable traces...
  ...Shit. If there's anything that can shove the Clintons and O.J. off the cover of the Enquirer, we are the proverbial it. I'm gonna be living in a bloody goldfish bowl! I am so screwed -- but maybe it doesn't have to be for the rest of my life...
  ...Let's try that again: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, and I haven't memorized this one: thirteen, ten, seventy-two, that's 131072, and it's also 2 to the... 17th power. Is good. Now try powers of seven; 1, 7, 49, 343, then 2401, multiply by 7 gets you, hm, 14 -- no, it's 16807...
  ...I wonder how many other TSA members got hit? Heh, wouldn't it be sweet if we all got zapped by whatever-it-was! Yeah, right, as if that's actually gonna happen. Be interesting to see what the List thinks, assuming this stuff has made it to the news media. The big question is how long does it take to convince a reporter...
  ...Still no pulse? Oy vey iz mir! Hmm... no heartbeat means no blood flowing, ergo those cute li'l endocrine secretions aren't being carried to all parts of the body. What do you think, Quentin, is that what killed your fear? Could be. Now all I need to figure out is why my heart stopped...
  ...Definitely need internet access. Shouldn't be too difficult, worst case they pick up my 3400 & modem from home...
  ...Have to give two weeks' notice, unless they fire me first. Gonna need a lawyer, I think I can find Mr. Finster's number. He'll be good for copyright, see if he can recommend anyone for contract law. An agent; definitely face-to-face interview. Same goes for an accountant, maybe a PR guy...
  And then we arrived. Ames Research Center doesn't actually have its own helicopter pad, but Moffet Field (the Air Force base it shares land with) does, and Moffet is where we landed.
  I decided I was going to be a good little monkey, nice and obedient; if they wanted me to hop on one foot while whistling Dixie, why, I was their ape. The alternatives didn't appeal to me. It wasn't that I was particularly worried about them hurting me -- if they cut my heart out, it'd barely qualify as an inconvenience -- but, rather, that I feared how much damage I could inflict on them, if push came to shove. Did the body perhaps have some built-in reflexes, such as assuming a combat-ready berserker form when injured? I didn't know, and I really didn't want to find out the hard way...
  "Are you alright?" Melford again. He'd asked this question earlier, but I couldn't blame him for repeating it.
  "Yes," I replied quietly, then again, louder, so he could hear it. "Yes. I'm sorry about your ear..."
  He waved my concern away. "Accidents will happen. Just try to be more careful in future, won't you?" I nodded; I knew he wasn't as nonchalant as the facade he was putting up, albeit I couldn't say how I knew. He went on, "Have you been here before?"
  "Ames? Yes. Back in college, I played guinea pig in a few perception-related studies. I could still use a map, though, as that was a number of years ago."
  Melford put a wry grin on his face. "You won't be needing a map, and neither will I. We've set up --"
  TANG TANG TANG -- someone pounded thrice on the cargo bay's door.
  "Ah," Melford said. "They're ready for us." The door slid open, pushed along by yet another isolation-suited flunky. The world outside looked distorted... right, I was looking through the walls of a flexible plastic corridor.
  "Where's it go? Quarters, or lab?"
  "Both, since it's all the same building." He freed himself from his seat restraints, and I did likewise. I followed him down the corridor; transparent plastic film, at least five millimeters thick from the looks of it, sealed up with however-many-dozen yards of duct tape. Not taking chances here. Kind of like locking the barn after the horse has escaped, seeing as how 20 or 30 miles' worth of random drivers got exposed to me, but... Hey, I wonder if they're gonna napalm the tree I wrote on?

  Exterior view of the helicopter. We see Moffett's famous dirigible hangar a few hundred feet off behind the chopper and to the left. The chopper's cargo bay entrance is obscured by the plastic sheeting that's duct-taped to the chopper body proper; this sheeting forms a rather large chamber, a chamber supported by a framework of aluminum tubes that looks to have been cobbled together in a tearing hurry. The volume so enclosed is not empty. It holds eight isolation-suited people, three of them armed with rifles, plus enough decontamination equipment to keep five of them busy. A large plastic-sheeting tube snakes off of the enclosed volume, stretching off beyond the corner of a building. This tube has no visible means of external support -- it's held up by the air it contains.
  After Melford and QUENTIN exit the cargo bay, the decontamination crew moves in to clean up the helicopter. The three armed suits follow M. & Q. at a discreet distance.

  Melford was in no mood to dawdle. We moved at a very brisk walk.
  "What, no Jeep?" I asked with a smile.
  He just looked grim. "We had fifteen minutes... to adapt our plans... to the current situation... If this... is our worst omission... I'll be very happy."
