by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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"Uh... guys?" No response from anyone, Melford or otherwise.
I couldn't blame them, really; with my head twisted all the way
backwards, my body must have looked like a headless, inhuman corpse,
lurching around in a scene that belonged in a horror movie. Then
my legs twitched, first right and then left. My body moved in
convulsive jerks, without coordination; I had no idea how it kept
from pitching over forwards or onto one side or anything, but
somehow my body got itself into a standing position!
It wasn't much of a view, looking straight down my back at the floor. Even so, I didn't have much time to enjoy it before I felt claws scrabbling at my skull and neck! They weren't really trying to inflict damage -- they just moved blindly about, as though controlled by a blind man or a lunatic, until they finally dug in for a solid grip -- but I took a few painful cuts anyway.
"Hoowwrp!" I yowled. I could feel blood trickling from the shallow wounds in the side of my neck and top of my head; and then the claws began turning my head. The wrong way, at first, adding more tension to already-overstressed muscles and tendons. My body is about to twist my head off, I thought, shocked to paralysis by the sheer unreality of the situation -- not that being able to wiggle my ears would have made any difference, of course. Fortunately, whatever was in charge of my body soon recognized its error, and reversed its torque. Within seconds, my head was back in its accustomed position and orientation. Even better, I could feel things happening in my neck... and points below!
"Hey, I think my spine's reconnecting itself! Ieekkh --"
That's when the pain hit. I'm not about to compare it to the torture I felt when my teeth exploded, because that would mean I'd have to remember both agonies. This one, it was... very bad. Think of someone burning your skin off to reveal the nerve endings before rubbing salt-and-vinegar paste into your raw flesh, that's in the ballpark. And I felt it all throughout my body below the neck...
Time stopped; there was no past and no future, just an eternal, unbearably torturous now. All I know is that when the pain finally ended, I was still standing, God knows how. My throat was so raw and dry, it could've stunt-doubled for the Mojave Desert...
Melford was before me, out of arm's reach. He was very worried about something. And he's not the only one... My claws were still lodged in my head; I made an experimental attempt to lower my hands, and damn near fell over. Heh. Now I lose my balance. I ended up being supported by Melford.
"Are you alright, Quentin?"
I smiled, worked up a little saliva to swallow. It didn't help much. "You keep asking that," I croaked, stifling the urge to cough. "Water?"
He nodded, made a gesture to someone I wasn't looking at. "On its way. Let's get you to a chair."
My first steps were shaky, even spastic; at least twice, I damn near took both me and Melford down. Fortunately, most of my control returned before I sat down. Someone brought me a large beaker of water. A quarter of it dampened my chest fur before I got the hang of drinking again. Ahhhh. That feels much better. "Thanks," I said.
"So what do you think happened?" Melford asked.
I was pretty sure I had an answer, since I'd had some time to think before my body stood up. "Claws. First off, I was running faster than any cheetah ever has, so the claws were overstressed to begin with. Second off, I only used two legs rather than a cheetah's four, which doubles the already-high strain. So I think my foot-claws broke off entirely, or at least, that's what it damn well felt like. Whatever it was, it hurt like a son of a bitch. I just couldn't keep going. So I fell. And the damn thing threw me up against the wall. And somewhere in there..."
I shuddered. "My head got spun around backwards. And I'm not dead." At this point I felt a weird sensation between my legs -- no, I'd been feeling it for a while, I just hadn't noticed it until now. That's odd; it feels sort of like... I frowned.
"Is something wrong, Quentin?"
"I'm not sure... I think I've got some hydraulic pressure to relieve."
Melford was puzzled for a moment, then he understood. "I see." He turned to his assistant: "Jim? Get Mr. Long something in which to collect a urine sample." To me, after looking at my feet: "Broken claws, very well. They look fine now, but if you can heal a broken neck in minutes, I suppose growing a fresh set of claws at the same time isn't implausible. We'll check that out. I take it that you were thinking about this topic after the accident?"
