by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
part 4
 2 3
5 6

  Aside from that, I also sent off reviews of the pitifully few stories I'd found lurking in the greater mass, stories that would be lost in the undertow for no better reason than poor timing. And what the hell, I also sent my own "I'm not myself" message:

  TO: the TSA-Talk list
SUBJ: Seven no-trump

  Hi, folks. Quentin 'Cubist' Long here, and yes, I, too, have changed. More than once, in fact. To a werewolf out of a Lon Chaney film and to an oversized howler monkey, twice apiece. But wait -- don't answer yet, there's MORE! The body I'm currently wearing is decidedly cheetah-ish, and I got here when I was trying to shift back to human. How's THAT again? Damn if *I* know! Next time I order a new body, I'll have to make sure the User's Manual comes with it...
  Anyway, I'm a shapeshifter. The only one on the List, as best as I can tell from the messages that've been posted thus far. So no matter *how* weird *you* are, I think I've pretty well got you beat! More news as I get more clues...

  With my usual impeccable timing, a buzzer went off just about when I hit the SEND button -- it was Melford's alarm clock. 7:30 AM, a time at which I never used to be vertical if I could possibly avoid it.
  "Mmmmmmm... bwah!" Yes, I was the first thing he laid eyes on coming out of a sound sleep, and he was thoroughly frightened. I couldn't tell how I knew this without even looking at him, any more than I knew how I'd been so able to read his moods yesterday, but my money was on subconscious interpretation of data from newly-acute senses. "Ah... There you are, Quentin. How are you feeling this morning?"
  I looked at him, shrugged, and noted another thing different from Jubatus; my shoulders could do a human-style shrug. "A lot better than yesterday, I guess. How about yourself? You sounded a little terrified just now."
  "I'm afraid so... and I apologize." I don't think he was even aware of the pun. He was sitting up on his cot, rubbing his hands up and down his face. "I, ah, had... a rather unusual dream, and, well. Not your fault. So. I'll just clean up a bit, and then to breakfast, yes?"
  "Fine by me. What's on the menu this morning? Anything safe for me to eat?"
  Melford got up, stretched, and said, "I would presume so. We laid in a supply of raw meat when we were expecting a wolf-like..." He stopped on his way to the bathroom and looked at me. "You're finally hungry."
  I shook my head, frowning. "I wish. I just hope that if I do eat, I'll notice something that shows me what hunger is supposed to feel like now."
  He looked into the middle distance for a moment. "Yes... I see what you're driving at. Different biology, different internal signals." He nodded, continued on his way. "An interesting concept," he said before the door closed behind him.
  I turned back to the computer. Let's see, in-box is empty for now... outgoing wasn't blocked, or at least not blocked in any way evident to me... What the hell, might as well try to get word to the family. Big brother Kyle is right out, can't trust him to pass the word along. Gotta go with my niece...

  TO: Carissa
SUBJ: Been some changes around here...

  By now, I'm sure you've heard about the rash of weirdly altered people that have been popping up on the news. You've probably even heard of the so-called "iWerewolf". Which really ought to be "iWolf", but what can you expect from the news media...
  Anyway, guess what? The iWerewolf is me! Unless, of course, there's some *other* transformed schmuck in the South Bay. Don't worry, I don't look like that *now*; my current appearance is distinctly more feline. Cheetah on two legs, that's me. Holy shapeshift, Batman! And no, I haven't the slightest idea what the hell happened. Don't think *any*body does, really.
  I am currently residing in the palatial desmenes of NASA/Ames Research Center. I have no idea when (or even *if*) visitors will be allowed, but I can at least let my hosts know about you-all so's you won't *automatically* be denied access if you feel like visiting.
  Let the rest of the family know I'm not dead, will you? I don't have a phone, and I kinda suspect my contact with the outside world will be rather limited for the next however-many days...

  I hit SEND... and then remembered someone else who really should be told: Rickard Lamson. He and I were financial co-trustees for an ailing family member, and Lamson's basic philosophy of trusteeship (which I agreed with) involved ruthless elimination of unnecessary risks...