  "Fifteen minutes? Damn! In that case, I think you done good, Doc."
  Note to self: He's breathing heavy, and I don't have to breathe. Which reminds me... Yep, my heart is still resting. Jesu Christe!
  He saw me probing at my neck, wrists, and chest. "Something wrong... with your pulse?"
  "Other than the fact that it's not there, you mean? Naah, everything's fine."
  He gave me a peculiar look, but didn't slow down. "No, really... How's your... heart?"
  "Like I said: It's not beating."
  Now Melford stopped. "You're serious."
  I grinned and held out my left wrist. "Wanna check my lack of pulse for yourself?"
  He did wanna. And after not finding a pulse in my wrist, he didn't find it in my neck or chest either. "But that's..." The expression on his face was a mixture of extreme puzzlement and fear. Oh great. The guy in charge of investigating me scientifically is freaking out -- that's all I need. Come to think of it, he doesn't need that either, does he? Okay, let's see if giving him even a partial answer will help him cope...
  "Dr. Melford. Calm the hell down. It happened, so it must be possible, right? So what's the problem here?"
  "It -- the -- you've got no heart!"
  "Sure I do! It's just not working right now, is all. Why is that a problem?"
  Now a dash of anger was showing up in the mixture of emotions on his face. "Your blood isn't flowing -- your cells aren't getting any oxygen or nutrients!"
  "Not getting any new oxygen or nutrients, you mean. And why is that a problem?"
  If I was reading him right, Melford was getting into a it's so flipping obvious, how can this idiot not see it? kind of mood. Good -- it beat hell out of the omighod, I can't deal with this weirdness! stage just previous. "Because metabolism doesn't keep banker's hours. Living cells need a constant influx of new materials; such molecules are constantly consumed, thereby transmuted into waste products. And without a continually-replenished supply of fresh oxygen and nutrients, living cells quickly cease to live, either starving to death through lack of oxygen and nutrients, or suffocating within their own waste products, or both. Please, would you care to enlighten me regarding why you think that is not a problem?"
  By God, I think he has forgotten what he's talking to! I looked thoughtful. "Actually, that's not what I said," I reply. "It's just that it occured to me, there's a number of critters out there who get along quite well without a heart. That being the case, what's so impossible about me not having a pulse?"
  He glowered. "Please. Exactly how is it that you propose to supply nutrients to your cells, absent a steady flow of blood?"
  "Recycling?" I said with a hopeful grin.
  Melford rolled his eyes heavenward, disgusted. "'Recycling', he says. As if a gang of white corpuscles is going to make the rounds of your body, collecting spent... adenosine..."
  I just stood there while the doc pondered a new idea. At last, he continued: "Does your body contain a symbiote?"
  I nodded. "That's my best guess, thus far. You okay now?"
  "Yes, I --" He stopped and frowned, then gave me a speculative look. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
  "If you mean to imply that I deliberately annoyed you into not freaking out, guilty as charged. Did I err?"
  Melford looked me up and down. He finally shook his head and said, "You're quite an unusual person, Mr. Long," seemingly unaware of how redundant that observation now was. Then he got moving again.
  The tube crossed two streets in the Ames campus, cutting them off entirely; the Detour signs would undoubtedly make hamburger out of normal traffic flow during rush hour. I didn't recognize most of the buildings. Either they'd done a lot of remodeling since my college days, or else the plastic sheeting distorted the view more than my eyes could compensate for, or I didn't remember it as well as I'd thought, or some combination of all three. In any case, there was no mistaking the big, boxy silhouette of Ames' main wind tunnel, the largest in the world, which dominated its chunk of skyline like nothing else could.
  Our constitutional ended -- and not a moment too soon; even without breathing, my tortured nose knew that the air was thick with outgassed plasticizers -- at one of Ames' larger conventional buildings, a four-story job done up in '60s Industrial Boring style. I saw faces in the windows -- were they gawping at the freak, or were they looking for some other reason? No way to tell, peering through the plastic as I was.
  "Building 15A. This is our home away from home for the duration," Melford said. "The living quarters might be ready by now, but even if they aren't, at least we'll have a place to sleep."
  "How about internet access?" I asked. "Can I at least check my e-mail?"
  "That shouldn't be a problem," he replied as he opened the door. "After you, Mr. Long."

  Exterior shot of Building 15A. QUENTIN enters and MELFORD follows. As for the armed suits that escorted the pair, one of them locks and seals the door, after which all the suits head on back to the helicopter.
  Cut to: Interior shot, corridor along which Q. & M. walk, M. leading the way. Camera tracks their progress; camera stops when they pass by a wall-clock that reads 1:12 PM.