"That, among others."
"Could you tell me about the rest?"
This was obviously a transparent attempt to get my mind off of my misadventure -- and I was grateful for it. "No problem. How about what happened at breakfast? Okay... The first point is my table manners. So far, I haven't noticed any serious problems with coordination when I change form, so that means each new form comes factory-equipped with the right neural pathways burned into the motor nerves. That is, the reflexes come with the body, it's got a repertoire of pre-defined motions. I think 'walk,' and the body knows how to move 'cause that's part of the pre-defined repertoire. And in this case, I think 'eat', and there's pre-defined motions for that, too, and so that's what the body did. The body didn't care that it looked like a wild animal ripping into a kill, but I sure did, and that brings up the second point. This form is heavily cheetah-ish on the outside, and I'm betting it's also cheetah-ish on the inside, am I right?"
"You are," Melford said. "Many of the metabolic indicators we've checked are within the normal range for cheetahs, and the rest are close to that range."
"Thought so. Okay, I'm basically a cheetah, then, as far as my metabolism is concerned. And cheetahs need to be able to do zero to 50 in two seconds flat at a moment's notice, right? Which means they need to be able to burn massive amounts of energy, fast, at any waking moment. And that means cheetahs need a seriously overdesigned endocrine system, one that can flood their arteries with hideously large amounts of the necessary hormones and enzymes and such at the drop of a hat. But endocrine secretions don't just affect energy expenditures; they also affect the emotions! So I was feeling bad about grossing you out, Doc, and my cheetah-ish glands kicked in at some point, and then I felt really bad. And you tried to cheer me up by petting me on the head, Doc. Which worked, sort of. I still had all the shame and fear and all, but when you pet me, a massive pile of endorphins got stirred into the mix. So I had two opposing emotions, both of them way the hell too strong, tearing my head apart.
"And that brings up the third point. I'm a shapeshifter, and the power can be triggered by intense emotion. Hell, that's what set off my first change yesterday! So there I am, with my brain feeling like it's about to implode, and all I want is for it to end... and the power kicks in. And sure enough, it does end; no more emotional torture."
I stared off into nothing, shuddering slightly. "I went all the way, didn't I?" I asked quietly. "100% cheetah body, 100% cheetah brain. Completely nonhuman neural architecture. No more human thought patterns." Here my shuddering got more intense. "A-and, if it weren't for the fact that I weigh about twice as much as a normal cheetah, meaning I got twice as many neurons, thus a far more complex brain... my mind would have been reduced to purely animal mentality." Shaking, I looked at Melford with a face full of fear. "If not for that... I would have been dead. No more Quentin Long, just, just a, a d-d-dumb animal that happened to have some biology in common with him."
"You don't know that for sure," Melford said sharply, "and even if you were correct, your mentality is demonstrably not animalistic now. This suggests that if you do experience any mental degradation when you change to a form with an altered brain, you can cure it by changing back."
"God, I hope you're right... I think I'd better start taking very good care of my brain."
He nodded. "That's good advice in any case. Ah -- there you are, Jim."
Melford's assistant handed me a large beaker. I looked quizzically at him; his face seemed familiar, even if I couldn't recall from where. "Do I know you?"
"We met last night, while you were off in cloudcuckooland."
"Last night... I remember someone being afraid of me, but I couldn't tell why. Was that you?"
Jim ignored my query; from his scent and vocal cues, I was willing to bet he was the one who'd feared me. "The bathroom is second door to the right. I'll wait outside until you're done."
"Right. Seeya." I took the beaker with me into the bathroom. My assigned task was good for a couple of confused minutes, as my plumbing had relocated to deep within a sheath of living flesh. Deploying the relevant organ for waste disposal... let's just say I did it, and found it to be one of the day's more interesting experiences. At least it was good practice for any sheathed forms I might assume in the future.
