by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
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As a cheetah-morph I had no eyebrows to raise, but I'm sure
my skepticism was plain on my face anyway. "You don't think it's necessary? On what evidence?"
"There's hundreds of other Changelings, and so far, there haven't been any reports of any of them being biologically hazardous."
"Yeah. All of one day after Zero Hour." I gave her my Clint Eastwood impression: "Do you feel lucky, punk?"
She smiled at that. "Whatever it was that changed you, I think it will ultimately prove to have nothing to do with conventional biology. I'm told that people who were in the same room when you first changed are exhibiting no abnormal symptoms whatever. Also, from what Dr. Melford said, it only takes about a minute for you to finish shifting from one body to another. If any of the people who are allegedly at risk were going to exhibit any peculiar symptoms, they've had plenty of time to do it -- but they haven't. Altogether, that's why I think the odds are with me. And even if I'm wrong, it's a chance I'm willing to take for your benefit, because those suits are psychologically isolating, as well as biologically. If I'm going to help you deal with syndromes never before seen on this Earth, that's a handicap I simply can't afford. And if you do turn out to be contagious... well, at least we'll both be in it together."
"All three. Melford."
"Ah, yes. Thank you again."
"De nada," I said. Looking at her, I couldn't help but notice her loose prostheses. "Um... do you need any help pulling yourself together?"
"Just the arm, thanks. I can do the leg myself, once I've got my own two hands."
"Right. May I?" I held out my hand, and she gave me her left arm. It looked like a fairly advanced model, with a number of electrical contact points built into the stump-end, and a fancy set of prongs that looked not unlike an AC adapter. There were four short pegs, asymmetrically spaced, protruding from it near the stump-end. Gonna be a pain to fit this into its socket if I gotta worry about the sleeve. And... good, her blouse is buttoned down the front. In less time than it takes to tell, Hobart's left shoulder was unclothed. I could see the socket; it was part of a complex jointed arrangement on her shoulder that was held onto her body with padded leather straps. There were thin wires leading from the socket to various circular pads that adhered directly to her skin, and a thick wire whose far end was somewhere near the waist. I couldn't insert the arm incorrectly -- the pegs didn't allow it to go in wrong -- and the socket rim rotated smoothly to latch the arm in place.
"There you go, Dr. Hobart. I hope..." I stopped because her scent carried clear indications of distress, and I could hear her pulse race a bit. "Did I fit it in properly?"
Her mouth opened and closed once, and then she managed to speak. "I think I see what you meant about surprises earlier," she said as she fixed her shirt. "The next time you want to disrobe some part of my body, could you please warn me first?"
It was my turn to be distressed. Oh. Of course she's worried. Who wouldn't be, with a clawed and fanged monstrosity ripping at their clothes? "I'm sorry. It... it didn't occur to me..."
She touched my arm with her good hand. "It's alright, Quentin. No harm done, and no hard feelings."
I gave her a sour smile. "An inhuman freak just tore off your blouse -- and you're okay with that?"
"Under normal circumstances, no."
I caught her emphasis. "So you're cutting me some slack because things are weird at the moment."
"Yes -- and so should you! Yesterday, your whole world got turned over sideways! You can't expect to just shrug it off and go on with your life as if nothing had happened!"
I frowned and shook my head. "Sounds to me like you're making excuses for inexcusable behavior."
Hobart looked at me, then quietly said, "It hasn't even been a day and a half yet, Quentin. After my accident... it took a couple of weeks for me to even begin thinking straight about myself and my place in the world. Maybe you'll recover faster than I did, but the point is, you need to recover. You need to learn about the new you. And while you're learning... Well, you are going to make mistakes, that's all there is to it. You shouldn't think of these mistakes as a sign that you're becoming a monster; instead, they're a sign that you're not perfect. When you make a mistake, it just means you're only human.
"Which reminds me -- I don't want to hear you calling yourself an 'inhuman freak' again. It's only natural that you may think you're not really a person any more, but there's no reason for you to reinforce that concept by saying so."
"Words can change reality, eh, Doc?" I asked with a cynical half-smile.