  Cut to: Interior shot of very large room, with plenty of scientific equipment, a number of isolation-suited people, a thick metal door to the outside, and three interior doors. One of the three opens, and Q. & M. step inside.
  Cut to: Montage of various testing procedures to which Q. & M. are subjected. An extensive series of tissue samples (blood, skin, hair, saliva, etc ad nauseum) are collected; vision is tested for acuity and range of wavelengths that can be seen; similar tests for hearing & all other senses; ultrasound scanning of all parts of the body; an oxygen-masked Q. walks on a treadmill, thus allowing measurement of metabolic activity; and so on, and so forth, ad nauseum. We get an occasional shot of a clock to let us know that all this activity is occuring over a period of several hours. The montage ends with a clock that reads 7:28 PM.

  It was the most thorough physical examination I'd ever had. It was actually kind of fun, discovering new facts about my new body, even if my heart still remained obstinately beatless. That little tidbit was only one part of what was causing the suits no small amount of consternation; among other things, I was apparently the only changeling who'd gotten a second helping of whatever-it-was. The suits also didn't know what to make of my continuing lack of need for pulse, breath, food, rest, or excretion. Me, too.
  Melford's little elves had prepped me a room, but I didn't have it all to myself -- I hoped Melford would be a congenial roommate. After the day's testing was done, he'd gone off to get some dinner; I didn't accompany him because I felt neither hungry nor sociable. I was more anxious to catch up on the news, to be honest. The room's fixtures didn't seem to include a TV or radio, but the computer (even if it was a Windows box) would more than make up for those by itself.
  I brought up Netscape. The machine responded more slowly than I'd have expected, given that it was making its online connection through the ethernet port rather than a modem. My first stop was aolmail.aol.com, where I found my e-mailbox stuffed to the gills and then some. I deleted spam, which dropped it down to merely 'full'. Next, I scanned the list for TSA mailings. There were so many that for a moment I thought the TSA server had accidentally shifted me from digest mode to individual posts, but every one of them was a digest! What's more, every one was large enough to have been transmuted into an attachment, average size in the neighborhood of 1 megabyte.
  "Crottled greeps," I murmured reverently. I opened the first one; it contained 347 individual messages. AOL only shows the first 40-odd lines of an e-mail that it's turned into an attachment; if that sample was any indication, the majority of the messages would be first-time posts from lurkers, and a whole lot of SUBJECT lines would be variations on "I'm not myself today!"
  "Crottled... fucking... greeps."
  I downloaded the digest, opened it up, skimmed the first paragraph of each post -- I read fast, true, but a megabyte of text still takes up a good three hours of my time. Yep, the lurkers were out in force today, and every one of them had mysteriously transformed into something near and dear to their heart, or at least into something they'd focused a lot of attention and imagination on. So their messages said, anyway, and after what had happened to me, I was inclined to believe the whole bleeding lot of 'em.
  A lot of the regulars were in there, too... but some were conspicuous by their absence. Where the hell is Posti -- oh, shit. If he turned into the object of his fantasies, he's a horse. Maybe even a colt. I hoped the poor bastard at least retained his human intellect, but I wouldn't have bet money on it.
  Posti's fate -- no, make that his probable fate, might as well give him the benefit of whatever doubt there can be about a guy whose portfolio contains that catalog of total equine transformations. In any case -- Posti's fate bothered me a great deal. To have your mind dissolve; to be cognizant of its dissolution while it happens; to watch helplessly as your higher mental faculties (language use and computational ability and rational thinking and all the rest of the package) vanish into the ozone; to be aware as your personality, your very self, all that makes you what you are, twists and distorts itself into something alien; and worst of all, to know that this destruction of self, not so very different from suicide, is what you yourself wanted on some level...
  I shuddered uncontrollably. Too damned close for comfort! Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it...
  I leaned back in my chair and thought about what I'd just read. Okay, fine. To a first approximation, it's Pinocchio meets the Internet: Every one of us TSA list members has changed into whatever he most cherished in his heart of hearts. Me, I've never had much of a soft spot for any one form -- my RPG characters have included centaurs and dragons and catmen and so on, and that's just in superhero campaigns -- so it was really the concept of transformation, in and of itself, that I was after. Looks like I got that in spades!
  Great, but why can't I change back to human? I frowned. And considering my poor opinion of humanity, why do I even care? Hell and damnation, I should be jumping for joy right now! But I'm not. So, why not? I mean, what's wrong with this form? Yeah, it's not human, and so what?
  I blinked. Hold it, I think I'm on to something here. I'm not human any more -- I've changed. More than once, yet. And change is stressful. I think Toffler said it in Future Shock -- "there are discoverable limits to the amount of change the human organism is capable of withstanding", or whatever the exact phrasing was. So when I change form, it's not unlike a sledgehammer blow to my mental stability.