  TO: Rickard Lamson
SUBJ: Qualifications

  I trust you've heard about the recent rash of physical transformations, on the news? Seems pretty unbelievable, but I can personally vouch for the reality of at least *one* such phys. trans. -- my own. Don't bother calling me at home, 'cuz I'm not there; I'm currently living at NASA/Ames Research Center, at Government expense. Don't bother calling me here, either, as my room has no telephone. I really will have to complain.
  Anyway: At the moment, I STRONGLY resemble a bipedal cheetah. The problem, as far as co-trusteeship is concerned, is a simple one:
  In legal terms, am I still human? Does the Law still regard me as a suitable repository for the responsibilities of the position in question? *I* think I'm human and so forth, but from what I recall, the legal definition of humanity isn't all that specific, and it's at least *possible* that the courts could decide I'm wrong. If you think that it would be best for me to stop being co-trustee until such time as the legal question is settled in my favor, I won't disagree.
  It may or may not be possible for us to discuss this in person; e-mail should reach me, however. Early response would be prudent, I'd expect.
  -- Quentin

  I didn't like what I'd just written; of course, what I liked had no bearing on what was possible or likely or prudent. Better check the net, see who's saying what on deja.com and so forth. Alas, Melford exited the bathroom before I could do more than start my research. "Would you like to use the facilities?"
  "Nope. Still no need for that, either."
  He stared into space for a moment, then nodded. "Right. Perhaps that signal, too, will be revealed if you eat."
  I hadn't thought of that, but now that he mentioned it, it sounded reasonable to me: giving my digestive system something to do should reveal all of the associated internal signals, from all parts of the process. I hoped. "Good idea. By the way, what's on today's agenda?"
  He started walking, and gestured for me to accompany him. "First off, you're going to have to re-do all of yesterday's tests and procedures."
  "What, just because I swapped over to a completely different phenotype and/or genotype?"
  "I'm afraid so," he said with a hint of a smile. "In addition to that, we really should give you a full psychological evaluation; there just wasn't time for it yesterday."
  "Alright. Anything in particular you're looking for?"
  "If we knew that, we wouldn't have to look for it," Melford pointed out.
  "Check out the Jargon File," I suggested. "I think you'll find that I have a lot of the characteristics ascribed to the 'Hacker Personality', both good and bad."
  "Having seen your website, I'm not surprised. I take it HyperEnigma and WordSeeker are entirely your own work?" he asked, referring to two pieces of shareware I'd created.
  "Yes, except for that XCMD I used in HyperEnigma. If it's not explicitly credited to someone else, I made it myself. Anyway, if I'm going to do the physical tests again, that includes the treadmill, right?"
  "Of course. Why do you ask?"
  I smiled, remembering to keep the fangs hidden. "I'm a cheetah -- you tell me."
  Melford didn't reply for a moment. "I see. You'd like to know how fast you can move, and I must admit I share your curiosity. I'm not sure if the treadmill we're using is built for cheetah-level speeds; I'll have to check that. On a different topic, may I ask how much you remember of yesterday evening?"
  I thought back. "Mmmmm... after you went to dinner, I stuck around and got online. Checked my email, surfed for info on us changelings, that sort of thing. Got a little bothered about not being human, tried to revert back to normal. Changed form three times; never actually made it to human -- I think I completed a hat trick with my third pre-psychotic episode of the day. After that, things got kind of fuzzy. I seem to recall reading the User's Manual for my shapeshifting ability... and didn't you spend a while petting me? I'm pretty sure someone rubbed my head, and it felt good. You or somebody else."
  "Yes, that was me," he said, nodding. "Do you have a history of talking in your sleep?"
  I looked curiously at Melford. "Well, I was once told I do that. You'll have to excuse me if I can't say for certain. Why d'you ask?"
  "Because you and I had a very interesting conversation, which you apparently have no memory of. You said that Quentin was indisposed, and that I was speaking to 'Quentin's other half'. Do you remember that?"
  "Sort of..." I said slowly. Conversation? Maybe... but wasn't that a dream? " I don't think it looked the same to me as it did to you. I was pretty well out of it; I thought I was hallucinating. It was either a job interview for some kind of executive position, or else a tryout for a part on Star Trek, I'm not sure which. Either way, I seem to recall I was talking to something with three eyes that generally wasn't human. So there really was a conversation?"