"As far as the mind is concerned, words are reality," she replied. "The mind manipulates symbols, and it does make a difference which symbols you choose to manipulate."
"Maybe so. But if you jump off the roof of the World Trade Center, all the symbol-manipulation in the world ain't gonna save you from splashing when you hit the pavement."
She shrugged. "If you're suggesting it's possible for a person's internal reality to contradict their external reality, you're right. And when that happens, it's my job to help bring the two realities back into alignment."
"Do you think my realities are misaligned?"
"Perhaps they are, perhaps not. At this point, I simply don't know. Either way, I do know you've suffered a great trauma, and if you're willing to accept help coping with it, I'm willing to give you whatever help I can. Alright?"
"It'd better be," I sighed. "So when do we start?"
"We already have. And if early indications can be trusted, I think you'll ultimately do well." She smiled. "And before you ask, yes that was a therapeutic attempt to allay your fears. Fortunately, it's also my professional opinion of your psychiatric status."
I looked at Hobart, not trusting myself to speak. She actually thinks she's telling the truth!
Finally, after a couple of seconds of dead air, she gestured with her exposed stump, then said, "Would you care to reattach my leg, please?" And it was a sincere request.
"You really mean it," I said, not quite believing what my senses were telling me. "Even after how I handled the arm, you're still willing to trust me on this."
"You made a mistake before. I trust you to learn from it."
Well, when she puts it like that... "As you say." I took her leg, held it gingerly, then knelt down... "I'll have to raise your skirt."
This socket was set up much the same way as the shoulder; padded leather straps holding it on, myoelectric sensor pads feeding into the socket proper, and an insulated power cord running to the battery pack at her waist. Insertion, a turn of the socket's rim, and it was -- "Done. Seemed pretty idiot-proof to me, but I gotta ask: Did I get it right?"
She twisted her foot around experimentally, moved her hand and fingers, and finally said, "Yes, and I thank you. For future reference, you should know it's appropriate to make sure the contact points are clean. But that's more a precaution than a necessity, so don't worry about it, and you get full marks for effort.
"I've taken up enough of your time; good night, and I'll see you in the morning."
"Be seeing you."
And then I was alone again. I returned to my e-mail, the list of which had acquired several new entries since the last time I checked. Nothing from Carissa or Mr. Lamson -- well, maybe they hadn't checked their e-mail yet. After all, it had been only about half a day since I sent my messages to them, too early to start weaving conspiracy theories... right?
SCENE: QUENTIN's lair. Q. is seated at the computer, his cheetah body's 7-foot-plus height making him look like an adult sitting in a third-grader's school desk. The camera zooms back smoothly until HOBART slides into view. Camera follows her as she walks out of Q.'s room, through corridors, and up/down staircases. She stops at a particular door with armed guards on either side and a nearby video monitor setup.
MELFORD's face is visible in the monitor, with a variety of traces and readings around it. He is not well; all of his exposed skin is red-tinted, and many of the readings -- for example, his temperature of 103.4° F -- are both unhealthy for humans and displayed in red letters. HOBART spends a bit of time talking to one of the attendants that hover around the device, then moves on.
I went through more scams, more death threats, more bogus 'offers'
of 'assistance', more of everything. After a while, it really
started to get to me. All those people who thought I was just
an object, something to hate or fear or exploit... The genuine offers of assistance and support helped some, but my God, there
was so bleeding much hate mail! I tried switching to the List digests, but that didn't
help; although I confirmed that my messages to the List did get
through, too many other members were complaining about their own
hate mail and other problems. So much for the List's status as
a refuge from harsh Reality, damn it.
It must have been morbid curiosity that spurred me on to check the Net at large. The Google search engine cheerfully accepted the keywords I gave it and spat out its customary overextended list of possible matches -- in this case it gave me opinion sites, newspaper editorials, USENET posts, that sort of thing. Reactions to what had happened on the 23rd were all over the map; while there were a few people who'd managed to convince themselves it was some sort of giant scam, most pundits had accepted the List's collective transformation as reality, even if they didn't quite know what the heck to think of it. Hell, I still wasn't sure what to think of it myself! Initially, I was fairly confident that the more fascist responses -- precautionary sterilization of all Changelings, for one -- wouldn't fly, but as I kept reading, I saw more and more of that sort of thing. Sterilize us, quarantine us for life, kill us just in case, and so on.