I was a little apprehensive about filling the beaker. Yes, it was a simple, familiar activity I'd performed every day of my life, but... something felt different, and I couldn't identify what that "something" was. This mystery was solved when I finally managed to get things moving: It felt like I was passing oatmeal.
The beaker slowly filled with... a thick, viscous, heavy fluid... that could never have been mistaken for urine. A fluid notably denser than water, whose color, texture, odor and consistency were not at all unlike that of silicone caulking compound. My mind boggled as I stared into the beaker.
I made this? Jesu Christe, I could sell this crap in hardware stores! I don't know how long I stood there, beaker in hand, staring blankly at its contents...
"Mr. Long? Are you having any difficulty?"
I blinked. "Ah, no difficulty. I'm, I'm fine. I was just... I'm fine." By now the stuff had separated; there was a layer of transparent liquid, with a slightly yellow tint, floating atop the pale grey stuff that occupied most of the beaker's volume.
I left the bathroom, smiling, and handed the beaker to Jim. "Here ya go -- enjoy!"
"Thank... you?" I could tell exactly when he first laid eyes on what was in the beaker. He looked at the bipedal cheetah that had just given him a hand-held improbability, opened his mouth, shut it without saying anything, and shifted his gaze back to the beaker. He finally stepped away carefully, nodding and saying, "I'll just, um, get this analyzed. Yes. Good data here. Analysis. Thank you!"
I was smiling when I re-entered the room. Honest, I was. And no fangs showing, either. "Dr. Melford? I think I'll take the rest of the day off. No more tests or procedures for me, thanks."
He looked at me, his eyes wide; I smiled back at him. He said, "You're sure about that?"
"Oh, yes. Quite sure. No more tests."
His words died as my grin widened, exposing my clenched teeth. "Is there some part of 'no more tests' that isn't clear to you, Dr. Melford?" I asked in a perky, sing-songy voice. "Take a look at my urine sample, and then tell me there's something else for me to do --" Without warning, my voice shifted to a dangerous snarl: "-- if you think you've got the balls." This outburst brought more than one dartgun out of its holster, not that I cared. I slumped back against a wall, shut my eyes, took a very deep breath, and released it. Back to a more normal voice: "I'm sorry. This... has not been one of my better days." I looked at Melford. "Doctor. I need some time to myself, and I will have it. I am leaving this room, after which I will not set foot in here for the rest of the day. And don't even try to dissuade me, because it won't work. Good day, gentlemen." With that, I started walking.
I drowned out Melford with a remark of my own -- "I'm not liiiiss -tening!" -- and kept moving towards my room on the 4th floor. Amazingly enough, I managed to cool down a bit before I hit the stairs; the building was equipped with elevators, of course, but I needed to move, to act, to burn off excess energy. Care to bet on whether or not you've discovered another instinctual part of the cheetahmorph package, Quentin? Me, neither. At least this one's helping me maintain control... I took an unfeasibly long route, one or two laps around each floor before moving up the next flight of stairs, but still reached my room -- my room -- within a small number of minutes.
I smelled it even before I opened the door. It was the scent of someone new, different, unfamiliar. I didn't even know the (perfume-wearing, egg-salad-sandwich-eating) woman, and I already hated her. The words were out of my mouth by reflex, no conscious thought involved: "Get the hell out of my lair, motherfucker."
"'Lair'? That's an interesting way of describing it," she said, and the undercurrents of fear were plain in her voice, in her scent -- Wait a minute. That is a weird way for me to refer to my room here.
My heart skipped a beat. "Oh shit," I murmured, "I just did it again." Well, cheetahs are a territorial species, Quentin. Get used to the instincts. But there's no hurry; after all, you've got the whole rest of your life...
The next thing I knew, I was looking at a sideways knee and a shoe. No. I'm lying on the floor. She's not sideways, I am. And she wasn't as fearful, maybe not at all if it was just residual scent on her clothes. And that wasn't the only residual scent... There was a pleasant rumbling sound. Right, she's petting me, I'm purring. Damnit. My hand blurred up to catch her wrist. "Don't do that." Ah, now she's afraid again. I gently moved her hand away from my head.