  "There was," he said, nodding. "And you said -- ah. Here we are: The Ad Hoc Cafeteria."
  It was a large room, with 5 different entrances, a swarm of small refrigerators (all but one padlocked shut), one table, two chairs, damp patches visible on many surfaces, and a good-sized microwave oven. Every damn thing reeked of disinfectants and cleansers, so I stopped breathing through my nose. Melford, noticing my bemused reaction, said, "As I mentioned earlier, we had little time to prepare. We had to maintain more than 30 people in biological isolation while simultaneously keeping them all fed. Unfortunately, we didn't have any facilities on hand suited for such a purpose, so we had to improvise. Thus... all of this. Each person has two 10-minute mealtimes reserved for them in a day, and after each eating period, we allow 10 minutes for sterilization of the room before the next person comes in. Which reminds me, we only have 9 minutes left for breakfast," he said, going to the one unlocked fridge. "Let me see... this steak is yours, and I'll have a microwave burrito. Would you care to try milk or cola or apple juice?"
  "All three, if it's alright with you."
  "Done." He made some notes on a Palm Pilot, then started his burrito and my steak thawing in the microwave, and finally brought our drinks to the table. I opened the milk carton first for a light sniff, but the ambient stench had pretty much killed my sense of smell. So I'm one of thirty-odd people here? Jesus! I thought, in a futile attempt to distract myself from my suffering nose. I lapped up an experimental tongueful of milk; it wasn't bad. Oh, right, anyone I had any physical contact with. Prolly the whole phone bank as well. Hmmm... I'm surprised it wasn't 40 or 50 people.
  Melford sipped at his juice and went on: "As I was saying earlier, you and I had an interesting chat last night. Among other things, you told me that you've apparently given some thought to the problem of bodily transformation. Would you care to elaborate?"
  "You mean -- damn. I guess I didn't explain anything, did I."
  He shook his head. "Not really. You said it involved symbiotic mitochondria, but that's the only detail you provided."
  "Alright. This is something I came up with for use in a story or roleplaying game, okay? So. Imagine a critter that's got all the DNA of anything that ever lived."
  "Wouldn't that require an impractically large total quantity of genetic material?"
  "Not if you get rid of the bits that aren't actually necessary. So the first thing you do is throw out all the introns, the so-called 'junk DNA' that serves no known purpose."
  "Which isn't at all the same thing as saying it serves no purpose, of course."
  "True, but as long as nobody knows what that purpose might be, wasting the introns works for a story, right? Anyway -- no introns means there's plenty of room for extra genetic material. But you don't just add in all the DNA for whichever critter; you throw out all of its DNA that's already in the original sequence, and then add just the unique bits. Like, chimpanzees are something like 99% genetically identical to humans, right? So all you need is just that 1% of uniquely non-human DNA! And then for the third species, dolphins or whatever, you add on just those bits of that genome that aren't found in either human or chimp DNA. And for the fourth species, it's just those bits not found in the first three, and so on and so forth."
  At that point, the microwave buzzed. "I'll get it," I said as I got up to check the food; I was on a roll, I didn't want to slow down or stop. "Anyway, with that setup, the more species you've already got, the less unique DNA there is in the next species you add to the sequence, right?"
  While I was checking the 'done'ness of the microwave's contents, Melford spoke. "I see how that scheme could allow a finite DNA sequence to contain the active genetic material of arbitrarily many different species, but --"
  "-- the sequence for any one species would be scrambled, like a file on a heavily fragmented hard drive, and you're wondering how the ribosomes could cope with that?" I interrupted. "Search me. Sure, I know that normal ribosomes couldn't deal with it; that just means my shapeshifter has to have upgraded ribosomes that can read a fragmented DNA sequence. I dunno, maybe the ribosomes are some kind of Babbage engine on a molecular scale, that's close enough for storytelling purposes. You want another 30 seconds on your burrito? I'm gonna eat my breakfast as is," I said, schlepping the cool (not frozen) meat onto a convenient paper plate.
  "Ah... yes, please, another half a minute."