Okay, fine; we represented an unknown quantity, they were scared, nobody had a clue what was up, it was just fear talking. But damn it, I hadn't done anything to deserve any of the abuse these people were proposing to inflict on me and everyone like me!
On the positive side, it looked like most people weren't ready to kill us or make us 'un-persons'; there seemed to be at least one "let's not do anything rash" type for every "kill them now, just in case" yahoo, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who recognized that this couldn't be any easier for us than for the populace at large. Even so, I still had a bad feeling about the yahoos. A quote from Robert Heinlein came to mind and refused to go away: The American temperament, as practical as sharp tools on one side, has never been more than three-quarters of an inch from mindless hysteria on the other side. America's track record on civil rights was far from the worst in the world, granted, but the yahoos had prevailed more than once in the past, and there was no guarantee that they couldn't win again. Sure, a non-trivial segment of the populace would actively work to put an end to the resulting injustices. But in the meantime, we Changelings would still be in deep shit...
No question about it, I had to make myself the List spokesthing; a bit of judiciously applied ridicule from a media figure like me would help keep the yahoos in their place -- and why not start now? Yeah, I could write an opinion piece, send it in to some newspaper, no, make that a national magazine. Better exposure that way. And hey, didn't Newsweek have a column to print unsolicited material from readers? I love it when a plan comes together. Right about then is when the perfect title popped into my head, and I knew I had to do it:
Take My Rights -- Please!
Beautiful. Just beautiful. Now for the opening line: "It's been a couple of days since the peculiar events of January 23..."
Not even the annoyance of working with Microsoft Word for Windows could dampen my spirits as I typed like a demon. Newsweek would surely love it, and even if they didn't take it, I was confident that I could find any number of other venues in which to publish it.
It was done in 18 minutes, including spellcheck (which I don't usually do, but this was a special case) and re-reading for sense and flow. It would have been nice to get a second opinion; too bad Melford wasn't around, or even Hobart. Ah, well. Just have to send it off as is, and hope my e-mail's not being intercepted by the CDC or whoever. Heh. Paranoid much, Quentin? Or should I say, paranoid enough?
I brutally squelched that train of thought -- no way it was going to be helpful -- and continued working through my email. The essay went off to Newsweek, after which I finished the last of the List digests and cleared up all the other incoming messages.
When I was done, the clock said it was 1:06 AM. And I didn't feel tired. Not that I'd expected to, but I still found it disquieting. Okay, what with all the changes, it was possible that I no longer needed to sleep -- that I wouldn't eventually go mad from prolonged wakefulness -- but I sure didn't want to bet my sanity on that chance. Last night I'd lost consciousness after a pre-psychotic episode, and I also didn't want to believe that that was the only way I could get any sleep! Where the hell is Melford, anyway? I need to --
Wait. Where is Melford? He wouldn't vanish without telling me, would he? Unless he didn't have any choice in the matter... I didn't care for that notion, even if it did ring true to me. Alright, let's see if I can find out anything on the computer...
Half an hour later, I still didn't have a clue where Melford was. Either that information wasn't online, or else my hacking skills were too theoretical to be effective in real life. For instance, although I knew that there was a list of 100 passwords that could get me into something like 70% of all computers in the US, I didn't know which passwords were on that list, so that tidbit wasn't much help.
Okay: Time for a change in tactics. Since I can't find where Melford is, I may as well send e-mails of inquiry to Ames' head honchoi... That worked much better. This machine's previous user had wiped his address book clean, but as luck would have it, a few minutes' investigation yielded the addresses I sought.
TO: [Ames Research's upper echelon]
SUBJ: Where's Charles?
Quentin Long here, writing to you from room 407 in building 15A. Do you have any idea where Dr. Charles Melford of the CDC might be? Just wondering, because he's supposed to be studying me but he kinda vanished without warning, and nobody's bothered to let *me* in on the secret of where he's gotten to...