  Great. I've wanted to be able to shapeshift for years, and now that I can, it looks like I put my sanity at risk every time I do it. Damnation -- this is exactly the sort of crap I like to pull on my characters! Whatever's happening to me, it's gone out of its way to cleave unto my own particular quirks and ideas... and to a first approximation, every other member's change is equally personalized. I'd bet my life's savings on it.
  "Jesus H. Christ on a sidecar," I said to nobody in particular. "Alright. Next stop: CNN and the Murky News." Of course, cnn.com was slow to respond -- no surprise there -- but it was worth the wait. They had lots of reports on mysterious bodily changes, even a QuickTime clip of an interview with a lizard. Luke? Who's Luke... oh yeah, that's BlueNight. Oh Christ, I hope he doesn't pull that "we're all living a story" bullshit! If there's anything we don't need, it's a spokesman who's gone utterly schizo on us. Well, at least he sounds fairly normal... I thought for a moment. Then again, there's a lot of TSA'ers who'd be worse choices than BlueNight. God, it could've been Greyflank, now there's a PR disaster looking for a place to happen. At least BlueNight isn't one of those rapist-wannabe TG freaks, or a full-animal-TF nutcase... Shit. He did it. Just bleeding peachy, that is. Just fucking wonderful. Best we can hope for is that he's regarded as a charming eccentric, not a goddamn full-bore lunatic who should be locked up in a padded cell for his own good. Just. Fucking. Wonderful.
  Right about then is when it all came together in my head: I would be the TSA spokesman! I'd much rather not be in the public eye at all, of course, but all of us changelings were now celebrities, whether we liked it or not, so why shouldn't I appoint myself to the role of spokesman? I couldn't force anyone else to shut up, granted, nor would I even if I could, but I knew damn well that I was more intelligent, articulate and quotable than most other members, and good looking to boot. Another plus was that I didn't have any yiffy skeletons in my closet; I'd still be weird, of course, but it would be a clean kind of weird. Anyway, all us members were a trifle strange, just by virtue of being on the List in the first place, and I wasn't really any more strange than that bare minimum.
  All in all, the odds were pretty good that the media vultures would talk to me -- particularly if I went out of my way to make myself available. Better yet, I'll go out of my way to make myself too available! The sooner I got from "Hey, put this freak on screen!" to "What, him? Forget him, he's over-exposed.", the better I'd like it. And who knows, maybe that'll help kill the media focus on all the rest of us changelings?
  Sounds like a plan, I thought to myself, a little sourly. About as good as it's gonna get -- and if that wasn't "damning with faint praise", I don't know what is! Of course, it'll work a lot better if I can at least look human...
  I leaned forward, elbows on the desk and chin on thumbs, and searched my memory for clues to controlling my new power. That's presuming I can control it, of course -- a necessary assumption. Everything was fine up until... 11 o'clock? Yeah, just about 11, that's when my teeth exploded. Must've been changing, betcha I had new enamel coming in to fill holes that were already full of dental amalgam. And I was trying to talk that idiot through raising the memory allocation for Netscape. Christ almighty, he was annoying! And I --
  He was annoying. Intensely so, pissed me off no end. And... yes, I think I did imagine the twit getting disembowled by lycanthropes, that was the image in my mind when the teeth hit the fan.
  The first try for human, I was scared as hell, but nothing happened.
  Second try, I focused real strongly on speech, and I came up howler monkey.
  Maybe it is focus. I was kind of flailing wildly for Number Two, not really coherent. So maybe it's intense concentration does the job? Okay, this I can test. Try to reconstruct my 11 o'clock state of mind, and see if I change to that 11 o'clock form.

  I shut my eyes. I recalled the conversation, recalled (and relived) my tightly-controlled anger, again pictured a faceless moron being torn apart by werewolves, revelled inwardly at the fictitious death... and it worked! For the second time today, I was consciously aware of the act of shapeshifting. I could feel my body change, feel the bones shift and flow, feel my tail wither and retract into my body, feel the muscles and tendons stretch and contract, feel my teeth distort like a Salvador Dali watch. My senses changed, nose and ears becoming far more useful while my eyes fell back to a poor third place. Better prep the room before it's too late; sensory overload is a royal bitch. I killed the room lights, the monitor provided more than enough illumination for these eyes. The computer's continuous electronic whine was both clear and intensely annoying. Fortunately for me, the fact that it was continuous made it ignorable within seconds, as familiarity bred contempt. And somewhere along the way (I didn't notice the precise moment) my heart restarted!

part 2
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