  I nodded and made it so, then started to eat as I spoke. "Done. As I was saying -- khawrrr shlpp glpp -- we got upgraded ribosomes to go with that portmanteau DNA sequence. Hhhaawhk hhrk slpp. In addition, the mitochondria are upgraded to full symbiote status -- khllrp zssmkk -- so any waste products in a cell just get recycled to become fresh nutrients and whatever. Khawwrpp khhpp shhrp. And the final piece of the puzzle -- kkhohhp bwyht khaarp -- is that the metabolism spikes up to some insanely high level for a couple of minutes. Hhrowrrp hhaawrp. 'Insanely high' meaning it squeezes several months' or years'-worth of cellular replacement into that short period of time. Hhwaalp gpp khowwrp. So when our critter shapeshifts, it resets its ribosomes to read some new DNA sequence -- szznrrp klgpp -- every cell in the body reproduces itself according to the new genome when the metabolism spikes; and when the smoke clears, the body is that new species."
  BZZZ! Good timing on that microwave. I ferried the Doctor's breakfast to him. I frowned; he looked a little bit different, somehow. Nervous. "You okay, Doc?"
  "Ah, I'm, not as hungry as I thought."
  I set his burrito before him. "Come on, you told me we've only got 2 meals a day."
  "True, but -- the environment doesn't suit my stomach."
  He's hiding something. Okay, so what isn't he... oh. The penny dropped, as they say. I'll bet I looked like a starving beast when I ripped into that steak...
  "My table manners need a little work, don't they."
  He gave me a clipped nod and a quiet "Yes."
  "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." I sighed. "Maybe I should wash my face."
  Melford actually managed to crack a smile. "No need. You already, um. That was, part of the problem."
  I stared at him. So I licked the blood off my fur, and I didn't even notice. I've got a good imagination, and what I imagined then... An involuntary shudder ran through me, and it felt like icewater was trickling down my spinal cord. "Jesus. You must've thought you had a front row seat for feeding time at the zoo." I was acting like an animal. And you didn't scream or run away. I shook my head, sat down. As far from him as the table would allow. Just like an animal... I held my head in my hands; my tail hung limply behind me. Just like an animal. I could feel shame and sadness welling up inside me from some boundless internal source. Any second now, I'd be weeping uncontrollably.
  "What's wrong, Quentin?" he asked quietly.
  My voice broke. "What's wrrr -- hrrk -- What's wrong... is that I don't, I'm not, human any more." Just like an animal.
  "Perhaps not in purely biological terms, but... ah... hmm."
  I nodded convulsively. "You s-s-see the p-problem, don't, don't you? As human a-as you th-hkk. As you think you are." Just like a goddamn, fucking animal. "A-a-a-nnnd, I-I, d-d-did-n-n't th-hh..." That's when the tears really started coming. My voice died completely, fading into mournful, shuddering yowls and sobs.
  I didn't notice when Melford rose from his chair and walked around the table, but I sure noticed when he started stroking my head. Petting me, as if I were a favorite dog or cat. Just like last night, it felt good -- God almighty, did it ever feel good! -- but at the same time, this sure evidence that I was reacting like an animal steered my rampaging emotions deeper into shame and fear. Fear and pleasure, both more intense than any I could recall, in a powerful and unstable mixture that made my brain hurt. I wanted to run, I wanted to stay, I didn't know what I wanted --
  And just like that, it stopped. No more fear. No more shame. No more doubts. Existence was sharp-edged, well-defined. Everything was clear and distinct. Uncertainty was a thing I remembered, not a significant part of my world -- not any more, it wasn't. I knew I didn't used to think this way as recently as a few minutes ago, that my mind had suffered drastic alteration, but I didn't care. Why should I? It just didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the pleasure I was feeling here and now.
  I purred ecstatically as I licked the salt out of my face-fur. The position I was in wasn't as comfortable as I'd like, but again, it didn't matter. As long as the human kept on petting me, I could put up with minor annoyances like that. "Mmmmmmm...."
  Then the human stopped petting me and wasted some breath. Oh, I understood his words, but why did he bother making that set of noises? Couldn't he tell just from looking at me that I was, indeed, feeling better? Wasn't it perfectly obvious even to his limited senses? Well, maybe it wasn't -- stupid human. I craned my head around to look at him, then nodded and purred loudly. I put my head back in position for more petting, but he didn't take the hint! Stupid, stupid human. Glad I wasn't one any more.
  If the human wasn't going to pet me, I wasn't staying bent up in the chair and on the table. It took some twisty little maneuvering with my hind legs, but I got down on all fours (like any sensible creature) without much trouble. As I stretched to get the kinks out of my back and legs, the human made more noise. My ears twitched around to focus on the noise, but it wasn't anything that mattered, so I ignored him.