Just hit "Reply" and I'll be sure to recieve your response -- *I*'m certainly not going anywhere!
I hit SEND with a feeling of disquiet, at least partly because the (lack of) fatigue thing was still bothering me. I tried working on a new story for the List; no go. Couldn't keep my mind off the troubles I'd been hoping to put aside for a while. Eventually I gave up, killed the lights, lay down on my cot/bed, closed my eyes, and tried to sleep...
We see QUENTIN resting on his cot. Fade to black, then fade to a different scene...
[Note to director: It's a dream sequence from here on out.. Try to duplicate the cinematography (camera work, lighting, etc) of John Carpenter's remake of THE THING; in addition to helping establish the right mood, this should help the audience recognize it's a dream.]
Establishing shot: A Godforsaken, barren island in the middle of nowhere. The landscape is bare rock as far as the eye can see, and utterly lifeless -- no plant or animals in evidence, not even the tiniest swatch of color to break up the grey rocks and overcast grey sky. Camera pans smoothly left and down, zooming in a bit as it goes, to focus on a grungy, weatherbeaten Quonset hut with US Army markings painted on it. The structure rests on a large, flat surface of light grey concrete with faded white lines painted on it, and we see one road (dark grey asphalt) that stretches from the concrete to somewhere in the distance beyond the camera's line of sight. We also see two olive-drab Jeeps with Army markings parked on the concrete.
Cut to: Interior of Quonset hut. The only illumintion comes from the (open) main entrance, and we see two human figures silhouetted in that light. They are armed, and they hold their weapons in a competent 'ready' position. They move in with practiced caution, competently covering each other's back.
Cut to: Camera looks at the newcomers from behind. We have a clear view of their uniforms and equipment; they are soldiers, elite US military (Green Berets, Delta Force, whatever; pick one, the exact unit doesn't matter). The man in the lead has a flamethrower, its bulky fuel tank strapped to his back. He uses it liberally, sweeping the floor and walls before him like he was rinsing the place clean with a firehose.
Cut to: Interior shot of a different room. We can hear the flamethrower's 'whoosh', clear but quiet. We must be in the Quonset hut, not far away from the soldiers. We see a gelatinous lump in the center of the room; this 'blob' isn't completely transparent, there's all sorts of granular stuff distributed throughout its volume, and the granular stuff is in constant motion. In addition to the 'blob', this room contains a number of bodies in various states of decay, bodies clothed variously in lab coats and military uniforms, none of which the 'blob' actually touches.
The substance of the 'blob' wants to flow like hot oatmeal, but even so, it looks like it's doing its best to keep itself collected up into a tight sphere. As we watch, the 'blob' extrudes a tentative pseudopod which reaches out to grasp and lift the right arm of the least-damaged body, a soldier; it grabbed the arm by its sleeve, and it's obviously going out of its way to *not* make direct contact with the body's actual skin.
The arm twitches and falls through the pseudopod's grasp. It should be clear that the 'blob' is surprised and afraid. (how to show this? hell if I know; let the SFX crew worry about it) The 'blob' retracts its pseudopod and moves away from the arm, whose owner is now regaining consciousness. As the 'blob' moves, it avoids the other bodies as best it can, again going to great lengths to avoid making direct contact with skin.
By the time the soldier is fully active, the 'blob' is balled up against a wall. The soldier looks around, sees the 'blob', and instantly reaches for his rifle -- which isn't there, or his walkie-talkie, either.
Cut to: The two newcomers. They hear noise coming from three doors ahead of them, and immediately advance towards the source of this commotion. The soldier with the rifle kicks down the door & points. Camera follows the one with the flamethrower, who pokes the business end into the doorway, aiming directly at the 'blob', and we see the 'blob' engulfed in its own private inferno.
-- and I was in the darkness of room 407. Awake, isolated, shuddering
and cold in a way that resetting the thermostat wouldn't help.
Me and my goddamned imagination... I curled myself up into a ball under the blanket, quivering...
No. I refuse to believe that I'm --
But of course, my disbelief didn't alter the facts: I had changed form in my sleep to match what I'd been nightmaring about.
I was an amoeboid pile of protoplasm.
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