"Dr. Melford said you responded well to being petted."
I grimaced. "Yeah. Too damn well, if you ask me," I said, sitting up nice and slow so as not to alarm the nice lady any further. I exhaled loudly. "Okay. You're a headshrinker, right?"
She blinked. "I am a psychiatrist, yes. May I ask how you arrived at that conclusion?"
I counted the reasons off on my fingers. "You don't act like one of the bio boys; you carry Chuck's scent; you talked to him about how I react to things; and yesterday he made noise about me needing psychiatric assistance. Do the math. But do it outside, because you're a surprise, and I exceeded today's quota of surprises when my head got turned around 180 degrees."
She stared in shock for a moment, then recovered herself visibly. "And you're not curious --"
"Yes I am, and I'm sure you'll tell me all about it. Later. For now..." I stood up and made 'shoo'ing motions. "Please go away. If you've got any questions, talk to Melford. Goodbye."
Fortunately, she took the hint. "Fortunately" because I wasn't sure what I would have done if she'd insisted on staying, and I was just as happy to not find out the hard way.
I was alone. Finally. Nobody to push me, prod me, make me jump through hoops, poke needles into me, ask me questions they already damn well knew the answers to. Nobody to annoy me. Now I could do what I wanted to do, not what somebody else told me to do.
Okay. So... what do I want to do now? Random ideas floated through my mind, not all of them sensible...
...or I could go run a few laps. Yeah, right. Sigh. May as well check my e-mail; I can use normalcy, and deleting spam is about as normal as it gets.
As it had been before, my in-box was filled beyond capacity, or so it seemed. Damn -- that's one hell of a lot of traffic. Betcha all us Listies are seeing a massive spike in incoming e-mails; if the List wasn't publicly known before, it sure as hell is now. Wonder how long it took people to send spiders out to harvest our addresses. Thinking back to last time, it occured to me that I might have been a bit too quick to delete alleged spam. I decided to reserve deletion-on-sight for blatantly obvious crap like "penis enlargement", "make money fast", and generic porn; I'd at least scan the first paragraph of messages that merely came from an unfamiliar source.
The first pass through the list (spam removal) made less of a dent in it than I'd thought. Maybe a quarter of it went away, and there was still more than 300 to go. I shook my head. Get started, Quentin. Dunno how long it'll be until what's-her-face comes back, prolly with Melford in tow, so you better make the most of the seconds you'll have to yourself. So I got started.
I put the List digests on the back burner, as it were, only downloading them for later perusal. Which again left... good Lord... 287 messages. A non-trivial fraction of the "SUBJ:" lines made reference to God and/or the Bible, many of them also mentioning peril to the immortal soul. Oh, joy. May as well see what the mouth-breathing fundamentalist contingent has to say about Changelings.
It wasn't all negative, which surprised me. Granted, about 70% of the religious stuff was Gospel-encrusted scare tactics -- "God is punishing you" and "you're going to Hell" and such, and a few of these fine, upstanding Christians promised that me dying first would be all that stopped them from "doing God's work" -- but there was another 20% or so that were a lot more compatible with Christ's teachings. These were more along the lines of "our chapel is open" and "we offer our prayers" and so on; nothing for a hardshelled agnostic like me, but still a damn sight more pleasant than the first type of religion-derived message.
And there was a third category, maybe 5 or 10 percent of all the religious messages, if even that much. This third category... personally, I found it more disturbing than the hate mail. Because these people made all kinds of noise about how us List members had been touched directly by the hand of God, so we were obviously holier than everyone else, so they wanted to worship us.