  This place stank. Leave it to stupid humans to put food in a place that stank so bad you didn't want to sniff at it and couldn't taste it anyway. I padded silently out the door before the human made some more noise: Just my name, the name I had when I walked on two legs, nothing more. He made a question of it, for some stupid human reason or other. I stopped, turned around, looked back up at him with my head cocked at an inquisitive angle. "Hrrrmmm?"
  He was worried about me. Another reason to never go back: As a human, I couldn't read other humans, not like I could now. We looked into each other's eyes. I saw a stupid human; what he saw, what he thought he saw, didn't matter. He looked away first. Good. Then he made more noise. There was a word he couldn't think of, the word for a four-legged creature. I knew the word, 'quadruped', but how could I tell him? My forepaws couldn't write, maybe my throat would do.
  He wasted some breath; I already knew he didn't understand. Stupid human. I sat on my haunches and tried again: "Khhkh'waaaah- hrrrruuuuu- fff'ehhhhh'tt!"
  He still didn't understand, made noise asking me to speak more clearly. Stupid, deaf human. I certainly wasn't going back to that, didn't want to even try. But there was something else I could become. A much better body, that spoke clearly enough even for a stupid, deaf human to understand. I changed...
  ...and the world, my world, shifted even as I again became an anthropomorphic cheetah. I managed to say, "The word you're groping for is 'quadruped'," before my abused brain got hit by the full realization of what had just happened.
  "I know it is," Melford replied, his voice a quiet mixture of worry, relief, and fear. "And... you were a quadruped. Do you remember?"
  Remember? God, do I ever... "Yes," I said with a tight little nod. I gulped. "I remember it all." I managed a shaky smile. "Hey, I think I know why I haven't had to use a bathroom yet -- I keep getting scared shitless."
  He didn't even smile. "Yes. You do, and I doubt it's healthy. How long can you continue to hide behind denial?" was his calm question. The reflexive smart remark, 'as long as I need to', was right there on the tip of my tongue... but I didn't say it. He's right, damn him. I can't keep on plastering over the cracks with cynical jokes, it's just a matter of time until the cracks get too big for that to work. Hell, this one damn near swallowed me for good as it is!
  "I don't know -- but what the hell else can I do? I don't think there's any psychiatrists who specialize in the care and feeding of shapeshifters, you know what I mean?"
  "Well, we'll just have to see what can be done."
  Melford helped me stand up. I needed to lean on him, my equilibrium was shot. Suddenly I was hugging him, my jittery arms wrapped around him in a deathgrip with folds of his shirt clenched molecule-tight in my three-clawed hands. I held him until I stopped shaking, and then I kept on hugging him. I guess I cried some more in there, but I wasn't really paying attention.
  I eventually found my tongue: "Thanks. I needed that."
  "Of course. Do you think you could let go now?"
  Fortunately, my fur hid my embarrassment. "Sure thing... wait a second..." I frowned. My hands didn't want to unclench; my palms hurt when I tried to open my fingers. I looked down Melford's back (no great feat, me being more than a foot taller than him) and moved my arms for a better view of my hands. Oh... bloody... hell.
  "What's wrong?"
  "Houston, we've got a problem. When I grabbed hold of your shirt, my claws kinda dug into my palms... and I think my palms healed up around them." For some reason, this disturbed Melford. "Your turn. What's wrong?"
  "Your claws gouged into my back," he said simply.
  Which means... Oh, shit. "So, the odds are pretty good that some of my blood got into your system."
  "Close to unity, I would expect."
  My heart sank. I opened my hands with a spasmodic jerk and a percussive yowl; cloth tore as I backed away from Melford. His shirt was officially totaled, for large chunks of it hung off of my palms and claws as though glued into place. Which they were, by scabs that looked much older than they had any right to. My blood welled up in the freshly-opened wounds as I started to pull embedded cloth out of my palms. It hurt like hell, but I ignored the pain as best as I could.
  He sighed. "Calm yourself, Quentin," he said unnecessarily. On second thought, yes I do need that advice -- good man. "While I won't pretend I'm pleased, I knew and accepted the risks when I took off my isolation suit.
  "Well. You could probably use a distraction, and we really ought to begin the day's testing. Shall we go?"

  Interior shot of the testing room from yesterday. Q. & M. step inside, and from here on in, it's pretty much a re-run of the montage of procedures, with two exceptions. First: Q is an oversized cheetah this time, his current height (7'6", not the 8' Q. had imagined) causing some adjustments and occasional amusing vignettes. Second: While the montage does include occasional shots of the treadmill, neither Q. nor M. are involved; we see it partially disassembled, being worked over by a 3-man team of mechanics.
   Cut to: A wall clock, reading 1:42 PM. Pan down to the treadmill. The mechanics are cleaning up after themseves -- whatever they were doing to the machine, their task is complete.

  Finally! The morning's tests weren't as much fun as they'd been yesterday afternoon -- like they say, familiarity breeds contempt. Compared to the results I'd gotten as the "Chaney-thrope", my current form had about one-tenth the physical strength, and its reflexes were nearly quintuple the speed. Much better vision, too. It was differences like these that made the repeated tests tolerable, even palatable. But all good things must come to an end, and at last we came to the part of the show I'd been impatiently awaiting.
  I got to the treadmill first, of course. It was becoming abundantly clear that this form was all-around faster than than the normal run of humanity, by a ratio of about 6:5. It was the same treadmill I'd walked on yesterday. I knew Melford had assigned a crew to check it over, and wondered how much they'd had to modify it (if at all) to handle a cheetah's kind of speed. I grinned in anticipation. My favorite superhero had always been the ultimately fast Flash, and I was definitely anxious to find out just how quick this body really was. The machine's active surface was about a meter wide by two meters long, plenty of room to run on. The belt looked pretty strong; I just hoped it was tough enough to stand up to high-velocity claw action. More to kill time than for any other reason, I sniffed at the machine. Yep, somebody's been working on it. Three somebodies, I bet I could track 'em by scent... fresh oxidation from recently-disturbed bolts... heavy on the lubricant... a little residual ozone, I think?
  "Looking for something?" Ah -- Melford had finally caught up to me. Him and a few others.
  "Not really, but we cats are curious. Didn't you get the memo?" I don't think he approved of my coping mechanism. Tough. The way I saw it, humor was my first line of defense against going psychotic, especially now that my life included such appetizing possibilities as accidentally self-inflicted lobotomy... I posed for Melford's boys, made it easier for them to do their job, which in this case involved hooking up various sensors and telemetry devices to me. "Let me guess: Time to get this show on the road, right?"
  "Correct. The treadmill has been certified up to 79 miles per hour."
  "That all? Bring it on," I said, my voice filled with obviously false bravado -- as far as I knew, real cheetahs topped out around 65.
  "I'm told that with the proper adjustments, it can handle a top speed of 96 MPH," Melford observed. "While I can't say whether or not that will be necessary, it will be interesting to find out." Now he looked to one side. "Ah -- there you are, Jim."
  I'd gotten on the treadmill while he spoke. I looked at him, and he hit the switch. The belt started moving... "20 MPH. How does it feel?"
  "Like a fast walk." 30 MPH was a slow jog, 40 was a quick jog, 50 was a good running pace -- and I didn't feel a thing. Maybe my pulse and breathing sped up a little, maybe not, I couldn't really tell. "How's the data?" I said over the hum of the treadmill's motor.
  "Interesting," Melford replied. "These readings would seem to imply that you're engaging in light exercise, not running more than twice as fast any human ever has. It would appear that conventional indicators of metabolic activity don't apply to you any more. Do you feel any discomfort? Any aches, pains, twinges, fatigue, vertigo? Anything?"
  "None of the above. In purely physical terms, I've never felt better in my life!" And I wonder why he finds that statement so amusing? Never mind... It was slightly unreal; my legs were a blur beneath me as the treadmill's belt whizzed by at the speed of the slow lane on a highway, and yet I wasn't even breathing hard. "Now do you believe I've got a symbiote?"