Worship? Me? You'd have to be a fucking lunatic! It's hard enough for me to tolerate the omnipresent stupidity of the human species as it is; give me legions of devoted minions who bone-deep know that everything I say or do is right , and who tell me so every waking moment... given that, it's only a matter of time before I declare jihad on anybody who doesn't use their brains the way I think they ought to. Not at first, sure... but my God, a broken neck only slowed me down. I have to assume I'm gonna stick around for a good long time. And if I got devout followers pumping my ego like that all the time, sooner or later I will start to believe my press releases, and then everybody's screwed. Just a few years, decades, I dunno. Just a matter of time... and I got all the time in the world...
It was a truly frightening prospect: Me as an immortal megalomaniac. I resolved then and there that anyone I hired would have to have the balls to tell me when I'm being a goddamn idiot. The dangers of hiring yes-men might be subtle and long-term, but those dangers were very real. And with my probable lifespan, I really couldn't afford to ignore long-term problems...
I returned to my e-mail. Not seeing any further patterns in the remaining SUBJ: lines, I just started plowing through them in the order listed. A shyster who could ensure that the courts would acknowledge my humanity even after what had happened, for a "very modest" (and unspecified) payment in advance. What, no contingency fee? A guy who just knew I was the one to help him prove some nutbar theory of his about early life of Earth. An obvious crackpot, but working with real biologists wasn't a bad idea. A terribly altruistic soul offered to be my agent, shop any manuscripts of mine to publishers for a token fee of just $750 per month. Dream on, fucknose -- real agents don't ask for cash up front. Some UFO freak wanted to use his "perfectly safe" instruments to examine me for traces of Alien intercession; yep, he'd CC'ed this message to the entire List membership individually, or so it appeared. A person with a poor grasp of written English wanted me to visit his school, become a velociraptor, and in that form terrorize certain other students. Some weirdo named Danny Sippernan wondered how I was, and assured me that my job wasn't in jeopardy in spite of... Wait a second, that's my boss! I did a double-take and re-read this one, carefully.
SUBJ: UNEXPECTED EVENTS
Uncle Danny Sippernan here. How are you, you great big ball of fur? Haven't heard a peep out of you since that unilateral surprise of an extra-long lunch hour. Cat got your tongue? Actually, that may be true, from what I hear.
Speaking of the lunch hour, don't worry. As far as I'm concerned, it falls under the category of a medical emergency, and our hosts have already sent letters to Corporate which say so. That's right: You've got a doctor's permission to stay home, even if it's not really HOME, if you get what I mean, and I'm sure you do. And this is being counted against your accumulated sick leave.
As far as I'm concerned also, you still have a job. Growing a coat of fur is not the usual behavior we expect in our sales associates, granted. But there's no rule against it in the employee handbook, and we didn't hire you for your looks anyway. Instead we hired you for your Mac knowledge. So unless your transmogrification was traumatic enough to expunge that knowledge from your mind, I regret to inform you that you will still have to report to Sunnyvale after the mad scientists here have their way with you.
This "biological isolation" business is a lot less fun than it sounds. I'm lobbying our hosts to put up a bulletin board in the room they call a kitchen; otherwise, at least we can keep in touch through e-mail.
Write to me, damn you! Write now!
That was Danny, all right; the first and only supervisor I'd ever worked under who not only kept a gorilla suit in his office, but also wore the damn thing on appropriate occasions. In fact, he was the only supervisor I'd ever worked under who believed there was such a thing as an appropriate occasion to wear a gorilla suit! Even better, he really did care about the people under him. "Our hosts have already sent letters to Corporate"? I'll just bet they have, and I'll further bet you had a lot to do with it. Okay, Danny...
SUBJ: re: UNEXPECTED EVENTS
Hi there! Sorry I haven't gotten in touch before, but things got a little crazy -- you know how it goes. The bio boys ran me thru all sorts of tests yesterday, and they forced me to repeat the whole bloody lot today, just 'cuz I'd stopped wearing the body they tested the first time. Go figure.
As to the isolation: While it may be annoying, *I* (for one) think it's pretty much a necessity until proven otherwise. I mean, who the hell knows what zapped me? You want to bet *everyone else's* life, maybe?
Anyway... not a lot of news on my end. I'm a shapeshifter, I've changed my physical form 7 times and counting, and they haven't figured out how the hell I do it yet, as far as I know. I've got some ideas, myself, but I dunno how correct they are...
Re: the job, thanks. I appreciate not being fired. Granted, I *am* working up some other plans for my future employment -- but they're by no means firmed up yet, and if I do choose to take off, I promise that I'll give y'all at least two weeks' notice (or 1 month, or whatever the approprite period is) before I go.
One click of a SEND button later, I was again chipping away at the Great Wall of
E-Mail. Someone offered me $100,000 if I'd give him the secret
of my shapeshifting ability. Like I even know it. And even if I did, 100 G's would be insanely
cheap for that information. A marriage proposal? I deleted it the moment I realized what
it is. A supercilious twit who begged leave to inform me that
I was no longer human in the eyes of the Law, and could I kindly
provide him with the time and locale of the auction where the
possessions which had belonged to the human Quentin Long would
be auctioned off? Him I considered replying to, but... no, I wasn't
about to give the troll even that much satisfaction. Ah! A message from The Finagle Factor, aka "the filk dealer that carries my cassette, King of Filk". It would appear that they'd seen a sharp increase in demand for
my tape in the past couple days -- my unwanted celebrity had some benefits -- and they now wanted 50 copies. I let 'em know that
I was incommunicado for the next few days, and how about I send
them a full box of 100 when I'm free to? A con artist offered
to sell me a magick aromatherapy candle that would restore me
to normal, complete with a money-back guarantee. Another prospective
agent, this one suggesting that my mutable form might be of use
in the movies; he didn't mention money, nor did he make any grandiose
promises, so I saved that message...
It went on. I went on, plowing through the messages, not thinking about anything in the near vicinity of my current situation, paying no attention to the passing of time. I only stopped when I heard a rhythmic tapping outside like a knock on -- No, it's footsteps, not someone knocking at the door. In fact, it sounds like if they are gonna knock at the door... I got up and padded silently over to the door. They'll be doing it just... about...
TAP TAP TAP. Right on cue. Hmmm, no scent?
"Who is it?" I asked before the third tap had quieted down. Just for a moment, the person's heartbeat was loud enough to be heard through the wall, then it faded back to inaudibility.
Whoever it was replied, "I'm the woman who invaded your privacy earlier, and I apologize for that. I was hoping we could speak now. May I come in, please?"
Ah; that explains it. Her scent was already here, and what with the disinfectants, my nose isn't at its best. I found that I did want to talk to the shrink, which struck me as a bit odd; I'd always been a fairly private person before, and there was nothing in the last day or two to indicate that that had changed in me. Well, maybe that's one of the things I should talk to her about. "Alright. Come on in," I said as I opened the door. "Mi casa es su casa. Except of course that this isn't really my house, which kinda kills the whole sentiment, doesn't it?"
She walked in with a smile. "I guess this is one of those times when it's the thought that counts." She looked around. "So this is a good level of illumination for you?"
I honestly hadn't noticed before, but now that she pointed it out, the room lighting was rather dim for human eyes. "Oh! Right, sorry." I dialed the lights up. "How's that?"
"Better," she said, nodding. "Thank you. Well... I'm sure you have some questions for me, so why don't we start things off there?"
"Alright. Who are you, why are you here, and why aren't you in a suit?"
"Excuse me? Why aren't I in... what?"
"A biological isolation suit," I explained patiently. "They're quite fashionable around here -- practically everybody's wearing them. I know why Melford doesn't; what's your excuse?"
She blinked. "Ah. To answer your questions in the order asked: My name is Dr. Jacqueline Hobart. I'm here to help you --"
"Wrong answer!" I shouted, then continued in a conversational tone: "Look, Doc. There's exactly one person here who does more than pretend to give a shit about me, and you're not him. Everyone else, at best they think of me as an object, something to study." I shrugged. "Far as they're concerned, I'm just a lab animal that follows directions real good."