  He didn't look up, still absorbed in his work. "I must, in the absence of data to contradict that hypothesis. Can you hold your breath, please?"
  Puzzled, I said, "Sure thing, I guess. Just let me know when I can inhale, okay?" Then I stopped breathing, and Melford cranked it up. 55... 60... 65... and I was keeping up! I was keeping the pace! It was a damned odd sensation, and not just because I wasn't breathing. On one level, it felt like I was sprinting as fast as I could go; on another, at the same time, it felt like I was nowhere near my upper limit. How the hell does that work? I mused. Forget it, I don't need the distraction. I tabled the question and concentrated on the physical act of running, the better to not find out what would happen if I tripped and fell at 65 MPH.
  Still keeping my nose and mouth sealed, I looked at Melford; he didn't return my look. The treadmill shifted up to 70. Hmmm... y' know, I think maybe I am noticing something that could be -- ohshitshitshit! "Rrryowwrrr!" I screamed as pain exploded in my toes. Have you ever hopped on one foot at 15 MPH over the speed limit? A word of advice: Don't even try it. I got one good hop off before my balance was shot and I needed at least three hands to hold my foot and break my fall and then a major face-plant into the belt and damn but my neck hurt and right into the wall behind me at 70 miles per hour...
  It hurt. A lot.
  And then it didn't hurt at all.
  There were spots before my eyes. Spotted fur, laid out in front of me like a red carpet. And something long and sinuous, twitching every so often as it rose straight up from the fur. Oh, right, my tail. How come my legs look weird? And what's that airy, whiffling noise I'm hearing...
It took a few seconds for my brains to stop rattling around inside my skull. But once I could think clearly, I figured it out: I was looking straight down my back. Oh, shit. Which meant my head was turned around 180 degrees. Which meant my neck was completely, thoroughly broken. Which was how come I couldn't feel, or move, a damned thing.
  Oh, fucking shit. I think I'm in trouble... or maybe I'm not? A shapeshifter should logically be able to heal any injury by shifting to an undamaged state, so from that perspective a broken neck is no biggie, just a temporary annoyance is all.
  I blinked at the concept: A broken neck is just a temporary annoyance... While I couldn't feel the pit of my stomach, I was sure I had a sinking feeling down there. If that can't kill me, what can? Christ! Immortality without invulnerability... My imagination obligingly served up an appetizing series of scenes: Me being squashed flat under a steamroller, emerging from a meat-grinder's exit, getting sliced apart in an autopsy...
  "Quentin! Are you -- how are you feeling?" It was Melford.
  I laughed, an odd sound coming through my much-abused windpipe. "Nice catch, Doc. My neck's broke. How the hell do you think I'm feeling?" My voice sounded very strange, even to my own ears; if the humans' expressions were anything to judge by, the same went for them.
  "Damn it, Quentin, this is no laughing matter!"
  My reply was another eerie, half-barking/half-husking laugh. "Sure it is, Doc. Anything you can't laugh about isn't worth taking seriously. Tell you what: You ever become a shapeshifter, you try playing Great Stone Face, and lemme know how it works out for you, okay?" I closed my eyes, flattened my ears against my skull to deaden my hearing as much as possible. "You guys go on with your usual business. I'll be alright; I got some thinking to do, I'm not going anywhere..."

  SCENE: The treadmill room. QUENTIN is lying on his stomach near the wall; his head is turned turned around 180 degrees, his lower jaw resting against his spine. Camera is looking directly at Q.'s face. Without warning, his left arm moves! The limb jerks skyward; the hand rachets back to the floor like a toy robot, leaving the elbow jutting awkwardly into the air.
  Muscles flex, and the left side of Q.'s torso rises. His eyes open wide, his expression half 'what the fuck is *this*?' and half fear. His torso stops moving just in time for his right arm to get into the act; it sweeps around to form a flat 'V', and then the upper half of his body is off the floor.

part 4
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