"Do you truly believe that these people are so uncaring?"
I shrugged again, spread my hands palms-up. "You think I'm wrong? Fine. Talk to them yourself and find out. As for me, lady, I can smell your emotions. Hear your heartbeat, too. I haven't had these shiny new senses all that long, but I've already figured out they're better than a polygraph. I know what's going on upstairs. Anyone thinks they can lie to me, they're an optimist or an idiot.
"One more time: Why. Are. You. Here?"
She looked at me for a long moment before responding, her scent alternately marked by worry, hope, fear, and the unique aroma of intense thought. "I suppose... I'm here for a number of reasons. You are a fascinating object of study, I can't deny that. And since I am a psychiatrist, I suppose there are certain professional aspects to consider." And thank you, Dr. Melford, I thought to myself.
She continued: "Some of your recent experiences are like nothing ever seen on this planet before the 23rd; any specialist in the mind would love to work with you, see how well you're adjusting to your new situation. It's possible, even likely, that you're going to exhibit symptoms and syndromes never before imagined, if only because you're responding to stimuli that no human has ever before experienced! And yes, it has occured to me that the discoverer gets to name a new condition. That's professional immortality of a sort. Although," she smiled and laughed a bit, "since yours will be syndromes which can't affect anyone but you, I don't think this work will ever be of more than academic interest."
I gave her a sour smile. "Bets on that? Consider the CIA. You think they might want to have a shapeshifter on their payroll? And they're not the only ones! Just give it some time; five years, fifty, I dunno. Eventually, somebody's gonna learn how to put my mojo into another person." I shook my head. "Anyway, I shouldn't have interrupted. Go on?"
"You could be right..." she said, looking thoughtful, then she returned to the topic at hand. "As I was saying, yes, working with you is one route to professional immortality, perhaps more significantly than I'd first imagined. Also, regardless of how it works out, the mere fact that I have worked with you at all will likely attract more clients. More billable hours. And finally... I do want to help you. Helping people is the reason I went into psychiatry, rather than simply studying the mind as psychologists do. And having met you, I'm certain I can assist you in dealing with some of the issues that will arise from your current situation."
I laughed. "Sure thing. Let me guess: You did your doctoral thesis on the specific needs of shapeshifters, and now you're gonna put it to use. No? Wait, don't tell me: You got in on the ground floor, and have already worked with some other Listies, is that it? Well, that won't do any good, either. Dragons are a dime a dozen; if we had any more wolves, they'd have to thin the herd; but shapeshifters? There's only just the one, and I am it. So you may believe you can help, fine and dandy, but I just can't buy it, myself."
"That's your prerogative, of course, but I think I can persuade you otherwise. May I sit on your cot?" Curious, I gestured my permission to her. "Thank you," she said, sitting where I'd given her leave to.
Then she took off her left leg.
That was a bit of a shock; I couldn't help but look at the exposed stump, which ended below the knee. While I was still goggling, she reached inside her shirt, did something near the left shoulder, and her left arm fell into her lap, letting the sleeve hang limply.
"Car accident. Nine years ago," she stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "I also have a glass eye, but I'm not taking that out. Thank God I can't show you the scars -- my plastic surgeon was very good.
"This is why I think I can help you cope with the psychological aspects of metamorphosis: I've been there myself. In my case, I changed from a whole person to a broken, dismembered thing. So as soon as it hit the news, I knew that you transformees --"
"Changelings," I said helpfully.
She nodded. "Changelings. Thank you. All of you Changelings, by the very nature of what's happened to you, have lived through a severely stressful event. And that's especially true for you, Quentin, because you've kept on changing."
"Yeah. I noticed."
"I'm sure you have, and it's good that you recognize the problem. But recognition alone isn't enough! I don't know which coping mechanisms you've used up to now, but this is something else that makes me think I can help you.
"Which leaves your final question, why I'm not wearing a suit. The answer is that I don't think it's necessary."
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